All the Creatures Were Stirring from co-directors and co-writers Rebekah and David Ian McKendry offers a collection of short films set during the Christmas season. Coming off a series of shorts, television, Fangoria, and Blumhouse podcasts, the filmmaker couple seem to use the anthology format to effectively test the waters of the feature length form. The filmmakers exert a clear control over the project with a concentrated effort to give the viewer just enough variety while also refraining from overreaching in the ambitions of most of the narratives. While more than half of the shorts have a near derivative genre ancestry, the whole of the project moves with brisk invention and a respectable joke density, even when not all evoke a cheerful bit of laughter.
The film opens on Max and Jenna (Graham Skipper & Ashley Clements) as they meet outside a theatre for what appears to be a first in person date. The company is performing a production entitled “All the Creatures Were Stirring,” a play about which Max insists he knows nothing. Performers in muted clothes take the stage as a director (Maria Olsen) presents title cards on an easel. As each card is revealed we are presented with a new short tied to varying degrees of effectiveness to phrases culled from Christmas themed poems and songs. As we progress through the film we encounter employees in an office building forced into a dire situation, a pair of bohemians who “help” a stranded man, a contemporary take on “A Christmas Carol”, a murderous reindeer, alien experimentations, and vampires...of a sort.
The film largely avoids the omnipresent problem of horror anthologies in that no segments drag or feel inconsequential, but the production can’t help from falling back on well trodden territory. Much credit has to be given to the multitude of styles on display. The filmmakers imbue each segment with just enough specificity or stylistic flourishes that pique your curiosity after each short wraps. Split screens, black & white, and killer POVs keep each segment fresh. But while these stylistic touches keep your eyes moving, like a well tuned domestic Christmas display, the familiarity of most of the plots tends to drag down the proceedings. We’re reminded of The Belko Experiments, Mayhem, Saw, It Follows, and myriad revenge of nature flicks. The first segment, “The Stockings Are Hung”, unfortunately sets up a few hurdles for the anthology from the jump. The short centers on a gift exchange gone bad in which office workers must dig through a pile of gifts for items that might help them escape a faceless killer. The plotting is the most convoluted in the feature and the short can’t keep up the balancing act of character actions and motivations. It’s also the most self serious of the bunch, a tendency that thankfully dissipates as the film continues.
Working with an expansive cast, the performances in All the Creatures Were Stirring are integral in carrying the film’s more comedic elements across segments. Constance Wu (she’s America’s sweetheart now, right?) and Jocelin Donahue are fabulous as always but the film’s perhaps lesser known cast display some crisp comedic timing and a firm understanding of some of the stories’ more hokey components. Of particular note are Jonathan Kite, Makeda Declet, Catherine Parker (a Mike Flanagan veteran), Diane Sellers, Peter Cilelia, and the theatre performers. What the film may lack in its effects budget it more than makes up for in a cast that grasps the broad strokes goofiness and occasional grim terror.
All the Creatures Were Stirring strikes that welcome balance of embracing restrictions while also ambitiously working with a variety of styles and tones. Like any gift giving exchange you’re going to find a package of socks hidden in that garish wrapping paper but you’re also going to come away with that warm glow of cheerful jokes and familiar traditions.
All the Creatures Were Stirring will be released on DVD, On Demand and Digital Video on December 4.