Premium

Michael Keaton's Christmas nightmare: why Jack Frost is the most repulsive festive movie ever made

Extraordinary, disconcerting, horrifying: Jack Frost
Extraordinary, disconcerting, horrifying: Jack Frost Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Christmas movies are generally considered cockle-warming and joy-bringing – except when they aren’t. In which case they rank among the most terrifying celluloid concoctions known to man or elf. 

Such is the lesson provided by Jack Frost, released 20 years ago this December and top of Santa’s naughty list when it comes to existentially traumatising yuletide entertainment. 

It stars Michael Keaton as an undead spirit, rocker Henry Rollins三级成人视频 as an angry hockey coach and good king Robert Baratheon himself (Mark Addy) as a struggling Colorado bluesman. None of which really conveys the sheer horror of the bauble twinkling at its heart, a CGI snowman – Keaton’s character in resurrected form – doomed to pester his grieving family until they achieve cuddly closure. 

Jack Frost was, not surprisingly, a flop for the ages. Yet it has enjoyed a strange and ghastly afterlife as one of handful of Christmas features from the Nineties still widely remembered and even viewed, today. And the story of how it made is, if anything, even weirder than what ended up on screen .

三级成人视频It began, of all places at Long Beach – the seaside Los Angeles suburb best known by the rest of the world for giving us rapper Snoop Dogg. In the far-off autumn of 1997, however, it was also home to a burgeoning Christmas miracle. Our tale opens at the "Spruce Goose Dome" – a 12-storey geodesic structure that adjoins the permanently moored Queen Mary liner and is close to the “romantic canals” of Long Beach’s Naples District (gondola rides available).

The Spruce Goose Dome was named after Howard Hughes’s notorious airborne folly – a 200-tonne propeller-wing behemoth that flew only once and for just 60 seconds.  

The $4 million structure was opened by actor James Stewart in 1983 and housed Hughes’s atompunk vanity until 1991 when new owners had the aircraft shipped off to a museum in Oregon. The dome thereafter became a popular production facility for movies including Last Action Hero, Stargate and and Batman Forever (it doubled as Val Kilmer’s neo-glam Batcave). 

三级成人视频Kilmer and his rubber hosiery had, however, long departed by the autumn of 1997. Instead, the structure was filled with fake snow and became home to a terrifying foam and latex simulacrum referred to by cast and crew as “the dummy”.

'A terrifying foam and latex simulacrum'

三级成人视频“The dummy” had been rigged up by puppet whisperers from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. It was supposed to represent the physical manifestation of a dead musician, who had came back to life to bond with his traumatised son. This, it was believed, would make it the very personification of Christmas. 

What made Jack Frost even more extraordinary, disconcerting, horrifying and fascinating was the fact that the resurrected dad had taken on the form of a six-foot snowman, with spindly twig arms and a detachable head (the noggin comes off early on for comedic effect). As if subconsciously honouring the memory of Howard Hughes and the madness that was the Spruce Goose, Warner Brothers had furnished the dome with an undertaking in its own way no less bonkers. 

That Jack Frost ever saw the inside of a cinema isn’t even the most surprising element of the story. More astonishing yet is that former Batman and future Birdman Keaton – in 1998 still a bona fide star – had been dragooned into playing the titular snow-based undead parent. 

At least he was not alone in his humiliation. Cast as the long suffering best pal of “Jack Frost” – for that was the name of Keaton’s protagonist – was respected British character actor Addy, later to find fame as king of Westeros / noted pie enthusiast Robert Baratheon in Game of Thrones

Behind the camera, meanwhile, was cinematographer László Kovács, whose CV was studded with landmarks such as Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces. He had even been the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Cinematographers. Little could he have suspected as he lifted the prestigious gong that five years later he would find himself inside a geodesic dome in Long Beach, shooting a puppet snowman who was also resuscitated father. 

Jack Frost is, needless to say, one of the most unintentionally disquieting Christmas movies ever made. But its mere existence also constitutes a seasonal miracle. What were they – Keaton, Warner Brothers, Addy, Kovács and director Troy Miller (Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry met Lloyd) – thinking? Were they thinking at all? 

“I don't think anybody quite knew what was going to happen from it,” is how screenwriter Jeff Cesario remembered the project when discussing it on the Cult Movies Podcast in 2016. “It was based on the Frosty the Snowman song, very loosely. I don't think they [the studio] quite knew what they had, if they had anything. [But] it made its money back.”

