Directed by Justin Thomas Ostensen
Written by Signe Olynyk
The only thing worse than a formulaic horror film is one that doesn’t scare you, and the only thing worse than both is the unholy marriage of the two. Thankfully, in Justin Thomas Ostensen’s postmodern thriller, Below Zero, there’s now a manuscript that can tell us how these films went wrong, why they went wrong, and why they are still being done wrong. However, besides pinpointing the problems, the film itself does not provide solutions, and although Below Zero starts off white hot, it ultimately leaves you feeling ice cold.
The film centers on Jack (Edward Furlong), a hack screenwriter whose agent elicits the help of local, gregarious single mother named Penny (Kristin Booth) to lock him in a meat freezer for five days, in a bizarre exercise humorously coined as ‘method writing’. Once trapped, Jack’s imagination runs rampant, with him creating stories of gruesome dismemberments, blood-curdling torture, and overall inhuman situations. But as we delve deeper and deeper into the narrative, we start to wonder which story is fact, and which is fiction, leading to a rare, high concept thriller of a picture.
The best description one can have of Below Zero is that it’s an exercise in atmosphere. Although made on a paltry $150,000 budget, ever dollar is put to good use, creating a visual style that simultaneously turns the stomach, and delights the eyes. Even more impressive is the effectively ambient sound. Every tick of a clock, every pulse, slice, and creek further lights a slow burning fire that keeps you constantly on-edge and in a constant state of angst. There are no cheap jump scares, only genuine foreboding.
As well as being incredibly dark and visceral, Signe Olynyk’s inspired writing elevates the brooding picture to one that’s also surprisingly intelligent and academic. Ostensen and Olynyk effectively make Below Zero into Screenwriting 101, creating a step-by-step cautionary tale about poor horror filmmaking (notice the bevy of screenwriting books on the shelves). The film is refreshingly self-aware, self-referential, and humorously meta. There hasn’t been such a fun, self-deprecating horror film since the original Scream.
Below Zero gleefully lambasts the generic and predictable nature of horror movies, focusing on illogical, and out-of-the-blue twist endings. Typical genre conclusions are thrown onto the screen for the sole purpose of being scrutinized by the actors. There’s even a sly commentary on how some filmmakers go to desperate, increasingly depraved extremes to achieve box office success (think the Saw franchise and A Serbian Film). These critiques are true, incessantly relevant, and endearingly honest.
However, they become so prevalent that they eventually hurt the storytelling aspect of the film. As the film’s self-consciousness becomes more and more transparent, we lose all pretenses of suspense or apprehension. We know that the situations are farcical, and thus are no longer scared. The result is a very cerebral experience that robs the viewer of the atmosphere it initially configures.
Worst of all, the central conceit of the film compromises its ending. While focused on critiquing endings of other films, Below Zero meanders to find one that’s suitable to its leitmotifs. The film consequently drags, hoping to avoid this problem, and in the end, it doesn’t find a suitable resolution. Still, Below Zero is a good film, deserving of a seasoned cinephile’s attention, and with enough publicity, it’s conceivable that actual Screenwriting 101 courses would screen this as essential viewing – not on how to make a great horror film, but on how to avoid making a terrible one.
– Justin Li