Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Fritt Vilt: What's Norwegian for "Big Mac"?

Part of why I don't like slasher movies is their tendency to hew to a specific formula. Slasher movies are movies where a group of careless teenagers are picked off one-by-one by a mysterious killer, usually in graphic and anywhere from inventive to downright implausible ways. Often, more attention is paid to the execution of the death scenes than to the characters, mood, pacing, or story. Often, they're not much more than a series of establishing scenes used to string together a bunch of gruesome, effects-heavy set pieces. This is why I generally don't like them - they're not so much scary as gross, and as such don't really inspire much of an emotional response. We're not encouraged to connect with the characters, the settings are utilitarian rather than atmospheric, and there's nothing in the story that's being told to inspire surprise or dread, so the whole process is emotionally inert. Sequels and tendencies toward increasing self-referentiality only amplify the genre's shortcomings and turn what was already a pretty dubious enterprise into something incredibly silly instead. Slashers are cinematic fast food - all fats and sugars, with any semblance of nuance or substance discarded as surplus to profit, all superfluity stripped away in favor of the cheap thrills demanded by an undiscerning audience.

(Yes, there are exceptions - there are always exceptions - but by and large it's a pretty predictable type of movie, and what it has to offer rarely, if ever, interests me.)

Still, I'm always interested to see what happens when another country gets hold of what I think of as a very American form of horror film. There's something about the way the filmmakers get the basic idea just enough to make something initially familiar, but when all of their own cultural assumptions replace all of the ones I take for granted as someone raised on the American versions, the end product feels a little off, and this is by no means a bad thing. If there's one thing something as formulaic as a slasher movie could use, it's a healthy dose of unironic, un-self-conscious weirdness. So hey, here's what appears to be a pretty stock-standard teens-in-trouble slasher movie from Norway! What's up with that?

Well, not as much as I'd hoped. Fritt Vilt (Cold Prey) does enough differently from the typical slasher movie to make it clear that it's a product of a different set of sensibilities, but not enough to make it a substantively different experience.

The film opens with a boy being chased by somebody through the snow, interspersed with footage of worried parents being interviewed (presumably) about his disappearance. It's jarring in how it flips back and forth between blinding white, yelling and screaming, and the warm, safe indoors, and the quiet, sad faces of the grieving parents, but it doesn't last long. The opening credits roll over a litany of news stories detailing the number of people who go missing in the mountains of Norway every year. So we get no credit for guessing what's going to happen over the next 90 minutes or so, and it's all a little obvious.

The credits bring us up to the present day. Five people - perpetually frisky couple Mikal and Ingunn, less juvenile and horny couple Eirik and Jannicke, and obligatory fifth wheel Morten Tobias - are off to do some snowboarding in some out of the way spots. They're laughing and joking, and the trip into the mountains serves, as it often does in movies like this, as the closest thing we're going to get to characterization in the whole movie. Mikal and Ingunn are all over each other, Eirik and Jannicke respond to a question about the two of them moving in together with different answers (awkward), and Morten Tobias makes some jokes concerning his fidelity and devotion to his right hand. They're a bunch of fun-loving kids, with fun-loving kid problems, exactly as you'd expect. This faithfulness to the slasher formula extends to the "having wacky fun before shit gets real" sequence, which in this movie is less about boozing and drugs and more about snowboarding. It's as extreme-sports as you'd expect, and as the protagonists carve through the snow, there's even genre-appropriate jock-rock playing on the soundtrack, with lyrics that don't quite parse as neatly into English as they probably should. And that sort of sets the tone of the movie - you know what it is, but some of the details swing a little wide of what you'd expect, and it's easily one of the film's most appealing aspects.

In the middle of all of the sun and snow and wholesome recreation, Morten Tobias pulls off a sick-nasty 360ยบ method air-to-compound fracture of the leg when he takes a bad landing off a jump, and the fun comes screeching to a halt as they all try to find somewhere to hole up and take care of him. This brings them to what appears to be an abandoned ski lodge set back into the mountains - one that looks like it's been closed for about 30 years. It doesn't look like it's been maintained or even visited in ages, but it's warm and dry enough, especially once Mikal and Eirik get the generator going. They've got booze, vintage Norwegian pop music (cheesy as hell, if the reactions of the protagonists are to be believed), and even some painkillers for Morten Tobias. Making the best of a bad situation, Mikal and Ingunn head off to find a room, Eirik and Jannicke smile indulgently, Morten Tobias gets a little loaded…

…and a hulking black figure moves silently through the lodge, watching the newcomers.

