First, let me warn you: this movie shows us 36 hours in the life (and death) of a family on vacation… ice fishing.
The point of ice fishing is not necessarily to catch fish. In fact, it’s hard to describe ice fishing as a goal-oriented activity… to call it an “activity” at all is a bit of an exaggeration. When you ice fish, you reduce the world around you to a Zen-like minimum: the cold limits your sense of touch; there’s really nothing to see but a featureless expanse of ice, with occasional driftlets of snow appearing and dispersing around you; your ears become attuned to soft, small sounds, but loud distractions are few. Your entire existence is reduced to life’s essentials: yourself… a few carefully-selected friends and family members… beer… and, almost as an afterthought, a hole in the ice, through which fish eventually may or may not be pulled.
So prepare yourself. If you approach a movie that revolves around ice fishing expecting non-stop slam-bang action, you’re going to be disappointed. You’d be better off going in expecting nothing to happen at all.
There are a few good things about Hypothermia, and they’re few enough that we can get them out of the way immediately.
First of all there’s its brevity: the movie’s about 70 minutes long. As the old-time movie makers knew, 70 minutes is an ideal length for a cheap horror picture… it’s not long enough to overstay its welcome. Of course, bear in mind that a lot of Hypothermia consists of lingering shots of snow blowing across ice, or lonely birds taking off on the horizon; so unless you’re a Tarkovsky fan, you may still find those 70 minutes interminable.
Next, Hyperthermia is far more focused on the people in its story than on the monster, or on the ways the monster tears its victims to bits. This too, though, is a bit of a mixed blessing. It’s generally a good thing when a horror movie emphasizes character over mayhem, but when the characters are limned in broad crayon strokes, well… frankly, you start wishing for some gore. The six people that make up the human cast of the movie have the outlines of interesting characters. But the details are lacking, and it’s really only the skill of the actors themselves that lets us keep our interest in them.
Best of the bunch, unsurprisingly, is Michael Rooker. What might be surprising is that the actor so memorable for his terrifying performances in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and The Walking Dead here plays a warm, compassionate, even-tempered family man. He does it so effortlessly that it’s almost possible to forget how effortlessly he’s played all those murderous psychotics. Almost.
Moving on to the movie’s problems… oy, does it have some problems.
Let’s start with the title. Nobody in the movie really ends up with hypothermia. This is in spite of the fact that four people over the course of the film take a plunge into the icy waters of a frozen lake… three of them at night. All of them bob right back up again, through the tiny hole in the ice down which they fell. None of them die instantly of shock, and none of them are much the worse for wear after a hot shower… monster bites are a bit of a different story, but nobody seems much put-out by their dunkings.
Rooker’s character is the first to go into the water, and his is the most harrowing and significant experience. He falls through the ice just as the sun is speeding into its descent: it’s still twilight when he falls through, but by the time he’s managed to crawl back out of the ice a few moments later, it’s already full dark. His limbs numb, his strength already exhausted, he’s barely able to hoist himself out of the water… but one he’s done it, and is lying helpless and freezing on the ice, nobody can see him in the darkness. It’s pure luck that his son, searching with a flashlight, is able to find him in time to prevent him dying of exposure, since nobody was around when he fell in.
The tension in the scene is undercut a little by the knowledge that the movie can’t afford to kill Rooker that early. If his character dies within the first ten minutes of the movie, most of the production’s star power is spent and wasted. Still, even though we know Rooker’s character (the Walking Dad?) is going to be rescued, it’s a little unsettling to see him bounce back quite as quickly and easily as he seems to. And it’s even more unsettling to see three other people plunge in and out of the ice as the story wears on, considering that the entire rest of the movie takes place out on the frozen lake… with only a small heated trailer as shelter. Sure, Rooker’s son’s girlfriend is a med student, but even so — there are limits to what you can do on the spur of the moment when somebody’s battling hypothermia and lacerations from monster fangs.
Next problem? It’s those characters again, damn it. We get just enough of a glimpse at the son to make us wonder if he’s a genuinely idealistic young man, or an insufferable poseur. We learn just enough about him and his girlfriend to realize that either he or she will have to die tragically before the end of the movie — the setup is just too on-the-nose for things to go otherwise.
But then, we’re introduced the movie’s prime motivator: the odious Steve Cote (played by Don Wood, a regular in James Felix McKenney’s off-beat horror movies). Cote (pronounced “Cody”) is that stock figure from the 70’s ecological horror films: the evil big city businessman, who’s brought the attitude of the boardroom out into the wild with him. He doesn’t just want to ice fish… he wants to catch every fucking fish in the whole motherfucking lake, goddamn it all to fuck; and if he has to lob a few sticks of dynamite down the fishing hole to blow himself as well as all the fish to fuckin’ kingdom come, then damn it, that’s the way it’s gonna BE, motherfucker! Also: fuck, fuck and again fuck. Cote appears out of nowhere with his son, naturally blasting Heavy Metal music across the lake at top volume. He’s got a big yellow trailer with state-of-the-art fish finding technology, a pair of snowmobiles, and an attitude the size of all New Jersey (which is funny, because he’s from Maine).
