Horror fans aren’t like other people. Folks who don’t share our enthusiasm for the genre often accuse us of some sort of vicarious sadism, but we’re really masochists at heart; nothing pleases us more than a film that ruins a previously enjoyable experience. And while Frozen isn’t going to be the glorious, trans-generational buzzkill that Jaws has proven to be—look me in the eye and tell me you can take a dip in the ocean without watching for dorsal fins—it’ll still wiggle its cold little fingers in the pit of your stomach every time someone suggests a ski trip.
Granted, skiing wasn’t exactly a pleasurable activity for me to begin with. My one experience with the sport was brief and embarrassing and involved falling down a lot and crying a little before finally retreating to the lodge to drink until it was time to go home. I never made it onto the chairlift, but it was a dubious looking contraption that should have screamed “death trap” to any reasonable person. According to Frozen, that was a pretty accurate assessment. If the film’s characters had enjoyed my level of gutless cowardice, they never would have bribed their way onto the lift to begin with, let alone begged for one final trip up the slope as an impending winter storm sends the resort into an early shut-down for the week.
Okay, so that was a dumb thing to do, but you can’t really hate them for it. Dan (Kevin Zegers), Joe (Shawn Ashmore), and Parker (Emma Bell) are privileged young people, and it never occurs to them that they could be the victims of anything worse than being confined to the bunny slope all day by Parker’s inexperience. When the lift grinds to a halt halfway up the slope, it’s an uncomfortable event, but they’re sure it’s a temporary one. Then the lights are turned off, and things take a decidedly southward turn when they realize no one knows they’re there. It’s Sunday night, and the resort won’t open again until Thursday. Obviously, they can’t just wait it out; they’ll die of exposure long before anyone will come to their rescue. So Dan makes a very bad decision, and they learn that something even more terrifying is waiting for them on the ground beneath the lift. What follows is a series of painfully suspenseful and expertly staged set pieces likely to have you squirming in your seat and swearing out loud. As their bodies quickly succumb to the ravages of exposure—hypothermia, frostbite, whatever it’s called when you fall asleep with your hand wrapped around a freezing metal bar and end up flaying your own palm—their actions become increasingly desperate, the threat of violent death very real. They prove to be made of tougher stuff than we originally thought, but it might not be enough to get any of them out alive, let alone in one piece.
To say more about what befalls the trio would be a journey into unabashed spoiler territory. Part of what makes Frozen so effective is wondering how much worse things could get, then being horrified to learn that the answer is always “a lot.” Though much of the film is a waiting game and two-thirds of it is about people sitting on a bench, writer/director Adam Green, who made a name for himself on the indie horror scene with 2006’s campy Hatchet, does a remarkable job of ratcheting up the suspense. Green proves that you don’t need IMAX theaters and Pace 3D cameras to create the “immersive experience” that seems to be every genre filmmaker’s holy grail. Green did it the old-fashioned way: He schlepped his cast and crew up a Utah mountain in the middle of winter and put them on a creaky old chairlift. No green screens, no digital effects, and no sound stages. It’s a static setting, but the film’s impressively dynamic camera work and snappy editing keep it from ever feeling that way.
Unlike the deliriously bloody Hatchet, Frozen manages to be gruesome and grisly while keeping the onscreen gore to a relative minimum. The most shocking event plays out off-screen; we experience it almost entirely through the reactions of the other characters, making it infinitely more disturbing. There are definitely some grotesque images, mostly in the form of nasty injuries, that place Frozen firmly in “not for the squeamish” territory, but there’s relatively little onscreen bloodshed. Instead, the film makes us grit our teeth and avert our eyes by exploiting our very real fears of isolation, helplessness, and grievous bodily harm.
Joe, Dan, and Parker aren’t the most likeable characters, and they aren’t exactly composed of layers of depth and pathos, but they don’t deserve the awful things that happen to them, and that’s why Frozen works. It takes characters we recognize and puts them in a terrifying situation that, extreme though it may be, isn’t that far removed from our daily reality. There is no supernatural threat, and no human villain. The only monster is nature itself, and she’s one hell of a fearsome beast.