Frostbite (2006)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/01/06 14:35:07

"Of course the flip side is that in the summer, you get a month of daylight."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2006 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: On its own, "Frostbite" is an entertaining if imperfect film. Stand back a little, though, and it becomes the horror genre in microcosm - it starts out with a simple story to scare its audience, but eventually decides that's not enough, and reworks the concept to try and fit it into a modern world. By the time it's over, much of what made the initial concept actually frightening is being played as black comedy. It's good black comedy, but you can't help but think that something has been lost from when vampires were scary.

The film opens during World War II, as a lost Swedish volunteer unit of the German army, looking for shelter from the cold, takes shelter in an isolated house. What they find are mutilated corpses and a small coffin whose occupant wants out. Plenty of misguided Swedish blood gets spilled. Now, sixty years later, we meet Annika (Petra Nielsen) and Saga (Grete Havnesköld), a divorced doctor and her teenage daughter heading north to a small city in Norrbotten where Annika has taken a job in the hospital. She's excited about working with Professor Gerhard Beckert (Carl-Åke Eriksson), a genetic researcher who puts a stake through the heart of a body brought into the morgue when no-one's looking, and is giving experimental medication to a coma patient. Meanwhile, the kids at Saga's new school have invited her to a party thrown by John (Nilas Grönberg). Saga's new friend Vega (Emma T. Åberg) is in charge of getting the E, which she thinks she's getting from Sebastian (Jonas Karlström), a resident at the hospital. What she thinks is ecstasy is actually the pills Beckert is giving the coma patient, and if she saw the side effects they're giving Sebastian...

The program described Frostbite as the first vampire film to come out of Sweden, or at least the first with any kind of money behind it. You'd think a country that extends far enough north to experience "polar night" - periods up to a month long when the sun stays below the horizon - would be a haven for vampires, and a concept horror filmmakers would have seized upon much more recently. And while this unbroken darkness makes for an unusual visual on occasion - like kids hanging around the school's front entrance before the first bell despite it looking like the middle of the night - the film does almost nothing with it, story-wise. It's something of a disappointment, since the polar night thing is what Sweden's got that would let them make a vampire movie that's uniquely theirs.

Despite not making much use of that bit of potential, Frostbite does not wind up becoming completely generic, or even close to it. Writer Daniel Ojanlatva and director Anders Banke share a quirky sense of humor, with the bulk of it coming at the expense of poor Sebastian, who doesn't realize that the strange pill he impulsively swallowed is turning him into a vampire (kids - don't impulsively swallow strange pills!). So the guy's got no idea why he's hungry for something but his food doesn't taste right, why the crosses his girlfriend's religiously-minded parents have all over their house are really bothering him, and most importantly, why dogs are talking to him. They also take a perverse glee in having the teenagers' party spin out of control, as kids who have turned manage to viciously attack those who haven't while remaining undetected. And it's kind of hilarious to see a wooden garden gnome actually be useful for something.

The script, of course, has its problems. Why do some people turn almost immediately and attack their friends and neighbors in a crazed fashion, while others still seem to have some amount of human morality attached to them? Heck, if vampires tend to go into an immediate feeding frenzy, how is it possible for them to be still around and have people not believe in their existence? That kind of thing gets noticed, you know? And the bit about the cops who pick a vampire up and try to convince a skeptical colleague takes a long time for fairly little payoff - if a joke's going on long enough that the audience is starting to notice that it's being padded, it probably needs to have about a quarter as much time spent on it.

Fortunately, they've got a game cast that can handle whichever side of the film they're assigned to. Karlström has extended funny sequences, while Ms. Åberg alternates between near-fourth-wall-breaking and attaching herself to Saga a little too quickly and closely as Vega. Petra Nielsen and Grete Havnesköld each handle their part of being the level-headed (and non-murderous) person in a crazy environment very nicely, while having a realistic "I love you but you're trying to hard to be the cool mom" dynamic. Eriksson does sinister well; when he gets a laugh, it's not really because of him, but how the filmmakers have played with the shadows around him.

I laughed a lot at "Frostbite"; it has fun with the tropes of the genre without ever looking cheesy. That it's not the consistently frightening horror movie I might have liked from the premise is not its failing - if you're going to do a funny vampire movie, being as clever and creative about it as "Frostbite" is something to aspire to.

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