Cote is a Monster Movie stereotype — the kind of hyper-aggressive Type A Personality who goes ice fishing with firearms, and who refuses to take his injured son to the hospital after he’s dragged under the ice by a fish monster. He’s a real-estate developer, too, which means he’s made disrespect of the environment part of his whole career… not just his relaxation. He’s the heir of Leslie Nielsen in Day of the Animals, or Joan Collins in Empire of the Ants, and efforts to give him a little touch of humanity toward the end of his time on-screen really don’t amount to much.
But, see… we need him: it’s Cote’s high-power equipment that draws the fish monster out of the lake with its vibrations. Technically, all the carnage turns out to be his fault. Sure, the beast had already eaten all the fish in the lake — being an underwater biped, it was naturally better equipped for survival and predation than any mere fish. So the monster probably would have emerged at some point, anyway. But it’s made clear that it’s the combination of vibrations from Cote’s machinery, and the sheer, overwhelming odor of good ol’ mammalian testosterone that results from any encounter with Cote, that drive the creature to look for human prey.
And that brings us to my final point, for better or for worse… the movie’s high or low point, depending on your point of view: the Monster.
Writer/director James McKenney, a protégé of the legendary independent film-maker Larry Fessenden, has made a handful of idiosyncratic genre films, including CanniBallistic, The Off Season and the weird 50’s sci-fi homage Automatons. The influence of old-school low-budget horror is everywhere in his movies. The goofy tin-can robots of Automatons were clearly designed to be tongue-in-cheek throwbacks to movies like Target Earth or Gog… but what are we to make of the creature in Hypothermia? It’s a guy in a modified wetsuit, with a mask on top. It’s the spiritual kin of the Moon Beast… or Rana, the Legend of Shadow Lake (though unlike Rana, alas, it doesn’t regurgitate frogs). Like those two 70’s monsters, it looks halfway decent in stills; but when you see it in motion, it’s oh-so-clearly just a stuntman in a wetsuit.
(Did I mention the critter has wings? It has wings. Well, webbing, at any rate; webbing between its torso and its arms, like a flying squirrel.)
The monster sees everything in a curious yellow-red blur. In fact, the opening moments of the movie are shots under the ice, seen from the creature’s point of view — though it’s not immediately apparent that that’s what the effect is supposed to represent; I thought at first we were seeing everything through a glass of beer. I guess that makes the monster one of the few animals in nature equipped with a permanent set of beer goggles. That’s kind-of unfortunate, since Hypothermia features quite a bit of Product Placement for Geary’s, a fine Maine brewery (to make the connection even more unfortunate, it’s the awful Cote who brings the various packs of Geary’s products, even though his actions mark him as a “Schlitz Lite Ice” type of guy). Later, when I realized what the yellowish tint was supposed to suggest, I started thinking of the effect as “Serrano-vision”, after the artist who became (in)famous for photographing sacred objects immersed in his own urine. None of this helps me suspend my disbelief over the creature. I don’t imagine it’s given Geary’s much of a boost, either.
Serrano-vision also apparently gives the beast the astounding ability to remember scenes it wasn’t a witness to. The monster also understands English, I guess, because our survivors’ last-ditch effort to keep it from killing them involves asking it not to. It’s tempting to look at this all as a parody, but the movie as a whole is played so straight-faced that doing so is virtually impossible.
If you like terrible old-school monster suits, and think there’s a place for them in today’s horror cinema, then chances are you’ll have a soft spot for Hypothermia. Now, me? I do like unconvincing monster suits. I also like movies that are slowly-paced and atmospheric, so I’m an ideal target for this kind of film-making. And I, the ideal target, thought it was… well… okay. Just okay. Unfortunately, the flick left me lukewarm; and that’s probably not a good thing for a movie called “Hypothermia”.
I’m tempted to point out that in Really Bad Hypothermia, the patient stops shivering and becomes apathetic. But maybe that’s a little too harsh. I’ll probably be watching the movie again, in part to enjoy Michael Rooker in a sympathetic role… but mostly as an excuse to sit down & enjoy some beer from Maine. I don’t seem to have any Geary’s on hand at the moment, but I recently stocked up on some excellent stuff from Atlantic and Bar Harbor breweries. Maybe if I drink until I, too, have Serrano-vision, I’ll be able to enjoy the bug-eyed monster a little bit more.