High school, zombies & musicals: Anna and the Apocalypse

Anna and the Apocalypse,
Directed by John McPhail,
Starring Ella Hunt, Malcolm Cumming, Sarah Swire, Christopher Leveaux, Ben Wiggins, Marli Siu

High school. Zombies. Hard to tell sometimes which is more horrific. Add Christmas concert, overbearingly strict new headmaster, boyfriend troubles, arguments with parents, worrying about what you’ll do with your future plus a zombie apocalypse and set much of it to music and you have Anna and the Apocalypse.

I’m sure I’m not alone in loving Once More, With Feeling, the musical episode of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer; it was one of those episodes that, on paper, sounded like a terrible idea that would fall flat, but actually it was enormous fun and also moved on the story arc and character developments. There’s a lot of Once More, With Feeling in Anna’s DNA, and a touch of those wickedly satirical musical episodes of South Park too, I think (indeed the opening credits are animated and have a slight similarity to South Park’s style). Here, while the young cast (sensibly) play it all straight, it’s also clear the film-makers are having a huge amount of fun taking the American style high school musical, populated by teens with whiter than white teeth who love in sunny, Californian towns and royally taking the mickey out of them.

The sight of a bunch of Scottish school kids and staff in a wee town near Glasgow bursting into this very US style (complete with teachers and even the dinner ladies dancing) is side-splitting, while lyrics like “not a Hollywood ending” further satirise the American musicals and teen comedies Anna riffs on (although not in a nasty way, you get the impression they like laughing at them but still like them). And as one character comments when the action starts, this sort of thing happens in other countries, not in a wee town in Scotland, and that is part of the fun here.

We have the Usual Suspects – Anna (Ella Hunt) is a gifted, smart, intelligent girl, approaching the end of school and scared to tell her father she’s going travelling before she applies to university (he is over protective after losing his wife), her friends John (Malcolm Canning), Steph (Sarah Swire), Chris (Christopher Leveaux), Nick (Ben Wiggins) and Lisa (Marli Siu). The kooky, daft but loveable one, the “best friend” who is so obviously totally in love with her, the geeky one, the obsessive, intense one, the trying to be a hard-man jock but masking inner feelings one, and naturally a nasty headmaster (Paul Kaye) who would probably have enjoyed teaching at Sunnydale High, the sort of headmaster who clearly hates kids and resents that they may grow up to have a happier life than he has had.

Anna and the Apocalypse takes all of these generic elements but filters them through a small, west-coast Scottish town sensibility, and that’s funny in itself seeing such very American stylings done in a wee Scots school as they prepare for the annual Christmas concert (especially slightly ditzy but delightful Lisa, who plans a somewhat more risque number than she told the headmaster she’d perform). And then, wouldn’t you know it, the zombie apocalypse happens. And at first Anna, John and the others don’t quite notice. Heading out of her house, walking down the rainy winter street Anna is singing and dancing, earphones plugged in, while behind her neighbours flee from their homes pursued by the undead, fires burn, cars lie crashed and she’s oblivious with her phone, singing and dancing away, until she bumps into John dancing and singing his way to school, they duet and, of course, that is the moment a zombie in a snowman costume attacks them (hey, we’ve all been there).

After that it is the quest for survival, Anna and John finding some other friends along the way, trying to sneak across their town to school to find their other friends and families, and because authorities have issued emergency alerts saying the school will be the evacuation point for the town. And as with all such films, it’s a guessing game as to which characters are going to make it, which are going to end up becoming finger food for the ravenous undead who are rapidly over-running their town. And again while this takes the well-known generic tropes, it does so with such a knowing nod and wink – these people are fans and they are in on the joke, they know we are in on the joke and, to be honest, the young cast are so damned likeable that you buy into it happily. Of course the flipside of that is that you know not all the characters you come to love are going to make it. But they may go out with a song!

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(a very happy director: John McPhail talking to the late night film festival audience before Anna and the Apocalypse screened in the Edinburgh Filmhouse)
Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018 - Anna and the Apocalypse 03

This was my final movie of the 2018 Edinburgh International Film Festival, part of the late night strand the EIFF does each year (and don’t horrors suit the late night slot?). Director John McPhail and many of the cast and crew were at the screening, and clearly extremely excited and buzzed to bring their Indy Scottish film to the country’s most famous film festival. As a very delighted John McPhail told the audience, this is their home-town showing, screening to a Scottish audience, and the pleasure and excitement he and the others showed in being allowed to make this film then get to screen it at a packed festival showing was infectious. The festival audience didn’t just laugh at the humour or wince at the (deliberately) OTT violence (very cartoony), the whooped and hollered and clapped along to the musical numbers, it was almost like being at a Rocky Horror screening, and that made it ten times more fun (the festival crowd was also treated to a special sing-a-long segment after the screening).

