Monday, June 15, 2009

Dead Snow

It's a strange thing, being treated like an actual film critic. About a year and a half ago, someone told me that I'd been quoted in an ad for Wristcutters: A Love Story that ran in the New York Times, which just seems ridiculous - indie as it was, there were also plenty of reviews from people you might have heard of. I've even been quoted on DVD covers a few times - though the one time it had my name rather than "eFilmCritic", it was attached to words I hadn't written (I believe ADV has allowed the rights to Synesthesia to lapse since, so that'll disappear off the market soon enough). Still, it's basically a studio saying "see this - a computer programmer in Massachusetts who has a blog thinks it's good!" Crazy, right?

And yet, apparently the stuff that gets reprinted on eFilmCritic and Hollywood Bitch-slap gets enough eyeballs that it's worth giving me the occasional festival pass or, in this case, envelope full of screeners, even though I honestly have no idea whether or not any review of mine has ever made a studio more than the money I would otherwise pay to see a movie. It's impossible to track, but I guess it's possible. Maybe even probable, in the cases of movies where few reviews exist.

Reviewing from screeners is weird, though. They tend to be no-frills DVDs, which means with the widescreen ones not even anamorphic (oddly, I had a VHS screener once that was - that was a curiosity!) and a straight stereo mix, so I can't really comment that much about the look and sound of the movie. The one for Dead Snow tended to pop the "for review use only" message (which occupies half the screen) in when it was most distracting, right on top of the picture, rather than in the blank space. I suspect that they're meant for the busy, on-the-go film critic, who watches them on his or her laptop between other work. My watching them on my living room HDTV is probably unusual - heck, I wound up not reviewing a bunch of screeners from Fantastic Fest because neither my HD DVD nor Blu-Ray player would get them to do anything, and I hate watching movies on my laptop (though I haven't tried it with the SlingCatcher, which seems glitchy but that might just be the computer choking on trying to stream in and out at once).

I mention this because IFC Films has sent me eight recent/upcoming movies from their "IFC Midnight" series, which I'll try to get through around baseball games, the NYAFF, etc. Dead Snow is the first; I think I may be able to get a couple more in this week.

(Note: IFC is doing a simultaneous release in NY/LA theaters and On Demand; according to the publicity materials, the theatrical release will be in Norwegian with English subtitles, while the pay-per-view release is dubbed into English. Both options will be present on the forthcoming DVD, but until then, make sure the one you see matches your preferences. This review is of the subtitled version.)

Død Snø (Dead Snow)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 June 2009 in Jay's Living Room (screener DVD - letterboxed w/ notices)

Dead Snow doesn't need a whole lot of reviewing. It's the movie with the zombie Nazis, and if the mention of the phrase "zombie Nazis" makes a person say "tell me more", what he really means is "tell me if they screwed it up". Short answer: No, they don't. This isn't a horror classic, but it's also no disaster.

It's a Norwegian twist on the familiar horror template: Eight friends driving out to the middle of nowhere to a cabin with no cell phone reception; it being Norway, they're looking forward to some skiing, sledding, and snowmobiling on their Easter vacation. They are college students in their senior year, about to start med school, though Martin (Vegar Hoel) gets squeamish at the sight of blood - obviously this will be an issue, just like girlfriend Hanna (Charlotte Frogner) suffering from claustrophobia. The single guys are Roy (Stig Frode Henriksen), the horndog, and Erlend (Jeppe Laursen), the movie nerd. The single girls are Chris (Jenny Skavlan), also into the movies, and Liv (Evy Kasseth Røsten). Vegard (Lasse Valdal) is the handsome, rugged type, though maybe not quite so sporty as his girlfriend Sara (Ane Dahl Torp), who has opted to hike to the cabin. Alas, it doesn't look as if she will make it, if the opening scene with a young female hiker getting thrown around by unseen assailants is any indication.

Fortunately, someone drops in to give them a little exposition about how, during WWII, the area was occupied by an especially nasty group of Germans who looted the town before being driven into the snow. The film's first act is filled with that sort of inelegant information dump: When the characters have a long conversation about how to tell whether you're facing up or down after being caught in an earthquake, you may want to start taking bets with your friends on who gets caught upside down in an earthquake and when. I imagine that the inevitable is more fun when you've got money riding on the details.

Also telegraphed in the opening is how much co-writer/director Tommy Wirkola likes his classic spam-in-a-can horror, specifically name-checking Friday the 13th, April Fool's Day, Braindead, and the Evil Dead movies. A couple bits of the last act seem to crib pretty directly from Evil Dead 2 - to the point where I was mildly disappointed that I didn't learn the Norwegian word for "groovy" - and I'm sure that folks with more extensive horror knowledge than me will spot other references. Fortunately, Wirkola isn't content to simply quote a movie and expect an audience to laugh just because they've seen the same movies - it's either a way to show that Erlend and Chris are a good pair or because, hey, this movie needs a shot where the characters equip themselves with nearby shotguns, hammers, chainsaws, etc.

Those shall be used to fight zombies that can be classified as fast/inarticulate/tool-using. The tool-using comes with some caveats - it may only be the highest-ranking zombie Nazi who uses tools, and even he fails to pick up a gun and use it. We also see that the Inverse Ninja Law is in full effect - one zombie Nazi is a fearsome foe, but an army of zombie Nazis can be taken by a small group. There is plenty of gore, including some impressively nasty kills: Normally, the mayhem is reserved for the zombies, who are by tradition easily dismembered, but the humans get ripped apart pretty badly, too. Wirkola seems to be rather fond of intestines, ripping them out at the least provocation, and he comes up with some enjoyably gross set-pieces - although he could have gotten more from the one where a man and a zombie are dangling from a cliff, holding on to another zombie's small intestine.

The cast is enjoyable enough, although as is often the case, the guys seem more to have had more attention paid to them than the girls. Jeppe Laursen's Erlend, for instance, gets funny lines and banter as a movie nerd, while Jenny Skavlan is like "me too!" Stig Frode Henriksen is memorably jerky and panicky as Roy (he also co-wrote the movie), whereas Evy Kasseth Røsten's Liv winds up being "the other girl", paired off with Roy because that's how the numbers work out, not having much of a personality until it's time for her to freak out (which, in the actress's defense, she does well - the character may not have a specific personality, but Røsten makes her moments work). Charlotte Frogner and Vegar Hoel seem like the likely leads as, despite the telegraphed phobias, they come across as people who have a history together and enough back-and-forth in their relationship not to be defined by one trait. Lasse Valdal is a good man of action, with the potential to be the movie's Bruce Campbell, what with the strong jaw and slightly cocky, sarcastic reactions to the craziness around him. Bjørn Sundquist does the job as the guy who drops in to make sure the kids (and audience) know the background.

As splatter movies go, Dead Snow is fine - if you've got an itch that needs scratching, Wirkola's movie will scratch it. A little more intensity and a little less comedy might have made for a better movie; Wirkola and Henriksen also seem to leave out large chunks of the story, either to leave themselves room for a sequel or because they figure the mechanics of how you get zombie Nazis is boring. Given their clever high concept, they only needed to avoid falling on their face to satisfy the audience, and they manage to end up a couple steps above that.

(Dead link to) Full review at EFC (I see a movie because of them, they get the click-through).

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