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In a horror film climate overrun by tired zombies and romantic vampires, it's comforting to see one of the younger generation of directors in the low budget realm actually trying something different. Frozen must fight for attention in a crowded market, where many a bigger production with name talent must be satisfied with a few festival appearances and a "limited" release in theaters. Adam Green's shot-on-film snowbound chiller premiered at Sundance, and has now hit Blu-ray and DVD.
Adam Green's filmography normally wouldn't draw my attention. Frozen attracted me because it attempts to build suspense and dread out of a believable situation. The three likeable leads in this disaster thriller "in miniature" do their best to cope with a nightmare sourced in a deadly error, compounded by their own bad judgment. The supernatural is not involved. Better yet, the movie has done without the ubiquitous cookie cutter maniac killer that shows up in every other new movie.
The story is similar to Open Water a 2003 thriller about a pair of scuba divers inadvertently abandoned at sea and facing death by drowning or shark attack. Frozen is a bit more accessible to the average viewer, who doesn't go deep-sea diving but might very well go on a ski lift some day. Buddies Joe Lynch and Dan Walker (Shawn Ashmore & Keven Zegers) are getting in some prime skiing time, with Dan's new friend Parker O'Neil (Emma Bell) along for the fun. When a ski lift employee who promised to sneak them onto the slopes for free doesn't show up, the boys goad Parker into charming a lift operator into giving them into free ride. With all of the paid skiers accounted for, the runs close for the night. That leaves the trio stranded a mile up the hill and 25 feet in the air, as subzero conditions close in. The lift-crashers are faced with a deadly equation.
As desperation and frostbite close in, Dan decides to risk jumping down to the snow below. To the young man's horror, his half-frozen legs break like matchsticks. And if that's not terrible enough, Dan's bleeding wounds attract wolves from the forest -- a hungry pack delighted to find the foraging odds weighted in their favor. Parker and Joe can watch helplessly as their companion is devoured alive -- or risk themselves by traversing the cable back to a support tower -- with nearly frozen hands.
The concept of Frozen is simplicity in itself. It places three uncomfortably identifiable young people smack up against a situation they can't ignore or talk their way out of. There's no cell phone reception up there in the howling night wind. Since the ski runs won't open again for a week, there's little chance that anybody will happen upon them. It's a slackers' holiday turned into a nightmare, as they slowly freeze in what in normal circumstances would be a winter wonderland. Every minute they wait makes them less fit to take direct, possibly suicidal action.
This story idea might seem too sketchy to fill out an entire show, which is where writer-director Green shows his stuff. Playing almost in real time, the show observes its three protagonists in low-key discussions of various topics. Parker is a skiing neophyte, a fact that Joe resents because it makes him the odd man out -- Dan will be spending the evening impressing his girlfriend and Joe will most likely have to ski alone. Their scam to steal a free lift ticket will resonate with many viewers. Being between the age of 18 and 24 means finding ways to beg, borrow or rip-off free access to transport, booze and entertainment. It's Sunday night, everybody's going home and there's just time for one more run before night falls. Who's to know?
If your youth was anything like mine, chances are that bad luck struck only when you're doing something you're not supposed to be doing. If you dare to take the car out against parental orders, that's when it will choose to have a flat tire with no spare. Our three kids on the ski lift clearly feel more anger than guilt, but those considerations fade when they have to face more basic choices. It's the chance to be a hero ... or a victim. As the hours go by, the chances of rescue grow less likely. They might as well be locked in a freezer.
The film stays doggedly realistic as we share the kids' frustration and panic. Hype is unnecessary. Dan lies on the hard ground below the dangling lift seat, wondering if the reason he hasn't passed out is because of the cold, or because he's in shock. One very beautiful, silvery wolf approaches with caution, sizing up the situation. He's cold too, and he can smell the warm blood. Scaring away one hungry wolf is possible, if you're determined. But the wolf just returns with the whole pack. Nothing an unarmed, wounded, immobile man can do will scare a pack of wolves.
The horror is so basic -- so logical and clean, actually -- that director Green can present a minimum of actual gore and still have us recoiling in our seats. One by one the "frozen" skiers are forced to extreme action in the hope of surviving. With her cheeks torn by frostbite, Parker does what she has to do, even as she sobs and shudders. Frozen builds beautifully on its scary premise.
At first glance the movie looks like an easy shoot, with just three actors on a ski lift, talking to each other while putting off making unpleasant decisions. In actuality, it takes a good director to sustain such a static situation for more than a few minutes. Adam Green's believable dialogue lets Joe and Parker bear their souls to each other without reaching into anything too maudlin or exaggerated. The film was made on location in actual cold conditions. A beautiful snowy dawn never looked so forbidding. Will Barrat's Super-35 camerawork is excellent.
All three actors are fine, with Emma Bell eliciting our sympathy and concern. Shawn Ashmore's Joe shifts from a cocky attitude, to panic and finally to angry determination. Kevin Zegers impresses as the nice-guy Dan, who acts as responsibly as he can under the impossible circumstances. Unlike many horror shows that play nihilistic games with life and death, there's nothing cynical about Frozen. It works its way to a satisfying, grim conclusion.
Anchor Bay's Blu-ray of Frozen looks great, with a sharp, bright HD image. The widescreen framing of the snowy exteriors makes for an unusual horror setting. The biggest shock in the wolf attacks are how beautiful the animals are ... before they rip you apart.
The production values are fine; the only thing that might add to the movie's impact is a screening in a COLD theater. Andy Garfield's music is effective. The audio is listed as Dolby TruHD 5.1, and a mono Spanish track is added as well. Subtitles are accessible in English and Spanish.
Anchor Bay has appointed Frozen with a number of extras. Adam Green appears on two separate commentaries, with his three actors on one and on another with his DP Garfield and Editor Ed Marx. An EPK-like documentary is broken into three featurettes appropriately titled Catching Frostbite, Three Below Zero and Beating the Mountain. The actors sometimes try too hard to sound like established pros. The filmmakers have plenty of things to say about shooting in snow ... which must be as rough as filming gets. Who can be creative when they're freezing their ears off?
The extras conclude with some deleted scenes (mostly not missed) and a trailer. Frozen is a recommended small-scale horror gem, a definite change of pace.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Frozen Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.