There are times when all you're hoping for is a decent horror flick, and you end up watching a small but confident masterpiece. When I bumped into Ridremont's The Advent Calendar [Le Calendrier] I expected nothing more than a piece of filler for Shudder's ever-growing content library. The title and poster suggested a run-of-the-mill haunted object horror, perfectly themed and timed for the end of year festivities. And it certainly fits those criteria, but the pointed direction and some creative touches turn it into something more than average genre filler.
There's certainly no lack of French/Belgian film collaborations lately, and Patrick Ridremont is the next in line to make use of this fruitful setup. Films like The Deep House, Revenge and Titane are notable French projects that were supported by Belgian film funds, The Advent Calendar tips the balance by assigning a Belgian writer/director to helm the film, with most actors and shooting locations still being French. I'm not certain whether most Belgians are all that happy to see their tax money spent on semi-foreign films, personally I'm quite content with the quality of the films receiving these funds, so I'm not complaining.
Faced with a horror film called The Advent Calendar, my brain had done most of the work before I'd even started watching. It's not hard to imagine how the premise goes, the structure of the plot is pretty conventional too. Ridremont still manages to work in a couple of surprises, mostly in the approach and execution of the horror elements (which often crosses over into dark fantasy territory). Mixed with a tiny (but substantial) bit of drama, it makes for a film that happily sticks to familiar paths, but still finds ways to set itself apart from its peers.
Eva is a former dancer who lost her ability to walk due to a car accident. Her condition has alienated her from her former life and friends. She plans to celebrate her birthday by herself, but gets a surprise visit from her best friend Sophie, who came all the way from Germany. Sophie's gift is an old and peculiar looking advent calendar, and it comes with a very specific set of rules. Once Eva commits to eating the candy behind each door, she has to persist until the very end, if not, she dies. After a few days, Eva starts to suspect that each candy grants a specific wish, but not all candies are equally beneficial.
An aesthetic is always more important than a budget, something Ridremont uses to his full advantage. He can't fully hide the fact that he didn't have the means to bring his complete vision to fruition, but excellent camera work, smart color choices and snappy editing help to create a world that is as mysterious as it is frightening. Also, kudos to the prop builders, as the advent calendar looks very inspired and holds some nifty secrets. The film looks notably better than most other horror films out there, certainly the core genre ones, which is a big plus for a film like this.
The soundtrack is good and effective, but not quite as notable. I wouldn't call it a generic horror soundtrack, too much effort and tweaking went into it for that, but it is a rather expected one. The music is fitting enough, and it certainly does its part in building up the tension, the same goes for the sound effects. It's just not all that memorable, and I wouldn't be surprised if most people would be unable to recollect any specifics about the music afterwards. A perfectly acceptable genre exercise in other words, but not used to its full potential.
The performances are slightly better than the norm, which is a good thing as there is a sliver of drama that is essential to the story. Eugénie Derouand does a good job finding that balance between being naive enough to fall for all the usual horror traps, while still coming off like an actual person and not just some scripted train wreck. The rest of the cast is on point too, though they don't tend to have enough screen time to make a big impression. Though there are no stand-out performances, they never detract from the film either, which is a nice bonus when watching a horror film.
An advent calendar has 24 doors, which is quite a lot for a film eager to explore what's behind every door. It's understandable not every candy is getting the same amount of focus, with the ones at the start and end taking up the majority of the runtime. The pacing is great though, it never felt like the structure became too repetitive or even tiring, which is something I'd feared before I started watching the film. The build-up of the plot is solid, and the intrigue increases with every new door that is opened. The ending has a neat little twist too, though some may consider it a cop-out.
Above all else, The Advent Calendar is a core genre film. If you're not really into horror cinema, this is probably not going to be a great match. If you're expecting simple genre fodder on the other hand, this film may also be a little disappointing. But if you're like me, and you like a great horror flick with a twist, made by a talented director willing to put his signature on a film, this one comes highly recommended. Patrick Ridremont serves a delightful mix of horror and dark fantasy, with stylish visuals, a fitting soundtrack, a solid cast and a great ending to boot. Perfect for the holidays.