Before we really get into just how deeply unsettling this movie is, let me clear something up first:
If you’re like me, you have fond memories from your childhood of wandering through the aisles of some nondescript video rental store (or a Blockbuster, if, unlike me, you actually grew up in civilization) on a Friday night, browsing through each shelf row by row while your exasperated parents/grandparents/adult-with-money waited impatiently for you to choose something. You’re too young to really judge things based on any actual merits of quality or substance, and instead rely solely on the attractiveness of the box art to sell you on whatever waits inside to be seen.
Now, despite the fanatic I eventually became, I was absolutely terrified of horror movies as a kid. Just seeing the smiling face of Tim Curry’s Pennywise on the cover of It was enough to keep me away from the scary movie section like my life depended on it. But no matter how hard I tried, I always kept running into the same damn movie box, week after week: Jack Frost.
This is not the movie we’re here to talk about today. But, because they share the same title, I guess the (likely) underpaid and disinterested video store clerk kept putting it in the family section, where the Michael Keaton-led Christmas comedy was supposed to be. One time is a mistake, two times is a coincidence, but every time? Those bastards knew what they were doing. Looking back, I applaud the joke, and probably would have done the same thing. But at the time? It scared the hell out of me.
If you’ve never seen that particular version of Jack Frost (which was released in 1997), as I eventually did later on in life when my curiosity started to outweigh my anxiety of that sort of movie, here’s the gist of the plot: A notorious serial killer, named Jack Frost, on his way to be executed for his crimes, causes his transport to crash into a truck carrying some kind of genetic mutagen. The ooze transforms his DNA into snow, obviously, and he goes on a rampage throughout the small town, murdering and raping (yes, that’s a thing that happens. It’s as awful as it sounds) his way through a sizable body count. He’s eventually defeated by the FBI after being hosed down with antifreeze.
It’s… not exactly Chinatown.
But here’s the strange thing: The 1998 version of Jack Frost, the one that this post is actually about, is, somehow, even weirder.
And, arguably, worse.
The two films share the same basic plot, in the loosest terms possible: Man dies, comes back as sentient snowman. They both return because of unfinished business, the ’97 version promising vengeance against the FBI agent who put him away, and the ’98 version promising his family that he’d be home for Christmas. They also both have a penchant for assaulting children, but we’ll get to that later.
Jack Frost (1998, just so we’re perfectly clear here) follows Michael Keaton as another man who just so happens to actually be named Jack Frost, as he neglects his family for his career singing terrible blues covers in dive bars. His band, by the way, is simply called “The Jack Frost Band,” so you already know he’s an insufferable Dave Matthews-esque egomaniac devoid of any self awareness. Now, much like Scott Calvin in The Santa Clause, Jack is a terrible father and husband. He constantly misses all sorts of family events that he swears up and down that he’ll make it to, from hockey games to birthdays and everything in between. Just a real piece of work. “Sorry honey, I know I’m missing treasured memories with my only child, but I have to go play knock-off Blues Traveler songs in a strip club somewhere.”
He does occasionally try to make up for his general sense of apathy towards his family. For instance, we see him help his son build a snowman (HINT HINT) together before Jack gives the kid (also coincidentally named Charlie, in another strange similarity with The Santa Clause) a harmonica. But this isn’t any ordinary harmonica: It’s a magic harmonica. Jack got it on the day Charlie was born, and tells him that, if Charlie plays it, Jack will hear it wherever he is.
That’s sweet, right? But also, like, really bizarre.
Not the magic summoning ritual aspect; that’s actually pretty par for the course with this kind of movie. No, the weird thing is when he bought the harmonica. Why was he out harmonica shopping the day his wife was in labor? I mean, don’t get me wrong: That tracks with his character as he’s presented so far: A man who’s utterly talentless yet is still absolutely obsessed with music. Like every guy you knew in college who owned a guitar. Was he in a music shop when he got the call from his wife, and then stayed long enough to complete the purchase? Was he trying out a range of options in front of some poor, apathetic Guitar Center employee as his wife was painfully expelling his firstborn son? Did he buy it earlier in the day, through sheer coincidence? Or did he go out after his wife had given birth, and buy, of all things, a freaking harmonica to celebrate?
We’re never given a solid answer to this question, but I’d like to think, whatever version of the story is true, that his wife has resented him for it ever since.
Back to the movie: Jack, in an effort to placate his increasingly annoyed wife and child, books a stay at a mountain lodge for Christmas. The plan is for the family to head there, spend some time together, and really enjoy the holiday as a cohesive unit, something that we can plainly see doesn’t happen very often. Unfortunately, because Jack is either a moron or a complete scumbag (or both), he decides to bail on his family at the last second to go play a gig.
On the way to the show, Jack suddenly has a change of heart, feeling the first tinge of guilt he’s likely ever experienced in his adult life, and selfishly takes his best friend’s car to go meet his family at the cabin. Luckily, whatever gods reign supreme in the universe of Jack Frost have some concept of karmic justice, and Jack dies in a terrible car accident on the way due to a heavy snowstorm and some subpar windshield wipers.
