“All the Creatures Were Stirring”
Written and Directed by Rebekah McKendry and David Ian McKendry
1 hour, 20 minutes
I watched it on iTunes. (I’m a fan of their shorts and of Shockwaves so I figured I better pay for this rather than wait a few weeks and stream it on Shudder.)
I’m putting the finishing touches on my own Christmas horror script, “The Apology,” so I figured, ‘tis the season, let’s watch some holiday horrors! To start things off, I was so excited to check this one out, after reviewing a bunch of their shorts in October. Go here to read about those: http://alisonstarlocke.com/day-27-shorts-by-rebekah-mckendry/
“All the Creatures Were Stirring” is a Christmas horror anthology feature set in Los Angeles. It’s refreshing to see Christmas stories set here in non-snowy L.A. And don’t you just love this title? Picking the right title is a supreme bitch so kudos on that. I remember hearing a story once about the writer of “Dead Poet’s Society,” Tom Schulman. (I can’t remember if it was direct – we had a lot of awesome visitors at USC but I’ve also devoured too many special features so things blur.) When Schulman wrote that scene where Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard bond over Hawke’s father giving him this gift of a desk set multiple times because he was this distanced dick of a dad, Schulman was so convinced (rightly) that he’d come up with just the thing. He decided he couldn’t do better that day so he ended his daily writing session right then and there. This title must have been one of those moments.
But anyway, back to this movie. There’s a running theme of loneliness in these stories that hits a good sweet spot. I love that the real framing device of this anthology film is its theme. That’s kinda rare, especially for horror anthologies and definitely indicates an extra layer of thoughtfulness. It starts with its wraparound tale of two acquaintances (Ashley Clement and Graham Skipper) choosing to spend Christmas Eve together to combat said loneliness and end up taking in a really odd anthology play, the only show playing on Christmas Eve.
That’s part of the good news. I may not be madly in love with “All the Creatures Were Stirring” as a whole but I did have fun. It was a super low budget flick so it does have some clunkiness, some moments where you can see they’re barely pulling it off that can prove distracting. The sets are way too plain (why are the walls so often white and bare?) and the pace really could have used tightening. It’s too brightly lit in some places and that takes some of the tension out. But those feel like minor complaints next to how fun and inventive the movie is overall. The giallo nods in the reindeer segment were jarring in the best way. The writing is really strong and boy, do the McKendrys know their rad horror actors, including Jocelin Donahue (“House of the Devil”), Morgan Peter Brown (“Absentia”), Brea Grant (tons of credits and also a writer, director and a constant, delightful horror podcast guest) and on and on.
Personal shout out to Mark Kelly, an actor I’ve worked with and a total sweetie, who’s been putting in awesome performances all over the place and has a lot of fun here. Kelly plays the object of a Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’s revenge in “Arose Such a Clatter,” a goofy bit of stylized fun. Not sure it completely works to never actually see Rudolph. I was confused at first but I imagine trying to get a reindeer to look realistic and murderous is probably a fool’s errand even with the biggest of budgets so fair enough.
Anthology films usually contain at least a couple of outright duds but that isn’t the case here. At worst, we have a few that don’t quite live up to their potential, “The Stocking Were Hung” and “All Through the House.” “The Stockings Were Hung” takes us through an office gift exchange that evokes the “Saw” movies. It features genuine, sustained suspense but has an abrupt, almost-there ending. They also perfectly nailed the soul crushing awkwardness of an office Christmas party. One of the gifts is even a homemade bottle of balsamic vinaigrette no one wants.
“All Through the House” tells the tale of a scrooge named Chet (Jonathan Kite) who just wants to stay in on Christmas Eve and snort cocaine and beg his latest sex interest to leave her parents alone and come over to fuck him ‘cause bah humbug. That has a terrific tinsel gag, a good little shocking injury, a solid concept of a modern-day LA scrooge but that’s about it. The wraparound story has some creepiness to it. (All that page turning!) It just about really pays off with a great scare but then they take too long and only flash to the scare and then back quickly away from their mean ending.
The real showstopper segments were the genuinely disturbing “Dash Away All” about a man (Matt Long) getting locked out of his car on Christmas Eve and meeting two jittery ladies (Makeda Declet and Catherine Parker) to disastrous results and “In a Twinkling”, featuring the aforementioned Morgan Peter Brown and Constance Wu (of “Crazy Rich Asians” and speaking her mind loud and clear Jfame), which had a sweetness you don’t often see in our genre. My sappy self sure appreciated that. Constance Wu brings so much light and energy. I could’ve watched way more of her and her friend’s story. So it did end on just the right moment. It tugged my heart good and proper and swiftly and then cut out.
Rebekah directed while she was so super pregnant that they had to delay one portion of the shoot until after she’d given birth. Reports are giving her bad ass points on this, which she absolutely deserves. As a mother and a director, it’s always inspiring to watch ladies work out doing both, especially in this messier and less “you can have it all (but no child care for you)” kind of myth. But I find it telling that one of the reviews panning this flick include misinformation like that David was the director of their shorts and Rebekah only does a podcast, instead of the massive list of accomplishments Rebekah the renaissance woman has done. These include often being credited as the sole director of their shorts.
Even in these smaller ways, there’s always this natural tendency to want to assume the man is the director. This reminds me of when I had a short film I’d directed play at the Los Angeles Film Festival (RIP). I was doing the step and repeat and getting my picture taken with my DP, Gavin Fisher, my star, Stacy Jorgensen, and my husband, John, also my editor. John wore a blazer over a shirt that plainly read “Editor.” I’d told the photographer I was the Director but when the pictures appeared on Getty Images, John was credited as Director. I know my dress was lame and not at all powerful-looking but come on. There was no reason to think this, other than that he was a dude in a blazer. And I was so busy moving on with getting the short out there and writing new projects that I didn’t take the time to figure out how to correct them. I’m guessing Rebekah has no kinda time to correct those reviewers, either, but when I read that, I got oddly defensive for this woman I’ve never even met.
Most of the tales end up feeling unfinished, like they were constrained by their short running times. I think the McKendrys’ penchant for coming up with crisp ideas doesn’t quite work with their tiny budget and time issues. There’s a clarity of concept to their work and a respect for their characters’ emotional lives. But I’d love to see them get a bit more ruthless in their editing and visual styling. I’m really jonesing to see what they do when they can stretch out with a feature-length flick next time. But don’t let my pickiness fool you. “All the Creatures Were Stirring” is a good time. So rent it, set that perfect spooky holiday tone while you drink you amaretto and egg nog, wrap all those presents and be thankful you’re home instead of in a parking lot after locking your keys in your car like certain characters you’ll come to love.