Frozen
Starz / Anchor Bay // R // $34.98 // September 28, 2010
Review by Adam Tyner | posted September 14, 2010
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
E - M A I L
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R E V I E W S
Graphical Version
Claustrophobia. Strip
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the genre down to bare metal, and that's what horror is to me. There is no escape. There is no hope of being rescued. It's knowing that certain death is inches away, nothing you do will make any difference, and all you can do is cower...stifle your sobbing...before succumbing to the inevitable. You will die before the night's out...it's just a matter of when. I'm all for buckets of splatter and jump scares, sure, but the moments in horror movies that stay with me are the most unnervingly suspenseful ones. The best genre films deliver maybe two or three scenes like that; Frozen sustains it for more than an hour.

It all starts off as kind of a third wheel situation. Every year like clockwork, lifelong pals Lynch (Shawn Ashmore) and Dan (Kevin Zegers) hit the slopes. This time, though, Dan's girlfriend Parker (Emma Bell) is tagging along for the ride. She and Lynch really don't get along so much, and since Parker is only just figuring out how to snowboard, the three of 'em are stuck on the bunny hill all day. Oh well. It's not the trip anyone wanted, but at least they're saving a few bucks on lift tickets. Rather than shell out for a few overpriced tickets at the counter, Parker's prodded into bribing the guy working the lift to let 'em on. Lynch really wants to go for one last run before taking off. The resort's crew is starting to batten down the hatches with some nasty weather on the horizon, but after some badgering and pleading, sure. One more run. Make it quick. Halfway up, their rickety chair lift stops. Frustrating, sure, but this isn't even a little bit unusual. It'll come back on in a minute, right? Time passes. Things start to get a little more tense. C'mon, with as high as insurance rates are, a ski resort's not going to just let a few tourists freeze to death four stories up, are they? Just wait it out. We'll all be cracking up about this at Starbucks tomorrow morning. ...and then, one by one, the lights go out. The three of them are stranded in a chair lift fifty feet up. No one knows they're there. No one can hear them. There's no one to call. The resort's doors are closed for the next five days, and hail and snow soon start to pour from the sky. They'll be dead before anyone else steps foot on the mountain. Frostbite is inevitable. A fifty foot fall is going to maim anyone deranged enough to jump. The cables holding the lift in place are razor-sharp, so there's no shimmying across without shredding your hands into hamburger. Oh, and that howling you hear off in the distance isn't the wind...

Frozen is one of the most grueling, punishing experiences I've ever had watching a movie. For literally half the film, I couldn't force myself to sit down, instead looking on as I nervously paced around my
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living room. I screamed. I moaned. I cringed. Even with as loud as I keep my home theater cranked up, I could still hear my heart beating in my chest. I devour so much horror and suspense that it's easy to get jaded, but Frozen affected me the way very, very few films ever have. Here's one way to look at it. In slasher movies, at the end of the day, you're really rooting for the psychopath behind a fright mask who's waving that hatchet around. When you put on a Godzilla flick, you want to see a green dinosaur stomp Tokyo, not suffer through another twenty minutes of dialogue between some kid in terrifyingly short shorts and his stodgy scientist father, right? Same thing in a lot of horror movies. I want to see Jason carve apart a bunch of stoned, sex-crazed teenagers. I want to see the undead munch on some poor bastard's intestines. I want to see Regan's scarred, demon-possessed face whirl around on her shoulders. Not here.

Frozen is essentially a three character piece, and they're so multi-dimensional...so well-rendered...that I really had come to like all of them. Parker feels as if she's awkwardly butting in on a daytrip that's become a tradition between her boyfriend and someone he's been pals with for nearly two decades now. She's trying her best to fit in, but she's been dating Dan less than a year, so she can't speak the same language with him that Lynch does. She's Dan's girlfriend, sure, but there's a familiarity and an intimacy there that she can't quite reach. Lynch feels like a third wheel. This used to be their trip, and now not only is he nudged off to the sidelines, but this seasoned skier is stuck on the kiddie hills rather than tearing down the steep slopes he's eyeing off in the distance. Lynch doesn't hide his frustration but feels guilty when he clues into how much of a prick he can be. Dan, meanwhile, is caught in the middle. He's making a trip with two people who both feel out of place. He's trying to put on a confident smile through it all, but it's tough to have a good time when you know everyone you're with is unhappy. Writer/director Adam Green didn't write characters; he wrote people. There's something likeable about all three of them. They each are dragged down by their own sets of flaws. They can all alternate between being funny, petty, warm, and dickish, the same as most anyone else. The chemistry is there immediately, to the point that I forgot that I know Zegers and Ashmore from so many other movies. Frozen deftly weaves in their personalities and backstories without resorting to clunky exposition. I instantly buy into who the three of them are, the way they act and speak make them feel like people I've actually known, and...well, I like them. The whole point of all of this is to say that when it's the dead of night and I watched that lift creak its way up the mountain, there wasn't that same sort of bloodlust I feel in other horror movies. I wanted the lift to make it all the way to the top, the three of them tear down the slope, and hop off the powder and into that pizza joint down the road. Fade to black. Roll credits. When the lift does stop, I wanted it to start again. When a snowcat passes underneath, I wanted the driver to clue in that there are a few kids stranded above him. With so many other genre films, I'm waiting for the
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splatter to be sloshed around, or I'm holding out for the next scare. In Frozen, I sincerely didn't want anything bad to happen.

