A lot of modern horror movies are born of the question: "What would happen if...?" Just replace those three dots with a perilous situation and you're ready to go, and if that situation is inventive then you're off to a good start. Then it's down to creating characters, giving them dialogue and getting them into danger, which too often is where it starts to go wrong. Modern genre writers appear to be all too willing to ride on the original concept and have the whole thing play out with the same old teen characters spurting dialogue that any half-decent writer could knock off in half-an-hour. Damn, just thinking about it make me feel sleepy.
There's certainly potential in the concept around which writer-director Adam Green's Frozen is constructed. Isolate three friends on a chair-lift at a ski resort that's just shut down for the week, one that's too high to jump from and too cold to survive in for more than a few hours. Neat, huh? Well, yes and no. There's good stuff here, but there's also... No, let's deal with the setup first.
College buddies Dan (Kevin Zegers) and Joe (Shawn Ashmore) have come to Mount Hollison for a weekend of skiing and snowboarding. It's clear that they've done this sort of thing before, but this time they've brought Dan's girlfriend Parker (newcomer Emma Bell), who's new to the sport and makes Joe feel like a spare wheel. She's also scared of heights. When we first meet the trio they're devising a plan to cop a free ride on the chair-lift by wooing its female operator. Unfortunately for them it appears to be her day off and her place has been taken by a large and not so easily wooed bloke. The boys thus send Parker over to slip him a bribe and end up paying a hundred dollars. How much? Surely it would have been cheaper to just buy the damned tickets?
Halfway up the mountain the lift shudders to a halt and I found myself empathising with Parker's alarm. I was once in a cable car that suddenly stopped and swung violently back and forth some distance from the ground and I nearly crapped myself with terror. This halt turns out to be a temporary glitch to alert the three to the fact that the lift intermittently stops and starts, primarily so that they won't immediately realise that something is really wrong when it happens again later. They reach the top safely and ski back down to generic rock music, then after settling in for the evening the boys get a hankering for just one more run, and Parker's not about to let them go up alone. By this time it's dark and the night's drawing in, but that doesn't stop the trio from taking their stupidity pills. Despite the late hour, they trot back to the chair-lift and plead with the operator, who tells them that the weather is drawing in and that they're presently trying to get people off of the mountain. Get that, guys? Weather drawing in. Off the mountain. But they're young and dumb and convince him anyway. As far as I was concerned, this is where all three qualified for a Darwin award.
They're not long gone when Lift Boy is called away, but he at least has the wit to inform his replacement that there are three still on the mountain. But wouldn't you know it, there's a small party of snowboarders already on their way down. Want to guess how many? New boy assumes that they must be the ones and shuts off the lift so he can go somewhere warm, unknowingly leaving our intrepid trio trapped on the chair-lift halfway up the mountain. No-one knows they're there and they can't phone for help because, the commentary assures us, skiers genuinely don't take their mobile phones skiing. Well that and the fact that absolutely no-one in modern horror is allowed to carry a working mobile when they go somewhere potentially dangerous like a ski slope at night. Their assumption that the stop is another temporary glitch is shattered when, in a brilliantly foreboding wide shot, the ski slope lights are sequentially shut off. Their initial and understandable panic momentarily eases when the ski lift operator drives up in his snow cat, but in what is probably the film's most do-me-a-favour sequence, he stops right beneath them and is promptly called back, deaf to their screams and managing to turn his head away every time something is thrown in his direction. The three are left in a very real predicament. They're too high to jump and climbing down the cables is just not an option because, we are assured, they are razor sharp. I'm having to take this on trust as the only steel cable I've ever had my hands on was actually rather blunt, and research suggests that ski cables are likewise designed. Sharp cables, you see, would soon either cut into or be blunted by the bullwheels they run on. Later the trio discover that they're also on the only chair-lift that's in danger of becoming detached and plunging to the ground below. Boy are these three unlucky.
As a desperate situation with no obvious way out and potentially fatal consequences, this has got a good deal going for it, and director Adam Green does well to stay exclusively with the stranded trio and not dilute their sense of hopeless isolation by cutting away to ground base. The only thing is, he has little up his sleeve for them to try other than the very two things that both they and we contemplate at the start of their predicament. This leaves a lot of screen time to fill up with talk, and here, for me, is where the film stalls. There's plenty to commend in the three lead performances, but as main characters go there's little to make Dan, Joe and Parker stand out from the generic crowd. And while the calm moments in which they chat and share stories are clearly designed to add depth to their characters and encourage sympathy with their plight, they're saddled with the sort of humdrum tales and sparkle-free dialogue that could really have benefited from a third-party re-write.
