Last of the Monster Kids

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Thursday, December 6, 2018

Christmas 2018: December 6th

Await Further Instructions (2018)

One of my favorite things about the independent horror scene is the element of surprise. Movies made for small budgets, with few expectations, can be sprung on the viewer with little prior information. Because of the circumstances of their production, you hardly hear anything about them until they're finished. When “Await Further Instructions” first started hitting the festival circuit earlier in the year, I was immediately hooked by its premise. Shortly afterwards, the trailer dropped and I discovered it was a Christmas-set horror picture. So it immediately found a place on my December watch list. I love it when films can catch me off-guard like that.

Nick has not visited home in a while, due to tense relationships with his dad and sister, Tony and Kate. However, his new girlfriend Angie has talked into going back for Christmas. Problems arise almost immediately, thanks to Nick's xenophobic grandfather, his bitchy (and pregnant) sister, and her jock-headed husband. After an unpleasant Christmas Eve, they awaken the next morning to discover something very strange. The entire house has been sealed shot by what appears to be black cables. Soon afterwards, a message – “Stay inside and Await Further Instructions” – appears on the television. As stranger commands are delivered, the family splinters into different groups. Nick and Angie are skeptical of the messages while Tony and everyone else believes they should follow them. Soon enough, blood is shed.

The message behind “Await Further Instructions” is obvious. This is a film about mindlessly following authority. Tony is still kowtowed by his bully of a father. After granddad is killed, Tony assumes control. Yet he's still largely impotent, simply doing whatever the TV instructs him to do. That these messages come from a television isn't a mistake. Earlier, the racist grandpa repeats messages about violent foreigners he hears on the news. Nick is ostracized from the family because he's independent. Yet “Await Further Instructions” is as much about family drama, showing a toxically masculine attitude that has been passed from generation to generation. Raised by an abusive father, Gary then raised two kids who respond in different ways to authority. Nick runs away, Kate submits. This dilemma is what the family drama grows out of. And seeing a film put a horror riff on that everyday tension is always nice to see.

After the strange events begin happening, the characters in the film presents different theories. They wonder if its a terrorist attack, if they're on some sort of sick reality show, or if the government has quarantined them for some reason. “Await Further Instructions” plays with that mysteriousness. As the film goes on, the very odd details of the scenario is revealed more and more. This bends in gory ways, when a vaginal opening in the wall of cables snap off fingers. Or when a black cloud causes a head to explode. The exact nature of the invasion in the film is never exactly revealed. However, the glimpses we get suggest a unique type of insidious force. As the film goes on, the invasion gets weirder and nastier, continuing to surprise the audience.

There aren't any big name stars in “Await Further Instructions.” The most recognizable face is David Bradley, who is perfectly disgusting as the racist old grandfather. Otherwise, the film relies on relative newcomers and character actors. Sam Gittins and Neerja Naik have fine chemistry as Nick and Angie. Both do a good job of cutting reasonable figures in a largely unreasonable situation. In act, the film does a good job of keeping the characters likable, never falling into contrived in-fighting or obnoxious bickering. Holly Weston and Kris Saddler obviously play Kate and Scott largely for comic relief. Grant Masters, meanwhile, as Tony is clearly someone terrified but what's happening and just doing what he can to keep order as he sees it. Overall, the strong cast is why I think “Await Further Instructions” ends up working as well as it does.

While “Await Further Instructions” is not really a Christmas horror movie, in the sense that it's not truly about the holiday or any of its facets, it certainly features enough December atmosphere to count. The Christmas tree and lights lurk in the background throughout the whole film, casting a gloomy glow on things. The entire film exploits the tension of family reunions, before another sort of tension arises. There's even a rather twisted religious echo in the last act. All in all, I had a fun time with this one, a creative horror picture that keeps the audience on its toes and creates some gory thrills. [7/10]

The Cricket on the Hearth (1967)

As I’ve said before, it’s just not Christmas without the Rankin/Bass holiday specials. “The Cricket on the Hearth” was only the company’s second Christmas special, produced three years after “Rudolph.” The story is inspired by a Charles Dickens novella that was hugely popular in the 1840s but has been largely forgotten today. It concerns a lucky cricket who befriends Caleb Plummer, a toy maker, who lives alone with his daughter Bertha. When news arrives that Bertha’s fiancĂ© has been lost at sea, she goes blind. Caleb spends all their money on her medical bills, forcing him to work for cruel miser Mr. Tackleton. As the situation grows more dire, the cricket does what he can to put everything right by Christmas morning.

I’ve never read Dickens’ book and, by all accounts, this is an extremely loose adaptation. However, Rankin/Bass retained the contrived Dickensian melodrama. Such as a young man disguising himself as an old beggar. Or a miserly capitalist having his heart melted by the power of Christmas. Bertha suddenly falling blind doesn’t originate in Dickens’ text but certainly fits right in. To this, Rankin/Bass adds an increasingly bizarre plot. The cricket talks and no one thinks this is strange. This proceeds an extremely weird sequence set in a bar populated by anthromorphized dogs and mice. (A sexy cat lounge singer serenades them.) The evil monkey, recruited by the villain’s sidekick to kidnap the cricket, is then suddenly murdered by another minor villain off-screen! Right after that, there’s a moment where Plummer’s toys are brought to life during a Christmas midnight. None of this stuff, by the way, is mentioned again after it appears. In summary: What the fuck?

Going deeper into the company’s catalog really gives you an idea of how obscure, weird, and cheap these things got. The animation here is pretty paltry and not even as good as the studio’s seventies output. The characters designs are decent but they move stiffly, especially during the dialogue scenes. The animation only really come to life during the musical numbers. Bertha’s song about tears of joys features impressionistic figures moving through a psychedelic background, for one example. It’s a shame the songs are all fairly lame. The number about the first Christmas is deeply overblown while every other song varies from overly saccharine to totally forgettable.

It was expected for Rankin/Bass’ holiday specials to have narrators. For some reason, “The Cricket on the Hearth” has two. Coffee table enthusiast Danny Thomas, who also voices Plummer, appears in live-action wrap-around sequences. (Thomas’ daughter, Marlo, voices Bertha.) Once the animation stars, Roddy McDowell as the Cricket narrates the proceedings in flashback. McDowell’s whimsical vocals, even when disguised behind a goofy Cockney accent, is the only intentionally entertaining thing about the special. Paul Frees, of course, voices most of the supporting characters.

Mostly, “The Cricket on the Hearth” is most worth seeking out for the very odd directions its story goes in. Otherwise, the animation is cheap, the music is bad, and all fifty minutes of it drags terribly. Of the eighteen Christmas specials Rankin/Bass made back in the day, this is definitely among the weakest I’ve seen. It did not fill me with the Christmas spirit. [5/10]

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