Jack Frost is chiefly remembered today it is for its ghastly CGI. One small mercy is that budget constraints limited the computer-generated Frost to a handful of scenes. Having run out of cash, producers Irving Azoff (better known as a record executive) and Mark Canton (Lethal Weapon) hired Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to rig up a more cost effective Jack Frost puppet, to be manipulated by a man crouched within the creature’s ribcage. 

Alas, and, despite vague intimations to the contrary by its designers, the puppet was almost entirely immobile. Worse yet, because master cinematographer Kovács wanted to shoot the talking snowman as artfully as possible, the crew was instructed to keep a distance of 100 yards during filming. Consequently they were required to shout their instructions to the man hidden within the Henson contraption from across the soundstage. Often, their requests were either not heard or entirely misunderstood. 

If that wasn’t strange enough – and it obviously was – it had been decided that Keaton’s character would take the pre-snowman form of struggling musician on the Colorado blues circuit. The result is that the first 30 minutes of Jack Frost unfolds like a miniaturised Spinal Tap, with Keaton fronting a terrible Commitments-style bar-band and dreaming, at the age of 48, of bagging a record deal and topping the charts. 

S三级成人视频adly his musical ambitions are at the cost of family harmony. Jack upsets his wife (Kelly Preston) and devastates son Charlie (Joseph Cross) by missing the latter’s meaningless icy hockey game. Charlie's hockey coach is incidentally played by hardcore rocker Henry Rollins. Given what’s going on elsewhere in the film this more or less makes perfect sense. Two of Frank Zappa’s children – Dweezil and Moon Unit – also pop up in smaller parts.

'A miniaturised Spinal Tap': Michael Keaton as the still-alive father in Jack Frost

But tragedy strikes. Abandoning a trip west to sign a record contract, Jack is rushing back to Colorado to be with his family for December 25 when he drives off a cliff and dies. Happily, the condition proves temporary. Twelve months later, a grief-stricken Charlie builds a snowman in his lawn, toots the harmonica given him by his dad…and Jack Frost, the deceased rocker, is reborn as Jack Frost, the troubling CGI entity. Charlie gets to say a proper farewell to his dad. And Jack ensures that his family remember him not as a selfish bluesman but dead-eyed festive Wendigo.

Reviewers couldn’t help but give Jack Frost a trouncing when it was released in December 1998. Especially unforgiving was the dean of American film criticism, the late Robert Ebert. He wrote: “Jack Frost could have been co-directed by Orson Welles and Steven Spielberg and still be unwatchable, because of that damned Snowman”. 

Jack Frost duly flopped (most of its revenues were earned much later, via television syndication and DVD). Nonetheless, enough people saw it for it to do profound damage to its cast. Keaton’s star, in particular, dimmed dramatically (by 2005 he was reduced to starring in Herbie: Fully Loaded). The bittersweet twist is that he wasn’t even first choice for the part of undead snowman. George Clooney had been initially lined-up and signed on to the extent that the CGI had been tweaked at length (and considerable expense) to correspond to his facial futures.

But then Clooney was offered Batman and Robin and opted to don Bruce Wayne’s nipple-tastic superhero outfit rather than voice a Christmas zombie. He would later describe Batman as one of the sorriest missteps of his career. Jack Frost thus stands as evidence that, no matter how bad you think you have it, there is always a scenario in which things could be worse. 

 Keaton has never spoken at length about Jack Frost. Addy, though, was less nimble and found himself cornered at the movie’s premiere 

“It's a movie that's heart-warming, has a bit of depth to it. It also has a cool soundtrack,” Addy stuttered. “My favourite Christmas movie is It’s A Wonderful Life. I think Jack Frost has a lot of similar qualities. All in all… it’s pretty good.” His haunted expression was reminiscent of that worn by Robert Baratheon when about to pop his royal clogs on Game of Thrones. 

三级成人视频“There are elements of the movie that really work,” Cesario would say. He remembered being approached at a comedy club once by a woman whose son had watched Jack Frost following the death his father and took great comfort from it. 

“There must have been something in there,” he said. “We got a bad review from Roger Ebert based on the fact he couldn’t get past the snowman.”

Studio interference had been minimal. For better or worse Jack Frost was the film everyone involved set out to make. One of the few occasions executives put their feet down, Cesario revealed, was to veto his suggested tagline. 

“They came very close to using it – I don’t know what the process was,” Cesario remembered. “The [tagline] was… “Snow Dad is better than No Dad’.”