Do you feel that chill in the air? Winter has once again descended to encase us in her cold, deathly embrace. But, of course, winter does not come alone. She brings with her a golem made from the very snow she produces to freeze us down to our bones. This avatar mocks us by shaping itself in a distorted facsimile of the human form cobbled together with coal, carrots, and despair. I refer, of course, to the snowman, the ultimate bodhisattva of the season of death.
Human beings often try to make sense of life’s horrors through story, and in the late ’90s not one, but two films dared plunge the depths of the uncanny dread induced by snowmen. And such was the terrifying nature of both films that they each earned the title Jack Frost.
The first attempt, made in 1997 by Michael Clooney, is what one might call the more straightforward horror tale, featuring a serial killer named Jack Frost (Scott MacDonald), who crashes into a truck full of chemicals that turn him into a sentient snowman, allowing him to continue his murderous rampage.
But I put to you, fair reader, that Troy Miller’s 1998 version of Jack Frost mines existential dread for a far more disturbing experience, particularly considering the fact that they tried to pass this off as a family film. In this version, Jack Frost (Michael Keaton) is a musician/family man who is resurrected exactly one year after his death, taking the form of a snowman to torment his grieving son, Charlie (Joseph Cross).
Of course, the debate between the Jack Frosts has raged on for ages, but I have enlisted the services of my stout and hearty colleague Scott Drebit to see if we can put this quandary to rest once and for all. Mr. Drebit, I understand you seek to make a case for Jack Frost ’97. Do you have an initial argument you’d like to make?
Scott: Well, disturbing is a pretty strong word; we aren’t talking about Martyrs here. But if that’s the route we’re taking, fine. I would say it’s disturbing that a medical research lab would conveniently hold a top-secret acidic serum in the same transport as our serial killer Jack; even more disturbing is the flimsy pop-off latch that spews said acid all over Jack, melting him into, and then becoming one with, the snow. This company needs a safety makeover, stat. Now, I haven’t seen the Keaton flick, so tell me about it, stud.
Ah, yes, the danger inherent in a greedy, capitalistic society willing to cut corners at the expense of our well-being is a tried and true well for horror, indeed! But, fair sir, I would argue that the horrors of Jack Frost ’98 are of a far more personal, insidious nature. You see, as the titular “hero,” Keaton plays the classic absentee father who clearly loves his music more than his own family. His wife Gabby, played by the late, great Kelly Preston, is the classic enabler, as she does little to prevent Charlie’s neglect. Alas, when the elder Frost finally comes to his senses and skips out on a gig to spend time with his family for Christmas, he’s rewarded with a sudden blizzard that causes his car to spill down the side of the mountain, killing him and leaving poor Charlie fatherless. Families are destroyed in the first act of this film, Mr. Drebit!
Scott: Well, that’s one hell of a setup, I’ll give you that. My first act has the transportation evacuation plus a full on “getting to know you” session with the town; first our sheriff, played by the same guy who played Freddie the photographer in Dead and Buried; his kid, who likes to make a funky fusion breakfast with whatever’s in the fridge (FORESHADOWING, PERHAPS?), loving wife, horny teen played by Shannon Elizabeth, and the usual roster of small=town folks. Oh, and a lot of kids are in peril in my Jack; that’s certainly disturbing to some people, and Jack’s first kiddie attack has him decapitate a snot-nosed bully who fucks around with our sentient snow globe. Mess with the snowman, you get the coals. But back to you and Charlie’s plight: does he get all mopey and stay in his room until daddy comes back? I guess I’m asking if it racks up The Pursuit of Happyness levels of doom and gloom?
Lo, malaise permeates the beginning of the film’s second act, as even a year after Jack’s death, a morose Charlie has no interest in school or friends. But things take a true turn for the horrific when he plays the harmonica his father had given him before he died. The dark magicks of this enchanted reed instrument pull Jack from death’s dark embrace, but with a harrowing cost: Jack is now a sentient snowman, forced to reckon with not only the loss of his human form, but also his genitalia (I’m not kidding here; he actually takes a beat to mourn the loss of his dick). And this is just a small taste of the body horror in store throughout the film, as Jack suffers amputations, dismemberments, and various other trauma throughout the film’s run time. All the while Charlie is forced to reconcile the return of his lost father with the cruel joke the universe has played by bringing him back in the form of a snowman in a ridiculous pork pie hat.
Scott: Oh yeah? Well, the poor folk of Snowmonton (I’m assuming this to be a take on Edmonton, my province’s capital, unless there are other “blankmonton” cities out there, in which case excuse my Canadian myopic take) have not only the spectre of a serial killer named Jack Frost permeating their lives, but then the bastard goes and gets himself resurrected as a psychotic snowman (harmonica not included). Speaking of harmonica players, I’ve often found them one step above triangle players; in and out with accents, and then a thumb up the ass for the rest of the tune. Please tell me that Keaton lets rip à la The Return of Bruno? There’s your trauma right there.
The trauma is so much worse than you could imagine, my friend. This is a movie where blues music plays a very significant role, but it takes place in some horrible alternate universe where Black people are nowhere to be found. Jack’s band has somewhere between 10 and 34 people in it, and every last one of them is white. And while yes, one could argue that this is taking place in a small Colorado town where there may be very few Black people, the film actually makes a point to assert that Jack’s blues hero is Stevie Ray Vaughn. Not to take away from Vaughn’s contributions to the genre, but in the context of this movie it can only mean that Black people simply do not exist. It’s terrifying.
Scott: Come to think of it, I’m not instantly recalling any POC in my JF, either, but methinks we’re talking about the same bunny hills and diamond slopes and are we surprised? Sadly, we are not. Perhaps the most disturbing thing about my Jack Frost is how entertaining it is; fairly well put together, some decent performances, and a gleeful attitude with a wintery malevolence that earns its somewhat cheesy cult status. I can’t speak for yours; does Mikey and his snow harp still resonate?
Say what thou will about what kind of demented mind would market this frozen nightmare as a kids’ movie, but it’s nothing if not memorable right down to an ending so nihilistic I have to believe it inspired the New French Extremity films that would be making a splash in the horror genre just a few years later. Just as he’s finally repaired his broken relationship with Charlie, Jack selfishly decides to forgo living his remaining years as a snowman, giving both Charlie and wife Gabby one final glimpse of his human form before once again abandoning them as he returns to the icy hell from whence he came. So yes, Mr. Drebit, this film will stay with me for the rest of my days, no matter how hard I try to forget it.
Perhaps in the end it’s a fool’s errand to make a definitive case for which of these films will chill you more deeply, as I suppose the different types of horror in each movie will land differently depending on what it is that truly terrifies you as a viewer (and how far you’re willing to go along with this bit). But I will say this: if you need to feel the wretched catharsis you can only experience through an abominable snowman, the kids’ section may prove just as effective as the horror section.