Christmas is coming and if you’ve ever felt a little shudder at the words ‘He sees you when you’re sleeping,’ this week’s Spotlight could be for you. These are films for people who have had their fill of saccharine seasonal spirit and are in need of something a little different, but there are treats in our list for viewers of all ages. Soon it won’t just be the weather that’s giving you chills.
Anna And The Apocalypse
Anna And The Apocalypse - BFI Player, Amazon Prime
What better way to celebrate Christmastime than with a musical? A cheery Scottish musical full of lively young people coping with the ups and downs of love and relationships, with lots of laughs. Oh, and zombies. Did we mention the zombies? Yes, great shambling hordes of them closing in on the high school just when the kids want to concentrate on their Christmas talent show. It’s lucky that they’ve got Anna (Ella Hunt), who is not prepared to take the undead menace lying down. When zombies come to Scotland we set about them, but there are plenty of scares along the way and some very gory deaths. This is a film with a lot of respect for its heritage and horror fans will not feel short-changed. It stands up well as a musical as well, with some fantastic lyrics, and there’s a sense that all involved are having so much fun that it’s impossible not to get caught up in their, um, festive spirit.
Rare Exports - BFI Player, Amazon Prime, Subs
Most children open up the doors in their advent calendars with great excitement. Pietari (Onni Tommila) is counting down the days until Christmas with increasing dread. Through an old book he has uncovered the truth about the old Finnish Santa Claus and he knows that even the slightest bit of naughtiness can lead to children suffering a terrible fate. His father, meanwhile, is struggling to bond with the boy and make him happy after the loss of his mother, and is worried about wolves sniffing around their remote home. When he catches something unexpected in his wolf trap, events take a very different turn. Structured like a classic kids’ adventure film but packing in some serious chills, and enlivened by mercenary humour, this is a trip to the Land of the Midnight Sun at its darkest.
The Children - Amazon Prime
Definitely not for children, this seasonal chiller sees an extended family get together for Christmas celebrations in a large country house only to discover that the children are coming down with a bug. That’s common enough with little ones so they resign themselves to having to provide extra hugs and mop up vomit in between drinks and gift exchanges, but this infection is something else. Slowly the children’s personalities start to change. They lose their sense of morality and become dangerous to the adults – who feel helpless to respond, horrified by the idea of hurting them. Director Tom Shankland gets some amazing performances from the younger cast members and there are deeper themes here around the ways that parents can ignore their children or fail to listen to them, and struggle with the recognition that they are truly separate people with priorities of their own.
Gremlins - Subs
Amber Wilkinson writes: "Keep him away from sunlight. Don't get him wet. Don't ever feed him after midnight." Simple rules to follow in order to look after a cute little Mogwai but, of course, new owner Billy (Zach Galligan) is about to break them all leading to an outbreak of havoc-wreaking Gremlins and some spiky satire as writer Chris Columbus and director Joe Dante take aim at American consumerism. The horror content in what was originally considered "a kids' film" gave it a lasting cache with children at the time - whether they had seen it or not - and while the action itself just about descends into anarchy by the end, there's fun to be had in the skewering of the commercialisation of Christmas that happens along along the way. Columbus has been working on a second sequel to the film for some years now, so the critters might still be back.
Await Further Instructions
Await Further Instructions - Netflix
Director Johnny Kevorkian passed away recently but left us with one of the most darkly humorous films about Christmas ever made. It’s centred around a family gathering in an English suburban home. Semi-estranged son Nick (Sam Gittins) is returning to the fold to introduce girlfriend Annji (Neerja Naik) to his folks, but when they wake up on Christmas morning to find the house mysteriously sealed off from the outside world and a series of instructions on the television their only guide to how to cope, tensions escalate fast. There’s a scene-stealing performance from Game Of Thrones’ David Bradley as the grandfather who delights in being as obnoxious as possible, and rather than running out of steam, the high concept plot delivers one twist after another en route to a deliciously dystopian conclusion.
Better Watch Out
Better Watch Out - Amazon Prime
Luke (Levi Miller) is a spoiled kid in a huge house whose parents are going out for the night, leaving him with curvaceous blond babysitter Ashley (Olivia DeJonge). As he tells his bespectacled best friend Garret (Ed Oxenbould) he intends to use the opportunity to seduce her. He’s 12 and impressing women doesn’t work in quite the way he thinks it does, but the gentle comedy this delivers gives way to something else when it becomes apparent that somebody is trying to break into the house. You might think you know where this is going, but sometimes clever wrapping disguises a surprising gift. What follows is a different kind of horror, whose comedic aspects allow it to go to very dark places. It has something of the character and energy of a Joe Dante classic yet its anarchic spirit might lead you astray. Be good, for goodness’ sake.
The Muppet Christmas Carol
The Muppet Christmas Carol - Amazon Prime, Disney+
Amber Wilkinson writes: We all know Muppets are colourful, lovable and goofy, but this faithful retelling of the Charles Dickens tale is also a reminder that they can generate a scare factor for kids when they want to. The early scenes of Scrooge (Michael Caine) in his house have a creepy feel, nicely flipped into comedy when Waldorf and Statler turn up as the chain rattling Marley and Marley. The chills really come in the film's penultimate act, when The Ghost Of Christmas Yet to Come is revealed to be a faceless figure, swathed in cloth, whose sinister factor is enhanced by the fact that he is both looming and silent, communicating to Scrooge only by pointing. Director Brian Henson and writer Jerry Juhl strike the perfect balance, warning children things are going to become scary, as Gonzo (playing Dickens) and his sidekick Rizzo make themselves scarce and offsetting the creep factor, just a bit, with the addition of Old Joe, the spider, who is trying to fence Scrooge's possessions.
With the nights closing in, there’s no better time to indulge in a little darkness, so wrap up warm, turn off the fairy lights and have yourself a scary little Christmastime.