This is gleeful film-making, loving but also happy to play with the generic tropes of horror, teen drama and musicals, and has future cult film written all over it. Best seen with a group of friends.

Goodbye to a Scots Makar

I was very sad today to hear from Ian Rankin’s Twitter that the man who had been my favourite living Scots poet, Edwin Morgan, had passed away at the age of 90. He was writing to the end, a new collection published just this year to mark his 90th birthday, a bard who could shape verse in diverse ways and style, across many different subjects from everyday life to love to the creation of the universe, that important kiss, science fiction and of course his beloved Glasgow and Scotland. Poet Laureate of Glasgow then the first National Makar of Scotland, respected in dozens of countries and translated into many languages, one of the great figures of 20th century Scottish writing.

There were never strawberries
like the ones we had
that sultry afternoon
sitting on the step
of the open french window
facing each other
your knees held in mine
the blue plates in our laps
the strawberries glistening
in the hot sunlight
we dipped them in sugar
looking at each other
not hurrying the feast
for one to come
the empty plates
laid on the stone together
with the two forks crossed
and I bent towards you
sweet in that air
in my arms
abandoned like a child
from your eager mouth
the taste of strawberries
in my memory
lean back again
let me love you

let the sun beat
on our forgetfulness
one hour of all
the heat intense
and summer lightning
on the Kilpatrick hills

let the storm wash the plates

Burns Night

A happy Burns Night to you all; its the night Scots and millions of others around the world celebrate our national bard, Robert Burns. Burns Suppers will be held from the Highlands of Scotland to the sunny climes of Australia, from America to Russia (he’s very popular with the Russians, who see him, correctly, as a man of the people). I think its rather wonderful that the life and work of a poet from centuries past brings people together the world over each January 25th to recite verse and song and enjoy food and another great Scottish contribution to world culture, the fine single malt. Here’s a wonderful rendition of one of my favourite Burns works, A Man’s a Man For ‘a That, sung by Sheena Wellington at the opening of the newly devolved Scottish Parliament here in the heart of Edinburgh:


I especially liked when she got the normally boring old politicians to join in towards the end, not something you see in the House of Shame at Westminster. There were some cringeing royalist toads who whined that the choice of song could be viewed as an insult to the Queen as its a well loved libertarian anthem, explicitly celebrating the equality of all and pointing out the be-ribboned aristocrat may have rank and station but he’s no better than anyone else and his estates and rank and status are worth far less than the words of the man who is free in thought and deed. Amen to that. Just remember please, if you are having haggis tonight, to make sure its a free range haggis, given the run of highland slopes and not some battery farmed haggis.

Haggis crisps!

Yes, now you can get Haggis flavoured crisps! I saw these in the supermarket and had to pick up a bag of them, not actually tried them yet. I didn’t even know Mackies were making crisps, they are better known for the extremely yummy Scottish ice cream. I hope they used free range haggis, battery farmed haggis are kept in such dreadful conditions. Hmmm, you know, if I can’t be bothered cooking come Burns Night in January I could have an alternative Burns Supper of Haggis crisps and a bottle of beer.
haggis and pepper crisps

Home of Robert Louis Stevenson

Had dad through for the day over the weekend and we went wandering around some parts of the New Town taking pictures, including the home of one of my favourite writers, Robert Louis Stevenson:

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Home of Robert Louis Stevenson

In case you are wondering the old fashioned bell-pull on the bottom left, instead of stating the family name as usual simple says ” private house, not a museum”.

Evelyn Glennie at the Filmhouse

One of my favourite musicians, Scottish virtuoso and solo percussionist Evelyn Glennie, will be at the Edinburgh Filmhouse for a return visit to coincide with a screening of the documentary about her, Touch the Sound. For Evelyn the title is highly approriate – she started to lose her hearing when she was a young girl and yet still continued to learn music, attend music college after leaving school then blaze an internationally successful career as a solo percussionist, a role in music that’s all but unheard of. She feels the music, the vibrations of the instruments, the feel of the material and she creates an astonishingly diverse musical world from this very physical method of listening and playing (she’s very physical on stage, I’ve seen her live several times and she’s a dynamo) from classical to folk to jazz to improv music played right on the street.

I saw this documentary a few years back at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and it was an incredible experience, touching, moving, inspiring, as music (or any real art) should be. Afterwards, in front of a sold out audience Evelyn came on with the director for a Q&A session (always one of the pleasures of Film Fest screenings, that often some of those involved will be there for a talk before or after the movie). Then one of the simplest of instruments was produced, a snare drum. The lights went back down in the cinema except for an uplighter shining up through the clear skin of the snare to Evelyn standing over it and this amazing woman improvised an incredible musical set using just a pair of sticks and a snare drum. Watching and listening to her it strikes you that sometimes some people were just born to do something, regardless of obstacles placed in their way, such as deafness; her music is inside and no lack of hearing can touch that. The screening is on Tuesday at 6 with Evelyn on hand, if you haven’t seen it I encourage you to experience it.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

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Adapted and illustrated by Andrzej Klimowski and Danusia Schejbal,
From the original tale by Robert Louis Stevenson

Published: Self Made Hero

For years men have hired assassins to carry out their crimes – I was the first that ever did so for pleasure.

