Friday, 2 June 2006

Frostbiten (2006)

The Swedish writers couldn't wait to sink their teeth into the horror genre

Ah, Sweden. Home of morose and serious movies, Ingmar Bergman, and the chess-playing Death. And since 1999, the epicentre of a horror short film cottage industry. Anders Banke and Daniel Ojanlatva finally take their compatriots’ aspirations a step further – Frostbite is the first full-length feature horror film to come out from Sweden in decades. And looking at the Frostbite poster, which recreates the look of Nosferatu: Symphony of Horror, Banke and Ojanlatva really mean business. It’s like they’ve thrown down a gauntlet, as if to say “We’re going to make a really scary vampire movie the old school way, with none of those watered-down parodies, laugh fests, or CGI showcases that the Americans end up producing when they make vampire movies!” Yes, they want to make a serious horror movie. I guess that’s somewhat Swedish, and it does sound like a really great idea.

In Frostbite, Saga (Grete Havnesköld) and her medical researcher mother Annika (Petra Nielsen) relocate to the surburbs in the city of Norrbotten during the midwinter, mainly because the mother is eager to work with the genius geneticist in the local hospital. Unknown to them, Prof Beckert (Carl-Åke Eriksson, a dead ringer for Peter Cushing’s Dr Van Helsing!) is hiding a secret that is linked to a spate of horrific murders apparently committed by a vampire, while Saga’s newfound friends in school are poised to be acquainted with the Prof’s secrets in a particularly nasty way. A nice twist to the vampire genre is the location of Norrbotten: situated well within the Arctic circle, the midwinter features 30 days of continuous night, a perfect environment for vampires on a feeding frenzy.

Astute comic book fans will notice that the twist isn’t new or groundbreaking at all – Steve Niles has done this in the highly acclaimed “30 Days of Night”, set in a town in Alaska. (Incidentally, the film adaptation will be produced by Sam Raimi and is scheduled for release next year.) The creators of Frostbite have other ideas, though. Their film is a collection of the ideas – original or otherwise – for serious vampire films. Aside from the 30 Days of Night plot, Banke and Ojanlatva weave together other disparate ideas like the “WW2 vampire movie” where Nazi soldiers encounter a house of vampires when they get separated from their platoon, the kooky “mad scientist scheming for world domination movie” that brings to mind Bride of the Atom, the “scientific vampire movie” that offers a scientific explanation for vampirism, the “vampire-zombie movie” where vampires multiply out of control, the “wandering vampire coven movie” from Anne Rice’s Lestat novels, and a plot idea that might be called “I became a teenage vampire”.

If that sounds wildly ambitious, that’s because it is. There’s more than enough ideas to sustain an entire series of good horror movies, but mashing them together into the space of just 100 minutes is an invitation to either greatness or dismal failure. So does the film work?

The individual parts of the movie are well-stitched together, well enough that it took a few minutes after the credits started rolling for me to realise the patchwork nature of the film. Both director and writer are great at creating the atmosphere and establishing the set up, such that the mood felt authentic even after the sometimes abrupt gear shifts from one classic vampire lore to another.

On the other hand, the movie as a whole felt like an unaired pilot for an entire series of full-length feature films. While great at creating the feel and emotional underpinnings of each separate story idea, the writers fail to develop them to their logical ends, preferring to jump from one story idea to another. Without proper development and exploration, the five (or six?) story ideas remain just that – either hanging in mid-air or resolved poorly. The audience get tantalising hints at the superb horror films that would be made, if only the writer and director chose to focus on any one of their story ideas and expanded it fully.

For a low-to-medium budget horror flick, Frostbite has more than competent prosthetics and make up, which interestingly look better than the CGI effects in the same movie. As a nation’s first effort at a serious horror movie, this definitely puts stuff like Pontianak, The Maid, or even recent Hollywood horror flicks to shame. Bankes and Ojanlatva should be applauded for their sheer ambitiousness, which propel what would’ve been a B-grade horror movie into something better: it might end up as the most unforgettable horror film of this decade, even though it’s not quite a modern classic.

First published at incinemas on 31 August 2006

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