I am ashamed to admit it, but I’m superficial enough that if Adam Green’s Frozen had not boasted Shawn Ashmore in its OnDemand blurb I would have passed it by. After all, unless you put a hot guy in it, who gives a fuck about a chairlift? But Green was prepared for assholes like me and did put a hot guy in his movie, and thank god.
Because Frozen is one of the best films I’ve ever seen, especially in the suspense/horror genre. It’s a situational piece that deals with three people and the choices they make to live or die in dire circumstances.
I loved almost everything about the film, from pacing to soundtrack, casting to dialogue. It made me tense, uncomfortable, and quietly distraught about things that wouldn’t normally bother me. It tapped into some primal fear deep inside and stuck in a way that horror movies typically don’t.
As the film opens we are introduced to three people: lifelong friends Joe and Dan, and Parker, the girl who has come between them. Interspersed with anxious close-ups of ski lift parts and equipment, kernels of insight are revealed; weekend ski trips are a time-honored tradition between the two men, and Joe is annoyed Dan’s girlfriend is interfering with this ritual when Dan has sacrificed so many others already. This doesn’t mean Joe dislikes Parker, exactly; more likely he can’t deal with his bromance being replaced with a romance.
Pleasantly, this is done without making any character unlikeable; Parker is not a harpy, Dan is not a pussy, and Joe’s wit is too clever to be angsty. All parties are willing to push through the heavy awkwardness and hopefully build a sturdier foundation for Dan and Joe in this new situation. In the meantime, though, things are tense.
We’re drawn into the tension, enduring the stilted dialogue and veiled jabs along with the characters. They are arrogant about their experiences; confident that they can take on the world. The only hard rule is established; the characters “can’t talk about real life shit while we’re up here.” The mountain is not only physically isolating them from the real world; it also symbolically separates them from dealing with hardship, problem, and difficulty. For the boys, it is an escape from the stress of day-to-day life, but Parker does not have the same feelings. She shows early tension when the lift stops, foreshadowing, but their day of skiing and snowboarding goes on without incident.
In the lodge later, Joe is insisting he doesn’t hate Parker as he swallows his jealousy and angles for one good run before they leave. Parker offers to stay at the lodge, wanting to check her phone and ground herself in her real problems again, but the boys cajole her along for one more run. Here under an ominous sign that proclaims “YOU CAN DIE” with a straightforward purity, we learn they have put their cellphones in a locker.
Then, in case you missed it, this critical detail is reinforced when Joe tries to memorize Shannon’s number. That’s just a neat aside, though, because the movie is rolling on, building tension as we see the last-chair flag pass, the shift change among the attendants, the three friends noting a trio of other skiers taking a neat jump, and that trio of friends passing the edgy replacement attendant, who doesn’t know they aren’t the ones for whom he’s watching, and doesn’t care besides because he has to pee. As the wind rocks the chair lift it’s clear that Parker still isn’t comfortable, and when the lift stops even the boys seem edgy in spite of their big talk. They complain about the mountain closing early on a Sunday, reminding that in case you missed it, Joe was griping about the place only being open three days a week.
Joe tries to drive a conversation, offering his favorite cereals and talking about biggest fears and the worst way to die. Dan mentions getting eaten by wild animals, a shark terror, and the lights begin to extinguish behind them. The group descends into the comfort of denial. “Worst case scenario they send up a ladder or something, right?” Perhaps these people don’t have a firm grasp on what the words “worst case scenario” mean, but regardless tension pushes them apart and brings them together as they alternately comfort and bicker.
As they contemplate how staying overnight stranded on a lift might not be so bad, but almost a week is another matter, we see a good balance of characters not being cliche idiots in a horror movie but still having realistic reactions of panic and terror to an honestly frightening and plausible situation. Here, they are stranded in the dark and cold, away from any person who might think to look for them. Moreover, Parker has to pee (and suddenly I am identifying even stronger than before).
Suddenly, a truck! When they realize it doesn’t see them they begin throwing things like skis, and I feel good about their efforts. This brief glimmer of hope, though, only makes the truck’s exit more heartwrenching. Joe forces conversation and tries to keep spirits up, and Dan calms Parker with a classic horror movie promise, “I won’t let you die…. You’re gonna be okay, baby.”
Then he jumps.
Both his legs break and the three devolve into panic. Dan is clearly in shock from the pain and cold, and suddenly a wolf. Joe tries to climb the lift cable, endearingly telling Parker, “Just hold my legs. I mean, you can’t stop me from falling, but it’s psychological.”