Really, that's why Frozen is ultimately so effective. I'm so invested in these characters that it's torturous looking on helplessly as they suffer. Frozen goes to great lengths to ensure that you appreciate the stakes. Any other movie would've rolled cameras on a soundstage. Fake snow in the background, maybe just dumping a bunch of green screen footage with the actors onto a snowy, mountainous plate... Not here. Frozen was shot entirely on location at a ski resort in Utah. The actors really did spend several weeks suspended fifty feet in the air. The temperatures really were in the single digits. The snow is real, and so is their suffering. That authenticity is unmistakable. The misery and discomfort unquestionably color the cast's performances, and the impact on the audience is nearly as dramatic. Green screen or shooting in a heated studio would've unavoidably left some fingerprints that would distract. Here, there are no seams to show. We can see the dizzying height. We can feel the cold. Green ratchets the tension further through his actors' performances...through the sense of dread set by his Hitchcockian framing and slow camera movements...through the sense that this could all really be happening. There's no element of fantasy or escapism; it's an entirely realistic scenario, and that makes it all the more terrifying. Green's characters are intelligent enough that there's no need for an idiot plot to keep things chugging along. Their mistakes are borne out of desperation, not stupidity. Most every avenue for escape I could think of is explored and fails catastrophically. The other ideas that crossed my mind probably would've been every bit as much of a failure. With three characters, Frozen clearly isn't a body count movie, and many of its most intense moments are the ones without any blood splashed across the frame. It's the spiraling desperation. It's in the fear and mistrust that splinters the group apart. It's in the certainty of death that brings them together. It's in watching these warm, flawed, immediately likeable people devolve into creatures with a singular drive: survive. At the same time, if you're reading that and think you have a roadmap for precisely what's going to happen, you're wrong. Frozen doesn't settle into any comfortable formulas or genre tropes. Nothing's telegraphed. Nothing's obvious. Adam Green is clearly someone with an enormous passion for horror and suspense films, he knows the mistakes they make and the formulas they lean on, and he sets out to do everything right. I'm honestly not left with anything to criticize or gripe about at all.

Frozen is an agonizingly difficult movie to watch, and I meant that in the best way possible. An inspired premise, a terrific cast, sharp writing and characterization, a hunger for authenticity that hasn't been rivaled by anyone this side of Fitzcarraldo: after being impressed with what Adam Green accomplished with Hatchet and having been intrigued by the trailer when it started making the rounds a few months back, I had high hopes for Frozen, but the end result is so far superior to anything I could've hoped to see. I'm struggling to think of the last genre film I've seen that was this unrelentingly suspenseful...this consistently unnerving. Frozen is smart, well-crafted, and unflinchingly intense, and I'm glad to see that the film's release on Blu-ray is every bit as exceptional. Very, very Highly Recommended.


Video
Quite a
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bit of time in the extras is devoted to the technical challenges of filming Frozen: the focus puller being some fifty feet below the camera, the limited lighting available, and the searing cold causing fingers to burn when it came time to change lenses, among many, many others. Despite those many hurdles -- and in some cases, because of them -- Frozen still looks fantastic on Blu-ray. Though the focus does waver somewhat, definition remains strong and is unmistakably high definition. The environment plays such an integral role in this film, and the levels of detail and clarity offered here heighten the sense of isolation. The ground below and the trees surrounding them would probably just be a muddy blur on DVD, and I don't think some of this imagery would be nearly as powerful as a result. It's only appropriate that Frozen's palette be so bitingly frigid, dominated by the white snow that blankets every square inch of the ground, the blue skies, the deep greens of the pine trees, and the cold pastels of the skiers' clothing. Frozen also benefits from a grainy, gritty texture, and that slight haze is a seamless fit for a film with this sort of backdrop.

