“Some good ideas, shame about the execution!”
Someone out there is a huge fan of the found footage format (FFF). In fact there must be many, many people who are. It can’t just be that film studios know that they can make a quick buck by spending such a small amount on a film’s production that whatever comes back, no matter how meagre, will still equal profit. With FFF films coming out with an alarming frequency that would put the superhero-cycle to shame, the genre is more than just a very stable business model. It’s a sure thing. Yes, the finances are nicely sturdy, but if there wasn’t an FFF fanbase out there, there must have been some drop off before now.
Strictly speaking, you can’t really blame them. FFFs have delivered some of the most unarguably scary – or at least thrilling – moments in modern cinema, from the truly seminal The Blair Witch Project (1999) to the atmospheric and realistic The Bay (2012) and more in between.
Unlike the current superhero-cycle however, the FFF genre is not delivering us a constant flow of excellent films. For the most part the genre just seems to be leisurely taking its time, alternating between unable and unwilling to go the extra distance to bring audiences something truly sensational.
Director Reynir Lyngdal’s Frost does the genre absolutely no favours, belonging firmly in the ‘should have tried harder’ category. The story involves Arctic researcher Agla (Anna Gunndís Guðmundsdóttir) and her recently arrived boyfriend Gunnar (Björn Thors) being seemingly abandoned by their fellow research station staff. After searching for clues as to their whereabouts they begin to encounter weird lights in the sky, unexplained power cuts and a dead body that – occasionally – won’t stay that way.
Every FFF film always tries to bring a unique twist to the genre. The emphasis is rarely, if ever, on the story or the characters themselves; it’s primarily focused on bringing a new element to the format: be it how big the monster is (Cloverfield, 2008) what the monster is (Troll Hunter, 2010) or if the monster is inside a womb (Devil’s Due, 2014).
Frost‘s gimmick is the Arctic setting, no doubt the hope of bringing The Thing (1982) to mind. What hasn’t been taken into account here is that the featureless tundra is only a few steps away from setting an FFF in a pitch black room. The very nature of the format uniformly involves shaky cam, liberal application of whip panning and generally plenty of spinning about to deliberately disorientate the audience. This is all well and good in a setting we’re able to become familiar with, or that is easily recognisable, as it’s the sudden disorientation from the settings we know which makes it effective. In the case of Frost however, we are already disorientated by the fact that there is nothing but white against a slightly less white sky for a great deal of the film. The constant shaking of the camera means the audience has a hard enough time understanding where the characters are supposed to be at the best of times, never mind the moments of panic when the camera suddenly bursts into a flurry of motion we didn’t have much of a handle on in the first place. They could have gone the route of the recent creature feature Blood Glacier (2013), which has a mountain setting allowing rock and varying elevation to contrast against the snow and sky. But no, the featureless Arctic tundra is what Frost went for and a visually featureless film is what we get.
This is only exacerbated by Frost’s absolutely dire sense of spatial relativity. The only points of reference in the film are the structures of the research station, and it wouldn’t be pandering to give them some idea of their size, or how spaced apart (or how many for that matter) the buildings are. It soon becomes obvious that Frost launches into the panic and action without giving much thought to the crucial set-ups. Without knowing how far ‘Undescribed Bunker A’ is from ‘Arbitrary Shelter 3’ one has no idea how far a character is from safety, especially in the constant white out.
This eagerness to get straight to the panic is itself a misunderstanding on the film’s part, mistaking confusion and incomprehensibleness for fear and scariness. For the most part it seems that the film mainly remembers the sections of blind running through dark woods in The Blair Witch Project, yet doesn’t recognise, or perhaps understand, the large amount of set up and atmosphere building that took place in that film to make its own chaos work.
There was a degree of blind panic involved with The Blair Witch Project but that film had the fact it was the first FFF movie since 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust on its side. The novelty was enough back then, but in Frost’s day and age, it isn’t.
It’s a shame as the film has some promising elements that could have saved it, but they don’t pan out. Firstly there’s the characters of Agla and Gunnar. There’s something genuinely fascinating about them early one, right from Agla’s unhappy surprise at her boyfriend arriving to see her. Bolstered by film-maker Gunnar’s suspicions, it makes for a fine dynamic of someone who’s clearly done something behind the other’s back without it being possible – or it seems, preferential – to prove it. Sadly the two characters do not progress from here and as we’re left with only them for most of the film, it’s a somewhat soap-operatic experience and definitely two dimensional.
The threat looks like it will be a real crowd pleaser early on. There is a moment in Frost that really inspires wonder, a shot over someone’s shoulder in which we see a bright light moving in the sky, completely indistinct and celestial. Following this the initial assaults on our protagonists are mainly via very bright lights, generators shutting down, and the cameras not working (this actually being an incredibly annoying and obviously cheap money-saver through repeated use). Everything is shaping up to look like Close Encounters of the Third Kind gone bad. If anything the sparse Arctic setting would have worked for this classic alien abduction in a modern setting, and could have fed audiences who were xeno-hungry after the excellent V/H/S/2 Slumber Party Alien Abduction segment. As the increasingly annoying and unrelenting bursts of camera static indicate however, this is not a film in which we’ll see anything of the otherworldly aggressors. The fact the static is used so obviously only serves to highlight that we’re not seeing the monsters and the budget is likely too low to properly realise them. Perhaps it could have been saved by obscuring the monsters in shadows and behind glaciers but, as it is, it’s just a tremendous let down.
And that’s the summation of Frost. There are some promising elements that could have saved the film, but ultimately they weren’t given the service necessary to. Another FFF on the ‘some good ideas, shame about the execution’ pyre.
Director: Reynir Lyngdal
Screenplay: Jón Atli Jónasson
Starring: Anna Gunndís Guðmundsdóttir, Björn Thors
Running time: 79 minutes
Release date: 10 February 2014
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