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When Nature Has the Upper Hand
on February 22, 2010
We've seen so many thrillers in which the threat comes from something unnatural, be it a ghost, a zombie, or a masked serial killer that cannot himself be killed. This is partly why "Frozen" is such a refreshing experience - nature itself is the threat. Human beings are capable of withstanding a great deal, but there's always a breaking point, and this movie does a pretty good job of searching for it. It begs the question: What would you do if you found yourself in a similar situation? Is there anything that could be done? Or is it merely a matter of waiting to die? For something that very easily could have been a mindless shock fest, "Frozen" is instead an effective story where suspense builds from a fairly plausible situation.
As far as the plot is concerned, there isn't all that much to describe. In fact, it can all be summed up in one sentence: At a mountain resort, three college kids struggle to survive when they're left stranded on a ski lift. Everything depends on how the plot advances, and this includes character development, which is surprisingly strong. Dan (Kevin Zegers) and Lynch (Shawn Ashmore) have been friends since the first grade. Because of Dan's new girlfriend, Parker (Emma Bell), Lynch now feels that their friendship is in jeopardy; their skiing trips have traditionally been a Guys Only thing, and yet here she is, tagging along. For the first twenty minutes or so, Lynch repeatedly tells Parker, as nicely as possible, that she's in the way.
Hoping to get in one last hill before the ski lift closes for the night, the three smooth-talk their way onto the ski lift. Unfortunately, there are two lift operators, and the second one doesn't realize that the three skiers who have just descended are not the same three currently ascending the mountain. The lift is subsequently switched off. Dangling above a snowy slope on a bleak winter night, Dan, Lynch, and Parker remember, with horrific clarity, that the resort will remain closed for an entire week.
You can probably imagine what they now must face. Obviously, the cold, which quickly leads to frostbite in spite of their warm clothing. There's also the heat of the midday sun, which will probably lead to sunburn. And that howling off in the distance? I can assure you that it isn't coming from rescue dogs. So what can Dan, Lynch, and Parker do? Shout for help? Try to pull themselves across the sharp wire carrying the suspended chairs? Jump off and hope they don't break their legs? Throw their ski equipment to get someone's attention? Lose control altogether? Take your pick. No matter what they decide to do, it sure as hell won't be easy.
Had the characters not been properly developed, there would be no conceivable way to successfully make this last for just over ninety minutes. Writer/director Adam Green, who had previously directed the slasher homage "Hatchet," goes in the right direction by giving each of the three leads some well worded dialogue, most of which focuses on memories and primal emotional outbursts. There are some good moments between Parker and Lynch, who eventually understand that hating one another will get them nowhere. One of the best scenes shows Parker tearfully panicking over the fate of her new puppy, who was left alone in her apartment. Stupid, you say? What would you think about if you were in her place? Exactly.
If there is a weakness to "Frozen," it's that some of the suspense is wasted on scenes of overbearing makeup effects, which I can't describe for fear of spoiling the plot. What I will say is that movies like this work so much better when it relies on psychological horror; the idea of falling off, of freezing, of being attacked, of losing your balance, etc. is always more effective than seeing it. Of course, there would be no resolution if nothing physical happened, so maybe it's a moot point. Regardless, I felt the human scenes were stronger than the action scenes, where the characters were reduced to little more than infernal screamers.
The long and short of it is that "Frozen" is better than I thought it was going to be. In an age when horror movies are about little more than young people dying elaborate deaths, I realized that I actually cared about these skiers and what was happening to them. While it occasionally falls victim to conventional thriller tactics, it still tries for something more, getting under your skin not through visuals so much as through the overall situation. The idea of being left alone in a hostile environment with no resources is genuinely frightening. The idea of zombies eating your brains? Fun, maybe, but certainly not frightening. There's no chance of that happening in real life, despite Max Brooks' evidence to the contrary.