"Wind Chill" is the kind of film one sits down to, often with the weary feeling that one's time would really be much better employed on something more productive, like picking the fluff from one's navel or scooping up crumbs from the recesses of the sofa seat — in other words, a film that initially inspires no overweening thought or expectation in one's mind other than how one is to fill a respectable amount of column inches on the subject the next day. Coming with no marketing campaign or memorable cinema presence, this is one of those films that doesn't present itself as anything other than one of a whole bunch of straight to DVD thrillers which come and go without ever leaving much of a trace in anyone's mind to suggest that they ever existed in the first place. What we actually get though, turns out to be a surprising and rather gripping little horror thriller which works best the less you know about it in advance. Which makes it a bitch to review without giving away too much, of course! In fact just by telling you this, I've probably elevated your expectations some way beyond my initial murky depths of ennui at the prospect of having to watch it!
The rather ravishing British actor, Emily Blunt plays an unnamed college student, looking for a ride to her home town of Delaware on a rather grim, snowbound Christmas holiday. Ditching a lift from an unwanted boyfriend, she accepts instead an offer made on the college notice board, and ends up facing the prospect of five hours with a nervy philosophy student played by Ashton Holmes. The chill outside is echoed by the chilly atmosphere between the two; they don't exactly hit it off! And, in fact, the girl rapidly starts to become suspicious of her host. For a start, he appears to know little about Delaware, despite claiming it's his home town. Even more suspiciously, he seems to know just a little too much about her life and habits, for a total stranger.
After a tense stop at a rundown roadside cafe, during which Blunt gets locked in the dingy bathroom while the restaurant's mute, cross-eyed inhabitants apparently hear nothing of her screams for help, the two head out once more, and before long the girl's fears appear to be confirmed when her driver takes an unheralded detour onto an icy, forested byway in a remote valley, claiming the dubious route is a shortcut. Before you can say 'psycho stalker' the couple's car is clipped by an anonymous driver heading in the opposite direction; they skid off the road and are plunged into a siding, leaving them stranded in the middle of nowhere. Now completely terrified of her strange driver and contemplating that he may be in league with the unwholesome looking inhabitants of the cafe, Blunt's character gradually starts to realise that there is something more to worry about than just an awkward nervous bloke in a corduroy jacket: something far stranger is lurking in the snowbound forest and the night is about to become a struggle for survival against something far darker and nebulous than she ever could have imagined.
This is where I would advise those who wish to derive the full effect from their experience of the film to stop reading. Having spent the first twenty-five minutes of the movie leading you to expect a rather generic road-based psycho-thriller, writer Stephen Katz and first time director Greg Jacobs now take things into more supernatural areas. The actual storyline isn't really all that more original than the psycho-thriller route the film initially appears to be taking — there have been a number of road movie based horror/ghost flicks in the last decade which operate in a similar territory to this one. What makes this film a particularly worthwhile entry in the genre is the amount of attention to character development (the film is essentially a two-hander, almost entirely dependent on the chemistry between Blunt and Holmes) which comes from the two protagonists facing and attempting to deal with the bizarre events that begin unfolding around their ice-frozen automobile. It's all the more remarkable that neither character is even provided with a name. The writers name-check "Rebecca" as an inspiration here, and the Hitchcock influence is apparent in the attempt to boil things down to their bare essentials — containing most of the "action" within the confines of the frozen car and hyping up an increasing level of mystery and suspense.
Needless to say, all this is a refreshing change from the 'torture porn' ascendancy and the "apparitions" which soon begin to assail Blunt and Holmes's characters bare precious little debt to Japanese horror either (thank goodness). Instead, I was reminded of "Don't Look Now" and John Carpenter's "The Fog" at various points. Carpenter's style of direction during that early period of his career seems to be a big influence on Greg Jacobs, as well. Particularly impressive is Jacobs' use of the background, often placing the most frightening images out of view of the characters themselves and increasing the viewer's sense of imminent danger (murky faces peer in at them through the back window; shadowy figures shuffling about in the darkness outside the window, are often unseen by the characters themselves). By two-thirds of the way through the film it is fairly obvious where it is all going, and by the time Martin Donovan shows up to offer explicit threat of violence in a particularly intense performance as a deranged Highway Patrolman, the film takes a fairly conventional approach from then on. Nevertheless, by this time the viewer is caught up in the claustrophobic atmosphere and has come to identify with two initially unsympathetic characters. With its stylish icy-blue photography and boiled-down Hitchcockian approach to drama, "Wind Chill" makes a refreshing chilly change to the current climate of North American retro-horror.
The Sony Pictures DVD offers a seventeen minute 'making of' featurette which includes interviews with the cast, director, producers and writers, and also reveals that the makers took a similar approach to William Friedkin in "The Exorcist" by building the interior of the car inside a freezer, in order to capture the actors' freezing breath on film. The writers and director Gregory Jacobs also provide a commentary track which elaborates on their thinking behind the project. The 2:31.1 aspect ratio looks great on a pleasing DVD transfer, making this a very worthwhile purchase for the jaded horror fan, hoping to find something that harks back to late-seventies, early eighties horror without relying on the current vogue for gore.