By Scott Dorward
Cold Hell (Austria, 2017)
Supernatural horror enjoyed a hell of a boom in the 1980s, creating a golden age of weird, imaginative books and films. For reasons better understood by social scientists, tastes shifted in the 1990s and horror slithered back into the shadows. Well, except for those horror films and stories cunning enough to disguise themselves as thrillers. Suddenly, screens and pages were filled with serial killers who created gothic master plans and played mind games with those who dared pursue them. It was the horror you could openly enjoy while projecting some illusion of sophistication. While the pendulum has since swung back the other way, this subgenre never quite went away. There is still a breed of thriller that owes everything to Thomas Harris and, perhaps, to the age of giallo. It is fair to say that Cold Hell aspires to this. But does it deliver the chills promised by the title?
Özge Dogruol is a taxi driver in Vienna. The daughter of Turkish immigrants, she faces constant abuse and dismissal by those around her because of her sex, ethnicity and history of drug use. Her relationships with family, friends and colleagues are stretched to breaking point. The one escape valve she has for her pent-up aggression is Thai boxing. Even then, her uncontrollable anger is in danger of taking even this away from her.
The situation grows even worse when Dogruol witnesses a serial killer torturing a woman in a neighbouring flat. Realising the killer also saw her, Dogruol turns to the police and those around her for help, only to be rebuffed at every turn. As the killer tracks her down, Dogruol grows desperate, forging new relationships and transforming old ones.
Cold Hell really wants to be a neo-noir. The first half is infused with a moody saxophone soundtrack and endless shots of neon lights reflected in puddles. This is a film that perfectly captures the loneliness of cities at night. Dogruol is, in many ways, a classic hardboiled character, driven by a personal morality at odds with the rest of the world. She possesses the kind of laconic stoicism that would be seen as admirable in a male protagonist but is treated by those around her as a character flaw.
It is not just emotional strength Dogruol possesses. She is a skilled martial artist, able to take down large male sparring partners. One thing Cold Hell handles well is how her skill doesn’t always help in the world outside the ring. When Dogruol is attacked with a knife at close quarters, her options for fighting back are limited. Once injured, the odds are against her. This balance between power and powerlessness makes her plight all the more tense.
Isolation is a cornerstone of horror. We are used to seeing characters cut off from help by car trouble, unreliable phone signals, and the like. Social isolation is less commonly portrayed, however. And, for all the people around her, Dogruol is a model of social isolation. When she seeks shelter, everyone turns her away. Police officers dismiss her pleas for help, seeing her as an unreliable drug addict. Until she starts to forge some unusual relationships late on in the film, she is alone.
For all its giallo inclinations, I can’t really describe Cold Hell as a horror film. Sure, it has a sadistic serial killer driven by creepy beliefs, not to mention a few gory murders, but it feels more like a generic thriller. At times it aspires to be Hitchcockian but devolves into a pretty simple revenge fantasy.
Cold Hell is very much a film of two halves. It starts off strongly, mixing a noirish tone with some compelling character building. We are quickly invested in Dogruol and the chaos of her life. While the serial killer element is something we’ve seen a hundred times before, it is enlivened by this strong, flawed protagonist. She makes bad choices, finds unlikely allies, and genuinely struggles with her situation. At her worst, she is more of a danger to herself than any knife-wielding maniac might be, which only makes us feel for her more.
Unfortunately, having built this great character and tense situation, the filmmakers seem to have no idea what to do with it all. In the third act, almost everything that makes the film interesting and unique falls away, replaced by all-too-familiar tropes. The ending, when it comes, is so simple and devoid of genuine emotion that it feels like it comes from another film. Ultimately, the resolution of Cold Hell fails both its protagonist and its audience.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- Possessor (2020)
- The Boogey Man (1980)
- Jakob’s Wife (2021)
- The Queen of Black Magic (2019)
- Cold Hell (2017)
- Seance (2021)
- The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976)
- Dachra (2018)
- Isle of the Dead (1945)
- After Midnight (2019)
- The Baby (1973)
- Hagazussa (2017)
- Frightmare (1974)
- The Eyes of My Mother (2016)
- Dave Made a Maze (2017)
- Raw (2016)
- The Old Ways (2020)
- Terror Train (1980)
- mon mon mon MONSTERS (2017)
- Sator (2019)
- Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)
- The Lighthouse (2019)
- Anything For Jackson (2020)
- Warning: Do Not Play (Amjeon) (2019)
- Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
- The Field Guide to Evil (2019)
- A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
- The Wizard of Gore (1970)
- Fingers (2019)
- Lake Bodom (2016)
- Island of Lost Souls (1932)
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Changeling
- The Endless
- Our favourite Cthulhu Mythos media
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!