Graham Skipper

All the Creatures Were Stirring

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Two people go on an awkward Christmas Eve date to the theatre. The tiny stage production is bizarre and goes through a series of little vignettes. These vignettes go over a range of topics such as an office party gone wrong, a twist on A Christmas Carol, a killer reindeer, a Christmas demon, and an alien encounter. The one thing all of these have in common is the holiday spirit.

There are so many reasons why All the Creatures Were Stirring is the new standard in holiday horror anthologies. This is the feature film debut for Rebekah and David Ian McKendry who co-wrote and directed the film together. Their names are well-known in the horror community, and their love of the genre can be felt throughout this film. The McKendrys came up with an array of compelling short films relating to Christmas and found an ingenious way of connecting them all together. This makes the film stand out from others like it because it is rare for the short films in an anthology film to have the same writer/directors. It is even more rare for shorts by the same writer/director to be so varied in style and tone. Even with the small budget, the film also has a little something for everyone.

The overarching story follows two people on a date. It is as awkward as you would expect for a Christmas Eve date, and the hilarious little stage production they go to makes the date even more awkward. Even with the humor, the date slowly turns sinister as the plot progresses. Each vignette of the play transitions us to the next short that comprises the film. It is hilarious to catch a glimpse of the story being told on stage compared to the short film telling the same story. Each short is so entertaining in its own way. The segment featuring an office Christmas party gone wrong is violent, thrilling, hilarious, and has some unexpected moments. One segment is a reinvention of A Christmas Carol. The filmmakers do a great job of reinventing the classic story in a way that is modern and relatable for audiences, and yet creepy as well. One of my favorites shorts follows a Twilight Zone-esque alien encounter. This short feels the most sentimental and quirky, and it has two fantastic performances from the leads. In probably the most frightening segment, a last minute shopper is stranded in a parking lot where he meets two strange women. It is dark, unique, and creates a mythology I want to learn more about. Then there is the killer reindeer short, which is probably the most hilarious vignette. It has such a fun and ridiculous concept that is executed by including POV shots from a certain nameless red-nosed reindeer (wink wink, nudge nudge). I also love the vibrant red and green Christmasy color pallet used. Some of these shorts are stronger than others, but when you put them together the audience gets a great anthology film.

Each segment has fantastic actors, including many who horror fans will recognize. It is difficult to select the standout performances, but the first two that come to mind are the actors from the alien segment. Morgan Peter Brown (Ouija, Absentia) stars in this short as Steve. Brown is hilarious because of how he shows Steve’s resignation to his holiday visitors. This also plays well off of Constance Wu (Fresh off the Boat, Eastsiders) as Gabby. Gabby is not quite so used to be around aliens, and Wu’s performance is a perfect juxtaposition to Brown’s. And, what would an indie horror film be without an appearance from Graham Skipper (Beyond the Gates, Almost Human) as Max, the guy on the unfortunate theatre date of the overarching story? Skipper plays the awkward characters so well, and his performance in this short is no exception. I could write an entire article just about the perfect performances of this film, so instead I will give honorable mention to the rest of my favorites: Jonathan Kite (2 Broke Girls), Jocelin Donahue (The House of the Devil), Ashley Clements (Non-Transferable), Amanda Fuller (Red White & Blue), Makeda Declet (The Thinning), Matt Mercer (Contracted: Phase II), Matt Long (Ghost Rider), and Maria Olsen (Reunion). The entire ensemble, even those I didn’t mention, are fantastic.

The visual aspects of this film are also very well done for a low-budget film. There are a few instances of CGI used throughout the film, but they are used fairly sparingly. The most prominent use is in the segment that retells A Christmas Carol. There are some great practical effects as well, but what the filmmakers truly excel at is controlling where the audience’s eye goes and implying things without actually showing anything. For example, in the killer reindeer segment you never actually see the four-legged killer. Instead, the audience knows what it is by the noises it makes, the glowing red nose, and the reason behind it’s sudden thirst for blood. Between the color pallets, use of black and white in certain segments, camera angles, and POV shots, there is a lot of visual interest that catches the eye. The filmmakers prove that sometimes less is more when it comes to storytelling, and it is something they do quite well.

All the Creatures Were Stirring is the new must-watch horror film for the holidays. It will be loved for Christmas the way people love to watch Trick ‘r Treat for Halloween. Not only does this film stand out from other similar anthologies because each short is written and directed by the McKendrys, but each short feels distinctly different from each other and offers a range of styles and concepts. There is something that appeals to every member of the family. Combine that with stunning visuals and fantastic performances and you get the new standard in Christmas horror. This is one film you will definitely want to add to your horror collection.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

Beyond the Gates

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After their father’s mysterious disappearance, two estranged brothers come together to go through their father’s belongings. The first stop is the family’s old video store. While combing through the large inventory the brothers come across an old VHS board game. They decide to take the game home and give it a try. As soon as they hit play the brothers realize that this game may have something to do with their father’s disappearance, and they have to play in order to save him.

Beyond the Gates immediately does an excellent job of immersing viewers in the past while keeping the film in the present. As soon as the brothers step into the old video store it is like taking a step back in time. It will instantly make you think of your Friday nights spent perusing the racks of VHS tapes at Hollywood Video or Blockbuster. While not everyone experienced the VHS board games that were popular in the 80’s and 90’s, the nostalgic message still comes across loud and clear. The audience gets to experience that nostalgia through the eyes of the brothers, one who is trying to move on from the past and one who seems to be stuck in it. Gordon is the level-headed brother that wants to forget his father and be rid of all his father’s assets. His brother, John, still has fond memories of better times spent in the video store. They have an interesting dynamic because it is clear at one time they were very close, but time and distance has pulled them apart. They start their reunion off quite awkwardly around each other. It isn’t until they dive deeper into the game that they become closer.

