Even with the picture's diamond dramatic pedigree, "Wind Chill" is still a horror film at the heart of it all. Trouble is, it's not an assertive, smothering experience many audiences are used to, dare I say asking for these days. It's a chilling (in more ways than one) ghost story propelled on that rarest of fuel: suspense.
Looking for a lift home during the holidays, a young college student (Emily Blunt, "The Devil Wears Prada") meets up with a quirky guy (Aston Holmes, "Peaceful Warrior") for a "ride share" through the snowy countryside. The two do not get along, but once a shortcut results in an accident in the middle of nowhere, the duo struggle together to survive the night. Between their anger, the bitter winter snap, and menace from a phantom highway patrol officer (Martin Donovan), this innocent detour could be their last.
Executive produced by George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh, "Wind Chill" isn't some tacky, cardboard horror diversion. Written by Joe Gangemi and Steven Katz, the film nearly plays as a simple stage presentation, with heavy emphasis on streams of dialogue and tightly contained conflict. It's a verbose film intended to bring the audience into the film through the characters, not the artificial promise of bloody mayhem.
Director Gregory Jacobs ("Criminal") is very successful at setting up the tension. Using frosty, snowbound locations and long stretches of white road, the filmmaker gooses the ominous nature of the car ride outstandingly. Certain lies are revealed during the travel period, also used to keep the suspense in the air. Is the girl (character names are never revealed) in danger? Is the boy a threat or just a lovestruck imbecile with very bad luck? I was with "Wind Chill" when it kept to this air of uncertainty, adoring the arm's length sense of play Jacobs depicts well.
Once the action hits the post-accident section of the script, Jacobs strains to keep the film on track. "Wind Chill" degrades into a ghost story, looking to bend the tension toward something John Carpenter might've toyed with in 1981. It's has the walking dead, angry poltergeists, and enough vague concepts of payoff to fill a football stadium.
If "Wind Chill" ever reached a focal point, I wasn't aware of it. There are some unsettling moments of fright contained within the picture as the girl (the characters are unnamed) deals with the psychological torment inside a car for the long, cold night. Mother Nature also provides a kick in the pants every time someone steps outside. The terrors of snow and ice are such fascinating concepts - the drain of life that is both slow and unstoppable - it almost seems disrespectful to cram in spirits and other "Twilight Zone" appetizers just to shape the film into something familiar and marketable.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen (2.40:1 aspect ratio), "Wind Chill" falls apart whenever it encounters darker, mysterious sequences. Unfortunately, that's most of the film. Suffering from an unpleasant smeary quality, the visual punch of the DVD doesn't quite come through as vigorously as it should for this type of cinema.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital mix serves the movie's spooky intention far more accurately than the transfer, employing the extensive sound effects and music cues to wonderful results. "Wind Chill" is an experience defined by its soundscape, and this track does the film considerable justice.
A feature-length audio commentary by director Gregory Jacobs and writers Steven Katz and Joseph Gangemi is the main supplement on the DVD. Jacobs is a little distant and unprepared, and his voice sounds just like a scratching post for kittens (it can be hard to listen to), leaving the bulk of production info to come from the two writers.
While energetic, there's only so much one can say about a picture that takes place entirely in a car, so I give the participants points for at least trying to reveal some secrets of filming. Discussion of the extensive refrigerated set, odd references to Shannyn Sossamon (the writers' choice for the female lead - thank heavens they were outvoted on that one), and a recap of the script's genesis are some highlights.
"A Frozen Set: The Making of 'Wind Chill'" (20 minutes) is a behind-the-scenes look at how this mild chiller was created. Benefiting from a little more set footage and talent participation than the average promotional puff piece, the documentary is a swell overview of the challenges Jacobs and his crew faced as they attempted to create a ghost story from a tiny setting. This short peek behind the curtain is actually far more informative than the commentary.
Finally, trailers for "Resident Evil: Extinction," "Hostel: Part II," "Rise: Blood Hunter," "30 Days of Night," "Blood and Chocolate," "Perfect Stranger," "Paprika," "Angel-A," "Vacancy," and plugs for Sony's Blu-Ray catalog and something unspeakably goofy called "Fearnet.com" are included.
The villain of "Wind Chill," not to mention the entire concept of the final act, slips away from Jacob's good sense. Even with a ridiculous explanation thrown in at the end of the picture to salvage the threat, I just wasn't interested. "Wind Chill" becomes earthbound when it pinpoints the danger. Leaving it inside the mind, or challenging the limitations of the human body, is far more interesting. Still, "Wind Chill" deserves a merit badge for even trying to tell a horror story without resorting to tired and clumsy shock value. The picture's puzzle might not piece together properly, but the effort is appreciated.
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