Jekyll and Hyde, one of a handful of stories which has become so embedded into our culture that more than a century after it was penned, more than a century since its gifted young author died on a Pacific island far from his Edinburgh home we still, to this day, use the phrase ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ personality as shorthand to describe a person who’s personality can vary between goodness and acts of vicious anger rapidly, as if two different people inhabited the one body. Its no coincidence that Stevenson’s original short tale was born in the same era that, among many other scientific advances, saw the beginnings of modern studies of the human nature and the intricacies of the most complex creation we know of: the human mind.

In fact this supposed familiarity with the concept is, I think, often a handicap to a real understanding of Stevenson’s magnificent work; it has been around for generations and has been endlessly adapted to each changing age since it (or should that be them?) was born in 1886 (a decade before Stoker would birth another enduring dark reflection of humanity’s desires and fears with Dracula). Within a year of publication stage adaptations were appearing; by the very early 20th century it was already being adapted to a new scientific wonder of the age, the moving pictures. It would be endlessly re-interpreted through the next century and on in more films, plays, books, games, music and, of course, comics. And this has given many people who haven’t read the original the idea that they don’t need to, that they know it already. In fact I recall some members of my own book group objecting to the book one month because they all knew it. Had they read it? No. Well, I’ll tell you what I told them – if you haven’t read it, you don’t know it. Most books, TV productions, plays and others rarely capture the essence; the story here isn’t just a simple tale of duality and good and evil, it never was. It’s about the eternal conflicting impulses each of us has and the complexities of human behaviour, not simple ‘saintly’ doctor and brutal hedonist; Hyde is Jekyll and those vulgar appetites for drink and warm flesh are Jekyll’s own and oh how he wants to indulge. And – at first anyway – how good it feels when he does indulge (we all know this feeling at some level, from simply breaking a diet to eat cake to something more involved). Klimowski and Schejbal understand this.

Jekyll Hyde Klimowski.jpg

(the almost irresistible allure of indulgence, of playing the bad boy, but you must always remember these impulses don’t come from some mysterious creations, they come from Jekyll; its all drawn from Jekyll, however much he might protest or detest the idea)

This comics adaptation is quite lovely, right from the haunting cover (which hints at those early, silent film adaptations such at the 20s Barrymore version as well as reminding me of Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera’s dreadful visage with a hint of Munch’s Scream) to the interior art, which Klimowski and Schejbal have split between them, the former taking the first part of the story (told mostly by Jekyll’s lawyer friend Utterson) and Schejbal the second part, mostly Jekyll’s description of his vices, his desires and the fateful potion he concocts which allows him to indulge those more vulgar passions safely, in a different persona, with no risk to the reputation of the respectable doctor. In fact – and I realise this may sound odd – but while reading this I often had the feeling less of reading a traditional comic but of reading an illustrated book; by that I mean that the panels, most only two or perhaps three per page, felt more like they depicted an individual scene rather than a flowing sequence, little tableaux, illuminating key moments. I don’t mean that as a criticism, quite the reverse actually, I think it’s a style which works beautifully for this story.

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(the cityscape is elegantly depicted, an ordered world of fine architecture and well designed streets, but Stevenson knew from first hand experience that even in his refined, native Edinburgh the beautiful city showed one face but had another in the shadows and alleys and hidden places…)

The monochromatic art helps to evoke the feeling of the period (hints of old photographs, those first, flickering cinematic camera); even the use of black and white and the mix of greys is highly appropriate to the subject, while the art depicts a suitable mix of elegance (gracious Georgian and Victorian architecture, emblematic of the new, clean, ordered cities of progress) and the more horrific (the misshapen Hyde brutally beating a small girl for sheer animal delight). While both halves deal with the same story from different perspectives, the split between the artists also seems to create a literal contrast, with Schejbal’s latter half (again appropriately) appearing darker as Jekyll himself tells of his nocturnal inclinations and his shame at giving into such urges, his discovery of his formula, of Hyde and the descent into a hell of his own making, passing through a glass darkly.

