Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Suspended Desperation

Final Girl Stacie Ponder's Film Club pick for February was a bit of a curveball; I don't always participate, so I could be wrong here, but this one seemed like an atypical choice for the FGFC. First of all, it's brand new (I'd never heard of it until twelve hours ago), and second-of-all, it's pretty slick. If you've been following along at home, you'll know that most FG flick picks aren't slick...so much as...apt to be obscure and timeworn. Splendid gems for the most part, but usually in need of a good polishing. Frozen (2010), on the other hand, is fresh from the oven. Or icebox, in this case.

The set-up is basically the engine that powers every phase of the plot: three college kids become stuck on an immobile ski lift, stranded above a wolf-harried mountain, and attempt to survive with only their wits and their mitts left to them. (Spoiler! - they lose both really, really, quickly)

Directed by Adam Green of Hatchet fame, and featuring a cast of young horror veterans - Emma Bell (Walking Dead), Shawn Ashmore (The Ruins), and Kevin Zegers (Dawn of the Dead), Frozen is a deceptively simple modern thriller with admittedly minor scope, but keenly whetted for maximum audience impact. It's refreshing in its light touch - the melodrama is kept in check, there are few false notes in the character's interactions, and the tension and ultimate climax resolve organically. Also? No obvious reliance on CGI. These days, that's a laudable rarity.

So while the movie does an adequate job of keeping the audience caring about the characters' predicament and maintains a fairly decent pace, it suffers a bit from its ostensible antecedents. To wit; 2003's Open Water was a mostly grim slog through the last hours of a callow relationship doomed to evisceration by stupidity, recrimination, and bitey sharks. There is that same problem here. Mathematically, this fatalistic narrative equation can yield only a small number possible outcomes. The setup requires at least one sacrifice, so during the second and third acts, we're left expecting either one or both of the remaining characters to a) live, or b) die.

Perhaps paradoxically, by narrowing the focus by a third, the emotional stakes are equally divested. We care about this group of kids, (and they're presented as a unit, not a predictably killable crew of Hodder-fodder), but individually, as the three become separate, the dynamic spins away. It creates tension, but it's also an obvious, glaring tell for the audience - a familiar keyframe.

Early on, Frozen namechecks Jaws as a foreshadowing tool. A fear of being torn apart by predators is horribly realized for one, and you can't help but wonder if a Final Destination style outcome waits in kind for the others. When Bell's character declares her fear of burning to death, I half expected her to horribly combust while attempting to light a makeshift flare using her cigarette lighter and a length of ultra-flammable fleece from her jacket lining. Was it a coincidence that the jumping Trade Center workers of 9/11 were also mentioned? Were we supposed to anticipate the dubious irony of a flaming frost-bite victim falling to her death from the less-than-lofty heights of a mundane chairlift? I hope not, and I'm glad it didn't go there (although Ms. Bell is slated to appear in the upcoming Final Destination installment, so...hmm)

Frozen also owes some of its frosty DNA to the haunting and tragic Wind Chill, a comparison which is maybe unfairly apples & oranges of me, but I think deserves a mention. Frozen also got me thinking of the raft sequence in Creepshow 2. The escape plans devised as a kid (in case of a monster sighting) when lying on that raft in the middle of the lake at the cottage are no different, really, than the contingencies imagined after the ski-lift swings to a juddering halt on a Sunday in February over the treacherous Pinball Run.

As far as contingencies go, the majority of the viewers I'm sure formulated their own strategies while watching this, and those strategies would in all probability fail just as spectacularly as the panicked and element-numbed trio from the film's did. In fact, I'm willing to bet my season lift-pass that the Mythbusters devote an entire episode to alpine survival, punctuating each practical demonstration with abundant clips from Frozen to underscore their "kids, don't try this at home" mantra. ("Watch what happens to Buster's legs as we drop him onto a frozen hillside from a height of sixty feet!")

Ultimately, Frozen's glacial charms are more than enough to outweigh its shortcomings, and the final result is about nine million degrees more sizzling than what I would've expected from the helmer of the fucking Hatchet films.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Package Arrives!

