By JENN ADAMS
THE ADVENT CALENDAR is the latest entry in a long tradition of holiday horror. With its dark morality and cruel twists of fate, this story of a mysterious box with the power to give and take away shares much of the same DNA as literary classics like “The Monkey’s Paw” and O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.” Writer/Director Patrick Ridrement’s French language film will likely satisfy anyone looking to counteract the saccharine holiday classics that bombard the airwaves this time of year.
Former dancer, Eva (Eugénie Derouand) lives a lonely and uneventful life after losing the ability to walk due to a tragic accident three years ago. With a father suffering from late stage Alzheimer’s Disease, a cruel stepmother who prevents her from seeing him, and a boss who treats her like a burden, she spends her days withdrawn from the world. When her only friend Sophie (Honorine Magnier) gives her an antique German advent calendar for her birthday, Eva finds the opportunity to turn her life around within the mysterious box’s 25 doors. But this gift comes at a steep price.
Rue Morgue sat down with the Belgian director to talk about moral choices, ambiguous endings, and Ich, the monster who lives within the box.
Patrick, you wrote and directed THE ADVENT CALENDAR. What inspired you to tell this story?
Well I was looking for a story for a horror movie because I love to watch that kind of movie. I didn’t know what story yet but I knew I wanted to make a horror movie. I used to say [that] my stepsister is really my inspiration because she loves advent calendars and every time we give her a calendar she eats all the candies on day one. I think she should have to respect the rules, but she doesn’t. So I just imagined a calendar with rules. Cruel ones.
They are very cruel. Can you tell me about the creature design for “Ich” and who you think he (or it) is?
For me, the advent calendar is something Catholic. I [did] some research and I found that the advent calendar [was] created in Germany [in the] late 19th century, something like that. So for me it was obvious that it must be written in German. And the monster inside, if you look at that creature you will discover that it is probably a priest – a German soldier priest because there’s a cross. The mask he is wearing is a gas mask from World War I and he has some icons that show that he is a priest. There is a back story and I know exactly where he comes from. His first name is Friedrich.
I would love to hear Ich’s backstory!
He’s the inventor of the advent calendar. And during World War I he used to give every soldier every day of December a present. Sometimes fake letters from their girlfriends or their mom. Because everybody was so sad he was writing letters. “Oh, I have a letter for you today. Oh I have schnapps for you today. Oh I have chocolate for you today.” And so that priest, he was seriously injured on the 23rd of December, nearly dead. Half of his face was ripped away by a bomb. Just before dying somebody comes to him, someone or something comes to him. God or the enemy of God, saying, “You may have eternal life and give people joy every day of December if you want. I can do that for you.” That eternal life will be inside a box. Inside the advent calendar. And he chooses, “Ok. I want an eternal life. I want to make miracles every year.” And actually that creature is kind.
How did you design the actual advent calendar? Were you inspired by anything in particular?
Well there was a team of people who were making that thing and we quickly decided to make a box with three pieces, you know, a tryptic. Because just one would be too small or too big. They [did] some research [on] German things, but, you know, it’s not visible. When you have that object in your hand you can read many things inside. Even the door inside the walls, the little windows were so perfect. They had fun with it. They worked for three months and it was really expensive. And now that calendar is in a safe in my producer’s office. If there is Advent Calendar 2 I have to shoot with that object. We don’t make another one. It is the holy object. I was in love with this thing.
The screenplay was written [and] we had the green light two months before shooting. They started to build [the] calendar four months before shooting, so they ask me, “Where is window number one, number two, number three?” I don’t know, because things are changing in the screenplay. “No, we cannot wait that long.” You know? [Laughs] And all the other things were practical problems, not really problems but funny things. Window number five was on the top of the calendar and it was nice. And I say, “Ah fuck there’s a car going out that window. Oh fuck. So, it will jump? No, not good. Please [move] window number five downstairs.” Ok we changed that. And when you change one thing you have to wonder where is going window number three? Because everything has sense. And that was a puzzle, a big puzzle.
I love the visual palette of the film as well. Especially the red chairs of the cafe mirroring the red heart candy. There’s also a kind of overcast feel to the film. Were you influenced by anything in particular when creating the overall look?
My inspiration, it was born when I was writing the screenplay. I quickly understood that even my movie is a kind of advent calendar: every scene has to be different. Because I decided to show twenty-four candies, I had to show twenty-four effects of those candies and [each one] may not be the same as [the one] before. You were talking about the red, it’s the red romantic part of this movie. You have gore. You have folklore. You have horror. You have [the] fantastic and it’s changing all the time, and if you are [a] pure lover of horror movies, you will be a little bit disappointed because more than half the movie is not bloody. But if you like the chocolate box of Forrest Gump and a taste every day different … and if you’re patient, you sometimes see, “Ok that candy doesn’t have an effect at all.” Just wait two days. You will see that [it] has a big effect.
