Last week, I offered my paean to King of the Hill. Today, another recent European horror film, which also has a mountain setting: the Norwegian Cold Prey. If King of the Hill was related to the slasher in terms of the idea of the characters being stalked through the countryside by a killer who could strike at any moment, Cold Prey fits far more comfortably within the slasher subgenre. It is, after all, ultimately the story of a group of young people running afoul of a giant masked maniac. Hardly original, I know. But it is how Cold Prey handles its familiar material that produces a delightful gust of fresh air.
Two couples and a fifth wheel head off to the mountains for some off-trail snowboarding. The fifth wheel breaks his leg partway down the slope, rather inconveniently in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately (or so our heroes think, since they don’t know what kind of movie they’re in), there’s a mountain resort nearby. It turns out to be abandoned, but it’s shelter, and they can make do. But then, of course, it further turns out that it is not completely abandoned, and one by one they come to gruesome ends.
There is really nothing that (or at all) original about the basic scenario. Even when it comes to the characters, there are some of the standard types. The Final Girl is easy to spot, and the Comic Relief Fifth Wheel is someone we all know will also be among the last to go. There’s even a years-earlier prologue, helping establish the killer’s origin (though the audience is blocked from full comprehension of the scene until the very end of the film).
So what makes the flick so refreshing, such a nice change from the standard-issue slasher? Firstly, as structurally familiar as some of the characters are, in the sense of the function they have in the mechanics of the plot, they are also (shock horror!) actual characters. For all their functionality, they are also recognizable human beings, and very sympathetic. Consider these changes from the usual pattern: the blond woman who is all over her boyfriend, and who would be, in many another slasher, presented as The Slut, is very emphatically not in this instance. In fact she’s a virgin, while the Final Girl is not. The latter, meanwhile, isn’t sure whether she wants to move in with her boyfriend (or, rather, have him move in with her). These examples are not enormously deep character development, but nor do they have to be – this is not the kind of film that calls for that sort of thing. What it calls for, is characters that we might actually give two hoots about, and we do. Therefore, the suspense is all the stronger. Instead of sitting around, waiting for the killer to show up so we can get to the good bits – that is, the slaughter of anonymous, interchangeable figures whose only use is to serve as fodder for creative gore effects – we actually don’t want to see these people die. It’s amazing how much more enjoyable a film becomes when you care.
The setting is also a big plus. The hotel itself isn’t a radical departure, but the mountain setting is a relatively unused one for the hack-and-slash field, and it leads to some nice variations once the business of killing gets underway. The setting also leads to an interesting look for the killer. Much as the mine setting in My Bloody Valentine is reason enough to dress its psycho up in menacing gear, so the frigid, high altitude surrounds give us a killer as reasonably clad as he is threatening to behold. (I mean, not to tread on an icon or anything, but is there any real motivation for Jason to be wearing a goalie mask, other than the fact that it looks cool? I didn’t think so.)
All in all, then, a highly enjoyable exercise. The film moves along, the kills are gruesome and suspenseful, and the cast is eminently likable. It isn’t about to transform the horror field, but it is a fine example of a good job well done, and, what is even better, it is the second week in a row that this column has looked at a film for whom no remake has been announced.