From France comes The Advent Calendar, cursed object horror with a vague Christmas twist.
Christmas horror exists for the same reason Christmas lingerie does, to slaughter some sacred cows and try for a little “shock the normies” shenanigans. It works, sometimes: consider Silent Night, Deadly Night, which so offended Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert that they read aloud on their show the names of everyone who worked on it, from director down to the catering team, in an effort to publicly shame them. Most of the time they’re egregiously silly, as attempts to make Santa Claus (too many to count), snowmen (the version of Jack Frost that didn’t star Michael Keaton), elves (Elves), and gingerbread men (The Gingerdead Man) scary have fallen flat. Now advent calendars are given a creepy sheen in Patrick Ridremont’s The Advent Calendar, but this time it mostly works.
To be fair, The Advent Calendar (not to be confused with The Holiday Calendar, a romantic comedy that aired on Netflix back in 2018) barely qualifies as “Christmas horror.” The titular object is given as a birthday gift, and the only real indicator of what time of year it is, other than the date appearing on screen, is the sad Christmas tree in the protagonist’s home, half-decorated like someone gave up in the middle of it. At no point does the mood ever turn from festive to dark, because it’s dark from the start.
Eva (Eugenie Derouand) is a once-promising dancer, rendered a paraplegic after an accident. She’d like very much to live like a normal young woman, with an active social life and romantic prospects, but can’t, not just because she’s confined to a wheelchair, but because nearly everyone she encounters treats her with either pity or distaste (if they acknowledge her presence at all). The only person who shows her kindness is her friend, Sophie (Honorine Magnier), who gifts Eva with an advent calendar bought during a trip to Germany. While most advent calendars are made of cardboard and filled with cheap candy, Eva’s advent calendar is both sinister and beautiful, ornately carved with religious and memento mori symbolism and hidden compartments. Like a nightmarish cuckoo clock, a Nosferatu-like figure occasionally pops out of the top.
Neither Eva nor Sophie seem terribly concerned that carved on the back of the advent calendar are the words “Dump It and I’ll Kill You,” or that the owner of the calendar (now Eva) must carefully follow a set of rules or else risk her own death. After all, according to the laws of the horror movie universe, no one ever takes warnings about houses where murders took place, abandoned campsites, or mysterious antiques seriously.
From the moment she eats that first piece of chocolate, Eva finds herself drawn to the advent calendar. It soon becomes apparent that the calendar is the source of an otherworldly being, and for every door that Eva opens, it grants her some sort of wish. Some of the wishes are lighthearted, like winning the attention of a nice young man, and some are miracles, like her Alzheimer’s stricken father suddenly remembering her again. Others come from a darker place, however, like the death of her odious boss, who refers to her as a “half-chick in a chair.” Every wish Eva makes seems to pull her a little further away from reality, but reality isn’t such a great place anyway. When the being eventually offers her the opportunity to walk again, it comes at the cost of not just Eva making a wish, but several gruesome, bloody sacrifices, and the suspense comes at how easily she’ll follow the calendar’s rules to the very end.
“Be careful what you wish for” is hardly the most original premise in horror, but Ridremont, bolstered by an excellent performance from Eugenie Derouand, puts a nice polish on it. It’s unclear how long Eva has been in a wheelchair, but she’s looking down the barrel of a lifetime alone, in a world where people consider her an inconvenience at best, or a piece of meat with no agency at worst. She simmers with anger at the microaggressions she encounters on a daily basis, like someone tripping over her wheelchair without apologizing, and gives in all too easy to the enticing proposition of someone (or rather, something) else working out those feelings on other people.
The Advent Calendar is a suffocating movie, one in which most of the characters are mustache-twirlingly villainous, whether it’s Eva’s slimy boss, or a man who assaults her after a blind date, before throwing her out of his car. To the film’s detriment, they come off as one-note, particularly Eva’s comically awful stepmother, who wears her hair in literally the same exact style as Cinderella’s stepmother, in case you weren’t entirely sure what kind of relationship they have. Their inevitable deaths would be a bit more shocking if it wasn’t telegraphed the minute we meet these characters that they’re going to die.
Still, what excellent deaths these characters get, even if they’re predominantly off-screen. A little touch of voodoo mixed with a dash of the Wishmaster series, we get some body horror, a car crushed to bits with a person inside it, and a dog feasting on someone. The one genuinely unsettling death comes near the end, however, and happens completely off-screen. We hope there’s a point Eva might turn around, but on the other hand, why should she? The world has already turned its back on her.
The Advent Calendar premieres on Shudder December 2nd.