In general, the plot is very compelling. The relationship between the brothers and the mystery is fascinating to watch unfold. Unfortunately, the film loses some of its spark in the final act. The excitement builds and builds throughout the film, but then what should be the climax “inside” the game ends in a fizzle. When the brothers cross over into the game the smaller budget becomes apparent, resulting in funky lighting, fog machines, and not-so-scary bad guys. It’s hard to determine if this was due to the film’s budget, or if this was another stab at nostalgia since many films of that era ended in a similar fashion. Either way, it detracted from the rest of the events that preceded it.

While the entire cast of this film are phenomenal, special recognition goes to the two leads. Graham Skipper (The Devil’s Dolls, Space Clowns) plays the straight-laced Gordon. Despite his somewhat rigid demeanor, Skipper makes Gordon a likable and complex character. Skipper especially shines when the story dives deeper into why Gordon hates his past so much. Then there is Chase Williamson (Sequence Break, John Dies at the End) as John. This is the kind of character that Williamson is best at, a man stuck in the past that could potentially be considered a bit of a loser. Yet he is always endearing and lovable. The on screen brotherly chemistry between Skipper and Williamson is pure magic.

Since Beyond the Gates highlights the 80’s and 90’s VHS board games, it only makes sense that the filmmakers would opt for practical effects. That being said, there really aren’t a lot of them. The director smartly found creative ways to carry out the couple kills in the film in a way that hints at gore more than anything else. It was a very imaginative way to give the audience the excitement they expect from a horror film without completely blowing their budget on elaborate practical effects. The only part of the film that could have benefited from more effects was the climax, but everything leading up to the point works well within the context of the film.

Beyond the Gates is dripping with nostalgia and gives horror fans a compelling story that will take them back to their childhood. It has such a fun and unique story, as well as a great cast of characters, that I have no doubt it will become a cult classic. Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator, From Beyond) has a hilarious cameo that alone makes the film worth a watch. Unfortunately the climax will likely leave viewers wanting something more. If it can be overlooked, then Beyond the Gates will become a household favorite among horror fans young and old.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

Sequence Break

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Video games can be addicting. For Oz, they are his whole life. Not only does he love playing them, but he also works at an arcade game repair shop. In a short amount of time two interesting things happen; Oz meets a young woman, and a mysterious arcade game gets left at the shop. From then on, Oz is pulled in two different and opposing directions. One is the pull to be with the woman he cares for and the desire to live a complete life, and the other is his obsession for the arcade game – and the game does not want to lose.

Graham Skipper manages to create an interesting, creepy, and sometimes disgusting story in Sequence Break. On the surface the film is about a video game that threatens to destroy a man’s life. After Oz finds it in the shop and plugs the game into an old arcade console, it quickly begins to take over his life. What’s more bizarre is that the game seems to come alive every time Oz plays it. The game even takes on certain organic physical characteristics, creating a biomechanical monstrosity. These scenes create disturbing imagery and can be downright gross at times, but they are also quite fascinating. There is also a strange drifter always in the background, willing Oz to play the game more and more. It all results in a unique film, utilizing something familiar like a video game and turning it into something much more sinister.

The second, deeper layer is what makes this film a true work of art. There is a constant underlying metaphor for obsession and addiction. In this particular case it is an addiction to video games, but it can be applied to any addiction. Oz’s whole life is taken over by video games even before the mystery game appears. The first time he meets the woman he falls in love with, he doesn’t even notice her because he is so consumed with whatever game he is working on at the time. It isn’t until he starts dating the woman and begins to move away from his obsession with the games that the mystery game tries to take hold of him. The game is his addiction, and it attempts to be everything for Oz so that he will never need the outside world. There are even instances where the filmmakers manage to insert subtle clues as to Oz’s state of mind throughout the film. The story and imagery create such a compelling metaphor that shows, no matter how hard a person tries to break free and live their life, addiction will always try to suck them back in.

The two leads in this film are great, and their on screen chemistry is electric. Horror fans may recognize their chemistry as both leads acted together in another horror film, John Dies at the End. Chase Williamson (Beyond the Gates, The Guest) plays Oz. What makes Williamson’s performance so compelling is how he can make a pathetic slacker character so lovable and enjoyable to watch. This is something we have seen Williamson do in previous roles as well, and he never disappoints. Then there is the ever lovely Fabianne Therese (Southbound, Starry Eyes) as Tess. Therese brings a lot of heart to the film in her portrayal of Tess, which she will need to get Oz away from his addiction. Every time Therese is on screen your eye is immediately drawn to her. She lights up the screen and plays Tess in a very endearing way. Williamson and Therese’s powers combine to create the perfect duo to tug at the audience’s heart strings through every twist and turn.

Throughout the film there is a rather unsettling use of practical effects. All of the effects are centered around the mystery video game. Specifically, when the game moves away from the mechanical side and goes more toward the biological side. Not only are these effects incredibly well done, but they are sometimes a bit gross. The first time the biological aspects are seen it makes viewers feel like they are watching something they shouldn’t be. It adds a peculiar sexual aspect to an inanimate object that makes the viewer feel a bit uncomfortable, but at the same time you can’t look away. Each time the game is played the effects become more and more grand, leading to some very unusual and fantastical imagery.

Sequence Break is a surreal scifi-horror mashup that manages to be both unsettling and beautiful all at once. It is incredibly disturbing to watch, yet it also brings to light the sad truth of addiction and how it can completely consume a person’s life. The striking visuals and amazing acting by the two leads only add to the power behind the plot. While there are a few scenes that made me cringe and want to look away, I can say with confidence that my eyes never left the screen. This is a film that will leave your eyes devouring every moment, no matter how disturbing.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10