Ah, the holiday season. A time for seeing friends and family. Roasting chestnuts by the open fire (or s’mores in my case). And giving the gift of advent calendars possessed by a demon hellbent on turning your winter cheer into chilling fear…
…That’s the fate that befalls Eva (Eugenie Derouand) in writer/director Patrick Rideremont’s French supernatural holiday horror flick, The Advent Calendar, which reminds us that Christmas miracles don’t always come without a price to pay.
In The Advent Calendar, Eva, an ex-dancer who is now paraplegic after a horrible accident, receives an antique advent calendar from her BFF Sophie (Honorine Magnier). Carved into the wood on one side is a promise for “the miracle of Christmas”. But on the other is a warning, “dump it and I’ll kill you”. Thanks, Sophie. What a…lovely…gift. To no viewer’s surprise, the advent calendar turns out to be haunted by a malevolent spirit (Ich, to be specific), which offers a surprise behind each window, some good, like bringing Eva closer to walking again, others not so good, like forcing Eva to make bloody sacrifices or face her own gruesome death.
And you thought socks were a bad gift.
The Advent Calendar is your classic “be careful what you wish for” scenario with a candy-coated twist. If Eva wants to walk again, she has to spill some blood. In these kinds of stories, it’s vital to get the audience on the side of the protagonist before they dive headfirst into a pool of murder, and that’s something Ridremont understands perfectly.
Eva is a tragic character, with a raw, powerful performance from Derouand that wallops you in your Christmas cookie-filled gut. Throughout much of the film, we watch as Eva is beaten down again and again and again by a society that either doesn’t understand or wants to pretend she doesn’t exist at all. The opening scene has a guy at the pool hitting on her before he realizes she’s a paraplegic and awkwardly backs off. Her ass hat boss (Jerome Paquatte) has no problem reminding her he only hired Eva to fill a quota. Her mother basically hates her, and even Sophie is an obliviously shitty friend. The only person that treats Eva with an ounce of respect is her dad, who is more or less comatose.
The Advent Calendar makes you want Eva to do bad things and get revenge on a discriminatory, sexist society, which leads to plenty of moments as satisfying as drinking spiked cocoa by the winter fire.
Ridremont’s film is a grinch of a movie, refusing to ever allow the audience a chance to feel jolly. Outside of a few short, key scenes involving Eva’s sweet love interest, William (with a charming performance from Clement Olivieri), The Advent Calendar captures all of the depressing dreariness of the holiday. This is a quiet, somewhat sleepy film that lulls you into a false sense of security while it gently crawls under the skin. A creeping score and loud stingers are non-existent. That’s not how Rideremont aims to scare you. The scary part here is the loneliness of Eva and the anger that bubbles underneath the surface of each scene. Much of it feels like the night before Christmas, Eva’s house dead silent, with not a creature stirring except that damn, obnoxious advent calendar with its demonic voice alerting Eva that it’s time to open another door like a devil on her shoulder.
Good start. But this is where the plot threatens to bring the whole antique advent calendar house down.
The concept of an advent calendar possessed by some sort of demon which grants wishes through sacrificial tasks is a great one, and a solid use of holiday objects turned evil. I especially like the touch of a Nosferatu-looking priest that pops out of the top and grumbles orders at Eva. In that, The Advent Calendar is highly original. Consider though that an advent calendar contains a twenty-four day countdown to Christmas. That’s twenty-four tasks for Eva to complete! Quite a few of which are either skipped over, or send her into a trippy whirlwind through time. It isn’t shocking that The Advent Calendar eventually opens too many doors through increasing disorientation. The longer it went on, the more disconnected I started to feel from the plot.
This is a busy movie, and it shows in how confusing to straight up nonsensical the “rules” of the story are. Yeah yeah yeah, rules are meant to be broken, but we as the audience at least want to sort of understand the game we’re playing! See, the setup of Eva having to complete tasks sounds good in theory, except half the time, Eva doesn’t actually have to do anything. The pink neon-lit demon that we randomly get flashes of takes care of that. Even when Eva technically has to “do” something, another force steps in half the time. Puppets are fun to watch, but when their strings are cut, they’re just a boring sack of cloth and stuffing. That’s more or less Eva at a certain point, who generally takes a backseat to the evil when it would be much more interesting to watch her make deliciously deadly decisions herself.
Which does happen, just not to the extent you’d imagine.
On the bright side, passionate creativity can be found behind every door of The Advent Calendar. Many of the kills are either cut too quick to build tension or done off-screen altogether, but the ideas behind some are devilishly fun and downright gruesome. There’s a playful side to The Advent Calendar, one that the film unfortunately doesn’t indulge quite enough.
Derouand’s performance as Eva is deeply engaging, and the calendar itself is a neat concept, but there isn’t enough wrapping paper to cover the flaws of this holiday horror fare. Too much going on and too little build-up in moments that should be riddled with suspense leave a dull flavor in this chocolate-covered, supernatural descent into an internal hell. An intriguing villain and frightening visuals will appeal to anyone looking for an eerie, winter watch, but The Advent Calendar is more of a stocking stuffer than that shiny new present under the tree.
Still, better than socks, though.
The Advent Calendar comes to Shudder on December 2nd.
By Matt Konopka