Those of you who've been around for a while have undoubtedly picked up on my certain disdain for movies that play the "we know we're making a bad movie, so it's actually funny that our movie is bad" card. And oh my Lord, does the 1997 direct-to-video Jack Frost lean on that conceit as unrelentingly as it possibly can. I'd say that it's just the usual post-Scream meta-horror nonsense, except that based on the dates involved, I'm pretty certain that there was no time for Jack Frost to have been influenced by that slasher satire. So nope, the filmmakers managed to come up with this one all on their own, bless their hearts.

I am not, of course, claiming that Jack Frost should have been made with a great deal of sincerity and seriousess. It's a film about a serial killer cannibal whose body merges with snow and leaves him a murderous, psychopathic snowman. I am among those who subscribes to the philosophy that there are no poor ideas for movies, only poor execution, but "psycho snowman slasher" is an idea that's close enough to objectively poor that a deliberate self-parody is probably the only approach that might have been acceptable even a little bit. The film is comedy as much as it is horror; I think it's important to acknowledge that, because the last thing one ever wants to do is to arrive in the position that others might accuse him of not "getting" Jack Frost, of all damn movies. For I understand it has quite the appreciative cult following these days.

But it's one thing to get the movie, and another to enjoy the experience on any level whatsoever, and this is where Jack Frost loses me. Indeed, it's largely because it's so open about its own conceptual badness, and the poverty of its execution, and the general stupidity of all the things onscreen that I found it rather enervating to watch. When you're confronted with something so obviously unacceptable as Jack Frost, the best thing to do is to mock it; this is the crux of bad movie fandom. But there's simply no fun at all in mocking a movie that comes as pre-digested as this, making all of its own jokes at its own expense, insisting on its own insincerity, flaunting the shabbiness of its effects work. Jack Frost is a movie that doesn't require a viewer, in essence. And there's something intensely alienating about dealing with such a prospect.

But deal with it we shall. Things open promisingly enough, with some genuinely creative opening credits that showcase all the actors and crew heads' names on ornaments on a Christmas tree, as an unseen and uncredited Uncle Henry tells a holiday story to his niece, who has asked for something both happy and scary. And things cease to be promising, because the (obviously adult) actor voicing the niece elected to pitch her voice at such a squeaky whine that it takes all of five or six syllables before listening to her has become completely, absolutely intolerable. Thankfully, this narrative framework never reappears, and nobody in the actual cast is half as obnoxious, but it's a quick, easy way for the movie to earn itself some enemies even before it has shown the first human being.

The story Uncle Henry tells is, he claims, set in more or less real time, as a famous killer named Jack Frost (Scott MacDonald) - his actual birth name, we are led to believe, which speaks ill of his parents - is being trucked from prison to the execution site, which isn't how executions work. But movies need beginnings, and there are plenty of other reasons to be mad at the plot later on. What happens, in a nutshell, is that Frost manages to kill one of his guards, and in the confusion the execution truck plows into a tanker from a genetic research company, allowing Jack to escape just long enough to get doused in a jet of some kind of outrageously caustic acid that melts his flesh and bone down to nothing, and the liquid that used to be the killer merges with snow. And then starts throbbing.

The action then cuts to Snowmonton, the snowman capital of the world, as it pretty much would have to be. Here, it is time for the annual snowman contest, which is apparently such a big deal that every molecule of frozen water has been swept from the city streets to form the snowmen being carved in the town square, because Snowmonton is, in virtually every shot we see throughout the film, totally devoid of snow. In fairness, that was just a freak accident - among the man one-liners peppering the end credits, we see references to freak weather that left Big Bear Lake, California totally devoid of winter during the period that Jack Frost's producers had arranged to shoot there. Such are the vicissitudes of no-budget filmmaking.

Anyway, in this sleepy little town, we find the local sheriff Sam Tiler (Christopher Allport), who happens to have been the exact law enforcement agent to take down Frost in the first place. He has these many months been plagued by doubts concerning a threat the killer left that he would take his revenge, and apparently has been worried all along that Frost would find a way to escape. He probably didn't assume that way would involve becoming a sentient matrix of H2O who can melt or freeze at will, and spends most of his time in the form of a snowman completed by Sam's son Ryan (Zack Eginton), with his coal eyes and carrot nose following along as he morphs, despite neither coal nor carrots being subject to the same freezing point as water.

Sam's laconic presence and his friendly relationship with the Snowmontonians having put us squarely in Twin Peaks territory (an impression solidified by the scenes set in the cutesily ineffectual sheriff's office), it only makes sense when the film starts copying from The X-Files as well, in the form of a secret government conspiracy to retrieve Frost. And so we have FBI Agent Manners (Stephen Mendel) and a scientist named Stone (Rob LaBelle) onhand to be mysterious and get in Sam's way, and not tell him any of the things he might need to ensure that his community doesn't end up entirely dead. Though they have no way of guessing at the scope of Frost's abilities to manipulate his form, which includes being able to shoot dagger-sharp icicles on top of everything else.