About a week ago, I had a dream in which my left foot was in need of some expensive surgery only offered by an exclusive hospital in Geneva. As I couldn't afford both the procedure and the transatlantic airfare, my doctor came up with a cunningly simple workaround - he sawed it off at the ankle and bade the receptionist to express-mail it to Switzerland. Then he gave me some crutches and told me to go home and wait. The latter half of the dream had me hobbling about restlessly, listening for the postman's heavy step at the front path. A package finally appeared, and I tore open the bubble-wrapped envelope with relief. My foot was repaired and ready to go. Full postage paid. Unfortunately - much like the Swedes and their damnable Ikea deliveries - the Swiss surgeons had neglected to include English instructions for re-attachment. I was, if you'll excuse the pun, stumped.

Anticipation is a potent thing. Whether manifesting as barely perceived butterflies in our waking lives, or powerful presentiments of slumbering wish fulfillment, the promise of a thing yet to come; assigned but unknowable, awarded yet unclaimable, can yield the sweetest of torments. And so it was this dread anticipation which did accompany my discovery of a manila-sleeved enigma stuffed in the mailbox Monday evening. Was it a foot, you ask?  Better, my friends. Better and bloodier. It was my pre-ordered copy of

The wait is over!

Many of you are familiar with the works of Stacie Ponder, professional graphic artist and tireless authoress of Final Girl. What you may not know is that last year, in the paltry span of two days, she made a near feature-length film with her own resources pretty much single-handedly. And let me tell you, it's good.

Befitting bugsplat on Google's road camera heading to Ludlow.

Krista (Lark) is looking to put some distance between her and a physically abusive spouse. We see her car arrive at a bleak desert motel in Ludlow, CA. Unpacking her meager belongings (and a seemingly endless cache of cheap vodka), she checks in to room #8.

Early on, we're introduced to Krista's constant companions: her collection of welts and bruises, her cellphone, and a rapidly-diminishing supply of assorted painkillers and anti-depressants. Ominously, each of these fairweather friends are prone to exhibit diametrically opposite functions; the bruises are both painful reminders of her past and a lifesaving catalyst for change, the phone is her lifeline to the future, as well as a dangerous connection to her abuser, and the pills will cushion her emotional trauma even as they confound her ability to cope with it. It's not just Krista who is at a crossroads - everything in her inventory possesses a dualistic, potentially malignant nature.

Ponder shows us a lot of her broken heroine's psychosexual history and the frightening depth of her instability in the hour that follows, perhaps documenting only a few minutes of Krista's downward spiral, perhaps a few days. The overall effect is designed to disorient, so further plot details become entirely subject to the viewer's sympathies. One does sympathize, however, make no mistake. Shannon Lark does a fantastic job of riveting the viewer to Krista's lonely plight, allowing us enough distance to judge her terrible choices, even as we commiserate, feeling every shock, punch and indignity.

In the highly enjoyable commentary, Stacie cites Friedkin's Bug and Polanski's Repulsion as Ludlow's thematic godparents. Myself, I would be surprised if audiences weren't also reminded of Carnival of Souls (the doomed heroine, inexorably drawn to an abandoned location), Mulholland Drive (a damaged woman's delusional reinvention of characters and events), and even a hint of Konami's second installment in the Silent Hill series, populated by self-destructive penitents trapped in their own private purgatories.

Very much in keeping with Ludlow's elegiac flavor is James Barry's original music. It is not the typical fare of no-budget independent works, and adds tremendously to the film's emotional impact. Rounding out the cast is Elissa Dowling (in two roles), and Ned Christensen as Steve, the silent, stalking Shade of Krista's subconscious.

Stacie has been reviewing and discussing films for the better half of a decade, now. She's absorbed an uncanny, almost encyclopedic knowledge of suspense and horror, and amassed legions of fans in the process. Her critical aim is true. And so here's the thing: unlike your typical backyard-zombie movie, fledgling filmmaker, Stacie had a HUGE task ahead of her. How do you craft a story - with no budget to speak of - that's going to satisfy genre fans who've seen everything? More importantly, how will you maintain credibility as a connoisseur to such a jaded and sophisticated audience? Today's fans have seen every cliché, every cheap convention and lazy contrivance there is, and this genre is rife with them, even the old pros like Romero and Hooper have fallen prey to them. We complain loudly and bitterly over the crap that tries to pass for art, and the trite shorthand that usurps true storytelling. "I could make a movie ten times better than this!" we say with the contempt that attends absolute certainty. With this in mind, the pressure to make something that isn't an exercise in hackneyed futility must have been monumental for Miss Ponder.

It's with great appreciation and relief that I'm able to say that not only did she show courage in the attempt, but incredible deftness in the execution. Ludlow is a triumph.

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