Sunday, April 19, 2009

COLD PREY (Fritt Vilt, 2006)

One object of my ongoing survey of the wild world of cinema is to see if they still do things differently in foreign countries. Back in the day you could tell the European genre films, the Italians especially, from the American product, often despite the best efforts of Italians to disguise their nationality with pseudonyms for talent. Today you can say pretty definitely that India does films differently from other countries, and in the horror realm you can say that Asian countries take a different approach to the genre despite American efforts to imitate Japanese and Korean successes. But I'm not sure if there's still a distinctively European approach to horror. Today's question is a little more specific: Is there a Norwegian approach to horror?

Is it geographic? I doubt it. It might be natural for director Roar Uthaug to set his film on a snowy mountain, but there are snowy mountains in the U.S., too, and a horror film could easily be set on one. Indeed, Stanley Kubrick did it, and there are times when you think Cold Prey might turn out to be a small-scale model of The Shining. As it turns out, there are no obvious supernatural elements in this story.

Meanwhile, it looks like we have a typically American cast of characters. There are five young people heading out for an outing of snowboarding on a less-travelled mountain. The group consists of three guys, two girls -- two couples and a fifth-wheel, Morten Tobias, who boasts defensively of regular sex with an absent soulmate girlfriend. We suspect they're headed for trouble because the pre-credits sequence showed us a boy being chased through the wintry waste and buried alive. This apparently began a reign of terror in the mountains, with dozens of people disappearing in what proves to be thirty years' time.

Morten proves more of a buzzkill by breaking his ankle on the slopes. The gang looks for a shelter for him and finds an abandoned ski lodge. It hasn't been used in thirty years, and the last guestbook entries refer to a missing boy, as do newspaper clippings the kids find. I should mention that the boy had a very conspicuous birthmark, a patch of discoloration around his left eye. What's the point of that, you wonder?

The gang gets the fireplace going, then finds the generator and restarts the electricity. Apart from Morten, they explore the place, finding broken glass and some fire damage in some of the rooms. While the audience is meant to be apprehensive immediately, Uthaug takes his time with the scares, offering no more than noises and windblown doors for more than half an hour.

At night, one of the couples, Mikal and Ingunn, seem ready to get it on. Uh-oh. But Ingunn won't put out. Now, if you're a lurking killer, there are two ways to look at this. On one hand, Ingunn has preserved her virtue. On the other, she's a tease. How do you judge? Maybe, if you're a psychotic killer, you don't judge at all. You get Ingunn's attention by moving through the hall while she tries a rusty shower, and you wait as she pads into the hall in her scanties, and then you apply the pickax. Ingunn's friends have their music on too loud to hear her screams.

In the morning, not yet knowing Ingunn's fate, Eirik decides to go out to get help for Morten. He finds a trail of blood in the snow. This leads to Ingunn, who serves quite passively as a distraction while the parka-clad killer looms up behind him. Curiously, it looks like he applies the blunt part of the pickax to Eirik.

Inside, the generator conks out. Jannecke, Eirik's girlfriend, and Mikal go down to fix it. After a fake scare involving some tarp falling on Mikal, they find a door into a large closet that reminds them of a lost-and-found department. There's something odd about it, though. The lodge has been closed since 1975, but some of the stuff in the closet is clearly more recent. Mikal mentions a local legend of a "cabin guy" who breaks into places like these and vandalizes them by crapping on the floors. Is this his lair?

Meanwhile, Morten limps into the lodge kitchen to find some food. Jannecke goes to Ingunn's room and finds a pool of blood. Mikal, now looking for Morten, discovers what looks like blood in the kitchen. But Morten had only fallen and spilled a can of food. "I declared war on that tin can and lost," he jokes. But Jannecke's news is no joke. Noticing movement in one of the lodge's long hallways, the three survivors panic and hole up in another room. Mikal finally gets the courage to venture out, only to barely escape a pickax attack. Back to the room, where our heroes have only their bodies to bar the door against the battering of a man with a pickax. But he abruptly quits his siege.

Mikal decides he's getting out at all costs, diving through a window into the snow. As Jannecke and Morten watch, he promptly gets his foot caught in a bear trap. He manages to extract himself in time to dive into a shed when the killer reappears. Inside the shed, he hides behind a pile of skis as the killer enters. Mikal bolts back outside, but the killer catches him as Mikal's friends watch helplessly.

Three down, two to go. They decide the most secure place is the kitchen, and Jannecke leaves Morten there to see if she can break through to civilization. As the killer drags Mikal into the house, she goes into the shed, where she finds skis, a sledge, a flashlight, and a shotgun -- with only one shell available. Now she goes back to the house. Her new idea is to lure the killer someplace where they can lock him up. She blunders upon the spot where the killer has stored Mikal, Ingunn and Eirik -- but Eirik is still alive. Why the killer didn't destroy him at once is a question the film never answers. Unfortunately, Eirik can't get up off the floor, so Janneke has to abandon him when the killer approaches.

New plan: get the killer's attention, bring him out of his closet and blow him away to save Eirik. They get his attention, but he gets a human shield. Jannecke diverts her aim to save Eirik, but that only leaves the killer the honor of putting his pickax through the poor slob from behind. But the killer doesn't necessarily know that that was the heroes' only shot. Morten grabs the gun and tries to bluff the killer, urging Jannecke (whom he's pined for not so secretly) to run for it. Jannecke is soon the Final Girl, but the killer soon catches up with her. As with Eirik initially, he proves strangely inefficient with some of his victims, leaving Jannecke to wake up for a suspenseful final scene surrounded by her friends' corpses while the killer prepares to dispose of them all. We know at least that he's not a cannibal, but what more can we guess about him, and what does it matter in the end?...

Some questions are pretty simply answered, and there's possibly more explanation of some details like the boy's predicament in the pre-credit scene than seems relevant. In the end, Cold Prey's virtue is its relative simplicity. Uthaug gets the kids into an isolated location and puts them in peril. But the killer's inefficiency seems contrived, the only reason not to kill Eirik immediately seeming to be so he'd have the human shield later for a scenario he couldn't have anticipated. There's no good reason at all for him not to finish Janneke off decisively; the reasoning is all the director's, since he wants a tense, dramatic climax -- which it somewhat proves to be despite the contrivance of it all.

The location work gives the film some local color and a relatively unique landscape for a slasher movie. The Anchor Bay DVD includes an English dub, but to be fair to the actors I watched them in their native Norwegian, subtitled. I figured they wouldn't sound like the usual gang of stupid kids that way. As far as I could tell, the actors were competent enough. The effects are bloody rather than gory, the most extreme moment being the pickax coming through Eirik's abdomen. In that regard, Cold Prey is more in the American than the European tradition.

The killer and his pickax are visually distinctive enough to invite exploitation, and the climax points to a backstory for him that begs further questions. The movie ends, however, with an odd moment that makes you question the climax itself, an image of the killer striking that may remind you of the symbolic opening/closing shot of The Great Train Robbery (or maybe the closing shot of Joe Pesci from Goodfellas)or of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. But the ambiguity of the ending was resolved by the film's popularity at home and presumably elsewhere. So just when you thought it was safe to come down the mountain...

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