Cold Hell is a nasty little treat. I was expecting a thriller, but not a full-blown modern giallo. Cold Hell revels in the lurid sexualized violence and the neon washes and shadows of the best of Dario Argento and Sergio Martino – practically the only things missing are the customary black gloves and red herrings.
Like so many gialli, Cold Hell revolves around a witness-to-a-crime turned amateur detective/prospective murder victim. A faceless killer is stalking Vienna, gruesomely slaughtering women, when he is observed by Ozge (Violetta Schurawlow), a taxi driver whose window happens to overlook the scene of his latest crime. The killer then targets Ozge, who is tries to survive with minimal help from a hostile and officious police force, represented by Christian (Tobias Moretti), a frustrated, prejudiced middle-aged officer working through his own problems and issues.
The plot is nothing new, evoking films like Deep Red, Vice Squad, The Girl Who Knew Too Much, and The Bedroom Window. But the specificity of the context adds flavor and takes the film to a more interesting place. Ozge isn’t living a comfortable life that gets disrupted by the murder – she’s already dealing with thorny work and family issues. While Christian eventually comes around, he first barges into the case like a condescending prick, harassing about her citizenship status because of her Turkish ancestry, and Ozge constantly finds herself isolated and vulnerable as her support network proves unreliable.
Schurawlow’s performance is the real draw of the film. Her Ozge is uncommunicative, but evokes a deep wariness and hurt. As the film goes on, it increasingly becomes clear just how hard her life is – past brushes with the law, an abusive father, constant aggressions (micro and otherwise) from people she meets. Instead of becoming a victim, however, she turns that aggression back on the world. Ozge is a devotee of Thai kickboxing and takes very little shit, as every character who pushes her too far discovers to their chagrin. She is magnetic on screen and I could see the character anchoring a drama just as easily as a thriller.
Director Stefan Ruzowitzky also throws a lot of style in the mix. While he relies a lot on the giallo playbook – emphasizing sickly yellows and pinks, particularly in the opening sequences – the film also integrates some great suspense and action scenes, particularly a dynamic sequence in Ozge’s taxi and some genuinely brutal kickboxing throwdowns. Ruzowitzky also makes strong use of the atmospherics of Vienna, capturing the broad streets and blocky architecture and creating a chilly underlying vibe.
The film does suffer from some plotting issues – in particular an ill-advised romantic liaison that threatens the suspension of disbelief and integrates some of the crasser wish-fulfillment aspects of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The villain is also a bit capital “P” problematic – Sammy Sheik is game but he never comes off as multi-dimensional. But those quibbles aside, Cold Hell is a fast-paced thriller with a great central performance – I look forward to seeing more from both Schurawlow and Rudowitzky.
2 1/2 out of 4 stars (Good). Cold Hell will be running exclusively on Shudder starting Thursday, March 15.