There's no point in harping on how stupid this is, since the film already knows that - since the film, in fact, prides itself on being stupid. But it's still not very entertaining to watch. "Bad on purpose" goes only as far as the filmmakers' sense of humor and irony, and the creators of Jack Frost - who are largely just Michael Cooney (director and writer) and Jeremy Paige (producer and co-scenarist) - have some pretty lead-footed jokes up their sleeve. Frost is a quipster killer: he has to be, since the budget permitted only a really dodgy snowman puppet whose mouth barely moves, and which is otherwise not articulated. So we get a lot of one-liners, most of which aren't funny at all, and some of which don't even make sense. At one point, for example, Frost has taken over a victim's body, but gives up and allows himself to be vomited out. Having thus reformed, he snarks "Don't eat yellow snow!", à propos of nothing happening in that moment. I suppose there are only so many thematically tight puns a snowman killer can make, but some semblance of a relationship between ideas would have been appreciated.

That relationship holds true for essentially everything in the movie. The plot, at its most basic, is a "killer comes back for revenge" situation, but most of Frost's actions have no motivation at all. He kills an old man with absolutely no connection to anything in the rest of the movie; he then merciless hunts down all the members of a family who happen to live in Snowmonton, but are otherwise quite uninvolved in Sam's life. Although the last surviving member of that family, Jill (Shannon Elizabeth), is preparing to have sex with her boyfriend (Darren Campbell) in Sam's house when Frost catches up with her and kills her, so that's kind of a thing that is in any way part of the story. This is after Frost goes all the way out of town to kill a deputy (Brian Leckner) and still his police cruiser.

It feels like one thing only: an attempt to inflate a running time by adding in a bunch of spurious deaths, pure slasher movie boilerplate. It's funny only in that it's insincere, and because Frost can't help but say zany things; I feel like it's a movie for people who absolutely adored the later Nightmare on Elm Street movies, the ones where Freddy Krueger had largely turned into a murdering stand-up comedian; it shares their disregard for cohesion and absolutely ghastly wordplay. So it's much too jokey to work for even a single scene as horror (though I can imagine the more squeamish being thrown for a loop by Frost's initial disintegration, or by his ultimate demise), with its crap one-liners and its straitlaced absurdity, and its electronic keyboard score borrowing heavily and ironically from traditional Christmas carols. And it's much too shouty, snotty, and mean to be effect as comedy. Perhaps with more tastelessness, as in the early work of Peter Jackson, this could have been something; but the filmmakers couldn't afford to be tasteless. The scene where Frost rapes Jill to death is tasteless, I suppose, but not in the right way, not at all. I was mostly glad that the filmmakers refrained from having that rape come in the form of him penetrating her with his carrot nose, as the blocking seemed eager to foreshadow at one point; but the point where we arrive at "it was such a relief when it didn't include the most objectionable possible rape scene", we have scraped through the bottom of the barrel and dug a rather comfortably-sized hole in the ground beneath it.

I will concede that there are things about I liked. Allport's plain, taciturn performance actually works pretty well - it's the only thing in the entire movie that feels like it actually falls in the "played straight for laughs" register that the film's fanbase sees in every detail. And I greatly admired the hammy sassiness of Marsha Clark as the sheriff's office secretary. Cooney also did a surprisingly good job placing the camera, considering the scale of the production: both in his cleverness in hiding the snow-free locations, and in stagins some genuinely inventive visual jokes, something for which I was deeply grateful amidst all the arch irony.

Anyway, it is the most perfect late-'90s horror film imaginable: gimmicky to the point of idiocy, and post-modern in the most irritating conceivable way, an equal failure of both horror and comedy. If it at least came by its badness honestly, its ineptitude and styrofoam-covered-in-felt snowman suit might have at least been charming; but as it is, the film's self-awareness just makes it tediously smug.

Body Count: 12, though one is more implied than shown, and also the 38 murders Frost committed prior to the film's opening, which is a massively cheap way to make your killer seem more dangerous than we ever see him onscreen.


* * * * *

But wait! What about that OTHER terrifying movie from the late '90s called Jack Frost?

It says everything that the titular character character from the 1997 Jack Frost is the soul of a serial killer, who turned his victims into meat pies, inhabiting a snowman who murders people, including one whose face he bites off with his icicle teeth, and he can't be compared even a little bit to the visceral, Lovecraftian horror of the titular character from the 1998 Jack Frost, which is a fantasy movie for children.

