Remember those chintzy syndicated anthology TV series that featured horror and suspense stories—things like “The Hitchhiker” or “Tales from the Darkside”? That’s sort of what “Wind Chill” is like. Though set outside, it’s a claustrophobic little attempt at a thriller that makes a few points as a character study, thanks mostly to the skill of its two leads, but as narrative it fumbles along on misdirection and cheap scare tactics, and ultimately makes no sense.
The small-scaled picture stars Emily Blunt and Ashton Holmes, two young actors who have done fine work in the past (she in “The Devil Wears Prada,” he in “A History of Violence”), as a mismatched college couple sharing a car for a Christmas vacation trip (she takes a ride with the guy, who as it turns out has a secret crush on her). When they take an ill-advised shortcut on a remote snow-swept road, they’re sideswiped by an apparently maniacal driver and sent into a drift. As they fight against the cold and the isolation through the night, they’re accosted by a bevy of threatening ghostly figures—a bunch of elderly clerics, a grotesque hooded gargoyle that emits some sort of snake from its mouth. But the most ominous apparition is a highway patrolman with a decidedly malevolent mien (Martin Donovan), who will become the key to the mysterious events.
Or maybe the whole business is just the result of the couples’ injuries from the accident, compounded by hypothermia. Because as so often happens in stories like this, the fractured narrative veers between apparent reality and presumed illusion, in this case so randomly that in the end it’s impossible to be certain what it’s all supposed to mean. The insertion of periodic title cards to indicate the passage of time over the night is reminiscent of “The Shining,” and an allusion early on to the philosophical idea of eternal recurrence may also indicate that the intention is to call to mind that picture’s references to reincarnation and time loops (the wintry background may remind you of the isolated Overlook Hotel, too).
But “Wind Chill” is no Kubrickian masterpiece. Blunt and Holmes are both attractive people and work hard to make the material convincing, but it proves a Sisyphean task. Donovan, on the other hand, seems embarrassed at playing the cracked spectral lawman. The movie plods along lethargically under Gregory Jacobs’ desultory direction, with even the scare moments coming across as singularly dull. It doesn’t help that the physical production is threadbare and Dan Laustsen’s widescreen cinematography drab and washed-out.
“Wind” is obviously meant to chill us to the bone, but it barely registers on the cinematic thermometer. It’s no wonder it was sneaked into theatres without press screenings and barely any advertising. It will probably sneak back out posthaste.