Horror Vampires Comedy
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Frostbite (Frostbiten) (2006)
14th Dec 06
The arrival of two outsiders awakens a long dormant – and deadly – secret in a sleepy Swedish town in the bleak midwinter, where dawn is just one month away.
Can Frostbitereally be the first Scandinavian horror movie about vampires? The setting – a bitterly cold Northern Lapland submerged in permanent semi-darkness for over a month each year – so befits the subject matter that it seems remarkable that Anders Banke’s film has no local cinematic precedent. In many ways perhaps this is a good thing, because Frostbite is a mordant, witty riff on an over-familiar theme, a fun fangfest that draws fresh blood from a genre I’d long since given up on.
I mean, seriously, if there ever was a horror genre in dire need of a creative transfusion it’s the vampire flick. For this reviewer, the last serious classic was made almost 20 years ago – Kathryn Bigelow’s masterful Near Dark. Since then the only truly really effective entries have been either micro-budget curios (The Addiction) or austere art house experimentia (Guy Maddins Dracula. Blood from a Virgin’s Diary).
But what of the fun vampire experience? Remember those silly, enjoyable day-glo 80s numbers like The Lost Boys, Fright Night and Vamp? None of them classics, but all films that tapped into the essential silliness of the genre while managing to be funny and scary all at once. Buffy did the job for TV and the Blade flicks have their fans but the leaden Underworld and cheesily awful Van Helsing laid waste to the idea that the era of the big screen fun vampire flick could be resurrected – having been taken to its camp extremes with Coppolla's underrated Bram Stoker re-vamp. Here’s where Frostbite comes in. Neither mega budget folly nor cheap retread of tired old tropes, Banke’s film exhibits a laid back, droll sensibility perfectly in keeping with its national temperament, and has a unique deadpan sense of the comedic that perfectly complements the material without cheapening it.
When doctor Annika moves to the sleepy town of Norrbotten in a dark and cold part of Sweden to work in the local hospital, her teenage daughter Saga fears the worst. Sensing a moribund social scene and the peer pressures of a new school she is soon surprised by the immediate acceptance of local Goth chick Vega – who is funny, popular and oddly interested in the new girl in town.
For Annika the transition is less successful – life at the local hospital being permanently disrupted by creepy goings on involving stoned med students, brutal, inexplicable patient deaths and a creepy Herbert West-like doctor (isn’t there always one?) with his cache of mysterious little red pills. When resourceful Vega (in the hope that they might be rave beans) swipes a shitload of these from med student Sebastian, the stage is set for the longest, bloodiest party this little town has ever seen...
Gorehounds be warned: the bloodletting in Frostbite is fairly restrained and the modest – though very well executed – effects are more Buffy than Blade, but this in itself is no bad thing in a film guided by imagination, guile and gentle humour rather than CGI.
I can’t remember the last time I saw a film make such effective use of its environment. The sense of place and atmosphere is truly lovely – Chris Maris’ chilly cinematography beautifully recreates the feeling of a place where it's cold, dark and lonely, all the time. The Tim Burton-esque opening – complete with moody score and gently falling snowflakes as beguiling and magical as a miniature snowstorm – is quietly impressive and the swift cutaway to gunshot and blood splattered snow all the more effective in its brutal transition.
The opening coda - a flashback sequence set during WWII, with Swedish soldiers fighting for the Nazis - is great, following the beleaguered soldiers' struggle against an unseen enemy and a higher, supernatural force in a small forest cabin out in the middle of nowhere. Quite how we get from this grim opener to what is essentially a modern day teen horror-comedy is just one of the many surprises the film has in store. It doesn’t give too much away by hinting that it all has something to do with genetic engineering and Nazism but don’t read too much into that – this is a piece of pure entertainment first and foremost.
And some of the humour is really pretty funny. There’s a magnificent dinner party scene in which med student Sebastian (who is on the turn, as it were) has to attend a dinner party where he’s meeting his girlfriend’s parents for the first time. Not only is he unable to hold down anything other than fresh blood, to cap it all his chick’s folks are God-fearing mentalist Christians with crucifixes all over the place. The payoff involving the family pet rabbit is most amusing.
For a debut work Frostbite really is remarkably assured, patient and unhurried - Banke showing real assurance with the material and in a young and relatively inexperienced cast who – for the most part – don’t let him down. It helps that quite a few of his young cast – particularly the saucy Emma T. Aberg and glacial Jonas Karlstrom - look like vampires anyway. Banke is clearly going places and is confident enough to allow the film to find its own groove, opting for a slow build up and throwing in odd little diversions such as a Kaurismaki-esque police duo whose ineptness provides us with some choice comic moments. “Did basic training prepare you for any of this?” asks one after uncovering a scene of hideous carnage involving a little old lady and her pooch, “What, kids scaling walls and killing little dogs? No, I guess I must’ve skipped that day”.
If there is a disappointment it’s on the scares front. It might be fairer to call Frostbite a comedy-horror than a horror-comedy in this respect, as its laughs are a lot more convincing and resonant than its chills. That’s a shame, as you felt that with this much ready-made atmosphere, Banke didn’t need to do much to ramp up the creepiness factor. There are some unsettling moments though, and a fridge raiding scene puts one in mind of An American Werewolf in London, clearly an inspiration for the young director.
Frostbite isn’t a classic but it’s a lot of fun – a dryly amusing take on the genre that doesn’t resort to tiring self referentiality and has enough laughs and invention to make for a fun night out. Come take a bite.