Even though Fantastic Fest 2017 was held just a few weeks ago, this writer is still playing catch up after screening nearly 20 different films during my time in Austin. On the docket for today’s review round-up is a documentary celebrating haunted attractions—Haunters: The Art of the Scare—a stunning zombie/road film from Quebec—Les Affamés—and my very favorite film from Fantastic Fest, a zombie-centric Christmas musical called Anna and the Apocalypse.
Haunters: The Art of the Scare: I’m a big fan of documentaries, and I’m a big fan of haunted attractions, which is why I think I enjoyed Haunters: The Art of the Scare, even if it does venture off-topic quite a bit. The title insinuates that filmmaker Jon Schnitzer is looking to do a deep dive into the psychology of scaring people, and just how to set up the perfect scare. And while there is a good deal of just that in his doc, the lion's share of the runtime ends up going into how creating these haunts affects people on a personal level more than anything else. And that’s cool (and interesting to watch), but I think a better title for this project might have been Haunters: The Heart of the Scare.
While it might sound like I’m taking a dig at Schnitzer’s efforts on Haunters, that is not my intention at all. In fact, I found his documentary to be extremely compelling at times, and very entertaining, especially whenever he’d shift the focus to longtime scare actor Shar Mayer, who really went into the psychology of everything, sharing some of her own horror stories and her favorite parts about getting to scare the living daylights out of someone else as a profession. Two local haunters are also heavily featured in the doc, Donald Julson and Russ McKamey, and to be honest, the latter came off seeming like a demented madman who just wanted to torture people well past the line of common decency.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good horror-fueled attraction as much as anyone else—I just don’t feel like I need to be waterboarded to get myself into the Halloween spirit. A regular ol’ dude in a mask lurking around the corner is just fine with me, thank you very much. But other notable folks that also appear in Haunters include Halloween Horror Night’s John Murdy, Jason Blum, and the Soska sisters.
While it may be unfocused at times, there’s no denying that there are plenty of intriguing parts to Haunters that maze enthusiasts would want to check out in this documentary. For those of you who still don’t understand the allure of putting your fears and well-being under someone else’s control, this probably isn’t the film for you. Overall though, it’s evident that Schnitzer has a lot of love for this world and those he profiles here, and that affection pours through in every single frame of Haunters: The Art of the Scare.
Movie Score: 3/5
Les Affamés: When it comes to modern zombie films, all I really ask of any filmmaker is to just try and do something different. I’m not a picky viewer, really, just try to give me some unusual aspect to anything—characters, your creatures, the world, whatever—and I’m a happy camper. That is why I really enjoyed writer/director Robin Aubert’s Les Affamés, a film that felt like it was more concerned with the humanity of its characters and exploring the lack of human connectedness in our current society than it was about giving us overtly gory kills and impressively conceived zombies, ultimately making it a standout effort from Aubert. It’s a pared-down approach, no doubt, but by going this route, Aubert deftly creates a few original beats of his own with his approach to the story, and I could not help but applaud his overall efforts on Les Affamés.
Similar to many other post-outbreak cinematic stories, Les Affamés follows a variety of survivors as they contend with a vicious virus that has turned most of the population into screeching, bloodthirty flesh-eaters. What’s a little bit different about these creatures, though, is that some types of victims have responded differently than others—some are running amok and others, most likely still clinging to their humanity, are summoned to beacons of stacked objects, like chairs or children's toys.
And while we are given some ideas on how this virus works, I liked how Aubert didn’t give us all the answers, especially through a ton of forced exposition, just because the events of the film were a relatively new situation that was unfolding, so how would a bunch of regular folks know all the intricacies to the disease? Playing things that way allowed Aubert to keep his story feeling grounded, and that really works in the favor of Les Affamés’ story, because as the old saying goes, “Less is more.”
Les Affamés has a number of intriguing and beautifully crafted characters, and features a strong ensemble from top to bottom, but the thing I loved the most was how Aubert’s zombie story evolved into a testament on the power of women and their ability to endure any circumstances, even a zombie apocalypse. For as much as Aubert relies on familiar tropes here, he also brings some unique twists to the table for Les Affamés, and I’d be interested to see whatever he does next (and fingers crossed, it’s something within the genre realm).
Movie Score: 4/5
Anna and the Apocalypse: As most of you are well aware, the world right now kind of sucks. It can be hard to find any kind of enjoyment in entertainment these days, which is precisely why I needed a film like Anna and the Apocalypse to come along. A Christmas/zombie/musical mash-up from Scottish filmmaker John McPhail, Anna and the Apocalypse is a triumph in every sense of the word, and for such an ambitious indie project like this, I’m still in awe of how polished and well-conceived everything was, as McPhail’s latest easily puts other recent musicals, like last year’s disastrous Rocky Horror Picture Show special, to shame.
Here’s a thing a lot of folks don’t know about me: I freaking love musicals, and I’m not just talking the genre-specific ones either, and a big part of that is that for about 30 years now, I’ve worshipped at the altar of Kenny Ortega. And yes, that means I am someone who adores High School Musical (as well as its sequels), so I’m officially outing myself as a Wildcat aficionado here. But so much of Anna really reminded me of Ortega’s efforts on HSM, which is totally meant as a compliment, because both have this scrappy can-do attitude to them, and also feature a number of infectious songs, impressive choreography, and characters you actually care about.
Oh, and if you’re expecting Anna and the Apocalypse to be this saccharine sweet affair that glides its way through the end of the world without a care in the world, think again. The stakes here are real, and when we have to say goodbye to certain characters, it hurts like hell.
At the center of everything is (of course) Anna, played by Ella Hunt, and she’s absolutely incredible in every facet of her demanding role (singing, acting, and looking realistic while battling zombies with an oversized candy cane). Her character struggles with wanting to break out on her own, much to the chagrin of both her father, Tony (Mark Benton), and her bestie, John (Malcolm Cumming), and we see how that conflict carries over into her now trying to survive an apocalypse, with her future being more uncertain than ever now that she has zombies to contend with.
The supporting cast in Anna and the Apocalypse were all universally great, too, with Paul Kaye’s overbearing Headmaster Mr. Savage quickly stealing the show in almost every scene he performs in. Other highlights were Marli Siu, who sings one of the raunchiest non-raunchy holiday songs ever, and Sarah Swire as the socially conscious high schooler who just wants to make the world a better place.
With a wink in its eye and a song in its heart, Anna and the Apocalypse is poised to be another holiday horror classic, and I cannot wait to add it to my December repertoire of films I watch every Christmas season. I’m not sure how folks who don’t enjoy musicals will react to this one, but for me, McPhail and his entire cast and crew hit all the right notes in Anna and the Apocalypse, and now I’m just eagerly awaiting the release of the film’s soundtrack so I can dip back into this wonderful world of harmonious beats and bloodshed again and again.
Movie Score: 5/5
In case you missed it, check here to read more of our Fantastic Fest 2017 coverage, including reviews and interviews.