Tuesday, November 15, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Frozen (2010)

It's an understatement to declare that I didn't care much for director Adam Green's first feature, Hatchet (2007).  In fact, I called it a "hack job." 

In short, I felt Hatchet was a poorly-executed skit involving the slasher film paradigm, a one-dimensional, tongue-in-cheek exercise that never managed to establish, even minimally, a legitimate sense of place despite being set in a picturesque Louisiana bayou.  The film never offered a compelling or believable reality and instead seemed like an overlong and obvious joke.

But today, I'm singing a (happy) new tune regarding Adam Green's work because I just screened his extraordinary 2010 horror film, Frozen.

Unlike Hatchet, Frozen settles down immediately in a well-drawn locale, and Green here reveals  a fine eye for detail, nuance, and character.  In the first fifteen minutes alone, the director imbues his film with an authentic sense of anticipation and dread.

More than that, this inventive horror movie doesn't attempt to be cute or precious by directing audience attention to familiar genre conventions.  Instead,  Frozen dramatically eschews all such post-modern trappings and depicts a simple, harrowing narrative of survival in a fashion that -- as the title indicates --makes your blood run cold. 

In Frozen, three college students, Joe Lynch (Shawn Ashmore), Dan (Kevin Zegers) and Dan's girlfriend, Parker (Emma Bell) take a weekend ski trip to Mount Holliston.  Then, as the sun sets, they decide to make one last night-time run on the slopes. 

Because of a simple misunderstanding and shift change, however, the employees at the lodge shut off the ski-lift while the threesome is in mid-passage to the distant summit.  The machine grinds to a halt, and the three students become trapped on the lift. 

At first, Lynch, Dan and Parker try to dismiss the gravity of their situation high above the mountain, in hopes that they will soon be discovered and rescued.  Before long, however, the college students realize that it is Sunday evening, and that the park doesn't open again for five days...until Friday. 

Worse, a storm is coming.  If they don't find a way down from the immobile air-lift (where they sit side-by-side like sardines), they are certain to freeze to death.

What follows this grim realization is roughly forty five minutes of pure, gut-wrenching terror as one attempt after another to reach safety goes horribly, wretchedly awry.  Challenges and dangers lurk everywhere.  On the ground, for instance, hungry wolves soon begin to gather.  And high-up, ensconced on the lift, Parker develops a bad case of frost bite. 

Dan suggests jumping to the ground far below, but that avenue carries significant risk of grievous bodily harm...

Soon, Frozen's protagonists make fateful decisions in an attempt to stay alive, and survive the increasingly unfriendly elements.

So forget the colorfully-named Three on a Meathook (1973), this is Three on a Ski-Lift

While watching  Frozen, I was pleasantly reminded of Open Water (2004), another take-no-prisoners horror film about unlucky people attempting to survive in an inhospitable location, in that instance the deep blue sea.  

Both films represent the brand of horror film I really and truly admire the most: those which deal explicitly with the cruel application of random fate.  As if to suggest the wheels of fate or destiny forever spinning, Green commences his film with close-up views of the ski lift's whirring, over sized gears.  These gears work efficiently and endlessly,  but also without consideration for human concerns, these compositions appear to assert. Much like Mother Nature herself.

To put this bluntly, Frozen revolves around the big, unanswered questions of our human existence (and the reason why so many people seek the comfort of religion):  why do terrible things happen to us , or to the people we love?  How can a seemingly perfect day turn on a dime and become a horrible nightmare?  What does it all mean?

Likewise, in Frozen, the three intelligent and likable protagonists could not --- at the beginning of the day -- have possibly imagined where they would be at the end of the same day.  They embark on a rather terrible "wrong turn" and must suddenly reckon with their very mortality.  Their previous concerns, which include Joe acquiring and remembering a girl's telephone number, suddenly seem incredibly trivial.  This is a reminder that we take our lives pretty much for granted every single day.  We go about our tasks and our hobbies without real regard for the fact that, out of the blue, it could end.  The shadow of death is upon us, whether we see and recognize it or not.

As Dan, Lynch and Parker grapple with their rapidly worsening situation on the ski lift, drastic measures eventually become necessary, and it's fascinating -- and terrifying -- to watch as they broach such life-and- death decisions.  For me, this aspect of Frozen represents the very beating heart of the great horror movie aesthetic.  When you separate the genre from its mitigating and ameloriating fantasy elements like vampires, monsters or aliens, this is precisely the equation you're left with: a palpable recognition and fear of impending death. 

The battle for survival is all, and intractable, uncaring nature itself is the enemy.  All along, watching a film such as Frozen, the audience meaningfully ponders the idea "there but for the grace of God go I..." because any one of us, could, reasonably speaking, end up in a similarly dangerous situation, forced to make painful choices. 

Who is going to live and who is going to die?  Is there a pecking order in terms of survival?  Who should be the one to jump from the chair? 

Even, how am I going to take a piss up here?

One of Frozen's best and most moving moments involve a character's final act as he is set upon by a pack of very angry-looking wolves.  Without a word, this character pulls his hat down over his eyes so he can't see what's coming, and the simple gesture feels very, very real.  There's little else to do in that moment, but to look away from the inevitable.  Frozen is unblinking about death, but the film's human protagonists, appropriately, are not.  Again, this gesture is pretty darn metaphorical: we all pull the hat down over our eyes in regards to the fact that we don't really control nature.  Or the fact that one day, for each of us, this ride towards an unknown summit is going to come to an end.

