review by Diablo Joe
The horror film genre is often replete with familiar, well-trodden tropes. Killer dolls, masked slashers, brain-eating zombies, possessed little girls, anon, anon, these are the backbone of dozens and dozens—per genre formula, mind you—of films. So it’s exciting when a seemingly fresh nugget of a concept comes along.
Shudder original, “The Advent Calendar,” follows Eva, a Belgian former dancer whose life is a multi-facet of tragedy and bleakness. Left paralyzed and wheelchair-bound following a car accident that destroyed her dreams, she is stuck in a thankless job with a coarse, brutish pig of a boss. Eva’s sole family, her father, is in hopeless catatonia due to dementia, with Eva’s access to him gate-kept by his stern caregiver. Returning from Germany, her friend Sophie gifts her with an arcane, mysterious advent calendar as a gift. The calendar forewarns should Eva not follow its rules, “…töte Ich dich!” “I will kill you.” And as she soon discovers, the opening of each day’s window brings with it something very untraditional—the promise of both miracles and damnations.
Both prove difficult for the young Eva to refuse.
While horror films recently coming from France have received quite a bit of attention (and notoriety), Belgium’s output has been less bountiful, but recently gaining interest and notice, especially with Julia Ducournau’s recent “Titane.” Director/writer Patrick Ridremont’s film compliments the originality of its basic concept with confident, moody visuals, beautiful cinematography, solid performances, and fine special effects. But it fails to evolve its idea into a story that fully satisfies.
As December’s days pass, the calendar—and the mysterious “Ich”—the “I” of its warning—slowly restore bits and pieces of the world Eva had lost. But each time, the calendar requires that a sacrifice be made, some to Eva’s advantage and satisfaction, others darker, taking as much as they give. That freshness of concept becomes “The Monkey’s Paw,” itself a retelling of the old adage “careful what you wish for.” This, in and of itself, would not be a problem, but Ridremont never drives home the moral message of that tale. This thematic uncertainty, along with an ever-increasingly murky storyline, proves to be “The Advent Calendar’s undoing.
Part of the problem is that Eva is never particularly likable. It’s evident that she is intelligent and tough, but she also has a giant chip on her shoulder. If the audience is expected to sympathize with her, the film needs to provide more than just her disability as a reason. Eva’s moral decline, as a result, lacks a firm launching ground. Seeing an already bitter character become more dark and desperate just isn’t dynamic or unsettling.
Throughout the first half of the movie, the events seem far more mysterious and haunting. But when Ridremont introduces “Ich” as an actual physical entity, active in these daily horrors, what he surely intended to be terrifying becomes, instead, much more pedestrian. And as the gruesome incidents surrounding Eva become larger and more freakish, the underwhelming reactions of all of the film’s characters begin to stretch credulity.
By the time “The Advent Calendar” unveils its final revelation, the film has squandered so much of the audience interest it earned in its first quarter. This calendar offers us ever lessening treats until, finally, in the end, we find that the last door reveals nothing we particularly desire.
This devil of a reviewer gives “The Advent Calendar” 2.5 out of 5 imps.