I'M DREAMING OF A WHITE DOOMSDAY
Directed by Mike Lombardo. 2017. United States.
WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS LIGHT SPOILERS.
There is Horror and there is horror. It sounds tautological, I know, but there is a distinction.
I’m tempted to rephrase that statement, to refine it. There is Horror and there is despair. That would probably make it roll easier off the tongue. When I say Horror, I mean the collection of tropes, iconography and narrative types that comprise the genre of Horror. By horror, I simply mean the feeling, that aching in the bones, that sense of hopelessness the existentialists sometimes refer to as despair.
Mike Lombardo’s I’M DREAMING OF A WHITE DOOMSDAY is not a Horror film, but it is a horror film. It’s a post-apocalypse tale centered on a mother and her young child living in what appears to be a small shelter beneath their home. The family patriarch has long since gone missing, his whereabouts unknown. What catastrophic fate has befallen the world? How many days has it been? We’re not told. Was the disaster nuclear? If so, the lightweight scavenging gear used by the family wouldn’t prevent their deaths. Was it chemical? If so, why do we see characters removing their gas masks outside of the shelter. The mother, driven to scavenging out of desperation, comes across a wounded young woman and an eviscerated body in the upstairs hallway of a neighborhood home. The injured woman tells the mother that ‘something’ attacked her brother and tore him to shreds. No further detail is given.
We spend most of our time in the shelter where the mother, Kelly, tends to her son, Riley. She cooks him beans and sleeps next to him on a cot on the floor. She marks the days on a makeshift calendar. The only other means of counting the days would be watching their short supply of canned food slowly run out. Kelly’s encounter with the injured woman ends with her stealing the young woman’s backpack. Inside she finds a few cookies. Resting on a shelf in the shelter is a bottle of weed killer. With Christmas only a day away, Kelly begins contemplating mercy killing her son, but not before throwing one last family Christmas celebration.
And all the while, a gas masked figure in full Santa Claus attire trudges through town, a man who may very well be the actual Santa Claus. He does, after all, have a list of names. Well, one name at least, and he’s about to pay Riley and his mother a terrible visit on Christmas day.
If there is one fatal flaw with I’M DREAMING OF A WHITE DOOMSDAY it’s that anyone looking for an explanation for the circumstances of the narrative will be left completely in the dark. There is no explication offered, no real reason why the world has gone to shit. No one utters a single line of world building exposition during the entire 71 minute running time. The first hour is largely spent within the shelter. The film appears to be taking place inside a comfortable, real world reality. Even the story recounted by the injured woman avoids anything explicitly otherworldly. “It” attacked her brother. “It” came out of nowhere. Well, what the hell was “it”? Up until the final ten minutes of the film, we would be justified in simply writing “it” off as an animal.
But once Jolly Old Saint Nicholas stumbles into the final ten minutes, the film undergoes a major tonal shift, one that I don’t think the film earns or ever really justifies. Genuine reality, the only reality the film displays up until this point, is casually tossed aside for a descent into supernaturalism. This shift in tone needed to happen much, much sooner. As it stands, this sudden addition of what might as well be considered magic all but derails the film. There is one very late attempt at justifying its inclusion in the narrative. The Santa figure is given a single line of dialogue which appears to frame the entire film as a kind of “no more kid’s stuff” parable all about leaving behind the comfortable confines of childhood for the harsh realities of grown up life, but this only works if Riley is the main character of the film, which he clearly is not.
So I’m still not entirely sure why Lombardo chose to drive his film down this particular route. There are ways to deliver that kind of message that don’t include the sudden addition of loopy metaphysics and supernatural shenanigans (though their inclusion could have been justified had the film taken the time to explain the rules and conditions of its world). At worst, the final scene is a clumsy attempt at paying tribute to TALES FROM THE CRYPT. At best, it’s a way for Lombardo to threaten to break one of cinema’s great taboos and send his tale of anguish out on a bleak, soul crushing note.
Either way, the film simply didn’t need those final ten minutes. It’s a nice subversion of expectations, I suppose. We’re given an early flashback/nightmare sequence of the happy family on Christmas Eve, leaving cookies for Santa. There’s a bit of dialogue that alludes to the possibility that the father often dresses like Santa Claus to surprise his child. I expected this to be final dramatic shock of the film. The father returns to the shelter on Christmas day dressed as Santa. He finds the poisoned cookies. Munch, munch, munch, cue shocked reactions. That would have sent the film out on a dour, depressing enough note without the narrative needing to succumb to supernatural nonsense.
It’s an ending that would have fit, as the first hour of the film is concerned with a more existential brand of horror that is firmly rooted in reality. A mother struggling to care for her son is strong enough of a premise to carry a film, especially a film with a built-in doomsday clock in the form of a dwindling supply of canned goods. Post-apocalyptic films often get themselves tied up in unnecessary diversions, like hordes of zombies or rampaging marauders. Very few face the real world threats of starvation, dehydration, disease and filth head on. AMC’s The Walking Dead is at its strongest in episodes like Them, the tenth episode of season five. There are relatively few zombies, no assholes with baseball bats, no poorly formed moral arguments. Just a slowly encroaching death from starvation. I suppose the unnecessary diversions suit a purpose. If The Terror, another AMC television series, didn’t feature a semi-magical killer bear with an unnervingly human face, the slow deaths of a hundred men might be too much to, pardon the pun, bear.
But I’M DREAMING OF A WHITE DOOMSDAY lives in that uncomfortable place for the first hour of its running time. That is when the film is at its strongest. There are no grand vistas of destroyed high rises, no roving bands of mutants or bloodthirsty savages. It’s a claustrophobic, intimate horror. The proximity to the suffering on display makes it difficult to ignore, let alone to write off as simple misery porn. Emotional investment (thanks in no small part to the Spielbergian inclusion of a small child) comes easily, practically unavoidable really. Kelly’s decision to spare her child from a short, miserable life of starvation and suffering hit hard. For most of the film, I felt as helpless as the characters. I felt bad and as the film progressed, I felt worse. And then worse and worse, especially as I came to agree that a brief, merciful death is better than the mere possibility of a slow and torturous one.
It’s a poisonous thought, a conclusion that leaves a bad taste in the mouth, but that’s the beauty of the film. It paints the premeditation of murder as a kind of mercy and it does so with very few words and absolutely no moral grandstanding. It doesn’t expect you to agree, but it does expect you to understand. One of the great strengths of the writing on display here is that it never treats Kelly’s actions as purely emotional, thoughtless reactions to a terrible situation. In presenting the material honestly, it sidesteps simple disgust and anger. It begins to make sense. This is the best possible outcome. This is the most merciful conclusion. There is no room in the universe of this film for a Hollywood style, self sacrificing mother who will stave off death and beat the odds for the sake of her child. Here, death in an unavoidable inevitability and one must seriously consider whether or not Kelly’s actions really are justifiable and good given their circumstances.
I think I’M DREAMING OF A WHITE DOOMSDAY is a good film, despite having an ending I completely dislike. I think Lombardo found his perfect ending then overlooked it for a shock conclusion that does little but resolve its moral quandaries in a far more ludicrous fashion. As a meaty bit of existential horror, it works wonders with very little, proof that sometimes simpler is better, that we don’t always need spectacle and complication to make a film more interesting. All we really need is a shared human interest, a bit of a hook, and a recognition that not all stories will end with a happily ever after.