★★★★out of ★★★★★
A cab driver witnesses a serial killer murdering one of his victims, and finds herself his next target. She’s much tougher than she looks though, in this smartly scripted thriller with strong statements about culture, family, responsibility and raw courage.
Directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky
Austria has been producing a fair number of interesting horror movies in recent years. You tend not to think of this small country as a generator of a lot of genre film, but they have been producing some very interesting titles that you may want to check out with offerings such as Blue My Mind, Goodnight Mommy, Blood Glacier, and now: Cold Hell.
I do find it interesting that Austria produces so many more interesting horror movies than its more populous and prominent neighbor, Germany. To be honest, I’m not sure why this is, but there is a certain alpine personality to these films. They tend to be somber, serious films, as laughs are few and far between here.
Another running theme is that these Austrian productions will concentrate on character development and that many of these characters are not easy to connect to. For me, this is usually a stumbling block, as I tend to bond with a horror movie if I care about the fate of the protagonists. These films, and Cold Hell, in particular, offer up some leads who are prickly personalities, troubled individuals that require you to stick with the movie to get that associative bond.
All that character development in Cold Hell pays off.
Cold Hell follows the story of Özga Dogruol (Violetta Schurawlow) a Turkish-Austrian cab driver, who after a tiring evening of traversing Vienna taking fares, retreats to her apartment, only to witness a brutal murder of a prostitute in an apartment across the alley from where she lives. She notifies the police but was spotted by the killer, and she has been marked as a new target.
Özga does not rattle easily, though. She is a muay-Thai boxer and she has a steely toughness that imbues her with confidence. It cannot protect those she cares about though, as the killer cuts a path through them in his attempts to punish and silence her. The killer is clever, and eventually catches up to Özga and manages to badly injure her, but her mad cabbie skills and punching prowess manage to help her escape… if barely.
She ends up having to care for Ada (Elif Nida Usar), an adorable toddler, but
Özga has nowhere to go. Her apartment is a crime scene, her father was an abuser so she can’t stay with her parents, and she quickly realizes that she can’t stay with her Ex, either. She eventually ends up forced to take refuge with the officer investigating her case, Officer Steiner (Tobias Moretti), and his dementia-addled father, Karl (Friederich Von Thun). She and Steiner don’t really get along, as he is constantly frustrated with her taciturn ways, and she will not divulge her secrets, but wouldn’t you know it, eventually they form a bond.
They manage to piece together the method to the serial killer’s madness, in a bit of handy side-exposition, that is probably the weakest part of the story, but eventually, we get the inevitable killer’s reveal and showdown, and the whole sequence successfully builds a layer cake of tension that links several fantastic action sequences together.
This movie is very much a thriller, with some strong horror elements. It fits firmly in the Horror or Not discussion, but as this is a Shudder exclusive, the distributors certainly treat this film as a horror picture. This is definitely a mad-slasher, though the villain is by no means a supernatural force. He’s a deranged man, and given Özga’s fighting chops, the scales are almost even, so that certainly tests my conditions of a horror movie that the antagonist be much more powerful than the protagonist.
The story itself is fairly conventional. It will feel familiar, but the Viennese setting and the cultural background of the Turkish community within Austria is a fascinating framework to operate in and makes the film feel fresh. The movie is built upon the strength of examining both the strength and frailty of familial bonds, which overcomes the somewhat wrote crime drama portion of the plot.
The pacing and the scenes move briskly, and there is never a dull moment. The movie shows off the grimier side of Vienna (who knew Vienna had a grimy side?). The look of the film borrows from another one of the all-time great thrillers, Se7en, with the odd shadowy beauty of a slum apartment, and expressing Vienna as a colorful collage of streetlights, puddles, and cobblestone alleyways. The killer’s methodology also seems to be plucked from that David Fincher classic, and like Se7en, the horrific killing M.O. is described and suggested more than it is shown, and will make you wince.
We are awarded a bang-up conclusion, and though it was hard to initially bond with any of the major characters, you really are invested in them by the end. There is some real gravitas to Özga’s background, as there is a bit of Lizbeth Salander here, and those of you Girl with the Dragon Tattoo fans know of what I speak.
Unlike some of its indie horror peers, Cold Hell looks like it had a massive stunts budget put into it. There is a car chase sequence in the second act that could have been pulled straight from Skyfall or Ronin. There’s something about a European car chase that just seems right.
Schurawlow plays a rough around the edges character with just the right amount of cynicism and snarl, and she seems to be in a constant hangover but will snap to when necessary. Moretti is at his best when interacting with Von Thun, and that father-son interaction is what really helps provide much-needed warmth, if not a fair bit of intentional awkwardness to the proceedings.
If you’re looking for an exotic, smart, and intense thriller, Cold Hell will entertain the hell out of you. Is this straight up horror? No. Does it get your blood going? Yes.
Cold Hell is not rated but would be a hard R rating for some vicious murders a lot of swearing, and a little bit of nudity. This is a Shudder exclusive and is available “free” if you are a subscriber.