Review: FROZEN; Solid suspense flick with uneven tone

rating: 3

Adam Green's fun 2006 horror film 'Hatchet' revelled in the art of self-aware pastiche, but it is in his second major work that he has found a legitimately great concept out of which to wring more nuanced thrills. While the effort itself is hit-and-miss, Green hits enough, and though not exploiting his disparate, anxiety-inviting setting for all of its nerve-wracking potential, 'Frozen' distinguishes itself from the cursed modern horror film formula. Longtime best friends Dan (Kevin Zegers) and Joe (Shawn Ashmore), along with Dan's girlfriend Parker (Emma Bell), are vacationing at a non-descript ski resort. After convincing the ski lift attendant to get one last ride on the lift before the resort shuts for a week, the trio, through an act of miscommunication, wind up stranded atop it. Alone, they must persevere through environmental dangers - such as frost bite and wild animals nearby - to reach safety. It is fair that with a 93-minute runtime, Green hasn't a whole lot of time to deal in casual establishing scenes if he wants a tight picture. Why he does this - indulging several pointless scenes of the group playing around and talking pointless banter before the horror starts - is anyone's guess, because we already assume that the trio are your average well-to-do kids; we don't need lazy plotting to prove it. Once things get moving, however, 'Frozen' is a solid suspense pic. The whole abandonment setup - resulting from a change of ski lift attendants - must have seemed ridiculous on paper, but it works surprisingly well on-screen, and resultantly we buy into the exaggerated tension of the situation. This is aided by some casual dialogue that actually pays off; the kids, still assured that they aren't in any danger, occupy their conversations rather amusingly with their worst fears and least favourite ways to die. More interesting, however, is a tension inherent in the film's character dynamic; Ashmore's Joe feels very much like a third wheel, spurned by his buddy in favour of Parker. Though one might expect this to pay off in grim spades later, the film oddly sticks strictly to environmental dangers, from frost bite, to exposure, and a pack of wolves patrolling the area, all of which pose a huge threat. As the clock ticks away, their situation becomes only more harrowingly desperate, and when it comes to the crunch, none of that personal stuff is important in the face of grave danger. Once the kids discover the gravity of their situation, just about every bad thing that could happen to them does. Any attempts to make light of the situation - as is typical of horror fare starring snarky teen characters such as these - are soon struck out by the reality that someone will have to jump from the ski-lift, and unsurprisingly, their attempts to escape only exacerbate things. More surprisingly, it soon wipes that air of teen-pic arrogance right off of their pretty faces. There are, however, several snags holding 'Frozen' back from being the cult classic it has the makings of. The acting is inconsistent, ranging from ropey (Zegers) to believable (Ashmore), while Emma Bell's performance walks a wafer-thin line between palpable hysteria and histrionic overacting, most often winding up on the latter end. Fans of Green will also be dismayed at his restraint in light of his grislier (yet also sillier) previous films; the first casualty to occur is largely off-screen, and the remaining blood-letting - though unpleasant - is notably brief. Therefore, those anticipating gallons of viscera should probably look elsewhere for their thrills, for Green has, dare I say, attempted a genuine effort at cerebral shocks over the simple pleasures of blood-and-guts (though some sausage-link intestines do appear near the end). The uneasy straits of the situation do make for a few impressive dramatic scenes - thanks largely to Ashmore - as various personal woes surface and, in generating contention within the group, are not much helpful to their collective survival. Evidently, it is an easier command for the actors to play angry rather than sad, especially Bell, whose attempt at sadness is guffaw-inducing. These scenes provide a natural enough segue into what passes for character development, and surprisingly, Green's effort is effective, even if it is likely just a lazy way to buff the film out to 90 minutes. If anything, Green suggests here that is likely a much better director than a writer; especially exciting is an overhead shot of the lift as a wolf darts by in the distance. The lean nature of the narrative dictates that the small things count, and as such, Green chooses to focus on them - frostbite scabs, the barely-threaded bolts on the ski-lift, and the frayed steel wires holding them precariously in place - to chilling effect. In the end, though, the characters prove counter-productive to their own survival, and as a result Green doesn't exactly make it easy to like them, though we try anyway. Unfortunately, it is too easy to see how each of them might get killed or maimed, and when it most often happens, the excitement of the moment is pretty empty. There are no smart characters in 'Frozen', but then that is likely how it would be for real. From a distended opening act to an anti-climactic ending, 'Frozen' is minimal to a fault; there is not enough here to convincingly sustain an hour and a half, but Green wrings enough tension out of the characters and their situation for us to remain interested in how it ends, even if the characters themselves - idiotic and inconsistently played - are hard to care much for. Fans of Green's previous work should especially be warned; there is little irony here and not much more gore, but it is a diverting and original effort despite its many flaws. Frozen is on limited U.K. release now before hitting Blu-ray and DVD on October 18th.
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Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at] gmail.com.

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