Let’s just pause for a second and note that Jack Frost was killed by snow and ice. I appreciate this terrible film’s commitment to a theme: The man died a horrible death, but it was still whimsically by way of his namesake. Which, you have to hope was at least addressed during his funeral, right? I mean, my last name is Brooks, and you can be damn sure that if I were to, by some freak accident, drown in a brook, I would want it to be a point of discussion. I mean, the sheer dramatic irony there is too perfect to ignore. Am I alone on this? Like, if your last name is Baker, don’t you at least kind of hope that you’ll be killed by, I don’t know, a baguette or something?
…anyway, Jack dies. The film then jumps ahead a full year, to the following Christmas. Note that Charlie has not aged a day, despite my own younger brother seeming to sprout another two inches of height every time I see him. Charlie is depressed because, you know, dead dad and all, and decides to build another snowman, one that matches the one he and Jack had built the year prior. He then goes to bed, but not before playing Jack’s magic harmonica as he drifts off to sleep.
Take a wild guess what happens next.
Now, let’s take another little break here, shall we? Because I’m kind of unclear on the logistics of the whole harmonica-snowman-dead-father-revival thing. How exactly does the harmonica work? Could it have brought back Jack at anytime? Did Charlie wait a full year to blow into the thing, coincidentally bringing him back right at Christmastime? Or has he been desperately playing it all year long, in a vain attempt to make contact with his dead father?
That’s a really depressing thought, but one that raises even more questions. If the harmonica truly is magic, then why did it take the presence of a snowman to fully activate the – I don’t know, spell? Sure, let’s call it a spell. Where does the snowman come in to play? The snowman was never in any way significant. It was just something random that Charlie and Jack ended up doing together shortly before his death. It’s not even that unique of a thing to do. There were probably a dozen other snowman on in their neighborhood alone.
The only explanation is that, again, whatever supernatural entity that exists in this world with the power to bring back the dead just so happens to have an absolutely twisted sense of humor. The man’s name was Jack Frost, so he was killed in a snowstorm and revived as a snowman. Ha ha ha. The worst crime we ever see Jack commit is some mild family negligence, but from the way he seems to be constantly tortured by dramatic irony, he must’ve done something else far, far worse. Somewhere on the cutting room floor there’s a deleted scene where he accidentally hits an old lady with his car several years prior, mark my words.
Also, why does it matter that the snowman looks identical to the one Charlie and his dad built? It’s never expressly mentioned, but the film does seem to heavily imply that Charlie is deliberately attempting to replicate that particular, specific design. But it’s a snowman. Three balls, stacked on top of each other, with some sticks for arms and a hat on its head. How far can you really stray from that design before it’s no longer recognizable? If the gods were waiting for Charlie to replicate his father’s snowman, down to the last detail, before they allowed him to have his heartwarming reunion with him, then they’re petty as hell.
And speaking of that heartwarming reunion, how well do you think Charlie takes the news that his father has been reincarnated as a winter lawn ornament? If you answered “With pants-shitting terror,” congratulations! You have a shred of common sense!
Because of course the kid is terrified. A freaking snowman suddenly announces its sentience to this poor kid out of the blue, which (catchy Christmas songs aside) would be bad enough for most people, and he somehow gets a worse version of that scenario with the frozen golem also claiming to be his father. In what is probably the most reasonable reaction that anyone in this movie has to anything, Charlie runs for his life.
Besides the fact that, you know, there’s a snowman talking to him, Charlie has another reason to be afraid. Just look at this thing:
Horrifying. Seriously, look at this comparison between the family-friendly Jack and the homicidal Jack, and tell me which one’s more traumatizing:
There’s something so wrong about his face. If you’re thinking to yourself “Wow, that looks nothing like Michael Keaton,” there’s a reason for that. Originally, George Clooney was attached to the project, before having to bail at the last second. The snowman was already built by then, and was meant to resemble Clooney instead of Keaton. But truthfully, it doesn’t look much like George Clooney either, so maybe trying to give a snowman a human face was a cursed venture from the start.
Fun fact: Clooney wasn’t the only person who left the production of this film. It was originally meant to be directed by Sam freaking Raimi. And bear in mind, this is a pre-Spider-Man Raimi too, fresh off of Army of Darkness and The Evil Dead movies. This is horror master Sam Raimi in his prime. Was this movie originally meant to be a brutal, gory horror flick?
No, of course not. But I can dream, damnit.
So, naturally, Charlie is horrified of this frosty abomination, and avoids it like the plague. But because Jack can’t read the room at all, he follows his son around anyway. This eventually culminates in a climactic snowball fight between Charlie and some kid who’s been bullying him (probably because of his complete lack of physical growth). Jack intervenes, and absolutely pulverizes the poor kid. I mean, straight-up mercilessly pelts the little bastard with snowballs. We’re talking machine-gun rate of fire here.
Strangely, this wanton act of violence endears the possessed snowman to Charlie, who finally accepts that it is, in fact, his deceased father when he refers to him by a nickname that “only his dad could have known.”