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(Hyde’s brutal murder of an elderly MP, the crime which pushes him beyond the pale and leaves him a man marked for the gallows)

RLS’s story, as you can probably gather, is one of my personal favourites; its one of the classics of Western literature and a cornerstone of the horror genre (in his look at the genre Stephen King calls it the archetypal werewolf tale). And as I said, if you haven’t read the original tale, you really don’t know the story in its complex, fascinating beauty. Klimowski and Schejbal’s adaptation knows this and unlike some much more simplistic versions it eschews the good versus evil approach for the more satisfying entanglements of the original, while also revelling in the mystery – and you must remember that to most of us today, we know in advance Hyde and Jekyll are the same person, but the original audience didn’t – of who Hyde is and what his relationship is to the respectable Jekyll, events spiralling in a mix of violence, vice, indulgence, regret and half whispered secrets.

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(the hypocrisy of the fine Victorian gentlemen, suitably attired for the evening as befits a respectable member of society, upstanding, moral, but happy to indulge in vices and pleasures in darkened rooms while always worried about the ruin of reputation should the secret pleasures be revealed to the world)

It’s the best (and one of the most visually attractive) comics version of the story I’ve read since the Mattotti version years ago from NBM (which was more of an interpretation rather than adaptation as here, but very true to the feel of the story) and if you’ve read the tale you should enjoy it while if you haven’t then it should serve as a good introduction to the real story, after which you should then pick up the original text (after which I suggest Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, one of RLS’ literary inspirations). Moody, atmospheric, brooding, wading into the murky depths of the human psyche, it’s a tale that simply doesn’t ever lose its relevance; every time you read of a disgraced politician or religious figure its easy to think of Jekyll and Hyde. And uncomfortably easy to think how we all have parts of ourselves we wouldn’t necessarily want to be made public. Now if you will excuse me, I feel the urge to walk the misty streets and perhaps have a drink in Deacon Brodie’s, named for one of the real life inspirations for the story. Now where did I put my walking cane…

(first published on the Forbidden Planet International blog)

Seachd – the Inaccessible Pinnacle

At the weekend I caught an absolutely beautiful Scottish film, the Gaelic-language Seachd: the Inaccessible Pinnacle. A man returns home from Glasgow to his dying grandfather back in the Western Isles, which leads to a series of tales – in many ways it is a story about stories. Rather fittingly, since Gaelic has an immensely rich oral tradition, a seam of folklore and tales told and retold by bards, singers and just ordinary folk generation after generation. In one scene the grandfather – who may have a much more personal link to the stories of centuries past he tells – talks to his wee grandson, angry and bitter after the death of his parents, rejecting his upbringing, calling it stupid and his grandad’s stories false and tells him “no-one can tell the truth. We all tell stories.”


(Angus Peter Campbell/Aonghas Pàdraig Caimbeul as the grandfather. A man well suited to play a storyteller since he was taught by Iain Crichton Smith and then later encouraged by Sorley MacLean at University. He is a published novelist and poet and it shows in his performance – like any good poet he has a feel for the fabric and rhythm of storytelling)

As a lifelong reader its hard for me to argue that point – narrative, story, is central to the human condition, it informs who we are in a personal day to day life (how was your day? You don’t just say I did this, this and this, you tell it like a short story) and on the grander scale (the older stories which tell us on a deeper level who we are as a people, stories that repeat again and again – Arthur, the Iliad, Beowulf, Ramayana, the songs of the Dreamtime. We are story, we are words and images – we think in words and images, we talk in them, write and draw and sing in them. They’re encoded into our DNA. And Seachd is stories within stories, stories defining and illustrating history, culture and the individuals too.

The film is beautiful to behold – much of it is shot on An t-Eilean Sgitheanach, better know to most of us as the Isle of Skye and the mighty Cuillins range. Even in scenes shot on gray, dull, overcast (very Scottish weather) days the imagery is stunning, clouds reaching down to the tops of the mountains, like angel’s wings caressing the earth. The music (which is what is playing from the embedded player I got from the official site over on the left of the blog here) is also wonderful.

It makes my blood boil that the numpty heids at BAFTA have decided not to support this Scottish film and put it forward as their non-English language selection for Oscar consideration – not because they had something else they preferred to put forward either, they just didn’t put Seachd or anything else forward, which totally undermines their supposed commitment to supporting British film-making (and nice to see London still haughtily mistreats Gaelic culture, some things never change it seems). BAFTA has attracted a raft of criticism, starting with the Scottish arts community, the Parliament and now worldwide condemnation for this shameful and inexcusable lack of support and rightly so. With the fine reception the film is receiving it makes BAFTA’s ignorant decision look all the more foolish and ill-informed and I hope they are quite humiliated by their disgusting actions.

But enough negativity – the film itself is truly beautiful and moving; the seemingly simple idea of an elderly storyteller telling story after story doesn’t convey the feel of the film. As with any story it isn’t just the story, it is how the storytellers tell the story that often makes it and that’s the case here. Its hauntingly beautiful, stories that you can feel on those deeper levels that the truly good stories can reach. Go and see it.