Content warning for ableism, sexual assault, and violence.
Holiday-themed horror movies, like so many holiday-themed things, are pretty hit or miss for me. Aside from the occasional masterpiece (Black Christmas) or schlocky delight (MST3K’s utter classic Santa Clause, and the more popular Santa Claus Conquers the Martians), the misses add up far taller than the hit column. But The Advent Calendar — newly streaming on Shudder — wisely uses it’s Christmas-y gimmick to tell a much more satisfying tale of trauma and morality. It’s a dark little yarn, and not exactly unpredictable, but it very much knows what it wants to be and delivers beautifully.
The Advent Calendar stars Eugenie Derouand as Eva, a young former dancer who is adjusting to her life as a paraplegic after a horrifying car accident. She works with a sexist, ableist bastard. She swims at the local pool, where a local hunk hits on her until he finds out about her disability. She misses her dad, who is suffering from severe Alzheimer’s disease and under the thumb of a comically monstrous wicked stepmother. She’s struggling, but she does have a cute dog and a genuine best friend to keep her going.
One night, early in December, her bestie brings her a birthday gift from Germany: a grim looking box that doubles as an advent calendar. The rules are simple: she needs to open every day’s door, and not get rid of the box… or something will kill her. If she eats the candy inside the box, she needs to consume each and every one. Or else, again, something will kill her.
Eva and her friend giggle and start in on the calendar, making jokes about dire Germans, but we soon find out that miraculous (and/or terrible) things happen when she eats the candy. When she nibbles the first chocolate, she gets a phone call from her catatonic dad on a disconnected landline. When a horrible, coked-out trader tries to sexually assault her, he is killed moments later. When she slips a love candy to a cute guy from the park, he falls for her. Eventually… she finds the ability to walk again.
Of course, like all forbidden knowledge/”deal with the devil” narratives, the good things come at a horrible price. People die — including innocent people — and Eva’s own blame (or lack thereof) becomes suspect. We all know where this is going, and while we take many wild turns on the way… Eva’s path doesn’t stray far. The calendar essentially forces her down the road, but the core question always asks how far she’d go to be happy again, to have what she wants back in her life. We’re playing with free will and basic morality, but it’s served up in a thrilling (occasionally even breathtaking) little package here.
Derouand’s performance is up to the task, and the script sets her up as a decent person dealing with things she just isn’t prepared for: losses and traumas that consume her to a degree. Derouand makes the “can she do it? Will she do it?” aspect of the story intense and compelling, and Eva’s own meager pushback against the presence and its actions inherently tragic.
It helps that the pacing hits just right, and the tone doesn’t feel patronizing: we don’t linger too long on the status quo, or in the annoying “is it real or has she lost her mind” genre trope. The script doesn’t ask you to pity or “other” Eva for her disability, as only the most despicable characters (her boss, her assaulter, and a shallow, awful new coworker) frame her in that light. Even the dopey hunk from the pool has his moment of decency.
It’s also just scary enough: the presence the calendar calls up to do a lot of the mayhem and murder is suitably horrifying, a Pale Man type with a Chatterbox jawline. It never overstays its welcome either, offering scary little punches to remind us of the stakes and keep Eva (and the audience) on edge.
I’m glad I checked my little Shudder newsletter last night, where The Advent Calendar’s blurb about an evil holiday tchotchke piqued my interest (enough, even, in my post covid-booster haze). Holiday horror may be wildly hit or miss, but this particular little spooky morality tale has the right spirit.