From here, it's more or less what you'd expect - our protagonists are stalked and murdered by an unseen, voiceless assailant. Little misunderstandings and lack of communication mean it takes everyone a little bit to figure out what's happening, but it doesn't make them look like they're stupid - just people with their own private shortcomings who don't expect to be hunted down by a crazed murderer because shit like that doesn't happen, smirky, winking, self-referential movies aside. Once they do figure it out (surprisingly late in the movie's runtime, which is sort of a problem pacing-wise because it doesn't feel like much of a slow burn), it becomes a headlong race to keep as many of them alive as they can, with decidedly mixed results. There are some surprises - the first one to die isn't sexually promiscuous (quite the opposite), and in fact nobody actually has sex in this movie at all, neatly undercutting the weird puritanism you get in many U.S. slasher films.

Just as we're deprived of gratuitous T&A, we're also denied gratuitous blood and guts. Very little killing is actually shown on screen, and what violence we do get is quick and effective in communicating what's just happened. No lingering effects shots or exotic weaponry here - just a big dude with a pickaxe who strikes fast and with purpose. As far as characterization goes, the one with a fear of commitment isn't a guy, and the comic relief is both surprising and sort of pathetic in a way that both illustrates the tropes that replace character development in movies like this, while simultaneously illustrating just how fucked-up they are when they're taken out of a familiar context. The killer is barely seen on screen until the very end of the movie, and is almost always shot so close that he appears to be filling up the frame, effectively making him as much a force of nature as the killer in any other slasher movie, but without resorting to supernatural bullshit. The killer doesn't seem silly or gimmicky, and in the end is afforded a surprising amount of humanity for the type of film this is. In the end, he's revealed to be a person, but we're never made privy to his motivations for the most part. It's a terrible, tragic mystery as to what has happened to him and why. On the other hand, it's all for naught. As what seems to always be the case, the final girl left standing is pretty much exactly who you expect it's going to be, and the end doesn't really hold any surprises for anyone who has watched any number of these types of movies. That this film was followed by two sequels (well, a sequel and a prequel) suggests that it's much closer to the stock slasher film at heart than I would have hoped.

I think that's why I came away from this feeling disappointed - it was just different enough in the small touches to keep my attention, but was so faithful to the broader formula in the end that I never really felt surprised in any ways that mattered.  If you're going to make the thrust of your movie that there's a dude, and that dude is killing people, it's to your advantage as a filmmaker to keep your audience from feeling safe or comfortable in their expectations, and to not give them time to relax. Fritt Vilt takes a little bit of time to get going, and then once it does it doesn't really build up enough momentum to keep the audience engaged until maybe the last 15 minutes or so, when it starts to set up all of these life-or-death dilemmas in a way that it should have for the entire second half of the movie. Contrast this to Rovdyr, a Norwegian take on the teens-menaced-by-crazed-backwoodsmen story, which works very well precisely because it strips out all the bullshit and never, ever lets up once it gets going. Like that film, when things really get down to the wire, the value of human life gets pitted against the scarce resources the protagonists have for opposing the killer, and in its best moments gives the proceedings an edge of desperation (as opposed to just running around in ripped clothes) often missing from slasher films, but here it feels like too little too late. We're thankfully never subjected to a drawn-out clot of exposition explaining who the killer is and why he does what he does (we do get hints), but I feel like we could have found out more through the protagonists than we did. Again, there are nods to what must have been happening at this ski lodge since it closed, but never enough to really feel scary or unnerving or to give us the sense that the full horror of their predicament has just hit the protagonists. It's just sort of there, and then it's on to the next beat. The small subversions of the genre kept me waiting for a bigger subversion that never came, and the end result is sort of like traveling halfway across the world, only to grab dinner at the nearest McDonald's.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Amazon Instant Video
Unvailable on Netflix Instant (Available on DVD)

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