Most Christmas-themed horror movies are at least slightly campy, whether they mean to be or not. And if one were to feature an insanely high-concept monster, like, let’s say, a were-porcupine, that might sound even more ludicrous. Yet somehow, Damien LeVeck’s A Creature Was Stirring, which treats both premises entirely seriously, is an efficient and self-contained monster movie that’s unlikely to ever be beaten as the most creatively ambitious holiday-themed were-porcupine movie ever made. No joke. Feel free to laugh at the sheer height of the concept, but be glad that neither the actors nor the director do so.
LeVeck, whose name is perfect for a career in horror, shows that his images are more than meets the eye in the opening, where a red clad figure who initially appears to be Santa is gradually revealed instead as overweight nurse Faith (Chrissy Metz). She’s a single mom whose daughter, Charm (Annalise Basso), has a problem: when her temperature gets too high, she changes into something more dangerous and must be secured in her room with safety headgear. There’s also something creepy in the garage that remains mostly unacknowledged until it no longer can be, but the story tips its hand pretty early on that a mutant porcupine is somehow involved.
Into this home, on the night of an extreme blizzard, come two young hikers in ski masks who may be robbers or just desperately seeking refuge. Liz (Scout Taylor-Compton) is so much of a Jesus freak that she has a massive crucifixion tattoo on her back, while brother Kory (Connor Paolo) thinks of himself as a more persuasive type. Their faith suggests a possible third motive for them to be here — could it be they know monsters dwell within and have come to slay in the name of God? If so, they seem ill-equipped, as Kory gets whacked in the leg with a spiked bat pretty quickly.
LeVeck bathes everything in the multi-colors of holiday lights, giving the proceedings a dreamlike look and a sense of escalating madness. The relatively simple sets take on a comic-book appearance, and in fact Green Lantern gets mentioned by name quite a bit. It’s remarkable that Zack Snyder couldn’t mention him in Justice League, and yet this movie, well, does what it does with the character.
At times, the editing seems disjointed, with conversations suddenly changing or time-lapsing. There’s a reason for it. Towards the end, things become much more metaphorical than mere monsters in the house. Creature effects team Ill Willed Productions create a nifty, scary silhouette for the were-porcupine, seen at first only in shadow. By the time it’s more fully revealed, it’s not quite as convincing, but there’s a reason for that too (and it’s not the Scooby-Doo one).
Gotta Go Fast!
This is where directorial ambition exceeds the movie’s grasp a bit: you can have a monster who rolls into a lethal, spiked ball and spin-charges enemies like Sonic the Hedgehog, and you can have your disturbing symbolism, but you might want to be as masterful as David Lynch to pull them both off. At least as complaints go, “tries too hard” beats lazily half-assing things. When the story fully tips its hand, many of the preceding scenes become instantly invalidated in a weird way, but perhaps repeat viewings are required to be certain of that. The commentary track, if there ever is one, should be worth hearing.
It’s mostly up to Metz to convince us the absurdity is deadly, and she does, portraying Faith’s post-addiction doubts with intensity and going after her guests’ religion with pinpoint putdowns. Apparently a Christian in real life, she effectively and brutally spews all the invective and hurt she must have heard from nonbelievers over the years. With Basso, she has to be equal parts loving mom, terrified mom, and vengeful mom, modes every mother of a moody adolescent girl knows all too well. Addiction and rebellion clash, and for those who’d dare get in the middle, there’s still something in the garage — or is it in an outside tunnel? — that may represent something else entirely.
Throw in a creepy cover of “What Child Is This?” for extra mood, and the movie works wonders with relatively little, proving that a great creature concept and actors who can sell it are enough if the filmmaker has the skill to use them correctly. Do the twists finally feel a bit too piled up at the end, like Christmas present overkill from an eager parent who went crazy at the 99-Cent store? Sure, but as long as the biggest gifts in the bag were exactly what you wanted, the rest is all thoughts that count. And that final shot may linger in your thoughts for quite some time.
As ComingSoon’s review policy explains, a score of 7 equates to “Good.” A successful piece of entertainment that is worth checking out, but it may not appeal to everyone.