(This review is hopefully going to be part of Film Club at Final Girl. It feels weird to go back and retrofit this link into my review. It's like time travel somehow, only you just go back in time to walk into someone's bathroom while they're taking a shower so you can take the cap off their toothpaste. But anyway.)
It's actually not all that hard to come up with a good scary story that doesn't require any monster or supernatural element to work. You just need a few things.
One of them is a time-honored literary theme: Man versus Nature. Nature is the monolithic, implacable force against which Man, normally so mighty but here so small, struggles to survive. How we frame that struggle can make the difference between a triumph-of-the-human-spirit movie (Alive), a tragedy (Into The Wild), or a horror movie (Open Water).
The next is the price of bad luck. One misunderstanding or error can set off a whole chain of terrible circumstances. The phrase "I thought he/she was with you" can be absolutely terrifying in the right hands. You see the mistake happen, and you know that the person making it is utterly oblivious to its implication. This lends verisimilitude - shit like this actually happens in the real world.
Finally, you need a reversal on another established genre. Lots of recent teens-in-trouble movies have appropriated not just the circumstances of teen spring break comedies, but the style and feel of them too - bright colors, crude humor, and forgettable pop-punk soundtracks that only last as long as the fun does. I like this, but wish that at some point somebody would have the balls to not give away the hook in the advertising for the movie. As good as I thought Hostel was, it would have been ever better and more effective if nobody knew about the second half going into it. Sort of a "it's all fun and games until somebody ends up in an Eastern European torture dungeon, and then it's the absolute diametric fucking opposite of fun" thing. A man can dream, I guess.
Until then, my next plausible (mostly) scary movie is Frozen.
It begins as a wacky teen ski comedy - much like Better Off Dead, a classic of the genre. You've got buddies Dan and Joe - Dan is the sensible, levelheaded one, the hardworking student one. Joe is the wacky stoner with the head full of pop culture trivia. They're on their annual ski trip, a chance to bro out and get some quality time on the slopes in, as a bonding thing and escape from the pressures of college (or the pressures of being wacky and stoned all the time, I guess). Joe's mad because Dan brought along Parker, his girlfriend. The ski weekend is about them, it's always been about them, and as far as Joe is concerned, she's an intruder. So there's some tension there. Joe's also mad that Parker's ineptitude at snowboarding is confining the trio to the bunny slopes. So there's a whole friendship and accepting the increasing responsibilities that come with a committed relationship and adulthood thing going on. Plus, Joe tries flirting with a girl at the bunny slope until her meathead jock recently-ex boyfriend gets all alpha male over the whole thing. Joe gets her number anyway.
Were this your average teen comedy, there'd be a lot of tension and arguing and hurt feelings between Dan, Joe, and Parker, Dan would storm off to console Parker, but then when Joe runs into trouble with the meathead ex-boyfriend, both Dan and Parker are there for Joe when he beats the ex-boyfriend in a downhill competition, Joe gets the girl, makes up with Dan and Parker, the ex-boyfriend ends up in a snowdrift, and everyone dances to some song by Sum 41 as the credits roll.
Oh, no, that is not what happens. Not at all.
Dan, Joe, and Parker are stuck high in the air on an immobile chairlift. They yell for help, but nobody hears. And then the lights go out at the resort. It's a small resort, they can't afford to run all week. It's Sunday.
The resort opens again on Friday.
It's as simple a setup as you'd want. A few people, some underlying resentments, utter helplessness and nature, red in tooth and claw. Open Water used this same setup to tremendous effect. The real antagonist here is nature - and it isn't even actively hostile. It just is. There are lots of interstitial and establishing shots of the mountains and trees interspersed with shots of the deserted resort. The emptiness is palpable, and its absence of malice is somehow worse - it's just business as usual up here. You can't reason with or outwit nature. It...just..is. The very definition of being at the mercy of the elements. Any screams are going to go unheard. And the elements - whoo boy. It's bad enough being stuck high in the air, but it's also freezing. There's hypothermia to worry about, and frostbite, along with starvation. Needless to say, tempers flare. Things are decided rashly, and action is taken, with disastrous consequences. In addition to the wind and the snow and the cold and the ice and the silence, there are wolves.
It's a really good conceit - we know the characters enough to sympathize with them and whatever their faults, they certainly don't deserve what's happened to them. We want to see them get out alive. There's a lot of attention on the actors, and this sort of movie could turn melodramatic very quickly, but they consistently make good choices, keeping everything on the right side of believability. Dan's not necessarily the hero, Parker isn't necessarily helpless, Joe isn't necessarily incompetent. These feel like people, and their suffering and fear are raw and convincing. It's hard to relax, because this is the sort of situation in which any error, no matter how slight, can be fatal, and any change in circumstance can make things much worse.
Unfortunately, the pacing does drag things somewhat. A movie like this works best when events are a steady drumbeat, approaching inevitability, when problem mounts upon problem mounts upon problem. Frozen is front-loaded with scary moments, but the back half drags and repeats itself somewhat. Things happen and seem to be important but never go anywhere, and the movie relies a little too much on the wolves as a threat, as if it were unwilling to commit to the indifference of the elements as the main antagonist. They provide a couple of really good moments, but a movie like this really works best, I think, when it's about staring into the void and knowing that there is nothing looking back, that there is no Mother Nature. Or worse - there is, and she has the lightless, staring eyes of a wolf.
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Netflix