Monday, December 28, 2020

“It’s a Natural Brother-Sister-Girlfriend Thing” - The Chill Factor (1993) - Film #194

Let us turn to 1993's The Chill Factor, in which a fun-loving group of snowmobilers gets more than they bargained for (in fact, they did no bargaining) when they are forced to take shelter in a snowbound lodge.

Some of your universe's critics are less than charitable in their views of The Chill Factor. For example, reviewer mariajonasfahlsing writes, "Bad special effects, terribly cheesy soundtrack...forgettable characters, a narrator who sounds like he/she (I can't tell) smoked 3 packs a day from birth, and a non-ending (rather, the movie just stops with no real explanation as to what happened or why), I am so glad that this awful flick is over." Reviewer ethyl ester writes, "As far as acting go [sic], this movie was the pits." And reviewer ThyDavideth writes, "The Chill Factor is a movie that laughably tries so desperately to be serious and boy can you hear it through its serious narration from a woman that sounds like she smoked one too many cigarettes."

Please read on for a more realistic appreciation of The Chill Factor...

Over shots of snowmobiles roaring through the fog, a woman whose voice combines the dulcet tones of both Truman Capote and Suzanne Pleshette intones, “The nightmare came to me before dawn, sneaking into my mind, disguising itself as an ordinary dream. And that’s when the first chapter of my life, my childhood, ended. What I didn’t know was that the nightmare would come true. And when it was over, it would just be the beginning of something far worse.”

We watch as a body flies through the air and strikes a tree.

The film cuts to a brighter scene in which a smiling young woman wearing pink cavorts with her male fiance wearing blue. The voiceover continues: “I was so in love, it was crazy. But I was happy and carefree, and he was everything I’d ever dreamed of. A college boy so handsome I could have died. I never figured out why he proposed. He didn’t love me in the same way I loved him. And deep inside...I knew it. But his best friend Chris was dating his older sister, and his other friend Ron got engaged to a black girl, so who knows? The year 2000 was just around the corner, and maybe we were all a little crazy. I was young, and I was pretty, and I could drive a sled better than any of them.”

There follows a sequence of three couples riding snowmobiles that lasts approximately sixty-four years. Eventually, the film cuts to a bar, where the couples enter after a hard lifetime of snowmobiling. Almost immediately, one of the patrons uses the n-word, prompting a short but exceptionally awkward fight between the clean-cut snowmobilers and the locals. The locals are thrown out and the couples sit down at a table, where a waitress thanks them for getting rid of the troublesome locals. Lisa, Ron’s black fiancée, says, “Things like that happen to us.”

“I guess they do, honey,” says the waitress. (Incidentally, the waitress, Bessy, uses a rude appellation to refer to the locals and apologizes for her language, despite the fact that her baseball cap says I MAKE SH*T HAPPEN.)

After some good-natured banter, two of the men, Tom and Chris, decide to race their snowmobiles on a frozen lake called Black Friar Lake. Jeannie, the narrator, has misgivings about the race but she says nothing. Lissa starts the race, which involves a long, cinematic sequence of snowmobiles driving in a straight line. Of course, it tragically ends with Tom losing control of his vehicle, driving up a snow ramp, flying through the air, and slamming into a tree.

Fortunately, Tom is not killed. His friends decide they need to find shelter or he will die in the twenty-below winter. “Bessy said no one lived out here but come on, let’s go,” says Jeannie. They find a boarded-up house nearby with a massive cross erected on the roof.

They break in and find the place has a chapel, complete with a big wooden Christ statue, and a big kitchen. They light a fire to keep Tom warm. For unknown reasons, none of them decides to go for help.

Lissa asks Ron, “What is this place?”

He says, “Some kind of summer camp, I guess. For kids. Looks like it was run by a religious order.”

“It seems spooky to me. This stuff is wild. I was brought up Baptist. Real simple.”

“It’s a little strong for me, too. All my family’s Catholic.”

After they clean Tom up and argue for a while, Ron finally decides to take a snowmobile back to town to get help. 

In a suspenseful sequence, Tom’s sister Karen looks through various cupboards and pulls a box marked FIRST AID from the top of a shelf, though after the box falls to the floor nobody uses the first aid equipment to help Tom. Fortunately, however, Tom does regain consciousness, though he passes out minutes later.

The friends find a photo of kids who used the building as a summer camp in 1953. The photo is labeled with “CAMP ST. DOMINIC” and the ominous slogan “KEEP THE BEAST IN THE FIELD.” They also find a tin game, a circular ouija board with a spinner called a “devil’s eye.” Of course (40 minutes into the film), they decide to play the game. 

After a few minutes of Jeannie breathing heavily, the spinner (adorned with an adorable eyeball) starts to spin. At the same time, the unconscious Tom starts to shake. Also, out in the snow, Ron drives his snowmobile straight into a barbed-wire fence.

