Directed by Scott Walker
Distributed by Lionsgate
Police procedural films are a dime a dozen these days. If the formula isn’t being worn out enough on TV, it certainly gets just as much of a workout on celluloid. Films with a compelling hook tend to rise above the crop, even more so when the film is based on a true story. Now, look, I know as well as you do that most Hollywood police films “based on a true story” are little more than clichés packaged in a seemingly authentic box; we get the same structure nearly every time and exceptions to that rule are rare. The Frozen Ground (2013), from first-time director Scott Walker, isn’t exactly one of those exceptions. Walker’s film does bring to light a serial killer case that seems to have been largely forgotten.
Alaskan Robert Hansen was found guilty of kidnapping, raping, and murdering at least 17 women during the ‘70s and ‘80s, with his actual body count believed to be at least 24, maybe more. The only reason he was ever caught is because a prostitute he intended to kill, Cindy Paulson, managed to escape and get to the police. Hansen took a plea deal, limiting the amount of publicity the case received. Not many people are familiar with it as a result. Walker’s script hews as closely as possible to authenticity, though it does so in the confines of a typical procedure-by-numbers police work drama. And, honestly, I didn’t care. When you’ve got Nicolas Cage putting in some of his best work in years, and John Cusack playing far against type as a normal family man who moonlights as a deranged human hunter, I’m on board.
The film crashes open with the police storming a hotel where Cindy Paulson (Vanessa Hudgens) just burst in handcuffed and screaming about a maniac. The cops take her in and casually dismiss her story. You can’t rape a prostitute, right? When the bodies of missing women begin appearing in the Alaskan wilderness, Sgt. Jack Halcombe receives a file in the mail alerting him to Cindy’s story. He makes contact with her and hears her tale of a guy who offered to pay her $200 for oral sex, only to pull a gun on her, chain her up in his basement, and rape and torture her for a week before trying to abscond with her on a plane. When the guy turned away for a moment, she bolted out of there. And the thing is, the cops know who this guy is – he’s Robert “Bob” Hansen, a local respected baker who has a wife and two kids. Despite his record indicating he’s had “women problems” in the past, nobody wants to take only the word of a hooker. The D.A. wants hard evidence before he’ll issue a warrant.
Halcombe works tirelessly to get Cindy on board with aiding the investigation, but she’s hesitant to trust police. More than once she runs off, back to her pimp, Clate (50 Cent, sporting a hilarious pimp wig). As Halcombe works the case, we also get to witness how Hansen works. After abducting a woman who was lured in on the premise of posing for photos, we then cut to Bob casually stoking a fire… while this girl is chained up by the neck in his basement. She pees herself and apologizes. You can tell she’s scared to death. Bob takes her from his home to a plane, telling her they’re going to his cabin. In truth, Bob is about to release her into the wild, miles from anyone or anything, before leveling his rifle and shooting her like a buck. One more to the head for good measure, and then it’s off to a shallow grave. The only loose end he’s ever left is Cindy, and when he spots her during a trip to his usual choosing grounds, the film quickly turns into a race between Hansen and Halcombe to get Cindy off the streets and into custody. Even when Hansen is finally brought in on formal charges, Halcombe still has to beat out a hired hitman and find concrete evidence at Hansen’s home or else he risks losing Cindy and seeing Bob walk free, likely to disappear forever.
There isn’t much to set this film aside from standard serial killer cinema thematically, so the onus of making boilerplate material work is placed on the actors. Everyone is fully aware of the Nicolas Cage Scale of Acting; his tendency to either play things close to the vest or as a spastic lunatic with questionable enunciation choices. But this film gets Nic Cage the serious actor; the Nic Cage who takes his trade seriously and is clearly trying to deliver a strong emotional performance devoid of his famous flourishes. Cage can be a great actor when he wants to, and he can also phone it in with the best of them. I won’t say he’s operating within his wheelhouse here since, well, frankly, I don’t think Cage can ever be confined to any sort of house; however, this role isn’t exactly stretching his abilities. He’s nothing more than a committed cop, two weeks from retirement (aren’t they all?), who wants to stop a bad man from doing more bad things. That’s it. At least he was given the free rein to mold Halcombe as his own, since the real life Halcombe is a former officer named Glenn Flothe who preferred not to have his name used here.