Some of what may normally be misinterpreted as flaws are deliberate visual choices as well. It's mentioned in the technical commentary that the blacks are meant to have a greenish-blue cast to them and that the blacks are intended to be crushed as the film's final moments grow more and more frantic. The way the weight of the grain spikes in these moments is also intentional. At least to my eyes, the AVC encode never once buckles under that sheen of grain, and there expectedly aren't any issues with damage or speckling either. It's mentioned in one of the commentaries that some out-of-focus shots were processed in the digital intermediate stage to make them a bit crisper, so maybe I'm not off-base for thinking I spotted some ringing around edges in a few scattered moments. If any edge enhancement really is there, it's absolutely not persistent. I really love the look of Frozen. It's not glossy, shimmering high definition eye candy in the usual sense, no, but I think that's ultimately one of its strengths.

Frozen is presented on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc, and just about every spare byte on the first layer is dedicated to the film itself. Frozen is letterboxed to preserve its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.40:1.


Audio
Frozen
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doesn't have some kind of hulking, axe-swinging psychopath to slaughter these three kids. The killer this time around is the unforgiving environment around them, really, and that's brilliantly reflected in the film's sound design. Frozen opens with a series of close-ups of the mechanisms that power these chair lifts, backed by a thunderous snarl that roars from every speaker. It's hard to give an inanimate object this sort of menace without overplaying it, but Adam Green and his sound team pull it off flawlessly. For a while, at least, the mountain is teeming with skiers whizzing around, and the sound design is filled with background chatter and smooth, seamless pans from one channel to the next. My kneejerk reaction was that that sort of ambiance...that sort of atmosphere...is mixed too loudly and can be overwhelming -- to the point where you don't really get a sense of the characters' distance to the skiers around them -- but I quickly understood the reason why. It's a matter of contrast. Throughout much of Frozen's first act, it's impossible to overlook just how vibrant and alive the mountain is. Once Parker, Dan, and Lynch become stranded, the silence is almost deafening, and the impact wouldn't be nearly as dramatic without the atmosphere dominating as it does early on. The atmospherics don't relent after that point either: howling wind, punishing downfalls of snow and hail, cracks of thunder, and creatures of the night encircling their prey. As prominent as all of that is, they don't dominate the mix in quite the same way the skiers on the mountain initially do, allowing this six-channel, 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack to better showcase the strengths of the performances. Adam Green is a filmmaker who, more than most, understands just how massive an impact exceptional sound design can have in crafting tension and suspense. Frozen sounds phenomenal on Blu-ray and screams out to be experienced in full 5.1 on a proper home theater.

Also offered here are two audio commentaries, a stereo Spanish dub, and subtitles in English (SDH) and Spanish.


Extras
  • Audio Commentaries: Writer/director
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    Adam Green heads up two audio commentaries on this Blu-ray disc, and he's joined in the first of them by the three stars of Frozen: Shawn Ashmore, Kevin Zegers, and, a half hour in, Emma Bell. It probably goes without saying that this track is more intensely focused on the acting: everything being filmed on location, with even close-ups being shot fifty feet up in single-digit temperatures, battery-powered heated footwear quickly resulting in socksful of frozen sweat, and how the long takes and isolation from the crew further shaped the performances. There's also talk of sunburned eyeballs, faintings at early screenings, laughing at all the hypergymnastic paths to freedom lobbed out by snarky audiences, and the two unrealistic things that did make it into Frozen.

    Afterwards, director of photography Will Barratt and editor Ed Marx hop in front of the mic with Adam Green for the disc's technical commentary. The specific choice of film stock, what artificial snow and McDonald's hash browns have in common, Green's energy drink and ice cream diet, drawing visual inspiration from Children of Men, some vocal cameos from the talent behind Green's other films, struggles with lighting and focus, balancing elaborate, sweeping shots with unflinchingly tight close-ups...just about any question that might be lingering about the technical craftsmanship of Frozen is probably tackled in here somewhere. Green also approaches this track with his producer hat on, so there are also discussions about the politics that are unavoidable when putting a film together, including some of the well-meaning but clueless folks from different studios, the worst notes they've suffered through on different projects, and the biggest point of contention with Frozen's executive producers. This more technically oriented discussion is my personal favorite of the two commentaries, but both are well-worth a listen, and Green makes it a point to avoid any overlap between them.

