SXSW Review: ‘Cold Sweat’ Leaves Us Too Afraid to Move… Seriously

By  · Published on March 23rd, 2011

When a young man is dumped by his long-time girlfriend, he suspects the source of their collapse lives in his very own city. He knows she was communicating in a chat room with a blond Lothario so he has a female acquaintance get in touch with the same blond man to find out where he lives. The acquaintance, having been invited to the blond man’s house for some romantic entanglements, is greeted by a rather nasty surprise.

Cold Sweat is representative of why film festivals are such amazing environments for film geeks. It is an Argentinean thriller that effortlessly blends horror with political intrigue. Without the arena of SxSW there is little chance I would have seen this film and, given how much I enjoyed it, this again echoes the benefits of film festivals. Despite its meager budget, Cold Sweat pushes every ounce of its existence to the limit and delivers on multiple levels. The thing that struck me most about Cold Sweat is how much it retains a sense of cultural identity despite the temptations to Americanize that are inherent in its subgenre. The familiar “don’t go into that house” horror category may not have been invented by Americans, but we were the ones to saturate the market with them. Films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror were well done but then the enigmatically titled Don’t Go Into The House managed to run the gimmick into the basement. But the force that drives the plot, the politically-motivated old killers still fighting a revolution long since past, firmly roots the film into Argentina’s history and gives it a distinctive flavor.

Whether it was an extension of that historical context or a cleverly-devised compensation for the film’s confined setting, the nitroglycerin plot device is staggeringly effective. The fact that one wrong movement or even a perfectly acceptable movement executed too quickly, could cause you to explode is the very essence of tension. Cold Sweat has also taught me that my newest and greatest fear in life is not little ghost children but rather being glazed with nitroglycerin and then forced to crawl backwards up a flight of stairs…heeby jeebies abound. As I mentioned, the fact that the characters can’t run very fast or, more accurately, move very much at all allows the limited space to be explored with painful deliberateness. It also affords the film the opportunity to cast two elderly gentlemen as the antagonists. There is one scene in particular wherein an old man, who walks with the aide of a walker, is able to adequately give chase to a spry young woman because she must move slowly to avoid exploding. It’s bizarre, but in a way it’s perfectly suspenseful.

What I enjoy about the horror elements of Cold Sweat is they are entirely situational. There’s nothing supernatural about the scares nor does anything insist upon leaping out at you. The terror comes from assigning yourself into the position of the characters in peril. It’s similar to the empathetic fears underscoring Frozen or Open Water. That’s not to say there aren’t any surprises, and that’s what makes it so entertaining. Just when you think you have been exposed to every potential threat in the house, the film throws you an deliciously weird curve. Also, among the better gore shots in horrordom is the slow-motion and complete annihilation of the human form by way of chemical explosion; like a beautiful ballet of viscera.

On top of all of this, the performances are solid, it’s well-shot, and I find myself caring about the characters from the get-go. It is the very encapsulation of the word gem.

Upside: Taught, thoughtful, and unique thriller

Downside: It does seem weird that no girl has been able to deduce that the blond boy they see via webcam is a essentially a corpse.

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.