When asked if they were successful and got through to the other side, a terrified Jeannie replies, “No. I think the other side got through to us!”

Tom regains consciousness. Despite his joking that he’ll be a “pain in the ass” to his sister, everyone thinks everything is normal. Chris and Karen make love in a bedroom, though they discuss Tom’s condition as they do so. 

Later, when everyone is asleep, Lissa carries a lantern through the lodge. Despite the fact that this story is Jeannie’s flashback, and Jeannie is asleep, we watch Lissa read a letter found in a bookshelf—a letter recounting a terrible tragedy that occurred at the lodge involving an unsolved murder. Then she finds a convenient newspaper with the headline SATANIC CULT AT ST. DOMINIC? 

Disturbed by a strange figure with long fingers, Lissa hides in a freezer, where the ceiling fan descends, cutting her in half.

Tom opens his eyes and smiles evilly.

Later, Chris explores the area, only to find Lissa’s body. Spooked by the shadowy figure, he picks up a knife. Going outside for no apparent reason, Chris is killed supernaturally when an icicle falls into his eye.

Inside, it becomes clear Tom is possessed based on his nasty comments. When Jeannie scolds him about teasing his sister Karen, he says, “She hates your guts anyway. You know that.”

“No she doesn’t,” Jeannie replies. “It’s a natural brother-sister-girlfriend thing.”

Tom coaxes Jeannie into taking the bandage off his hand, which had bones sticking out. It has healed quickly. “I told you we were a remarkable family,” Tom says, explaining the miraculous healing. “I’m sure we have Indian blood.”

Apparently, the concept of Indian blood has an aphrodisiac effect on both of them, and they start to make love (a scene that includes an incredibly loud unzipping sound). As they do so, Karen unwisely explores the lodge, hearing sounds of children playing. In a unique scene, she climbs onto a stepladder and turns around, tangling herself in what appears to be a tennis net and strangling herself.

In a surreal sequence, Jeannie falls asleep and Tom makes love to her again, a scene that shows his hands have long fingernails and which is intercut with shots of the dead Lissa and Karen returning to life and disrobing. When Jeannie wakes up in the morning, the lodge is empty. She wanders around to the haunting strains of “Three Blind Mice,” eventually finding Karen’s body hanging from the net, Lissa’s body in the freezer, and Chris’s icicle-punctured body in the snow. Naturally, she returns to the devil’s eye game and starts asking it questions. It says it is a friend, and that Tom killed her friends because Tom is evil. “What should I do?” she asks. The arrow spins around and around with no inertia. She interprets this message quickly: “Yes. Get away.”

Escaping outside, she pauses to look through a window and sees Tom in a Satanic robe.

She runs to a snowmobile and rides away through fresh snow. When she finds Ron’s body in the snow, she is surprised to watch it get up and then reveal itself as a grinning Tom, who gets on Ron’s snowmobile and chases Jeannie. The chase lasts a long time. At one point, they find Ron’s body again and Tom points at it cryptically. Eventually, they encounter a man driving heavy equipment in the snow. Tom’s snowmobile crashes and he disappears under the treads, which pop his helmeted head off.

Also, Tom’s snowmobile explodes.

Tom gets up, his head somehow reattached, and he staggers away, though because he is on fire he doesn’t survive.

Jeannie gets back on the snowmobile and rides away. She rides back to Black Friar Lake, only to find that the lodge is in ruins, burned down years ago. The older Jeannie begins to narrate again. “My mind began to flip between nightmare and reality, but reality was losing out. Looking back, it would have been so easy to say no when Karen found that damn board. To walk away from the table and stay by Tom’s side until morning. But a part of me wanted to know where the real world ended and the dark world began. In spite of everything that told me not to, I had to see the face of evil for myself. It was my nature. Now, thirty years later, I still dream of that night with Tom, and it isn’t really a nightmare. No, the nightmares are something else.”

While The Chill Factor has the edge of a group of filmmakers' first raw feature, it was directed by the experienced producer Christopher Webster, who had served as executive producer of Hellraiser (1987), Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988), and Heathers (1989), among many other films. Clearly, Mr. Webster was enamored with the script for The Chill Factor and decided to follow up his classics of 80s genre cinema with the compelling, original story of a group of young adults trapped in a cabin set upon by mildly supernatural forces.

In some ways, The Chill Factor parallels the Byron Quisenberry film Scream (1981). Mr. Quisenberry had achieved some success in Hollywood in the stunt industry before directing Scream, while Mr. Webster had achieved his own successes as producer before The Chill Factor. Both films follow groups of friends traveling through hostile environments before becoming confined in apparently abandoned buildings. Both are also "slow burn" horror films focusing on atmosphere before eventually turning their attention to (arguably) creative murders. And both films have much to offer to discerning audiences looking for excitement and...chills. (Get it? Chills. Like the title of the movie. I think you get it. I'll just assume you get it. Okay.)