By Brett Yates
The title of this piece notwithstanding, “Cold Prey” is not technically a skiing movie; it’s a snowboarding movie, insofar as it concerns sports at all. More importantly, it’s a slasher movie: a group of frisky young adults, a masked killer on the loose—it all just happens to take place at an abandoned vacation lodge in Norway.
If you’re wondering, as I did, whether the movie’s Scandinavian provenance might contribute some cultural variation to the standard American slasher formula that the synopsis of “Cold Prey” suggests — well, the answer is: not really. It’s not an art film, and its American release — a dub, believe it or not — reflected not only the same commercialist spirit of disdain with which distributors treated 1970s kung-fu cinema but also an awareness that, really, the only thing separating this movie from “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” apart from some small additional quantity of basic filmmaking competence, is the language. In spite of this (or because of it), the movie was well-received by the international horror fandom community, and it became Europe’s most successful slasher movie of the decade, spawning two sequels that, as far as I can tell, don’t involve winter sports at all and thus fall outside my current realm of concern.
“Cold Prey” begins with an idyllic drive into the mountains. Inside the car are five kids of mixed gender and indeterminate age, all excited for the backcountry snowboarding adventure upon which they’re about to embark. It’s a clear, crisp day, and together they hike up to a snowy peak, marveling at the view before strapping on their boards and carving through the untouched powder.
Then, predictably, something goes wrong: a gruesome knee injury befalls one of the snowboarders midway down the mountain. While applying first aid, his friends spy a shelter in the distance. Dragging the incapacitated snowboarder behind them, they discover an isolated, long-abandoned hotel and, in search of warmth and medical supplies, decide to break into the building. The de facto leader of the party finds an old generator in the basement and gets it working; with a snowstorm moving in at dark, they all agree to spend the night and then to set out for help in the morning. Little do they know, a violent psychopath is — of course — lurking on the premises.
The killings that follow proceed with a slightly dull inevitability that owes partly to the film’s obvious adherence to the genre template and partly to the specifics of its own premise and setting. Part of the suspense of the slasher genre comes from the sense that, really, the forthcoming victims ought to be able to get away: to some degree, the killer is the underdog, and the innocents have to make all sorts of dumb mistakes in order to fall prey to his typically slow-moving violence. The teens (or 20-somethings) of “Cold Prey,” however, have the odds stacked against them: with a bum leg, bad weather, no way to call for help, and nowhere to run to, they’re trapped on the killer’s home turf, and it’s pretty clear that none of them, save for the necessary Final Girl, has a real shot at escape.
Part of the frightfulness of the suburban horror of “Halloween,” for instance, is that dramatizes the gaps amid a network of perceived safety, i.e. the civilized streets inhabited by our friends and neighbors. The remote inn of “Cold Prey,” by comparison, is a haunted house, which, transported to the realm of the slasher, forms the (arguably) inferior cabin-in-the-woods subgenre, where no social breakdown is necessary for the terror to slip in; it exists simply on account of society’s absence.
The classic slasher movies — the likes of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “Halloween,” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” — articulated national anxieties related to changing social norms, technological progress, and U.S. foreign policy; however, the allegories were often subtle and frequently unconscious. As the genre progressed to its late, self-referential stage, the movies’ underlying concerns grew more explicit and narrower. “Cold Prey,” which begins with a reel of news footage regarding avalanche deaths and
lost backcountry skiers, is a warning of the danger of adventure sports—which do possess a possibly irreconcilable tension between (on the one hand) the high-spirited embrace of a world beyond the stressors of daily life that animates their participants and (on the other hand) their occasionally horrifying consequences, which likewise depart from “daily life,” but in the opposite direction. Yet how many adventure sports enthusiasts are there at the average cineplex, really?
Still, the concept behind “Cold Prey” does contain—in its account of blithe, joyous youth swimming into the dark, treacherous waters that, for certain filmmakers, constitute the adult world—a fairly neat expression of the genre’s particular kind of coming-of-age. The shame is that slasher movies never really take their generic late-adolescent characters seriously, as the imperiled youngsters test themselves against the terrors of the world, lose their innocence, lose their friends, and risk losing themselves. There’s a poignancy in this metaphor that has never been fully exploited, even in the best horror movies, and certainly not here.