It was really satisfying for me because I was not looking at other movies to find what I had to write, but all the movies I saw inside me and that was my inspiration. Movies [I saw] when I was 18, 20, 13, and older. Even in the end I was surprised to write a scene that was looking like a scene of Christopher Nolan’s. You know that scene where she’s watching through the mirror and she’s seeing what happened yesterday through the wall? That was a little bit complicated for me to write. When people were reading this they used to call me and say, “I didn’t understand that scene. Yeah I had to read it twice or three times.” [Laughs]
Yeah, I could see that scene working a little better visually than on the page.
Yeah. And you know they sometimes underestimate the audience. This is not an insult to say this but all film producers are…they don’t know what young people are watching on Netflix or Shudder or Prime Video. [Audiences] know what is an intercut edit. They know everything. They are fucking smart. Sometimes even my mom, who is more than 80 years old, when she’s watching a movie, I’m just looking at her wondering if she understands that it’s a double flashback in the flashback and a step forward. And she says, “Don’t explain to me. I know!” Sometimes people think the audience won’t understand. Yes they do. They do.
The following contains mild spoilers for THE ADVENT CALENDAR.
The film concludes on an ambiguous note. How do you interpret the film’s ending?
So everybody has an idea on this. My idea is [Eva] probably in real life [would] throw that candy away. [Laughs] “I keep the use of my legs. I keep this half million euros in my account. Well who is dead exactly? My daddy? I love my daddy but he is so old. Doesn’t remember me. Ok and maybe the guy I fell in love with, William. Well he didn’t see me at all. He just saw me because I give him a candy. Because I was invisible for that guy. So he’s dead. Ok. My friend. Maybe my friend. My friend.” There is one sentence in the movie at the very end of it. Two minutes before dying, [Sophie] says, “if you swallow that candy I will be destroyed, yes? And if I am destroyed, you have your legs back, yes? So swallow it.” I don’t think she believes in that story but she means, “I regret [this]. You are handicapped because of me.” And she is really honest when she says, “I would give my life for you.” That’s what she thinks at that moment.
So let’s imagine that she swallowed the candy. So she’s back to day one. And all the other characters remember that story. I think that the father would say, “What the fuck?” Why did you swallow that candy? Ok I’m back but look at your legs! You should have thrown it away.” And even her friend would say, “Fuck! You were my own salvation! And you swallowed it and now I am back with my regrets and remorse.” So, for me, in real life, she doesn’t eat the candy. But in the movie, in a romantic vision of humanity, she has to swallow it.
Why was it important to you to leave the film unresolved?
That was not really my idea. I wanted to show something. I wanted to show what happened but not obviously. In my imagination, that Italian guy at the end of the movie, the door will open and he will probably look into someone’s eyes and say, “Are you Eva Russel?” “Yes I am.” The end. So for some people I didn’t explain it but for me, you know, if he looks horizontally she’s probably on her legs. If he looks at her like this [gestures downward] we’ll understand that she’s still in the chair. I wanted to give something like that for people who want a solution. But my producer says let’s make an open story, an open end. And I think they are right because I’m not sure that Eva herself two years after getting that candy knows what to do with it. I think she will probably keep it all day from midnight to next midnight. Twenty-four hours. Doesn’t know what to do with this because that’s her problem. She’s upset because she doesn’t want to have the choice.
I love the ambiguous ending because I think it reveals a lot about the person watching it.
People are so sure that the end is that one and the other one is so sure that the end is the other one. Everybody’s so sure. People wonder what is my decision. What is the director’s cut for this thing? I received some messages on Instagram with people wanting to know if their theory is right. [Laughs] They know things better than me! Because they saw things I didn’t write. People have this theory that maybe the calendar is broken and if she doesn’t swallow the candy there’s no after. It’s the end. It’s not rebooted. She’ll be good too but I don’t know.
For me the real miracle is not to get the use of her legs back. The real miracle in Eva’s life is that something happens in December. I try to remember something someone said about theater and evil: the devil is laundry. When it’s boring. The worst thing in life is to get bored. Nothing happening in your life. And her life since her accident is something like that. Nothing happens. In one of the previous versions of the screenplay it was obviously said that her miracle was everything she lived during 24 days. She fell in love. She was scared. [She felt] sadness, happiness. Everything in her December month is really a miracle. And that’s probably why when I think about her I’m not sad that she will be handicapped again I am sad because some people who can walk have the same fucking boring life as Eva. That’s not her worst handicap. Her worst handicap is to have no life. That’s for me one of the reasons she has to throw that candy away because more than the money, more than walking, it’s the remembering of what happened and I know she can do something different now. She faced the devil. She would want to remember that.
THE ADVENT CALENDAR is available now on Shudder and Amazon Prime Video.