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Recommendation Machine: ‘Elves’ Is Netflix’s Twisted Start to the Christmas Season

This slight but nasty bit of Danish fantasy horror is a decent starting point for some holiday counterprogramming.

Elves.  (L-R)  Peder Thomas Pedersen as Mads, Sonja Steen as Josefine, Lila Nobel as Charlotte in Elves.  Cr. Henrik Ohsten/Netflix © 2021

“Elves”

Henrik Ohsten/Netflix

Welcome to Recommendation Machine, your daily IndieWire destination for TV suggestions of what to watch. Each weekday, we’ll offer up a series we think should be on your viewing radar. Though most of the shows included here are recent offerings from networks and streaming services, this will also be a place to take a look at different chapters in TV history readily available for anyone looking to immerse themselves in an ever-expanding medium.

As everyone with even a passing connection to TV will have happily told you for the better part of the last decade, there are too many shows. They’ll use words like cornucopia or plethora or deluge or glut. Bottom line: There are plenty of options for things to queue up next. So, while we’ll try to provide as many of those as we can from streaming’s heavy hitters like Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Max, there will also be plenty of chances to highlight the best shows on lesser-known services —  hidden gems to try out during one of those free trials you haven’t used up yet. International shows, docuseries, some projects that, at first glance, might not even seem like TV: They’re all up for grabs. 

In every installment, we’ll not only make a case for the show itself, but pick out some particular elements that make the whole thing worth a try. And for those who may have already taken the plunge on that day’s pick, we’ll also try to throw in some next-step ideas for something similar. Along the way, we may even toss in some suggestions for an album or a book or a movie. There’s no telling what the Recommendation Machine might manage to turn out next!

All past Recommendation Machine installments will be carefully housed here, for your bookmark and perusal needs. For now, here’s our choice for today’s show that’s very much worth your TV-watching energy:

“Elves”

Where to Watch “Elves”: Netflix

There’s probably never a world where “Elves” wasn’t going to use a moody cover of a Christmas song over its opening credits. Sure enough, within a few minutes of the show starting, there’s a version of “Carol of the Bells” that’s even more ominous than its natural, Hallmark Channel resting state.

Embedded within the idea of calling a show “Elves” (or, its original Danish title “Nisser”) is a sly smile. “You thought you were clicking on a cute holiday rom-com with a Disney Channel alum,” it’s saying to any Netflix user giving the show a spin. If those credits didn’t clinch the idea that this is decidedly not the case, the ritualistic sacrifice of a cow that comes right before it is a big hint.

Instead, “Elves” follows the not-so-cozy holiday of a family looking for a Christmas getaway on the fictional island of Aarmandsø, off the Danish mainland. (They commit the cardinal horror story sin of opting to spend extended amounts of time in a place that, by their own admission, they haven’t heard all that much about.) On the drive to their not-quite-as-advertised cabin (which, incidentally, doesn’t look all that different from the site of some brutal deaths in another recent Danish Netflix series), the family car runs over what dad Mads (Peder Thomas Pedersen) assumes is a pothole. Only the daughter Josefine (Sonja Steen) suspects that the dark sludge on the front bumper might be a sign that they may have hurt something.

Sure enough, back in the barn at their temporary island hideaway, Jose stumbles on something rustling. Caring for it with a strip of bacon rather than some Reese’s Pieces, it isn’t long before her secret leads to some big problems for everyone on the island.

“Elves” isn’t without a tad bit of “Gremlins” vibes, too. It’s just that, in this version, someone’s been pumping a steady firehose of water onto the heads of the local wildlife for a while now. Given that the title is listed as a multiple, and that what Jose finds in the barn isn’t exactly a stray capybara, it’s not much of a spoiler to say that the family’s little bit of vehicular misadventure is not looked on kindly by inhabitants of the wood.

One of the other sly inversions in “Elves” is that this isn’t an easy, simple locals vs. outsiders dynamic at play (even though, yes, there is one obvious exchange of crushes at the center). Local matriarch Karen (Ann Eleonora Jørgensen) becomes a foreboding presence, but her instincts aren’t completely off. And this isn’t a story where good intentions are enough to stave off some consequences for the human side of this man vs. nature ledger.

There are certainly points when “Elves” teases a kind of show that it doesn’t ultimately deliver. The island’s inhabitants don’t take kindly to tourists — one particular community meeting has shades of another story about visitors who got far more from an extended Scandinavian stay than they bargained for. One “Elves” episode definitely gives the impression that we’re destined for a “Jurassic Park”-level eruption. There are slasher, zombie, and general B-movie sprinklings throughout the six episodes, but the show manages to stay on the road that passes right through the eye all of those.

That, coupled with the fact that the combined runtime is just north of a standard feature, it’s hard not to see this as more of the holiday counterprogramming nature of the show. But it definitely works on that level, even if it may be a little wispy at points. There’s even a kind of “no good deed goes unpunished” underpinning to the whole thing, too. If you’re looking for a new Christmas-adjacent bit of entertainment that’s not quite merry and bright, this is a decent place to start.

Missed any other outputs from Recommendation Machine? You can read every past version here

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