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Three Easy Pieces

A very dark holiday, chapter two

"Anna and the Apocalypse" sings and dances its way through Christmas and a zombie invasion. Photo credit: Vertigo Releasing

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Welcome to another edition of Three Easy Pieces, where I explore a certain subsection of pop culture, from its birth to how it looks today. Since the holiday season is upon us -- bringing with it yet another remake of Black Christmas -- I thought I'd revisit a topic I explored last year: dark holiday movies. As with the last go around, I'll be eschewing holiday horror movies, since that category is vast and mostly just revolves around filmmakers finding inventive ways to kill people with candy canes. Instead, my criteria are just that a film takes place on or around the holidays, and that it wouldn't necessarily be something you'd want to watch with the kids and Grandma after the presents are unwrapped. And, just like last year, we're going to take It's a Wonderful Life as a given, since we're all aware that movie's dark as Hell.

BIRTH: Blast of Silence (1961)
Honorable mention: The Lion in Winter, Who Slew Auntie Roo? The Apartment, Female Trouble, Night of the Hunter

Blast of Silence was made for pennies, shot in a rough-and-ready style on the streets of New York, and released in 1961 to little to no recognition. It was likely due to Martin Scorsese and other influential filmmakers' love of the film that it eventually ended up getting a Criterion Collection release, and what a blessing that is.

The grimy noir follows writer-director-star Allen Baron as psychopathic hitman Frankie Bono during a week he spends in New York at Christmastime. Frankie's there to kill a mobster, but gets sidelined when he runs into a friend from his past. Lean and striking at just 77 minutes, Blast of Silence's most notable feature is the deliciously embroidered, blue collar poetry of its narration -- the aftershock of which can still be felt in the existentialism of modern noir.

DEVELOPMENT: L.A. Confidential (1997)
Honorable mention: Ghostbusters II, Go, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Less Than Zero, The Ref

Moving from one noir to another, we find ourselves at L.A. Confidential, a masterpiece of the modern noir. At nearly two-and-a-half hours, L.A. Confidential still manages to feel compact, practically buzzing with energy at every moment. It made stars of its two leads (Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce), netted Kim Basinger a well-deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar, and established director and co-writer Curtis Hanson (briefly) as a prestige filmmaker.

Based on a James Ellroy novel, L.A. Confidential doesn't entirely take place on Christmas, but its inciting incident certainly does: do-gooder cop Preston Exley (Pearce) plans to testify against his fellow officers in the case of "Bloody Christmas," a very real incident in which the LAPD brutally beat seven civilians on Christmas morning. LAPD corruption provides the backbone of L.A. Confidential, as Exley is teamed with the hotheaded Bud White (Crowe) to unravel a typically labyrinthine mystery. More than 20 years later, L.A. Confidential is still the bar against which modern noirs must be measured.

TODAY: Anna and the Apocalypse (2017)

Honorable mention: The Matador, Morvern Callar, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

I said before that holiday horror movies were to be excluded from this particular column, and while it's true that Anna and the Apocalypse does center around a zombie invasion during Christmas, I'd argue that it balances out by being just as much a horror film as it is a comedy and a musical. (Anyone now livid that I didn't include Gremlins can feel free to send me a sternly worded letter.)

The resolutely charming horror-musical-comedy (hormusicom?) began its life as the much more straightforwardly titled short film Zombie Musical. From there, it made very little impact on the box office, but has begun to gain a second life (zombies!) as a cult film on VOD, which is almost assuredly its destined trajectory.

Anna and the Apocalypse gets a lot of comparisons to Shaun of the Dead, thanks in large part to its subject matter and to it being a British film, but there's more to it than that: like Shaun of the Dead, it not only sends up zombie movies, but manages to do it while also having a good deal of heart and genuine thrills. Throw in solid musical numbers, and it has enough verve for three films.

Three Easy Pieces will return, next month, with: Nicecore.

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