The wolves have returned, drawn by fresh blood and an easy meal. Joe’s climbing attempt has failed; his ski boots offer no grip at all and the cable has slashed through his gloves and into the meat of his hands. As the wolves circle Dan, he begins screaming at last, but not for himself. He gives us one last proof of how his love for Parker is worth the risk to his friendship with Joe, insisting that his friend not let her look.
There’s just the right amount of sight and noise to keep the film suspense instead of gore. Still, the sounds of feasting get up into your spine, and so do Joe and Parker’s screams and sniffling. The shock and grief leads from comforting to recrimination; why did you let him jump, why are you here, it should have been you, it’s not fair. The war between best friend and girlfriend comes to a head. Burnt out on misery in a sudden rush, they return to consolation.
The passage of time is conveyed by the closeup on Dan’s bloody hand, now all but buried in fresh snow. Joe and Parker exchange hopeful fantasies, and their bonding leads to another glimmer of hope that Parker’s barking puppy will alert neighbors that something is wrong. Joe assures her they’ll kick the doors down and that will lead to their rescue. He utters fateful words: “She’ll be fine, and so will you, and so will we.”
Morning comes, washing over the glorious landscape and reinforcing their isolation. The mountain is desolate, possessed of a savage beauty the pair can no longer appreciate. A slow pan over Joe and Parker leaves time to wonder if they’ve died of exposure instead of just falling asleep. Parker wakes, her bare hand frozen to the safety bar and leading to a disgusting shot of frozen flesh tearing from her palm. There is more hope and despair, and the movie does not fail to deliver on the promise of Parker suffering the shame of pissing her pants for lack of options.
In desperation, Joe tries to climb the cable again. He succeeds better than the night before in spite of his cut hands, but the wolves are back, and Parker’s chair bolt has come unfastened. He makes it to the support tower, his descending climb perilous thanks to his tractionless ski boots. On the ground, his blood draws the wolves again, and after fighting them off with a ski pole he vanishes from the screen. Parker decides to try the same path Joe has taken in spite of her missing glove and frostbitten hand. Before she can get far, though, the chair bolt gives way at last. A safety cable makes it only drop maybe 20 feet, then that begins to fray.
Parker makes it to the ground only moderately injured, even when the chair lands on her legs. She makes her way down the hill, numb both mentally and physically, and barely spares a moment to consider Joe’s tattered corpse being torn apart by wolves. At the road at last, she nearly gets hit by a car before someone picks her up to take her to a hospital.
I had mixed feelings about the wolves. I understand why they were necessary to add a sense of urgency and drama to the piece, but I thought a pack living and prowling that close to a ski resort strained the mind a bit. Then again, I haven’t been skiing since I discovered my own mortality, so what the fuck do I know about wolves and whether they prowl ski slopes if they smell blood?
Also, the chair falling and backup cable fraying and snapping almost immediately under the weight of only one person seemed forced too, but again I’m not an engineer so what the fuck do I know about chair lifts and cables and tensile strength?
Whenever someone gets an appendage stuck to cold metal I wonder if I’m the only person who’s ever seen A Christmas Story. And when Parker throws her scarf and it lands in the trees, who puts trees that near a chairlift?
Overall I thought this movie was incredible. It tackles the unfortunate problem cellphones present to the horror genre with aplomb, and lays out the scenario in a way that I found terrifyingly plausible. I remember the feeling of being on a chairlift; something about it was always more frightening than roller coasters. The height, the chill, the creaking sounds, or the cloying knowledge that the only thing holding you up where you don’t belong is a few thin bars and braided cables, operated by someone not getting paid enough to really care. The way it keeps moving, sweeping you up at the bottom and skimming you off at the top, personifies the machine with a sense of incredible disinterest in you and your puny life.
Then there’s the cold. I hate being cold, how it makes my nose run and my extremities ache, and the wind is cold in my ears and after awhile even breathing hurts. And the isolation, being alone in the dark and afraid, facing the decision to stay and die of exposure or risk a fall, a hard landing, and apparently also wildlife… And that no matter what was at stake I’m pretty certain I could never haul my person across a cable like that. Basically, I’m not built for survival, and that might be the scariest part of all. Would I have Dan’s nerve and determination to just jump, and deal with bones jutting through my flesh and feeling wolves eat me? Would I be selfless and strong like Joe, and make it at least 50 feet supporting my weight from lacerated and aching hands? Would I be resilient and determined like Parker, pushing on to survive even after witnessing the horrible demise of my friends?
I’m pretty sure the answer is no, and that terrifies me.
Shawn Ashmore played Iceman in the first three XMen movies. Irony.