  • Deleted Scenes (6 min.; SD): Three additional scenes have also been piled on here: some additional chatter in the lodge that further explains why Parker doesn't have her cell phone handy, an extra story in the lift about Parker's plans for the holidays, and a gruesome version of a kill that in the movie proper aims the camera in the opposite direction. Adam Green offers optional commentary for these scenes as well, pointing out how tough it was for Emma Bell to land a specific Christmas Story reference and explaining why he filmed such a gory death scene when it expressly says in the script that it'd never been seen on-camera. All of this footage is time-coded and presented in non-anamorphic standard definition. All three scenes are worth watching with and without commentary.

  • Featurettes (86 min.; SD): There are four individual making-of featurettes on Frozen, but they play so well together as a feature-length documentary that I'll review it that way instead.

    "Catching Frostbite: The Origins of Frozen" focuses on how the project came together, from the initial germ of an idea to Green hammering out the screenplay during the production of Grace all the way to the newly-formed A Bigger Boat jumping onboard to make it their first production. The emphasis is on pre-production, so we hear about the drive to film Frozen practically and on location, Green leveraging his experience with his existing crew, and an eerie coincidence when Green first spotted the exact place where he wanted to set everything up.

    "Three Below Zero" focuses on casting and performances, such as the actors having the same dynamic off-screen that they do in front of the camera, the collaborative nature of the shoot, and some notes about the characters that colored the acting despite not being expressly stated in the movie itself. "Shooting Through It" whips the camera in the other direction, delving into the way the look of Frozen was shaped: adjusting the natural environment to hide all the equipment, lighting a movie set in pitch black, coming up with rigs to photograph a film this ambitious, and even just finding a way to transport it all in such unforgiving conditions. There's also some discussion about the choice of aspect ratio, the impossibility in
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    reliably pulling focus, and plenty of details about the construction of one devastating, leg-shattering shot.

    The fourth and final featurette is "Beating the Mountain: Surviving Frozen", and Man vs. Wild has nothing on a film shoot this grueling. It takes the better part of a minute just to rattle off the different layers of clothing a single person wears. It's a massive ordeal just getting to the set. If the chair lift rig misses its mark by even a few inches, the actors have to spend another 45 minutes cycling around for another pass. Temperatures that dipped as far as four below, winds screaming along at 75 mph, working alongside a number of different wolves, and the havoc wreaked when the thermostat started to creep in the opposite direction: it's no wonder why the cast and crew of Frozen speak about the shoot more like veterans of war. There are too many highlights to list, but a batshit crazy border collie, Dee Snider's kid playing the role of set jester, and accidentally being delivered dailies from a very, very different production are among the standouts. The emphasis is very heavily placed on behind the scenes footage, and the extended takes of Emma Bell sobbing in-character are difficult to watch in the best possible way.

    As is the case with all of the extras on this Blu-ray disc, Adam Green is very careful to avoid overlap, so 99% of the material showcased here is exclusive to these featurettes. There's no filler or self-congratulatory promotional stuff to distract either. Every last bit of it is worth setting aside the time to watch.

  • Trailer (2 min.; HD): Last up is a high-def theatrical trailer for Frozen. There are also trailers -- mostly HD with a couple in standard-def -- for Hatchet, the remake of I Spit on Your Grave, After.Life, Starz' Spartacus series, Dante's Inferno, and some UFC thing.

There's also a two minute Easter egg about a suicide on the same spot where Frozen would later be filmed, although it's so easy to find that "Easter Egg" might not be the right name for it, exactly. Frozen is being given a pretty traditional release on Blu-ray, so there's no digital copy, slipcover, liner notes, or anything this time around.


The Final Word
Frozen is one of the most unnerving, grueling, and intense experiences I've ever had watching a movie. I really wish I'd had a chance to see it theatrically -- the forceful impact of an audience's reaction...not being able to pause or walk off all that nervous energy...a towering theatrical screen showcasing the dizzying height and isolation these characters are pitted against -- but I'm thrilled at least to have had a chance to discover the film on Blu-ray. I was intrigued when I first saw the trailer a few months back, and Frozen lives up to all of that promise and then some. Frozen easily ranks as the most unrelentingly suspenseful film I've seen this year, and this Blu-ray disc is even easier to recommend given its beautiful high definition presentation, first-rate sound design, and more than four and a half hours of worthwhile extras. Very Highly Recommended.


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