There are a few tense moments and a nicely yucky scene in which shattered leg bones are seen poking through clothing, and if you dislike the cold then I'd watch in a thick pullover, preferably in front of a roaring fire. The stakes are raised by the arrival of a pack of wolves who'll attack any time of the day or night and are even wily enough to hover beneath the chair lift when someone is on the move, clearly aware that a meal could soon drop into their lap. So where were these hungry and obviously intelligent hunters when meal after meal was skiing and stumbling past this very spot every weekend since who knows when? Since there are no safety warnings about possible wolf attack, we can presume that those who own and operate the ski slope aren't even aware of their existence. Ah, maybe that's what that briefly seen missing person poster was about. Hmm. There's a good use of close-ups and character distress (the concentration on facial expressions during a partially observed killing is particularly effective), but less than you might expect is made of their isolating height and their distance from the nearest support arm. I was also a little surprised to learn that severe frostbite results in skin turning stretchy.
Frozen certainly has its enthusiastic fans and I so wanted to be one of them, I really, really did. But as a viewer I just didn't make the grade. I like the central concept and if you can put yourself in the place of the hapless trio for even a moment then you should experience some serious shivers. But I couldn't get past the film's over-reliance on chance, on characters not developed enough to stand out from the genre norm, and a plot that pauses for long conversations that aim to be meaningful but play too much like filler. And despite the very real threat posed by the situation, I was never half as scared as I was for that couple stranded at sea in Open Water.
Oh it's nice to see a modern horror film that's been shot on 35mm. Framed 2.40:1 and anamorphically enhanced, this is a crisply detailed transfer that I'm sure looks even more splendid on Blu-ray. There's a slight pastel bias to the otherwise natural colours and the contrast copes impressively with the extremes at both ends, providing rock solid blacks without losing any obvious detail on the snow. Nice one.
The Dolby 5.1 surround track delivers the hoped-for pleasures, with the noises of the ski resort spread around the room, and once the three are on the chair-lift the weather envelops you, with the wind, hail and thunder vivid enough to have me reaching for my scarf. Clarity and precision at both ends of the range are well up to modern standards.
Cast and Director Commentary
Director Adam Green is joined by lead players Shawn Ashmore and Kevin Zegers, and about twenty minutes later Emma Bell, and their his intent is to focus on the performances, the direction and how the process of filming went for the actors. His desire not to repeat what you'll find in other extras is admirable if impossible to avoid, and he more than once references a second, more technically minded commentary that's only available on the Blu-ray release. This is still a damned good track, packed with recollections of the shoot, info on the actors' approach to their roles and the odd bit of technical coverage for those without the Blu-ray, and while clearly very happy with the finished product, Green is not afraid to be self-critical and never gets into an "I love this..." barrage. He touches on a missing scene that he hopes would better explain why the characters aren't carrying mobile phones, and expresses a contempt for films in which characters hold their phones skyward and complain there's no signal. The actors even chip in with an assurance that they never take their mobile with them when skiing for fear of breaking it. Funnily enough, one of the key reasons I own one is for potential emergencies, like falling down and breaking my leg on a ski slope. If I actually went skiing, of course. Good stuff, though, enough to make me wish I was a bigger fan of the film.
The following four features appear to have been constructed from the same set of interviews, behind-the-scenes footage and background music, and thus are very similar in style.
Catching Frostbite: The Origins of Frozen (10:33)
Director Adam Green (with his baseball hat on backwards – do people still do that?) and his associates talk about how the idea for the film came about and how it was developed, plus the process of finding the right spot on the slope for the chair-lift to stop.
Three Below Zero (10:25)
Adam Green talks about the cast and the characters and sings the actors' praises. Inevitably and appropriately the three leads chip in too. Some of this is also in the commentary.
Shooting Through It (10:51)
Director Adam Green, cinematographer Will Barratt and the splendidly named production designer Brian McBrien look at the Barratt and McBrien's contributions and the difficulties created by shooting on location. You do get a glimpse here of the suspended camera cage that Green talks about on the commentary.
Beating the Mountain: Surviving Frozen (50:45)
A making-of documentary constructed from interviews and behind-the-scenes material that plays like a longer version of the above featurettes, with the same angles on interviews but a lot more location footage and a welcome look at the filmmaking process and Green and his colleagues at work. There's plenty of coverage of working with the wolves and the shooting of a death scene that was not shown in the film. We are also introduced to hyperactive assistant director Dean Schneiderman, whom the crew remember fondly for his ability to entertain but whose loud gooning round made me want to dish out a slap. Green's heartfelt final speech to his crew is likely to give cynical stomachs a bit of a twitch.
Deleted Scenes (6:23)
Includes another bit of unexciting character storytelling, a gorier cut of a key death scene, and the sequence referred to by Green in the commentary that's supposed to better explain why Parker's mobile phone is left in her locker. It doesn't.
A slickly cut piece with a few too many giveaways to safely watch before the main feature.
Well I've made my case and a second viewing has failed to prompt a rethink on my part, but I'd still encourage the curious to give it a look. The genre obsessive may lap up the best bits and be indifferent to the elements that gave me the most problem, while the more casual viewer could well benefit from an unfamiliarity with the stock elements and telegraphed twists. A very good DVD from Momentum, but if you have all the gear then the Blu-ray looks the better bet, having a 1080p transfer (director Green suggests that the rain that dogged one shoot but is invisible on the DVD will be clear on the Blu-ray) and additional extras, including a second commentary.