Wind Chill

Director: Gregory Jacobs
Emily Blunt, Ashton Holmes, Martin Donovan

When one is making a horror movie, like with any other film genre a filmmaker or filmmakers may make, there are certain ingredients that have to be gathered and subsequently used with great care in order for the finished product to work. You need well-written characters, from the potential victims in the story to the evil force. (That is, of course, if the evil force in whatever form it is in has something resembling human intelligence.) You need good acting, to make the audience care about the characters one way or another. One key ingredient that you might not think of right away that a good horror movie needs is a good location. Certainly, some horror locations have a lot more potential than others. For example, say that the location is a skyscraper or some luxurious high rise apartment building. I'm pretty sure that when you read that last sentence, you weren't immediately filled with spooky thoughts. I think pretty much all of us are used to tall buildings both inside and out. Oh, I am sure that with some imagination and some hard work, an extremely tall building could be made to come across as a scary place. But when I think of tall buildings in horror movies, all I can think of right away is the dismal Poltergeist III. (Before you write in with Ghostbusters, let me remind you that movie was mostly a comedy.) Anyway, with that example in mind, it shouldn't come as any surprise that horror filmmakers more often than not set their locations in places that have a feeling of creepiness right from the start. The makers of Prison, for example, got instant atmosphere and chills from setting their movie in an old penitentiary.

There is a certain kind of location that has been immensely popular with horror filmmakers for decades, and that location happens to be deep in the countryside, far away from civilization. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out why the wilderness has been such a frequent choice. People all over the world have portrayed the wilderness for centuries to be packed with all sorts of horror. For example, there is a certain legend about Forbidden Plateau, a location deep in the wilderness a few hours drive from the city that I live in. Long before white men first came to the area, the Comox tribe were involved in a war with another tribe, and to keep their women and children safe, sent them to the plateau. But later, when the Comox warriors returned to the plateau, they found their women and children had vanished. The Comox warriors came to the conclusion that the women and children had been taken by evil spirits, so from that point on the plateau was declared to be off limits. (I used to think a good horror movie could be made from this legend and location... until I realized that Canadian filmmakers mostly lack the chops to make real movies.) Anyway, it doesn't take too much additional thought to think of why wilderness is still a ripe location for horror filmmakers to use. We twenty-first century people rely on civilized life for comfort and safety. In the wilderness, we are away from those things, so we are more vulnerable. And we don't know the wilderness as well as our own homes, so any type of unfamiliar horror could be hiding behind the trees.

I've got to admit that despite being largely desensitized by many horror movies over the years, real life wilderness still spooks me. A few years ago, I took a day trip to the woods a few hours out of my city, and my guide temporarily left me, telling me which direction to hike in the meantime. Wind ChillI can tell you that although I was only hiking alone for about fifteen minutes, I was seriously freaked out, thinking I was lost. So movies about people experiencing horror deep in the wilderness still have some instant bite for this viewer. Which is one reason why I picked up the wilderness horror movie Wind Chill. The events of Wind Chill take place one December in New England. A young female university student (Blunt, Edge Of Tomorrow), identified only as "Girl" in the closing credits, desires a ride to her family's home in a neighboring state. Through the campus' share ride bulletin board, she is connected to a young male university student (Holmes, A History Of Violence), identified only as "Guy" in the closing credits. Shortly afterwards, the two meet and start on their journey to their shared destination... at least that's how it appears at first. As the journey progresses, "Girl" starts getting hints from the words and behavior of "Guy" that he not only knows some personal details about her that she hadn't revealed earlier, he may not actually be a resident of her home town. The situation gets more creepy when "Guy" suddenly turns off the main highway onto a secondary road, claiming it's a short cut while ignoring the protests of "Girl". Soon after, the sun sets, and the two are traveling down the mysterious road in the dark. Suddenly, "Guy" has to swerve the car off the road when an approaching car heads directly towards them, and their car gets stuck in the snow. The two quickly realize they are in quite a pickle with their being stuck in the middle of nowhere and the car radio reporting a fierce storm approaching. But neither knows that the surrounding woods are hiding something mysterious that may be a greater danger to them than a winter storm or being lost...

