Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Review - Wind Chill

Wind Chill

Directed by Gregory Jacobs
Written by Joe Gangemi and Steven Katz
Starring: Emily Blunt, Ashton Holmes, Martin Donovan
Distributed by Columbia/Tri-Star
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Running Time: 1 hour and 31 minutes

3 stars (out of 4)

Few so-called "horror" films really get the "horror" they set out to impart onto their audience. I'm not talking about the cheap scares that directors and writers try to use to thrill the audience. The cat jumping out of nowhere during a tense scene. Something that pounds on the door and turns out to be a tree branch. The use of music to build up tension that wouldn't be there otherwise. Nowadays this is definition of horror. In no way should this definition replace or substitute the true meaning of horror. The feeling of dread and isolation. Despair in the pit of your stomach while feeling completely helpless in the environment you find yourself in. These are emotions that a true horror film will make you feel. "Wind Chill", for most of its running time, makes the viewer feel.

Emily Blunt (her character is never given a name) is a college student on her way home for the Christmas break. Recently dumped by her boyfriend, she takes advice and "shares" a ride with someone going her way. Ashton Holmes (again, his character is never given a name) is the student she shares a ride with. From the start, everything on this ride is a little off. The gas station they stop at is off kilter. The locals stop and stare. The bathroom locks itself on Blunt and then opens itself up a little while later. All the while, the tension and dread starts to build up.

Holmes' character also acts a little weird. He decides to take a "shortcut" to Delaware (the motivation behind this act is revealed later on). Blunt starts to suspect and distrust Holmes. She calls him out on it while driving on the isolated and snow covered highway. After a heated argument, the two are run off the road. The car is stuck with no way out and nightfall coming. Holmes decide to try and walk back to the gas station. Blunt, with ultimate distrust for him, agrees. After a short while, she sees someone walking past. She tries to call out for him but the mysterious person disappears as Holmes reappears. These are strange incidents indeed.

Soon they discover that there is a back story to the road that is pieced together through appearances of ghosts, old newspapers and other assorted plot developments. But the real character is the dread and tension that is built up through the slow development of the occurrences. A simple Christmas jingle, a flashing light, or something passing by the window without an immediate "shock" moment help build this tension, gluing the viewer to everything that happens. These simple things help build a helpless feeling that translates well on screen

A main point in the film is if there was terrible things that happened at one place over and over, would that place retain the negative energy and spirits that were involved? Many films try and use this theme and plot point to no avail, settling for cheap thrills and "scare" moments. "Wind Chill" succeeds in building the tension, creating not just "scare" moments but truly horrific moments. The film truly isolates the two main characters and then puts them in not just physical turmoil, but also piling on emotional horror. At first there is immense amounts of distrust between Blunt and Holmes but, after it becomes clear that they are both in this together, they band together to try and survive the night.

I give credit to the writers and the director. This could have easily turned into the schlock that has come out over the years. But it perseveres and rises above. The camera lingers, adding to the overall feel of the film. The cliches of most horror movies are present, but the film does rise above them, owning them and making them its own. The acting is a cut above, making you feel the distrust. The viewer believes it when they band together and try to survive, not making it seem forced.

While the film is excellent at what it does, there are certain aspects that fall short of making it a classic. The back story to the highway is a little weak and I personally had hoped for more. It is serviceable but the feel of the film deserved a better background. The third act of the film starts bogs down a little, derailing slightly. It doesn't veer off course completely yet if it had stayed the course, there would have been a very special finished product. Also, Holmes' motivations are a little too coincidental. I understand that it was to move the plot forward and get them to the point where both characters are stranded, yet the coincidence factor is a real shame.

Overall, "Wind Chill" is one of those rare horror films that creates an atmosphere of fear - the kind of fear that you feel psychologically. The distrust, dread and tension created in its short running time is a welcome change over anything I've seen in theatres lately. Any movie that makes me just a little scared of being alone, in the dark or both is worth the time I spend watching it.