The Advent Calendar is the perfect movie to watch in December—if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t mind a few buckets of blood added to their wholesome holiday traditions. Excellently plotted and acted, with tension that builds to near-unbearable heights, it’s a must-watch for horror fans.
When we first meet Eva (Eugénie Derouand), she’s mired in a place of permanent darkness. A former superstar dancer, she’s been using a wheelchair for the past three years after being paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident. That would be difficult enough, even if she didn’t have to deal with being openly condescended to by her boss (who calls her a “half-chick on wheels”) and her cruel stepmother, or constantly endure pitying looks from random strangers. She’s young and beautiful but lives a decidedly lonely life. Her one friend, Sophie (Honorine Magnier)—who strays into “frenemy” turf as we get to know her better—gives her a unique birthday gift on December 3: an antique advent calendar pilfered from a Christmas market in Munich. Like a Gremlin, this calendar comes with strict rules (one of them is “respect the rules”)—and if disobeyed, it warns, “I’ll kill you.”
The women shrug it off, but there’s heft added thanks to a scene that takes place at the very beginning of The Advent Calendar: a flash-forward of Eva speaking to the camera, warning whoever’s watching to “follow the rules or you’ll die.” And, wait... is she standing and walking? Who, exactly, the “I” is in “I’ll kill you” is one of The Advent Calendar’s central mysteries—we do get to meet them, though we don’t really, uh, learn what their deal is—but writer-director Patrick Ridremont wisely directs the movie’s attention’s elsewhere, focusing on Eva’s mental state as her world becomes more and more surreal.
Each day, Eva opens a new door on the calendar; there’s a piece of candy to eat (which she must do—it’s one of the rules!) followed by a rush of excitement and/or dread to see what strange wonder or nightmare will present itself in the aftermath. Sometimes it’s a miracle, as when her father briefly breaks out of his fog of dementia. Sometimes it’s confusing, and Eva starts to wonder if maybe the candy is laced with hallucinogenic drugs. Sometimes it’s flat-out awful, as when the calendar begins bringing doom upon those close to her—or manipulating her into doing unimaginable things. (Sometimes those people deserve what they get, making The Advent Calendar’s moral compass even more wonderfully diabolical.)
Thanks to Derouand’s intense performance, we take the ride right alongside Eva, and the striking art direction and lighting mean the movie—which unfolds mostly in unremarkable, everyday settings—has atmosphere to spare. (The wooden folk-art calendar itself is equal parts gorgeous and eerie as hell.) The ticking-clock structure as the days count down means The Advent Calendar becomes relentlessly tense as it progresses but there’s a certain amount of sweetness sprinkled throughout that offsets the calendar’s grim demands. It also makes you understand why Eva feels so frustrated at the end of December, when she’s done opening all those maddening little doors and is then forced to make a Twilight Zone-ish choice between two equally. The ending may frustrate anyone who demands their presents come wrapped in a tidy bow—but it feels fiendishly true to a movie that’s ultimately about trying to negotiate what you want with what you can live with.
The Advent Calendar arrives today on Shudder.
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