John Cusack, however, is completely playing against type. It’s hard not to draw comparisons to Robin Williams’ turn in Insomnia (2002), where he also played a serial killer operating out of Alaska. The real-life Hansen was described by those who knew him as a normal, everyday guy who kept to himself and didn’t bother anyone. He was a family man people liked. Casting an actor audiences consider to be that type of person, as Cusack certainly is seen, just adds an extra unsettling layer to a deranged character. Our perception is that Cusack is a “good person” since those are the roles he tends to play, making it all the more chilling when he’s revealed to be a lunatic with serious woman issues. What I found most effective about his performance was the cold, calculating nature of his demeanor. Hansen never allows himself to lose control until the film’s climax, when his façade begins quickly crumbling. Nothing registers with this guy. When his wife won’t stop trying to make a point at dinner, the minor act of allowing a fork to drop heavily to the plate and a vacant stare are all he needs to make her instantly quiet. There isn’t a hint of humanity behind his eyes.
The only film I’d seen Vanessa Hudgens in prior to this was Harmony Korine’s divisive Spring Breakers (2013). Her character was mostly annoying, which was probably intentional. She can act, though I never once bought the fact she’s supposed to be a hooker in 1983. For that matter, the production design at large does a poor job of conveying the year, outside of some cars that fit the period. Hudgens plays your standard street-hardened hooker who gets all gooey inside when someone hits the right nerve. She just wants to see Hansen behind bars so she can move on with her life. Hudgens delivers some scenes with true, raw emotion that showed she isn’t just a pretty face.
50 Cent, however… I’m still laughing at that hair. And, really, his acting in general. He’s popped up in at least half a dozen or more films I’ve seen, and not once has he given a performance that wouldn’t have been better served with an actual actor. I guess he’s the right fit for Pimp Clate Johnson here. Luckily, we’ve got trustworthy character actors like Kevin Dunn and Kurt Fuller and Dean Norris (Hank!) to deliver strong support.
The film ends with a dedication to the victims of Robert Hansen. Scott Walker specifically said he didn’t want to glorify Hansen through this film, presenting him only when the story required it and focusing more on Cindy and Jack’s relationship. We don’t delve deeply into who Hansen is or why he’s doing this; that isn’t the film’s concern. Most serial killer films have a tendency to glorify the killer’s actions, so in that respect this film is refreshing. The Frozen Ground doesn’t break much new ground, though with its gripping story and stellar performances from its leads – and the gorgeous, isolated Alaskan landscape – that doesn’t matter so much. A lot of films can be seen as derivative; what matters is who’s telling the story and how good of a job they do it.
The film’s 2.40:1 1080p image is about as proficient as the Arri Alexa digital camera can provide. Post-production color grading was clearly implemented here, with many shots attaining hues of steely blue or grey; warmer lighting is used in the strip club and basement scenes. The film flip-flops between these two aesthetics without compromising other aspects of the image. Sharpness remains high, with faces exhibiting minute details. Contrast isn’t the strongest, allowing some of the more dimly lit scenes to swallow up the image without allowing much detail to shine through. Black levels, likewise, could have deep more saturated and deep, though they’re mostly good enough to avoid giving a washed out appearance. The picture does a fantastic job of selling the darkness and isolation that come with being in the Alaskan frontier. There are numerous aerial shots that convey a sense of despair. Audio comes in the form of an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround sound track that has a real strong presence. Composer Lorne Balfe’s work is ominous and foreboding, enveloping viewers in a tense series of cues full of percussion and woodwinds. Fidelity is excellent. Sound effects pan seamlessly between speakers; any freeway driving features an array of vehicles deftly moving across the front assembly of speakers. Bass levels kick in when the film transitions t the strip club, a frequent location throughout. Separation of effects and dialogue is handled perfectly, with both given plenty of room to breathe alongside Balfe’s score. The rear speakers levels seem punched up a bit, which only adds to the immersion this soundtrack provides. Subtitles are included in English SDH and Spanish.
