Frozen (2009)

Frozen DVD Cover AC Essentials logo
Directed by: Adam Green
Released by: Anchor Bay Entertainment
Review By: Matthew Dean Hill
Recommended DVD Source: Available Everywhere
Technical: Color; 2.40:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, 16x9 enhanced; English; Dolby 5.1 Surround; Running Time 93 minutes; MPAA Rating "R" for "Some Disturbing Images and Language"; Region 1 NTSC; One Disc

After recently reviewing Adam Green's over the top Hatchet II, it occurred to me to me that I hadn't gotten around to reviewing Green's Frozen. Released in the interim between the Hatchet films, Frozen was Green's attempt to show his critics, fans, and detractors alike that he was more thank a one-trick-pony, capable only of churning out goofy hack 'n' slash material. The good news is that Green was mostly successful in this regard. Frozen is so vastly different from the Hatchet films in every conceivable way, the only real giveaway that it's the same filmmaker is the sly and often sick wit at play here. While he hasn't quite reached the lofty heights to which he so clearly aspires, he's definitely a filmmaker in a state of continuous growth. Frozen is definitive evidence of this, and while it's not perfect by any means, it's a scary, tense, effective little thriller in the post-Hitchock mold. Besides, it's got the stunning Emma Bell in it. Can't be bad. Note: As you know, it's generally my habit to include several screenshots from each DVD that I'm reviewing. In the case of Frozen, it's particularly difficult to include too many screenshots in a way that avoids truly heavy spoilers. So, forgive the relatively scant graphics this time around.

The synopsis...
After suckering a ski lift operator at a ski resort to illicitly gain access to the slopes, attractive and considerably less-annoying-than-normal horror movie twenty-somethings Parker O'Neil (Emma Bell) her boyfriend Dan Walker (Kevin Zegers), and his best friend Joe Lynch (Shawn Ashmore) are having a grand old time skiing and snowboarding. Naturally, they decide to get in "one more run" before the slopes close up for the night. Due to a slightly more believable than average series of events, our trio find themselves stranded alone on the lift, halfway up the mountain, and quite high off the ground. Then, the ski trail lights go out, and everyone in the resort packs up and goes home, in front of a storm that's due to hit soon. Soon, it becomes clear to our protagonists that they are, in fact, completely alone, and that they have found themselves in a very, very bad situation, as the resort isn't scheduled to reopen until the following Friday. The rest of the film plays out over the course of the next 48 hours, approximately. Our heroes will have their wits, their loyalties, and their will to survive (collective and individual) tested to harrowing extremes.

Frozen Screenshot I'd like to be nice and sparkling clear about a couple of things on the outset of this review. First of all, Frozen is, despite what it might seem to be on the surface, a monster movie. Yes, there are no lumbering behemoths, freaky aliens, or similar beasties (other than some admittedly dangerous but entirely secondary-to-the-plot wolves), but it's a monster movie nonetheless. The monster here is, of course, the cold. Within moments of firmly setting up the situation, Adam Green firmly establishes the cold as the evil, merciless stalker of his film, which is only appropriate to a movie called Frozen, I suppose. I'd also like to point out that the success of a film like this is setting up the characters as, essentially, blameless and almost entirely sympathetic. If anyone is to blame, it's all of them collectively, but really, fate is the real deus ex machina at work here; the culmination of several factors, upon which only a scant few the protagonists have any marked influence. Swiftly and irrevocably, it just happens, leaving the three to run the full spectrum of reactions. Jokey disbelief gives way to denial, which collapses under realization, followed by blame and helplessness. When panic sets in (and it does), it's tempered by the righteous indifference of the ever-present cold, which permeates every frame like a particularly malicious ghost. Hence, the monster at here is every bit as effective as the more tangible and immediately-perceivable threats such as a serial killer, a vampire, a werewolf, or a Zombie. It's actually braver, in a way, for a filmmaker like Adam Green to bank so fearlessly on this particular monster; after all, it's pretty hard to make a collectible action figure based on the cold, isn't it? So, a believable and generally quite likeable set of characters in a horrific but generally believable set of circumstances, being stalked by one of natures most crazed "killers". That's a set-up worthy of the best horror thrillers of all time.

