Adam Green’s Frozen threatens, early and often, to be a really, really bad picture. So when it recovers sufficiently to be only slightly less than average, it feels like a triumph over mediocrity.
The premise is fine: three kids are accidentally abandoned on a ski lift and must battle the elements and each other to survive. The antecedents are rich and plentiful, stretching back as far as John Sturges’ Marooned in 1969 (three astronauts stuck in space). Chris Kentis’ Open Water revived the idea in 2003, reducing the conceit to a troubled married couple accidentally abandoned in shark-infested waters.
As an audience, we know what’s coming in Frozen, which makes the set-up feel elongated and laborious. Dan Walker (Kevin Zegers) and Joe Lynch (Shawn Ashmore) are long-time buddies, but Dan has invited his girlfriend Parker (Emma Bell) along for their traditional Sunday on the ski slopes. Lynch is quietly resentful, while Dan is oblivious. As the movie begins, Dan convinces Parker to use her girlish charms to talk lift operator Cody (Kane Hodder) into giving them access to the slopes for a reduced price.
At the end of the day, though, Lynch is unhappy. He’s put up with Parker’s bumblings as a beginning skier, but he wants to really fly with his old buddy, and that ain’t happening. As a compromise, they try and make one last run, talking their way once again past lift operator Cody, who’s ready to shut down for the night.
When, finally, the threesome are left all by their lonesome high above the slopes, as banks of lights start to shut down behind them on the mountain, it’s properly chilling. We know a storm is moving in, we know the resort will be closed for the next several days, we know they’re too high up to get down safely. And then they hear something unsettling in the woods …
Having endured entirely routine conversations between three entirely ordinary young people, we should now get the satisfaction of some unexpected thrills. But it feels as though writer/director Green wants to be more “mature” and restrained. When he does deliver a little, long-awaited crunchy mayhem, it’s far too brief and yet so over the top that it feels like it was cut and pasted from another, much cheesier movie.
A few years ago, Green’s Hatchet was a rough-hewn blast of throwback horror, eliciting the biggest cheers at a midnight screening at Fantastic Fest with a manual beheading, complete with geysers of blood and gore. That made up for the deficiencies of the story, the goggle-eyed acting, and the uneven production values.
Frozen demonstrates Green’s growth as a director, but only to a point. The splashy gore effects come after sober-minded dramatics, and so their excessive nature are laughable rather than disturbing. He paints Parker as a whiny, clingy, irritating girlfriend, which undercuts what happens to her. The additional, threatening elements that emerge after the trio are left high and dry (or, rather, wet and freezing) are welcome, but so well-timed that they too feel laughable rather than frightening.
If Frozen had followed that line of reasoning, if the pitch had become more hysterical, careening, and nasty, it might have ended up as a very, very bad, but entertaining, picture, in the realm of ‘so bad it’s good’ — somewhat like a higher-concept Hatchet. As it is, Green’s ambition exceeds his reach. He wants to make us care about his characters, but offers little to differentiate them from anyone else. He takes pains to set up the situation, yet still resorts to left-field coincidences and convenient forces of nature to pep up the narrative.
In the end, Green’s ambition — and the dedication of his cast and crew, working in less-than-ideal conditions — is admirable. If only he could have delivered a picture that fully lived up to its premise.
(Frozen is now playing at multiple theaters in Dallas / Fort Worth.)