The audio commentary features writer/director Scott Walker and producers Mark Ordesky and Jane Fleming. This is a lively chat that moves along at an even pace, full of technical information regarding the production and other on-set stories. Walker talks about the difficulty of shooting in such a cold, remote climate where they were constantly losing a little bit more daylight with each passing day. Several deleted scenes are included, the majority of which provide just a little more insight into Hansen’s personal life. Most were wisely cut. “Examining The Frozen Ground” features Cage and Cusack discussing their respective roles, which at one point almost were almost reversed. But even Cage knows people would expect him to be the crazy one, and he didn’t want to play to the audience’s expectations. Scott Walker mentions that Jack Halcombe is an amalgamation of police officers, most notably Glenn Flothe, the Alaskan office who brought the case to a head. In “Writing The Frozen Ground” Walker talks about his early ideas for a different story forming the basis for this tale when he learned he was writing something similar to a real-life case. He did exhaustive research, getting the approval of the real Cindy Paulson as well as Glenn Flothe’s participation in order to make sure he got as much right as possible. If you’ll notice, even the photos of missing/deceased women shown in the movie are based on actual shots. They even got Hansen’s creepy trophy room full of stuffed animal heads replicated perfectly. A handful of extended interviews are included with writer/director Scott Walker, Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, Vanessa Hudgens, officer Glenn Flothe, Kevin Dunn, and producers Mark Ordesky and Jane Fleming. The film’s trailer is also included. An insert containing a digital download code for use with Ultraviolet is tucked away inside the case.
3 1/2 out of 5
4 out of 5
Who Goes There Podcast: Ep 152 – Cloverfield Paradox & The Ritual
Last week Netflix shocked the world by not only releasing a new trailer for Cloverfield Paradox during the Superbowl, but announcing the film would be available to stream right after the game. In a move no one saw coming, Netflix shook the film industry to it’s very core. A few days later, Netflix quietly released horror festival darling: The Ritual.
Hold on to your Higgs Boson, because this week we’ve got a double header for ya, and we’re not talking about that “world’s largest gummy worm” in your mom’s nightstand. Why was one film marketed during the biggest sporting event of the year, and why was one quietly snuck in like a pinky in your pooper? Tune in a find out!
Meet me at the waterfront after the social for the Who Goes There Podcast episode 152!
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The Housemaid Review – Love Makes the Ghost Grow Stronger
Written and directed by Derek Nguyen
Vietnamese horror films are something of a rarity due largely to pressure from the country’s law enforcement agencies that have warned filmmakers to steer clear of the genre in recent years. The country’s exposure to the industry is limited, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a handful of filmmakers out there that are passionate and determined to get their art out into the world. IFC Midnight has stepped up to the plate to shepherd writer/director Derek Nguyen’s period ghost thriller The Housemaid in hopes of getting it in front of American horror fans.
Aside from a few moments that delve into soap opera territory, Nguyen’s film is full of well-crafted scares and some surprisingly memorable scenes that sneak up at just the right times. For history buffs there’s also a lot of material to sink your teeth into dealing with French Colonial rule and mistreatment of the Vietnamese during the 1950’s. Abuse that, if you’re not careful, could lead to a vengeful spirit seeking atonement.
Desperate and exhausted after walking for miles, an orphaned woman named Linh (Kate) seeks refuge and employment as a housemaid at a large rubber plantation in 1953 French Indochina. Once hired, she learns of the dark history surrounding the property and how her mere presence has awakened an accursed spirit that wanders the surrounding woods and dark corners of the estate. Injured in battle, French officer Sebastien Laurent (Richaud) returns to preside over the manor and, unexpectedly, begins a dangerous love affair with Linh that stirs up an even darker evil.
Told in flashbacks, the abuse of workers reveals a long history of mistreatment that enshrouds the surrounding land in darkness and despair, providing ripe ground for a sinister spirit that continues to grow stronger. Once it’s revealed that the ghost has a long history with Laurent before her death, the reasons she begins to kill become more and more obvious as the death toll piles up. Using the real life history of indentured servants during Colonial rule, The Housemaid becomes more than just a self-contained ghost story, adding a good deal of depth to a story that could have just centered around a love triangle among Laurent, Linh, and the specter of Laurent’s dead wife.
