Frozen co-opts a straightforward genre template, shepherds it through some tense moments and arrives at an unexpected place. Open Water on a ski lift, it’s hardly a radical formula reinvention. But writer-director Adam Green effectively blends the acrophobic setup with its attendant psychological dimensions and the actors give credible performances. The film is an engaging diversion, a piece of pure entertainment that relies on an old-school building of suspense and terror.

Best friends Joe (Shawn Ashmore) and Dan (Kevin Zegers) make their regular pilgrimage to a New England ski resort, joined by a third party: Dan’s new girlfriend Parker (Emma Bell). Joe, resentful of his third wheel status and the fact that Emma’s a beginner, convinces them to join him on a last minute run down a big slope. With a storm coming in, the place shutting down for the week and the last skiers making their way down the mountain, the decision proves to be a major mistake. As their chair creaks its way to the top it stops, and doesn’t restart.

Green writes himself into a corner here, so it’s no small achievement that the movie works with such efficiency. There might not be a greater filmmaking challenge than creating and sustaining visual and visceral interest in a premise that features characters stuck in one spot in one location. To do so, the filmmaker employs several recurring tactics. He blends straight on medium shots with lingering close-ups to give his cast the opportunity to flex their acting muscles, cycling through the range of emotions that accompany the sudden, unexpected sensation of facing the end of your life.

Ominous sounds, scarce lighting and establishing shots that emphasize the creaking chairs littering the abandoned mountainside lend extra urgency to the proceedings, as it becomes apparent that no help will be coming. The camera adopts first-person perspective in a compelling, immediate fashion, while Green understands the true horror of the situation: the pure cerebral torture of facing death without an alternative in sight. In applying the conceit to privileged college kids, to individuals accustomed to having their problems solved for them, the film smartly enhances the terror. They, in other words, are us, and their helplessness at their predicament could easily be our own.

At times genuinely unsettling, Frozen emphasizes horrors of the mind over the body. It’s the story of three people freezing to death, with no way out and nothing but their thoughts to accompany them. Despite the allegiance it pays to certain clichés, the picture explores some uncharted territory in its probing of the unchecked mind in a crisis that can’t be solved. Though it contains some patience trying monologues and other moments that stretch credibility, the film fundamentally engages by depicting an age-old truism: there’s no more dangerous combination than nature’s brutality and human stupidity.

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