Director Gregory Jacobs infuses his stranded-car picture with a tone and look that aspires to more than its schlock-horror roots. Unlike the large share of horror/slasher flicks being churned and flung at us these days, Wind Chill isn't noisy, rushed or riddled with seizure-inducing editing. Jacobs keeps things low-key, so that the notes of unease register fully, little by little, as East Coast college student, or "girl" (Emily Blunt), as she's credited here, decides to ride-share her way home for the holidays. Jon Gangemi and Steven Katz's script plays on her (and our) suspicions toward the guy (Ashton Holmes) she's hitched a ride with: He seems troubled, nervous and dopey and knows things about her that only a stalker would. When he admits he's not from where he claims before veering off-course to take "a scenic shortcut," our collective alarm bells go off.
Jacobs and company draw out our distrust of the guy, even after the travelers are stranded and snowbound in forest country. The duo tries to hail down wandering locals, but these prove neither friendly nor, for that matter, human. Worst of all is a foul-tempered trooper (Martin Donovan) who periodically appears in his phantom car to terrorize them.
Clues reveal that a horrific accident, perpetrated by the trooper, took place at that very site decades earlier, and, ever since, its victims and the since-dead priests who administered the last rites wander these grounds, doomed to live their agony over and over, while Donovan's trooper, also now undead, trolls the road for more victims. The guy and girl, meanwhile, find themselves stuck in the time-loop with them.
Why Wind Chill bothers at all with this elaborate back story or temporal gimmick is anyone's guess. We have no idea how to regard these creatures, or what perspective the back story serves to the present-time conundrum. Should we fear or pity the priests? The accident victims? They look spooky but aren't. The time-loop is meant to instill dread, but it only distracts. The villain, apparently, is the trooper, but he bores more than frightens with his standard-issue mayhem.
More surprisingly, Jacobs' protagonists never discuss their situation in open, clear-cut terms: Their dialogue feels overzealously clipped, as if the writers wanted to avoid mention of zombies, ghosts, spooks or any supernatural terms for that matter, the stuff of which horror is made. The end results are that the characters' powers of inquiry and observation feel lobotomized, and the dialogue and direction feel disingenuous. What feels like the worst cop-out in Wind Chill is that it consumes crucial story-development time (and viewer energies) over the girl's struggles with whether or not to trust her companion.
In a good horror movie, atmospherics go a long way, and Jacobs does a creditable job of building tension and a sense of isolation. The movie's best scenes, in fact, are all build-up: Images of lonely landscapes and quiet interiors, twitchy with low-level radio static, evoke '60s art cinema about alienated couples.
Though the oblique and confused storytelling saps the heat out of Wind Chill , the picture still boasts a game performance from Emily Blunt (best-known for her feisty turn in The Devil Wears Prada ). It's perhaps the sole reason, beside Jacobs' unusual style, to catch it. Blunt's surefire presence guides us through all Wind Chill 's miscalculations, turning a nameless, nondescript coed into a vital, singular character. She has just won herself a new fan.
Distributor: Screen Gems
Cast: Emily Blunt, Ashton Holmes, Martin Donovan and Ned Bellamy
Director: Greg Jacobs
Screenwriters: Joe Gangemi & Steven Katz
Producer: Graham Broadbent and Peter Czernin
Rating: R for some violence and disturbing images
Running time: 93 min.
Release date: April 27, 2007