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Cold Film Review: Chilly Thrills in Icelandic Horror

A still from the film Cold (Kuldi)

Erlingur Thoroddsen’s Cold (Kuldi) is an effectively tense, spooky and stylish multi-generational horror-thriller about guilt, trauma and mental illness.

A ‘shadow’ is an incredibly effective way of describing a secret, something dark and scary and looming just out of reach. It’s a motif that Erlingur Thoroddsen’s Cold (Kuldi) uses to explore generational guilt, trauma and mental illness to varying degrees of effectiveness. It’s a horror film that doesn’t rely too heavily on scares, instead much more content to build and sustain a creeping sense of dread and tension, but things do inevitably feel a little rushed when the careful building needs to come tumbling down.

Óðinn (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) suddenly finds himself caring for his teenage daughter as they deal with the fallout of her mother Lára’s (Álfrún Örnólfsdóttir) suicide. Óðinn, a recovering alcoholic, struggles to connect with the withdrawn, quiet and angry Rún (Ólöf Halla Jóhannesdóttir), especially while his work has him investigating two historic deaths at a now-defunct juvenile detention centre. But as Óðinn delves deeper into the case and its connection to a young woman, Aldís (Elín Hall), he finds past and present are much more intertwined than he could have ever imagined.

Cold is almost two tales in one, switching to and from Óðinn life in the present to the detention centre in 1984, just before the incident occurs. It weaves the two timelines pretty seamlessly, with the past flowing into the present – at times literally, with some very clever camera work from cinematographer Brecht Goyvaerts – to allow the connections between the two form organically in the minds of the audience. Things feel balanced, not muddled, and it’s an effective way of keeping the tension.

And Thoroddsen does keep that creeping sense of dread running throughout the whole film. Each timeline has its own colour palette, and there’s a different mood to each that coalesces effectively by the film’s slightly mad finale, so that it doesn’t ever feel disjointed. 1984 is warm toned but claustrophobic, amplifying the feeling that there’s something lurking in every dark corner, whereas the present is much cooler, with more emphasis on the idea that Lára is haunting Óðinn and Rún, desperately trying to reveal the secrets of her death. It makes for an effective horror film for the most part, eschewing some of the more obvious jump scares in favour of that uneasiness.

A still from the film Cold (Kuldi)
A still from the film Cold (Kuldi) ( / Glasgow Film Festival)

The film doesn’t ever shy away from exploring its central themes of guilt and trauma, particularly in regards to generational mental illness. They are constantly at the forefront, fuelling characters’ decisions and behaviours in a way that feels authentic. Issues are discussed and visualised, effectively avoiding the pitfalls of becoming a horror genre gimmick, even if the packed narrative doesn’t really allow for any deep development. Cold is slick, intricate and intriguingly plotted, but does hurtle towards the finish line in what feels like the blink of an eye.

And that, unfortunately, that’s when the issues appear. Although riddled with tension for the most part, it’s when it comes time to resolve the mysteries of the two timelines – and how they intersect – that the film stumbles a little. Both past and present get a resolution, but only one feels satisfying. The second feels a bit too sudden in the moment – hindsight might offer a less subtle view, but at the time it’s a little jarring – and so the ending is a little abrupt to be truly satisfying. The rug pull is swift, but after such drawn out and atmospheric storytelling, it isn’t as smooth as it could have been.

For the most part though, Cold is successful in what it’s trying to do. It’s spooky when it needs to be, clever, stylistically interesting and the performances across the board are really impressive too. Thoroddsen is obviously very confident in crafting a dark, chilly horror-thriller, and Cold is certainly that. It’s very enjoyable and really good at creating tension, it’s just the tumble of that final ‘shock’ that puts a damper on things.

The film Cold (Kuldi) will be screened at the Glasgow Film Festival on 5-6 March, 2024. Read our Glasgow Film Festival reviews and our list of films to watch at the 2024 Glasgow Film Festival!

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