So make no mistake, in reckoning with all of  this existentialist angst, Frozen is unrelentingly grim. 

The characters in the film inevitably debate the worst way to die, and then even discuss the traumatic horrors of 9/11. 

By film's end, the same characters are contemplating the fact that their pets could very well starve to death if they don't get down from the lift.  It's not exactly a mood lifter.

The cast in Frozen is pretty terrific, but Shawn Ashmore as Lynch is the stand-out.  Early on, we can see that Lynch feels guilty as the "odd man out" when the threesome must decide who should jump from the lift.  He doesn't want to be the one to jump, but it's clear to him that he should, morally, be the one to do it, since he is not part of the "couple."  This doesn't mean he does the right thing.

Later, Lynch deals with recriminations over his actions (and lack of action) and recounts some humanizing stories about the lost opportunities in his life.  Rarely, if ever, do these revelations feel like the machinations of a writer, but rather like real life human expressions of regret as the end, inevitably, nears.  Green utilizes a lot of close-ups to tell his tale which is an appropriate tactic for fostering empathy.  We're clearly meant to sympathize with these protagonists, and  Lynch, Dan and Parker are not extraordinary in any particular way.  They aren't heroes and they aren't assholes who "have it coming."  Instead, they are just like you and me: people who are living their lives, not really thinking about matters such as life and death. 

As you probably know by now, I often very much enjoy films that accomplish a lot with only a few resources.  The low budget Frozen is basically a three person show occurring in just one setting.  But it's never dull, the ending is never pre-ordained, and Green masterfully sustains tension throughout the full hour-and-a-half running time.  This is no small challenge, but Green, in vetting his story well, reminds the viewer how all our lives hang by a thread (or a metal cable, perhaps).  Sometimes, we don't realize that fact until it's too late.

A note to the squeamish: Frozen is pretty gory.  There are only three primary characters, and one scene of intense gore proved so disgusting and upsetting that my (patient) wife actually leapt up from the sofa and refused to sit back down.  I had to freeze the movie and literally talk her back down. I had to convince her to watch the rest of the movie with me...and -- believe me -- it wasn't easy.   My wife's reaction was absolutely appropriate, of course.  Something so awful happens to a truly likable character here that you'll be tempted to tune out and say "enough's enough."

But of course, the chareacters in the drama don't have that out, do they?  Instead, they have a front row seat to a friend's horrible and violent death, with no opportunity to protest the absolute unfairness of the situation.   In exploring that situation -- that human truth about our mortality -- Frozen proves damned serious business.

After the film, my wife and I debated it rather heatedly.  She said Frozen was depressing because it was just about watching nice people suffer and die.  I countered that I never find a well-done horror movie about the human condition depressing, because at least it's about something important: how we face existence and its inevitable end.  The films that I find depressing are the ones that don't mean anything at all; that just waste my time (like Hatchet). 

Frozen definitely won't waste your time.  It won't exactly make you happy, but it won't waste your time, either.

7 comments:

  1. I was very pleasantly surprised with this one, John. I was moved by the situation and characters, too. Glad you had a chance to screen it. Thanks.

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  2. Hey JKM;

    Man, I agree and then some. "Hatchet" was a film that made me physically angry as I watched it - largely because I'd been looking forward to it because of good reviews. I mean, I really hated this movie - it seemed contemptuous of both its subject and its audience. Grr! I'm still mad!

    On the other hand, "Frozen" had me on the edge of my seat throughout. These were sympathetic characters who do smart things that are only dumb things in retrospect - okay, they probably shouldn't have bribed that lift operator in the first place, that was dumb from the get-go. But after that their decisions are sound if occasionally fatal.

    BTW, "The Reef" was WAY better than "open water".

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  3. Hello Le0pard13 and DLR:

    Le0pard13: I'm glad you've seen Frozen. What a great horror movie; very well done-- I agree!

    DLR: We're in complete agreement on both Hatchet and Frozen. Hatchet seemed to collapse and implode before my very eyes, and -- contrarily -- I've thought about Frozen several times since the day I watched it. Two very different films from the same director.

    I have not seen The Reef. Is it any good?

    best,
    John

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  4. Jane Considine12:22 PM

    I've heard good things about this film, I'll have to see it now. I watched "Undocumented" recently, which I did not like. Too many contrived "shocks".

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  5. Hi Jane!

    Frozen is a good film indeed (as great as Hatchet is terrible...), and I think you would appreciate it. I haven't seen Undocumented, and don't know a thing about it, but it doesn't sound good...

    Great comment!

    best,
    John

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  6. Just watched this on Netflix instant before reading your review, and as usual you're spot on. For more "chilling" horror I'd recommend "Cold Prey" and "Dead Snow".

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  7. Hi JKM;

    Yes, "The Reef" is excellent, one of my faves from this year's DLR Halloween horror-thon. Same basic premise as "Open Water" except: 1. Likable, sympathetic characters; 2. More of them (hence, more kills); 3. Actual visible shark during attacks (well-realized, too); 4. Genuine suspense (there is an actual chance of survival). The same director did a similar-themed crocodile movie "Black Water" that was also very good (though overshadowed by the terrific if less realistic "Rogue"). I love "animal attack" movies anyway, but most are terrible. BTW, let me also recommend "Burning Bright", a tiger-centered thriller that edged "Frozen" out as my favorite of last year's DLR Halloween Horror-thon.

    Enjoy!

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