Basically, it's a horrible Christmas-themed version of the musical Carousel (or, if you want to be snooty, the play Liliom, upon which Carousel was based), in which a middle-aged man on the cusp of his big break as a rock star ignores his son, dies, is reincarnated as a snowman, and learns how to be a better father. It's entirely possible that this would work, somewhat, if the snowman wasn't voiced by Michael Keaton, an actor who is frequently capable of greatness, but whose line deliveries tend towards an edgy, tightly-coiled energy that suggest somebody ready to blow just underneath the words; and given Jack Frost's tendency to speak largely in snow-related quips (seriously, the two Jack Frost pictures are fucking indistinguishable, except that in one of them the bully loses a snowball fight, and in the other the bully is decapitated with a sled), this makes him seem like a bent rage addict funneling all his anger into caustic humor (it's way too reminiscent of the performance he gave in Beetlejuice, actually, and that's just not okay). There's one particularly grim moment of soul-sucking wordplay where the snowman and his son are celebrating a shared triumph, and Jack says, "You da man!", because remember, this was made in the late '90s, and his son Charlie (Joseph Cross) replies, "No, you da man!", and Jack quips back, "Nope! I'm the snowman! HAH HAH HAH". And as lamentable as that pun is, and emblematic of how dire and insulting the bulk of Mark Steven Johnson's screenplay is, the part that really goes from, "oh, what a routinely lousy children's movie", to "GOD GET IT OFF ME IT'S BURNING" is that fake, forced laugh, Keaton coughing out the sounds of mirth so unnaturally that if he had immediately turned around and ripped the boy's head off with his eerie branch arms with their floppy, flat little mitten hands, it would have been infinitely more understandable than the filmmakers' desire that we find this cute.

So Keaton's a problem. But even he is only the second-biggest liability in the film, for he is but the voice and briefly-human precursor of Jack the Snowman, an eldritch abomination if I ever did see one. It's a singularly persuasive piece of machinery built by the Jim Henson Creature Shop (there are a few shots in which it is played by a glossy CGI effect, as well), but "persuasive" means here only that it is convincing in its movements as something living, not that it actually convinces as an animated snowman. And it fails even more at seeming even slightly appealing or friendly - it looks like a perversity of nature, moving its horrible, rubbery mouth and flexing its horrible, overly expressive facial features, and staring with its unpleasantly small eyes that look pitch black (black as coal, you might say) in all but bright, direct light, in which case you can see the glue-grey irises around the edges of those eyes. And begad, if the deep black eyes with nothing behind them but the infinity of death are freaky, the eyes with just enough detail to look vaguely human are much, much worse.

Other than the fact that its protagonist was issued from a rank pit of Hell to torment the godly, Jack Frost is actually pretty blandly generic kiddie filmmaking, with no story really deserving of the name: Jack was so busy with his career that he almost missed Christmas, but decided just in the nick of time to head to be with his son and wife Gabby (Kelly Preston). But a freak snowstorm hit, and he crashed his car and died. He died on Christmas Day. If nothing else, I admire it for having the balls to go there. The snowballs, I would say, except that the movie already makes, like, five puns about snow balls, and I don't want to relive them.

So anyway, Jack comes back and life lessons, though the stakes of the film are so ungodly low that I couldn't really tell you why the universe would bother bending its rules to make this miracle happen. And Charlie himself seems largely unmoved; the emotional beats, at least as they are played by the actors and director Troy Miller, would be entirely unchanged if Jack had simply disappeared for months after a boring, run-of-the-mill divorce (an impression strengthened by how very little Preston gets to do, mostly just looking alarmed in reaction shots and never interacting with the snowman until the film's penultimate scene). There's absolutely no overarching plot, simply scenes during which the snowman thaws Charlie's resentment, and eventually teaches him some hockey tips, and then when enough scenes have transpired to make a feature, there's a brief race against time leading arbitrarily into a desultory wrap-up, suggesting that Johnson understood that copying E.T. was a safe bet, but didn't care why.

It is, unsurprisingly, not very good cinema. Miller and the hilariously overqualified cinematographer László Kovács (the things that happened to that man's career after the 1980s started up are indescribably depressing) are hellbent on close-ups that use the anamorphic frame in the most artless way: a lot of heads just kind of bobbing around in oppressive widescreen space. There are some clumsy attempts at kinetic editing, and the most aesthetically distinctive thing about the film is its unusually brutish soundtrack, beginning with a hard-rock cover of "Frosty the Snowman" played by Jack's band, moving on past a dumbfounding use of Fleetwood Mac's melancholic and not at all child-appropriate "Landslide", apparently because it has the words "snow-covered" in the lyrics, and arriving at a singularly unforgivable cover of "Gimme Some Lovin'" by Hanson, because remember, this was made in the late '90s.

Basically, it is everything I have ever hated about children's entertainment combined in one place: canned emotions and deadening plot points of the utmost predictability crammed together with shrill, sardonic anti-humor and a lazy reliance on musical montages to paper over the sucking holes in the conflict. Add the viscerally unappealing central character, and the whole thing is just the absolute pits. It took a lot to be the worst reincarnation fantasy titled Jack Frost from the second half of the 1990s, but by golly, they found a way.

Body Count: Just the one.