Joe (Shawn Ashmore) and Dan (Kevin Zegers) have been friends since kindergarten. For years, they have gone on weekly ski trips to escape from their real lives. This week, Dan invites his girlfriend Parker (Emma Bell), even though she can't ski. Dan and Joe convince Parker to flirt with the lift operator to get cheap passage up the slopes all day. She does, but her lack of skill in snowboarding causes tension between the longtime friends. They convince the lift operator to let them take one more run when the resort is closing and he does, placing them well-behind the flagged off "final chair." Through a series of surprisingly believable events, the trio is left stranded on a chair lift at a ski resort that only opens on the weekends.
I'll admit it. I was one of the people who was very cynical about this concept. What can be done with a film that takes place entirely on a ski lift? And a horror film? Forget it. To writer/director Adam Green's great credit, I have to admit I was wrong. Frozen actually works as a horror film. If anything, in an effort to preempt the cynics, Green plugs up every possible plot hole and does not let a single incorrect fact about the mechanics and physics of the scenario through to the final cut.
The greatest strength of the film is how natural the characters are. Dan, Joe, and Parker are believable college students with believable problems. They play constant games--like naming the [descriptor] [idea] (name the worst way to die, for example, which tells you everything you need to know about the rest of the plot about twenty minutes into the film)--and poke fun at each other all the time. When the jokes are turned around and falsely interpreted as insult, the joker spits out a rapid fire succession of lies to cover himself until everyone starts laughing. If the characters didn't feel real, the whole film would fail.
Indeed, naturalism is a constant strength of the film. When Parker begins to get frostbite, the make-up is perfect. It's just that little bit of burn-like discoloration and blistering on the cheek that sells the danger. As the hours pass, snow melts into ice on their eyebrows, their skin goes pale, and their lips begin to turn blue. It's beautifully executed effects work that only enhances the believable emotional arcs of the characters trapped in the ski lift. When the bigger gags happen--ripped flesh, broken bones, licked-clean carcasses--the effects only get better.
Adam Green is so obsessed with creating a believable, natural experience that he actually pushes the film into melodrama during every action sequence. Gone are the believable voices of three college students. The replacement? Expositional narration. Meaning, instead of talking like normal twenty-odd year olds, the characters suddenly say things like "the wire is sharp so my hands are bleeding. Oww! OwwWWwww! The wire is so sharp it's cutting my gloves. [unintelligible grunting] I have to turn back because the wire is so sharp that it's cutting through my gloves. One hand at a time now. Oww. Sharp wire. Oww. Broken gloves. Ow. I'm bleeding. Ooh, this post is still slippery. That's because it's frozen over with ice. I'd grab on but my hands are bleeding from the wire cutting my gloves." Do I need to say more? Every action sequence sees this happen. That glove dialog is even repeated, albeit not as long, in a later scene. In preempting logical strikes, Green pushes the film into overwrought, overacted dialog.
The original score, as beautiful as it is, does not help. It's this lovely orchestral theme used whenever the characters have hope about their situation. It's uplifting and joyful and perfect for the end of a horror film. Instead, it's used again and again every time something goes horribly wrong. It's like a bad experiment to retrain the brain to fear beautiful film scoring and I think it comes close to succeeding. Combined with "I am going to jump down and ski for help. Yes. I am raising the bar and bracing myself. Oh yes, any second now I will jump down to the ground and get us some help. Wait for it. I'm going to jump down now,"-styled dialog, the action sequences turn into elaborate jokes.
It's a shame that happens, too. I have a feeling that if I muted the volume, I would have been scared witless by these scenes. The visual storytelling is excellent. Aside from a few cliche shots (circle quickly around the lift, extend the crane really high above the chair before a character jumps down, tight close-up on the loose screw every time it creaks no matter what else is happening), the cinematography is perfect. I believe the scenarios in spite of the dialogue because the technical filmmaking is so strong.
Fortunately, most of the film is actually about the relationship between the characters and them interacting with each other to figure out how to save themselves from the situation they're in. This means that, aside from maybe twenty five minutes of grand action sequences, the film sells great suspense. I constantly complain about a lack of believability in horror films and think it stems from poorly defined characters. Green makes any character that has any significant interaction with the trio or their situation--a girl Joe flirts with, the lift operator, his co-workers--believable. If it weren't for the lift stopping, this film could have been a quiet little indie drama about changing relationships and growing into adulthood through the college experience. Instead, it's a horror film that swings into melodrama at the big scare moments.
Frozen suffers from a problem many modern low-budget horror films suffer from. In this case, Adam Green had a novel concept. What would happen if skiers were left on a ski lift for a week with no way to call for help? He created believable college age characters and crafted some great dialog that sells their history, their hopes, and their fear over their situation. Then he adds in every possible scenario that not only strands the skiers, but makes escape all but impossible. It's overkill. Wolves, hail, faulty equipment, razor-sharp wire, frozen support structures, icy snow on the ground--at what point does realism become absurdity?
I suggest that anyone who is curious about this film watch it. There is a lot to like, and a lot of what I disliked comes down to personal preference. I want really believable horror films and I'm taken aback when they start narrating their own actions. I can see other people viewing that as the students pumping themselves up to try extraordinary feats. In other words, there are far worse films to spend ninety minutes on.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.