There were a couple of other things about Wind Chill that interested me enough to watch it. It was partially filmed just a few hours drive from the British Columbian interior town I grew up in, for one thing. And it was produced by both George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh, which is probably why the movie was picked up by a major Hollywood distributor. But despite its pedigree, it was barely released to theaters. That's usually the sign of a cinematic disaster, but that's not the case with this movie; the end results are actually pretty good overall. One of the pleasant surprises found in Wind Chill is that unlike so many other horror movies featuring young adults, the performances in this case is very good. It's a good thing, because the characters of "Girl" and "Guy" are up front and center for almost all of the running time. In actress Emily Blunt's case, she has the challenge of being a typical young adult that can change emotions - often of a heated nature - at almost a whim, and without being annoying to the audience. Blunt manages to succeed at this by mixing in some subtle yet effective moments in her performance between moments of anger and frustration. There were many times when she did not say a word, but her facial expressions - suspicion, confusion, or some other emotion - made perfectly clear what her character was feeling or thinking. As for actor Ashton Holmes, while he looked a little long in the tooth to be a college student (he was almost 30 when the movie was made), he did capture very well the awkwardness and eager to please attitude that many young men experience when trying to do their best, whether it is to please a lady or do something else. His character's stupidity might have come across as obnoxious with another actor in the role, but Holmes gives his character some believable naiveté. Though some of his character's actions were dumb, Holmes' attitude made me remember the dumb things I did around his character's age, so there was always a good degree that his character remained sympathetic.

Paired together for most of the movie, Blunt and Holmes manage to generate a good deal of chemistry with each other. I could believe that these were two young adults, each with different goals, finding themselves stuck together. It certainly helped that their dialogue and actions were written to be pretty believable for the most part. "Girl" is not a stupid young woman. It does not take her an incredible amount of time to figure out there are things that "Guy" is hiding from her. She starts seeing holes in the facade of "Guy" early on... though we also sense that maybe she doesn't want to realize "Guy" has intentions she may not like to know. "Guy" says and does some stupid things, but he's not completely stupid - he triumphs in the scene where he and "Girl" talk about their philosophy final. He's flawed, but believable. Still, there were some scenes where both characters did not do the logical thing. Shortly after their car accident, they spot multiple dark figures lurking in the wilderness, figures that quickly disappear. Do they talk about what they have just seen? They don't. Later, they find an old newspaper from the ruins of a house, a newspaper that has an article and pictures about some other ghostly figures they saw earlier. Once again, they don't discuss this discovery at all. These and a few other lapses in logic do hurt things a little, but for the most part the two young adults do act fairly intelligent. However, I did wish that the movie would have considered the audience more intelligent in one key area. Towards the end of the movie, there is a long winded explanation by a character as to various things that happened in the area in the past. However, I didn't find this explanation necessary at all. Up to that moment, the movie had been giving its audience subtle clues, clues that when put together gave me a pretty good idea as to what was happening and why. To me, there was no reason to blatantly spell things out.

Although Wind Chill is a horror movie, I see that I haven't really gotten to the meat and potatoes yet, the scary stuff. While the movie was rated "R", I think that viewers expecting typical "R" rated goodies like gore will be pretty let down. There's not much of that kind of stuff here; the movie in my opinion really deserved a PG-13 rating, maybe even a PG rating. But that's not to say that the movie is without chills and scares. The general look of the movie, for one thing, is very atmospheric. The daytime scenes in the first half of the movie come across as cold and gloomy, and you can feel the characters' discomfort. When the characters find themselves stranded in the middle of nowhere at the movie's halfway point, the filmmakers slowly but surely increase the feeling of danger. First it gets dark. Then "Guy" spots some crosses planted by the side of the road. Soon after, "Girl" sees a dark figure passing by that disappears. In short notice, a real feeling of dread starts to build, and to me that's often more effective than in-your-face gore and mayhem. That's not to say that there aren't any "big" horror sequences. There are a few, like the scene when the car starts to shake violently, or a few encounters with a mysterious (and sadistic) highway patrolman (Donovan, Ant-Man). While moments as these do put some genuine jolts into Wind Chill (save for a seemingly pointless scene in a gas station bathroom), such moments are just a few in number - the movie for the most part strives to spook the audience with a chilly atmosphere. And this reviewer, who considers himself desensitized to most modern horror films, had to admit he indeed felt somewhat uneasy by most of what he saw. Alas, this ungraphic approach Wind Chill takes probably explains why the distributor got cold feet and barely released the movie to theaters. It's fortunate that worthwhile films today that aren't given much of a theatrical push have a chance through DVD, cable, and streaming to build a cult audience - which I think will someday happen to Wind Chill.

(Posted October 27, 2019)

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See also: Rest Stop, Rituals, Route 666