Back in 2015, Halloween-themed horror anthology Tales of Halloween was unleashed. As the brainchild of filmmaker and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina scribe Axelle Carolyn, the fun, funny and irresistibly festive flick boasted shorts from plenty of big names in horror including Neil Marshall, Darren Lynn Bousman and Lucky McKee. Now comes its Christmas-themed sister, All the Creatures Were Stirring, which — although it’s the combined vision of just two people — has much of the same goofy, gory charm as its spooky predecessor.
Courtesy of another top woman in horror, Rebekah McKendry (of “Shock Waves” fame) and her husband, David Ian McKendry (both have writing and directing credits), All the Creatures Were Stirring clocks in at just 80 minutes but manages to pack in five shorts — six if you count the framing device. That device finds horror-icon-in-training Graham Skipper (Beyond the Gates, Sequence Break), in a fetching cardi, taking a friend (played by Ashley Clements) to a weird little play called, yes, All the Creatures Were Stirring.
It’s pretty clear this is one of the worst plays in the history of cinema — think Emma Stone’s one-woman show in La La Land but with more props and festively-themed chapters that make no sense. Skipper’s character is clearly looking to hook up, but this is the wrong venue entirely. Besides, fate has only brought their characters together because neither they nor the other six people in the theater (one of whom, funnily enough, is Carolyn herself) have plans on Christmas Eve.
The first short (AKA the first act of the play) is a veritable Beyond the Gates reunion, starring Chase Williamson and Jesse Merlin (their co-star Brea Grant also makes an appearance later on), alongside a variety of other office drones who get locked in a room and are subjected to a bloody, Saw-style gift-opening extravaganza. They only have 10 minutes to figure it out, so the stakes are high. There’s some decent, grungy gore on show as the tension heightens and secrets are revealed, but the ending is slightly puzzling. Still, it’s a strong start that leads effortlessly into the second segment, which tackles a more normal nightmare.
Well-meaning Eric (Mad Men‘s Matt Long) is picking up supplies from a mega-store when he manages to lock himself out of his car, with only a creepy van and its possibly dodgy inhabitants idling nearby. In a welcome twist on a familiar trope, it’s actually two women hanging out in the parking lot, but, naturally, they’re not as friendly as they first appear. Without spoiling anything, this particular segment features the scariest moments in All the Creatures Were Stirring, with some seriously effective makeup work on show. Unfortunately, a messed up take on It’s A Wonderful Life immediately follows, starring 2 Broke Girls‘ Jonathan Kite, which showcases some of the most rubbish-looking ghosts in horror.
The three spirits that visit Kite’s dickish loner look slightly internet forum-y, like bad avatars almost, which is a shame because everything else about the third segment is strong. Watching Kite snort coke — using a note about a visit from three spirits (only to almost choke on tinsel) — is hilariously frightening. A subsequent death-by-rats scene is equally stomach-churning, recalling the best moment in the otherwise naff Sinister 2. As Christmassy as this short is, the one that follows outdoes it for festive, er, cheer. A murdered Blitzen’s death is avenged by a mad-as-hell Donner. Sadly, it’s also over almost as soon as it’s begun.
The fifth and final short finds the highest-billed actor, and the biggest star following her career-defining role in Crazy Rich Asians, Constance Wu, finally making her long-awaited appearance. She’s Gabby, girlfriend to Morgan Peter Brown’s Steve, who initially appears to be getting ready to be a werewolf for the night — but wait, the moon is already full? And he’s been outside? Gabby hilariously mistakes the chains Steve has lying around for sex toys, but even that doesn’t explain how antsy he gets when their friends surprise him with a Christmas Eve party.
The reality of Steve’s predicament is weirder and more disconcerting than simply being afflicted by lycanthropy, leading the film to swerve swiftly into stylish monochrome to match the change. It’s a nifty trick, complemented by a couple spirited performances from Wu and Brown. This isn’t exactly the scariest short on offer here, but it’s strange enough to leave an impression, and it segues nicely into the denouement of the framing device, which finds Skipper and Clements alone in the theater with just a weird old man for company.
Strictly speaking, this wraparound isn’t really necessary, but it does allow for some fun stylistic flourishes, including the movie’s title card doubling for an old-school theater awning. Skipper gets his moment to shine towards the end too, while Clements plays scared of both the stranger and him. They’re likeable enough screen presences that the cuts back to them don’t feel jarring. A couple more big reveals fall flat, particularly the oddly unsatisfying ending, but it’s a joy to watch Skipper as always, and the framing device offers some much-needed cohesion to the story.
Rebekah McKendry shot the first two segments of All the Creatures Were Stirring while nine months pregnant, so to suggest that this is a passion project feels like something of an understatement. Each short showcases something stylistically interesting, from a judicious use of split-screen to gory SFX and an overabundance of jolly, festive Christmas music (always a nice touch in these kinds of movies). It’s as though the McKendrys are paying homage to everything that’s come before, but also staking a claim for a whole host of new, horrifying festive delights.
All the Creatures Were Stirring isn’t as accomplished as Tales of Halloween — its closest comparison (the less said about the mostly terrible Holidays the better) — but its shorter run-time and singular vision mean there isn’t an obvious dud in the handful of shorts. Christmas horror has enjoyed a massive resurgence in recent years, from Krampus (the film doesn’t feature the anti-Santa, which seems an odd omission) to Better Watch Out (AKA Safe Neighborhood) and even this month’s Slay Belles (courtesy of another of horror’s cool kids, SpookyDan Walker). The McKendry entry is a strong, gory and often delightful addition to the mix.
Whether All the Creatures Were Stirring becomes a festive must-watch remains to be seen, but there’s enough to enjoy for it to be a part of horror fans’ yearly rotation.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.