Of course, serious "man against nature" horror movies are nothing new. I'd even go so far as to call it a "rich history"; from Jaws to The Birds to The Long Weekend, just to name a few, the tropes and core elements are well-established, and in the right hands, can make for an achingly effective horror movie. Frozen follows that tradition, and while only time will tell whether it will ultimately occupy the same cinematic space as Jaws, for example, there can be no doubt that this is as scary, unnerving, and well-made a horror film as one could wish. Its closest cinematic brethren might be Open Water, but where that film spent attempted a quasi-vérité approach (at which it cheated considerably), and had less-than-sympathetic characters, Frozen takes a purely cinematic approach to depicting its events, and has characters that the viewer at least vaguely cares about.

Frozen One would be hard-pressed to find a movie of this type with characters so well-drawn. These are not cookie-cutter young folks. The dynamic between the boyfriend, the best friend, and the girlfriend is really quite effective; while the "you're the third wheel, no you're the third wheel" bickering is present, it's minimal and used strictly to enhance character and, ultimately, to elicit sympathy. These are pretty realistic folks. In particular, I totally "buy" Ashmore and Zegers as lifelong best buddies. The clever scripting and reasonably subtle acting make it clear that these two dudes genuinely care for one another. Not in a homo way, of course (not that there's anything wrong with that). Likewise, there wasn't a moment where I didn't utterly accept Emma Bell's "Parker" as the girlfriend. She's sweet, cute, and funny, but she's also not afraid to speak her mind and toss up weighty snark to rival the boys (particularly early on, when the best friend vs. girlfriend dynamic is being established). When all is said and done, I bought it. I cared (at least) enough about these folks to be genuinely concerned for their well-being and safety, and even their sanity. This is no faint praise, in a genre where characters are, more often than not, thrown up on screen, painted in broad strokes, and introduced primarily as proverbial cannon fodder. Zegers, Ashmore, and Bell are to be hugely commended for bringing their characters to life. Emma Bell, in particular, makes a magnificent debut here. She fills the screen with nuance, vulnerability, and when it counts, incredible determination and strength of will. And she sells every single frame. It would be really easy to dismiss her and this performance as just another shrieking, snuffling damsel in distress, but that's really undercutting her beautiful work in Frozen. There was never a moment when I didn't completely accept who her character was - what she was about. And no, I'm not just saying that because she's ridiculously beautiful. Keep an eye on this one, folks. Since Frozen, of course, she's gone on to play a pretty pivotal role in season one of The Walking Dead, and I'm hoping that she'll see even more genre work. She could very well be the best and most important female actress to hit the genre landscape since Jamie Lee Curtis. Mark my words.

Adam Green's script, aside from being a huge departure from his work before and since in the Hatchet films, shows a writer of actual maturity and depth. Yes, he knows how to write (and then film) scenes of outright terror (both over the top and more subtle), but he also illustrates genuine depth with the quieter scenes. As there are quite a few scenes in Frozen where the characters are given room to just talk (in an effort to pass time, and to distract themselves from the utter pain and terror they're experiencing), there is ample opportunity to fuck it all up by one bad line - one disingenuous turn of phrase. Since we really hear what's being said by these folks, it's crucial that what they're saying is both interesting and somehow important. What's most surprising here is how sweetly moving a lot of the dialogue is. These are not bad kids, they're simply in a bad situation. They have lives and desires, families, jobs, and all the other stuff that makes them human. In one particular stand-out scene, Parker describes how scared her puppy must be back home without her; how it's probably cocking its head at every noise and wondering when Parker is coming home. It's a terribly moving, and completely genuine scene, and Adam Green knows that its inclusion, and the inclusion of scenes like it, is immensely important to "sell" the situation. Excellent work, Adam. All butt-kissing aside, it really is a remarkable of the better genre scripts in a long time, actually. If you're looking for a pretty well textbook example of how to craft a swift, economical, and highly effective horror screenplay, then you could do much, much worse than Frozen.

