Buried and Oscar hopeful 127 Hours both hit around the same time while telling stories on essentially the same theme; though they were beaten to the bunch by several months in the form of Frozen, unnervingly prolific horror director Adam Green's attempt to answer the question, "What would happen if you managed to get stuck on a chair lift after a ski resort closed for the week?"
And thus do we find ourselves in the company of three college students, Dan (Kevin Zegers), Joe (Shawn Ashmore), and Dan's girlfriend Parker (Emma Bell), whose presence on what was originally pitched as a guy's weekend on the slopes has created some particular friction between Dan and Joe. Having spent the day on the bunny hill, humoring the newbie Parker, Joe demands that the trio get one last trip in, at the very close of day, on the proper ski hill, and so they manage to finagle the grumpy chair lift operator to let them sneak on. Unfortunately, an ill-timed pee break and an poorly-phrased request to keep an eye out for the last three skiers leave our trio stuck on the way up when all the power is turned out. Annoyance turns into fear turns into petty sniping, and eventually Dan makes a brave but very stupid attempt to jump from the lift, ending with his legs horribly broken, the warring Parker and Joe flinging blame at each other, still stuck on the chair, and the pack of wolves wandering around the area serve to make a horrible situation even worse.
Whatever else is true, Green and his crew, particularly cinematographer Will Barratt, have made a most handsomely-mounted low-budget thriller, one that makes exceptionally good use of the poor B-movie producer's dictum that you build the script around what you can do, where you can do it. There were no camera tricks or special effects used in creating the impression that three actors were fifty feet above the snowy ground; the actors were actually fifty feet above the ground, with the director and DP in the next chair over, filming them through a zoom lens. That one tiny concession to practicality gives Frozen all the realism and gravity that any grubby thriller director could ever hope for; the gruesomely convincing gore effects, be they Dan's horribly shattered legs or Parker's nasty case of frostbite and the skin that pulls off her hand when she accidentally leaves it on a metal pole all night, add to the feeling of sickly plausible physicality.
In short, Frozen has all the tactile fidelity to give it some proper stakes: any fool could throw some characters into the winter weather and say, "look, they're going to freeze to death!" but only somebody who really, genuinely cares can make the audience understand how that would feel, from the vertigo of being on a gently swaying metal bench five stories in the air, to the gooey noise of frozen skin ripping off. If it is nothing else, Frozen is a masterpiece of experiential nastiness.
Which is good, because it is nothing else. As much love and care as has been put into the texture of the thing, the screenplay of Frozen is a bit of a shambles, and the three lead performances serve to make the worst parts of Green's writing even worse. The problem isn't that Frozen is unbelievable; though it takes a nice chain of contrivances to get the characters stranded, it happens fast enough, like pulling off a band-aid, that it doesn't hurt. Even some of the dialogue has a nice naturalistic rhythm to it, particularly in the early scenes on the lift, when the characters are trying to keep themselves amused for what they imagine will be a short inconvenience. Everybody talks around the obvious interpersonal ugliness between them, and they drift, as callow young adults will, into conversations about pop culture: one lengthy dialogue about sharks explicitly sets up a Jaws reference, but it's also a winking reference to Open Water, the Ur-text of this particular subgenre.
The Open Water comparison, however, also invites us to contemplate Frozen's debt to that film's most unpleasant aspect: its wholly unlikable characters. All three of the protagonists are, frankly, complete assholes, in three excitingly different ways: passive-aggressive liars who cheat their way onto the slopes and generally behave like entitled dicks. Anyone with a pulse is going to feel bad for their plight, and not wish it upon any human being; but it would be a lot easier to feel for their struggle if they were even vaguely sympathetic prior to getting stranded. In an unfortunate bit of anti-serendipity, the most likable on page, Parker, is graced with the worst of three mediocre performances, and I for one ended up hating her the most, but in general these are three folks you'd probably go out of your way to avoid in life. And we get to spend 90 minutes with them, mostly in a very close space. Whee!
The film would have a hard time recovering from that, but just to make things worse, Green raises the stakes in the worst ways. Get us onto the chair lift with a contrivance, sure. But as the film progresses, most of the drama ends up coming not from the situation but from the wolves, inviting us to consider just how unbelievable the film is in that regard: a ski resort that is positively flanked by man-eating wolf packs? Wouldn't there be some kind of system in place to keep them off the peopled regions? Even ignoring that, how likely is it that within at best a handful of hours after the slopes had been heavily traversed by dozens or hundreds of humans, the wolves would be so casual about sauntering around, looking for food? The mere fact that the wolves are thereafter treated as fairy tale monsters and not at all like you'd expect wolves to behave - for a start, they eat way too much in a 12 hour span - punches a huge hole in the film's carefully established credibility, and it's frankly beneath the skill with which the movie was made: freezing to death is scary, you don't need to tart it up by besmirching the reputation of the already black name of the noble timber wolf. And having a character express shock at wolves in New England is not the same thing as giving wolves a credible reason to be in New England, not when we're already aware that this "New England" looks uncommonly like the Rockies.
There is a great - no, make that, a damn good thriller hiding inside Frozen; one told with less melodrama in the characterisations and in the dangers the characters face. I desperately wish that had been the version that was released, for the parts of the film that work are flat-out fantastic. There just aren't enough of them.