Again, I know what you’re probably thinking: Surely, if the nickname was enough evidence to get this seemingly intelligent child to buy that his dead dad had returned to life as a snowman, it had to be some nickname, right? Some obscure, impossible-to-guess inside joke that only his dad could have possibly known. Some off-the-wall, random name that would be irrefutable proof of the snowman’s identity. Right?
No, of course not. It’s “Charlie-Boy.”
Jack is, quite possibly, the worst father in any Christmas film, ever. Which, you know, is saying something, considering “Dad is terrible, ruins Christmas, then saves it” seems to be the exact plotline for a good 80% of them.
Charlie and his undead snow-dad spend the next indiscriminate period of time bonding with each other, presumably because Jack is now physically incapable of driving away to do terrible B. B. King covers. He even convinces Charlie to rejoin the hockey team, where, even though he’s spent the past year in a deep depression and not even touching a hockey stick, he immediately cements himself as the team’s MVP.
This leads me to believe that either the chaos magic that’s powering Jack’s icy form is contagious and has gifted Charlie with inhumanly powerful athletic abilities, or that the kid is actually the most talented hockey player to ever walk the face of the earth. Or, skate, rather.
As the season progresses, the temperature begins to rise, causing Jack to begin to melt. Think The Fly, as Jeff Goldblum starts to deteriorate more and more as the insect DNA takes over. In a desperate attempt to save his father’s life, Charlie orchestrates transportation for Jack to be transported up the mountains, to the same cabin that he died trying to reach in the previous year.
Think how mentally damaging this must be for the poor boy: His dad dies in a grisly accident the year before, which he no doubt blames himself for because he had begged him to meet them at the destination that he ultimately died trying to reach. He mourned for a year, and then his dad magically returns. Now his dad is dying again, this time right in front of him. Slowly, painfully.
There is no amount of therapy in the world that can fix that kind of trauma.
At the cabin, Snow-Jack realizes that his time is short, so he calls his wife and tells her to meet him there. Which, I mean, is a dick move on multiple levels. First, this woman has been panicking like crazy for who knows how long because her son is suddenly missing. After losing her husband only a year ago, she’s probably an anxious wreck, wondering if he’s dead in a ditch somewhere or tied up in some pervert’s trunk, waiting to be dragged away to a secondary location.
And then suddenly, she gets a phone call. From her dead husband. Can you imagine what’s going through her head in that moment? Does she think she’s finally snapped? Does she think he’s a ghost? An angel? Or does she think that he’s still alive, having faked his death in order to finally get that album produced that he’s always wanted without his nagging wife getting in his way?
I like to think it’s that third one.
So the wife drives to the cabin, where the usual sappy ending stuff happens: Jack gets a tearful goodbye with his wife and son, apologizes for his absence, blah blah blah. You know the drill. Classic Hallmark happy ending. But, uh, then the snow shell melts, and Jack gets his body back? Or, not his body, but, like, an ethereal ghost-version of his body? And then he gets, I don’t know, raptured, I guess? It’s not totally clear, but we’re led to believe that, his business on Earth done, Jack ascends to whatever sick, twisted afterlife surely exists in this universe.
Leaving his wife and Charlie utterly confused, upset, and undoubtedly questioning their sanity.
My question is this: What would have happened if Charlie didn’t transport Jack to a colder climate? Would he have just died? Melted and faded away, his chance to make amends with his wife gone forever? Or could Charlie have re-summoned him with the harmonica? Is Jack cursed to forever walk the earth every winter season, so long as his son blow that damn mouth organ? Or was this a one-and-done sort of thing?
And what was the point? Why was Jack sent back to the mortal plane? We’re led to assume that it was to get some closure with his family, but what would’ve happened if he didn’t? What if his son, like any sane person, rejected the notion of a living snowman altogether, and his pleas fell on deaf ears? Is this a Groundhog Day scenario where he’d be stuck in this hellish loop until he atoned for his sins? Or would his failure be reason enough for the gods to end his existence for good?
And another thing: Why did Jack have to be a snowman? We saw him as a full-bodied ghost at the end! Why couldn’t he just have been that the entire time? Just for the ‘Frost’ pun?!
We’ll never know, because the filmmakers are cowards.
The last thing we’re left with in the film is a shot of Charlie’s neighborhood, with each house now sporting their own snowman. I’m… not really sure what we’re supposed to make of that. Did Charlie tell everyone about his magic necromancy powers? Is every child in this small town now desperately building snowmen every year now in the hopes of bringing back their lost loved ones? I have no idea, and I sincerely doubt this movie does either.
If you can’t tell, this is not a great movie. I remember watching it annually as a kid and enjoying it, but I was also really into Nickelback at the time, so I probably wasn’t the best judge of quality. It’s one of those films where the novelty is really the only thing it has going for it, and once you poke enough holes in the premise, it tends to fall apart pretty rapidly.
And with any luck, I was able to do that for you guys today. You’re welcome. Merry Christmas.
Now go knock down a snowman.
Just to be safe.