The late '90s were a magical time for anthropomorphic snowmen. In 1997 Jack Frost was released, a horror film about a serial killer who becomes a snowman. One year later, in a film with the same title, Michael Keaton starred as a negligent father who turns into a snowman after a fatal car accident. The films are so different, both in genre and visual style, that it’s hard to imagine anyone confusing these movies. It’s also not out of the ordinary for films to share a title - especially when they are named after common phrases. What’s surprising about these two films, though, is the number of similarities they share.
While the horror film's snowman carries out acts of personal terror with twisted glee, Keaton’s Frost is just as unnerving, albeit in a completely different way. What should be a fun film for the whole family morphs into a creepy movie that, at times, borders on cinematic agony. From a critical perspective, it’s hard to watch 1998’s family-friendly Jack Frost without wondering how the filmmakers didn't realize their titular snowman is one of the most unnerving characters in children's cinema. The weather outside may be frightful, but Michael Keaton’s turn as a “snow dad” is more ghastly than you can imagine.
End of life themes plays a big part in both the 1997 horror flick and the family film from a year later. Both main characters depart similarly - in freak car accidents - before being resurrected as snowmen. In the family movie, Keaton’s Frost is an aging rock 'n' roller who passes in a snowy car crash after a late-night gig. However, no one expects the musician to be brought back to life by a “magical harmonica.” After his son plays it one night, Frost comes back to life.
In the horror film, Frost’s expiration and resurrection are equally as strange, albeit much less tragic. While transporting Frost to a facility for a midnight execution, the prison truck carrying the slayer collides with a truck carrying experimental chemicals. When Frost is blasted with the mystery fluid, he melts and fuses with the snow before returning to life - if that’s what you want to call it - as a rage-filled snowman.
While the two Jack Frosts are similar in appearance, the horror film character is given a comic grin. Is it menacing? Of course. His snowy grin is less a smile and more a maniacal grimace. However, Keaton’s Frost is arguably even more frightening. The Jim Henson Creature Shop brought the snowman to life through a mix of puppetry and CG, and the result is creepily human, yet still different enough to have an uncanny effect. It’s almost as if a Rankin/Bass stop-motion puppet was cursed by a witch to stalk the Earth for all eternity.
Even Roger Ebert, one of the most respected film critics of the 20th century, was unnerved by the look of Keaton’s snowman. He wrote:
The snowman gave me the creeps. Never have I disliked a movie character more. They say state-of-the-art special effects can create the illusion of anything on the screen, and now we have proof: It's possible for the Jim Henson folks and Industrial Light and Magic to put their heads together and come up with the most repulsive single creature in the history of special effects, and I am not forgetting the Chucky doll or the desert intestine from Star Wars. To see the snowman is to dislike the snowman. It doesn't look like a snowman, anyway. It looks like a cheap snowman suit. When it moves, it doesn't exactly glide - it walks, but without feet, like it's creeping on its torso. It has [skinny] tree limbs for arms, which spin through 360 degrees when it's throwing snowballs. It has a big, wide mouth that moves as if masticating Gummi Bears. And it's this kid's dad.
Jack Frost, the 1997 horror outing, is a B-movie that flexes its kitschy muscles until they burst. The movie is rife with overtly adult moments. There’s a recreation of A Nightmare on Elm Street’s famous bathtub scene, with Jack Frost's carrot nose replacing Freddy Krueger's creepy claws. Later in the film, the carrot moves below the belt for cringe-worthy comedic effect. While the scene is more awful than anything in the family film, this kind of “humor” is standard fare in teen-oriented slasher flicks. To say the snowman shouldn’t be making innuendos with his carrot nose is to misunderstand the genre. It’s a straight-to-video, bawdy horror film - these things are par for the course.
The family film’s references are less overt, but that’s what makes them even more problematic. Immediately after returning to life as a snowman, Michael Keaton’s character bemoans the loss of his genitals. Later, he refers to his big “balls.” He's ostensibly talking about the three balls of snow he’s made from, but the joke isn’t lost on the grown-ups in the room. Why the filmmakers felt this film was the perfect place to insert a chilly reference remains a mystery, but this otherwise heartwarming tale would be better without it.
The magical powers of both Jack Frosts are as baffling as the core concept of each film. Both snowmen have a personal wrong to correct - something that twists their guts so much that even the grim reaper's grip can’t hold them. It should be enough that they’re alive at all, but each film bestows the snowmen with powers from beyond.
The horror film plays by the rules of the genre, allowing its chilling villain to utilize the snow to commit over-the-top slayings. However, the family film takes the wintry magic to even wilder extremes. While Keaton's Jack Frost isn’t driven to over-the-top aggression by his predicament, he does use his supernatural snowball-throwing abilities to pummel bullies from his son's school.
The horror film’s Jack Frost may go guillotine-style on a teen with a sled in broad daylight, but what do you expect from a man who previously slew more than 30 people and baked them into pies? He’s acting the only way he knows how. The family film’s Frost, once an absent yet caring father, sees no problem with smashing two bullies in between a giant snowball, or shoving a third child into a tree.