Love, Death & Robots: Volume 2: All Through the House (2021)

Love, Death & Robots is an animated science-fiction anthology series on Netflix that leans towards R-rated fare. Like most anthologies, the quality and style vary from short to short. Some of these are absolutely fantastic, while others are fairly mediocre. None are what I'd call awful - even the worst feature jaw-dropping visuals, almost always of the computer-generated variety. My largest criticism of the series is it's prone to excess: the first volume, in particular, contains so much unnecessary nudity and sexual content I found myself wondering if there was a mandate only lifted for a couple shorts.

This short doesn't have that issue. In fact, I'd describe it as impressively restrained and tonally balanced, particularly given the premise. It's also the first of only two stop-motion installments to the series, as is appropriate for the holiday theme.

Let's get to the story, though at only five minutes, "scene" might be a better descriptor. The short only includes a couple lines of dialogue and chronicles a simple interaction. Though, before getting to any of that...

*Spoiler Warning*

Seriously, if you enjoy horror, this is worth seeing unspoiled. It is very good, extremely atmospheric, and - above all - just incredibly fun in the most disturbing way possible. Again, all without feeling excessive. That compliment will make more sense in a moment.

The idea starts with siblings, Billy and Leah, sneaking downstairs on Christmas Eve in the hopes of seeing Santa Claus. For a while, it plays out the way these things usually do: they hear traditional noises, see something moving around, and so forth. It's not until they get a glimpse of Saint Nick that things take a turn.

See, this Santa is... well... it's not human. It's not entirely clear what it is, exactly. You could alternatively describe the creature as Lovecraftian, demonic, alien, a product of dark magic, or a creation of mad science. My guess is it's meant to be ambiguous. Regardless, the creature is the stuff of nightmares. Just horrific and gross and absolutely terrifying to look at. And that's before it shuffles over and corners the petrified kids. It sniffs them one by one, hisses their names, then declares them good and regurgitates a present, coated in mucus, into their hands. Before leaving, it hisses two final words, "Stay good," and crawls up the chimney. Billy reluctantly opens the gift he received and - with more fear than joy - notes it's exactly what he wanted.

Both children return to bed and stare blankly at the ceiling, as Leah vocalizes the question both are thinking, along with the viewer: what would have happened if they hadn't been good?

Frankly, it's the kind of question this series almost always answers in the bloodiest, most visually shocking way possible. But like I said, this one's different. The installment closes with the question hanging in the air, unanswered and perhaps unanswerable. The viewer is left to speculate along with the kids, which is more unnerving (and more fun) than anything they could have put on screen.

As a piece, this is exceptionally well put together on more or less every level. The tight pacing makes for a tense and engaging short that doesn't lose the humor at the heart of the premise. The design work is fantastic - think Tim Burton but far more twisted. It's an extremely brief film, but one that sticks with you.

Likewise, the animation is great. Skimming some behind-the-scenes details, it sounds like they cheated a bit on the stop-motion and used CG for facial expressions, but who cares? The end effect looks great and evokes classic Christmas specials while delivering some truly disturbing images.

For my money, this is one of the best films in the Love, Death & Robots collection, which I'd already recommend to anyone who enjoys genre and doesn't mind adult themes and gore. And this is one of the few episodes that doesn't rely on sex, gore, or language as a crutch. That said, the monster really is creepy (and more than a little gross), so I'm certainly not suggesting this for young kids. Grown-ups are in for a treat, however.