There’s a new Shudder exclusive just in time for Christmas: 2021’s The Advent Calendar, a Belgian production entirely in French (but with English subtitles). The film stars the improbably lovely Eugénie Derouand as Eva, a paraplegic who—before a terrible automobile accident—was a gifted dancer.
A lot of the recent Shudder exclusives have been rather ho-hum. I viewed one recently—I can’t even remember it’s name now!—that was essentially post-horror: it was only atmospherically creepy, but nothing else about the film provoked scares. Sometimes a horror movie is “scary” in the sense that it poses difficult questions (the way good science-fiction does), or presents some intriguing moral dilemma—or just depicts the terrifying consequences of a society pursuing a certain path. That film didn’t even fit that criteria.
But The Advent Calendar does. It’s not a particularly frightening film, but it presents a classic dilemma: given the ability to improve your life dramatically at an extremely high cost—including sacrificing lives to achieve your goal—do you take the opportunity? It’s a bit like The Monkey’s Paw, as another, less favorable review notes: your wish comes true, but with horrifying unintended consequences.
Despite nearly botching the dilemma—more on that below—the film is compelling, and a fun watch (even if you’re reading subtitles the entire time).
The premise is straightforward: Eva’s party girl friend returns from a trip to Germany with a creepy German Advent calendar. The calendar comes with a set of rules: the recipient must eat every piece of candy within until the final door is open, or face death; and the recipient cannot dump the calendar, with the same lethal outcome.
As Eva begins eating the candy within, her life improves—initially. She gets a cute guy at the park after spiking his mulled wine with a heart-shaped candy, and receives a phone call from her Alzheimer’s-riddled father—on a disconnected line. One type of candy allows her to walk for brief periods of time, which elates her, even if it is accompanied with extended blackouts, one of which costs her her job. That doesn’t matter, though, because the calendar leads her to a strong stock pick that turns an initial investment of 457 Euros into 14,041 Euros, the kind of returns only a master investor like Nancy Pelosi could pull off.
Then, of course, things begin to turn sinister. She slowly begins putting the pieces together, and realizes that the dark force behind the calendar—“Ich,” or “I” in German—demands blood. Whether it is Eva’s blood or the blood of others is up to her.
Here is where the dilemma comes in: does Eva continue on with the calendar, hoping to regain her ability to walk permanently; or does she allow herself to die, saving those around her?
There are a few problems with the dilemma. We learn that Eva’s father—now in the clutches of a truly hateful woman, presumably his second wife—wishes to die after Eva feeds him a piece of chocolate from the calendar. He urges Eva to take his life when the calendar demands it (being a Belgian flick, it’s not surprising that elderly euthanasia is embraced so quickly). That diminishes the stakes for Eva considerably. Granted, it’s going to be hard to pull the trigger regardless (spoiler alert: she does), but it takes some of the emotional impact away when Eva must do so.
Another big issue is that Eva learns that if she completes the calendar without breaking the rules, everything will return to her life on 1 December after she eats the final piece of candy on Christmas Eve. That effectively undoes any of the moral dilemma at the heart of the story: Eva can just kill off her father, stepmother, boyfriend, piggish boss, catty former co-worker, best friend, best friend’s boyfriend, best friend’s trader friend Boris, and dog, enjoy walking for a few hours, then everything goes back to normal. Even these deaths aren’t too hard for her: her stepmother is cruel, her boss is a jerk, her best friend is responsible for the accident that led to her current state (then again, my boss can be a jerk sometimes, but I don’t want him dead). Part of the fun is watching her exact her revenge (especially on the stepmother, who is a real crusty, patrician b*tch), but the deaths of people she cares about aren’t packed with emotional impact for either Eva or the audience.
At least, I was thinking all of this as the film reached its climax. Eva films herself on the roof of her building dancing ballet, leaving a message to the next recipient of the box. As she is about to eat the final piece of candy, another lover (a dude who hits on her at the beginning of the film before realizing she is paralyzed from the waist down) comes running up, pointing out that the rules state that once the final door is open, she no longer has to eat the candy.
The implication, then, is that Eva can keep the life she has on Christmas Eve—a bunch of people dead (with, mysteriously, no police investigations), but her ability to walk and dance restored, along with a muscular new boyfriend—or she can take the pill and return to her sad life from the beginning of December: paralyzed, ostracized, etc.
The film does not tell us what choice Eva makes, only have her cry out in anguish because now she has a hard choice to make. Unfortunately, the choice isn’t too difficult: most of the people who are dead were, at best, extremely unlikable, even the friend; at worst, they were quite wicked (like Boris, who tries to rape Eva earlier in the film). Her father’s desire to die robs his death of its emotional impact; indeed, he is far better off dead than suffering at the hands of his horrible wife.
But then, the right decision is to let these people—awful as they are—live their lives. For all of their shortcomings, only one of them deserves real criminal punishment—Boris—and the stepmother might should be investigated for elder abuse (there is, for better or worse, no law against being a hateful old bitty). That doing so will immiserate Eva considerably does create a compelling dilemma.
Even being paraplegic, though, Eva has the opportunity for a good life. She’s ridiculously attractive, and apparently the Belgian government gives businesses grants to hire disabled workers (her boss complains that the grant money went to build her a specialty toilet). If anything, separating herself from these toxic people would do her a world of good—and she can just roll away from them, rather than killing them with the assistance of a deranged German Advent calendar demon.
Regardless, I did enjoy this film (how much of that is due to Eugénie Derouand being a French babe is uncertain), and while there are some holes, it’s an interesting device. To my knowledge, I’ve never seen a film in which the vehicle of destruction is an Advent calendar. Here, it works.