OK, since I've just got to put something negative in here, let me talk about the one aspect of Frozen that just falls totally flat. This movie clearly takes place in the present day (though it doesn't have to take place at any particular time, out of pure necessity). That said, each of these folks would be reasonably expected to have at least one moderately-powered, functioning mobile device on their immediate person, especially given that they are involved in an inherently risky activity to begin with (even under absolutely ideal circumstances, snow skiing can be quite dangerous, and the risk of injury, even a small injury, is constant and very real). But no. Not one cell phone, Android, iPhone, or other device among them. And it's pretty well established that Dan (at least) is a rich kid. But, if left alone, it wouldn't have been a big deal. Then, Adam Green goes and does something inexplicable. I'm talking about the small moment where John says something to the effect of, "If only I hadn't left my cell phone in the locker." Really? Come on, Green. If you had just left that line out completely, then it might still have been a plot hole, but it wouldn't have been a plot hole that we've been explicitly instructed by the filmmaker to notice. It doesn't ruin the movie at all, but it's a glaring plot hole that kinda takes the viewer out of the moment, and that sucks a little bit, given that the rest of the movie works so hard a building believability and consistency. Small thing perhaps, but hey, it bothered me.

Frozen Screenshot I just wouldn't be able to sleep if I didn't make some passing remarks, at the very least, about the cinematography and score. These are two elements of the film that are a significant boon to Frozen, and elevate it from "midnight movie" status to the loftiness of "film". Andy Garfield's subtle, sublime score perfectly underscores every moment of Frozen, from the nerve-jangling suspense and action sequences, to the low-key, emotionally-driven scenes. I'd go so far as to say that, with any other score, Frozen might not have been quite as effective. It's classy, effective work. Likewise, the gorgeous and expansive cinematography by Will Barratt is, well, gorgeous and expansive when it needs to be (to highlight the total isolation of our protagonists, for example), and oddly claustrophobic when the scene requires it (the more personal scenes on the lift). Again, this is high-class work for a film of this magnitude. Adam Green really assembled a great team for this outing, and it paid off handsomely.

One last thing: if you are afraid of heights, or ski lifts, perhaps it goes without saying that this film will do you absolutely no favors. That inertial feeling when swooning at great heights is fairly palpable in key sequences, so keep your vomit receptacles nice and handy. Also, while the film is not over-the-top gory like Hatchet or Hatchet 2, it's pretty fucking nasty when it needs to be, including one of the most vivid compound fractures I've ever seen in a motion picture. Awesome.

The DVD:
Anchor Bay Entertainment has been, quite frankly, a bit hit or miss of late with their genre releases. Once the unrivaled king of horror and exploitations DVD releases (in terms of both the quantity of titles they acquired and the overall quality of their presentations), they've been a little too focused on retreads and painful re-re-re-releases of genre staples like The Evil Dead films. They seemed to snap out of their funk for Frozen. It's is a film worthy of an excellent release, and luckily, that's what Anchor Bay has given us. The somewhat uncommon 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is stunning, and even in heavily snow-saturated scenes, the detail really shines through. The blacks are solid, the whites are appropriately chilling, and the (comparatively scant) blood reds are suitably vivid. Likewise, the 5.1 surround track is beautifully presented. The howling and ever-present winds, the distant (and not-so-distant) howling of wolves, and the echoing of screams pack an audible punch, as would be appropriate. The wonderful score pops through the mix to just the right degree, as well. Someone really did their homework on this one. The supplementary features, too, are quite nice, again befitting the overall quality of the film itself. We've got a lovely commentary with Adam Green and actors Ashmore, Zegers, and Bell, which is appropriately funny, warm, and highly informative (like all of Green's commentaries...what can I say? The guy gives good commentary). Also included are some interesting featurettes, covering the story origins, behind-the-scenes, and general "making-of" aspects of the film, plus some cool but ultimately unnecessary deleted scenes (that's why they were deleted, folks). It really is a nice presentation of an incredibly solid film. Here in a couple of weeks, I'm going to be meeting Emma Bell at the Monster Mania convention in New Jersey...I'll be sure to try to get some direct ruminations from her about her wonderful first role in this excellent piece of work. Highest possible recommendation.

- March 1, 2011

The Atrocities Cinema Scoreboard

(ranks out of five)

Five Skulls

Five Skulls

Five Skulls