Powered by desire to avenge tortured workers of the past and the anger fueled by seeing her husband in the embrace of a peasant girl, the apparition is frightening and eerily beautiful as she stalks her victims. One scene in particular showing her wielding an axe is the most indelible image to take away from the film, and other moments like it are what make The Housemaid a standout. The twisted sense of romance found in a suffering spirit scorned in death is the heart of the story even if the romance between the two living lovers winds up having more screen time.
The melodrama and underwhelming love scenes between Linh and Laurent are the least effective part of The Housemaid, revealing some of Nguyen’s limitations in providing dialogue and character moments that make us connect with these two characters as much as we do when the ghost is lurking around the frame. What does help to save the story is a well kept secret revealing a connection with the housemaid and the apparition.
Honestly, if this was an American genre film, the limitations seen in The Housemaid might cause more criticism, but seeing an emerging artist and his team out of Vietnam turn out a solid product like this leads me to highlight the good and champion the effort in hopes of encouraging more filmmakers to carry the flag. Ironically, the film is set for a U.S. remake in the near future.
The Housemaid hits select theaters, VOD, and digital platforms TODAY, February 16th.
Using the real life history of indentured servants during Colonial rule, The Housemaid becomes more than just a self-contained ghost story, adding a good deal of depth to a story that could have just centered around a love triangle.
Scorched Earth Review – Gina Carano Making Motherf**kers Pay In The Apocalypse
Starring Gina Carano, John Hannah, Ryan Robbins
Written by Bobby Mort and Kevin Leeson
Directed by Peter Howitt
Let me preface this review by stating right off the bat that I’m a huge Gina Carano fan, and will pretty much accept her in any role that she’s put in (are you going to tell her no), regardless of the structure and plausibility behind it, and while that might make me a tad-bit biased in my opinions, just accept it as that and nothing more. Now that I’ve professed my cinematic devotion to the woman, let’s dive headlong into her latest film, Scorched Earth.
Directed by Peter Howitt, the backdrop is an apocalyptic world brought on by the imminent disaster known as global warming, and the air has become toxic to intake, generally leaving inhabitants yacking up blood and other viscous liquids after a prolonged exposure, unless you’re one of the privileged that possesses a filter lined with powdered silver. Filters of water and the precious metal are in high demand, and only true offenders in this world still drive automobiles, effectively speeding up the destruction of what’s left of the planet. Carano plays Atticus Gage, a seriously stoic and tough-as-nails bounty hunter who is responsible for taking these “criminals” down, and her travels lead her to a compound jam-packed with bounties that will have her collecting riches until the end of time…but aren’t we at the end of time already? Anyway, Gage’s main opponent here is a man by the name of Thomas Jackson (Robbins) – acting as the leader of sorts to these futuristic baddies, the situation of Gage just stepping in and taking him out becomes a bit complicated when…oh, I’m not going to pork this one up for you all – you’ve got to invest the time into it just as I did, and trust me when I tell you that the film is pretty entertaining to peep.
While Carano’s acting still needs some refining, let there be no ever-loving mistake that this woman knows how to beat the shit out of people, and for all intents and purposes this will be the thing that carries her through many a picture. There are much larger roles in the future for Gina, and she’ll more than likely take over as a very big player in the industry – hey, I’m a gambling man, and I’ve done pretty well with my powers of prognostication. With that being said, the thing that does hold this picture back is the plot itself- it’s a bit stale and not overly showy, and when I look for a villain to oppose the hero, I’m wanting someone with at least a shred of a magnetic iota, and I just couldn’t latch onto anything with Robbins’ performance – his character desperately needed an injection of “bad-assness” and it hurt in that particular instance.
In the end of it all, I’d recommend Scorched Earth to fans of directionless, slam-bang wasteland pics with a touch of unrestrained violence…plus, Gina Carano is in it, so you can’t go wrong. If you’re not a fan of any of the above, feel free to skate on along to another piece of barren territory.
Looking to get your butt kicked in the apocalypse with extreme prejudice? Drive on up, and allow me to introduce you to someone who’ll be more than happy to oblige.
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