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A Tale of Two Indies: Cold Prey and Donkey Punch

A surprise hit at the 2007 San Francisco International Film Festival, Cold Prey is a routine but surprisingly well-crafted genre exercise that doesn’t challenge the rules of the horror game but plays exceptionally well within them. It’s the kind of movie whose plot is the very definition of high concept – five snowboarders take refuge in a seemingly abandoned lodge, only to run afoul of an axe-wielding killer – but director Roar Uthaug’s feature debut is commendable for its sure-handed execution and the attention it pays to the relationships binding its endangered teens.

There is a natural, playful camaraderie that exists between Morten Tobias (Rolf Kristian Larsen), Jannicke (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) and their friends, whose getaway to the picturesque Jotunheimen mountains is cut short when Tobias shatters his leg on the slopes. Far enough removed from civilization that a trip to the hospital is out of the question, they stumble onto a lodge well stocked with liquor and inhabited, we soon learn, by a hulking psycho who bears more than a passing resemblance to the Abominable Snowman.

Perhaps as an homage to the simplest and most chilling standard-bearers of American horror, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and John Carpenter’s Halloween, or perhaps because his budget dictated a minimalist approach, Uthaug doesn’t take any detours en route to the inevitable showdown between the predator and the last of his prey, though there are some interesting choices made along the way.

Rather than indulging in gratuitous splatter, the director keeps the most jarring bits of violence off-camera, and their effect is no less harrowing. He also grants his characters ample screen time before sending them to the slaughter – Morten Tobias, whose boyish sweetness seems wholly unaffected, is the most memorable of the lot – and it is their very human response to the horrors in their midst that make Cold Prey such an unexpectedly satisfying experience.

The most obvious difference between Cold Prey and Olly Blackburn’s Donkey Punch, besides the latter’s Mediterranean setting – aboard a yacht off the sun-soaked Majorcan coast – is that Donkey Punch treats its characters as so many slabs of disposable flesh, killing off its cast of young tourists with numbing indifference. Screened last year at the Sundance Film Festival, it could be described as a battle of the sexes taken to a bloody extreme, marked by a Lord of the Flies-style descent into savagery. But that would be charitable, as it would ascribe some meaning (or, at the very least, a whiff of ambition) to what amounts to a geek show.

The premise couldn’t be simpler, or more distressingly familiar. Blackburn’s British import follows a group of handsome twentysomethings through 24 hours of drinking, drugging and the inevitable, luridly choreographed orgy that follows. Lisa (Sian Breckin), a buxom blonde with a wild streak, is the star of that show, which, for the movie’s hormonally-charged demographic, should prove a titillating highlight. The film is unapologetically trashy, owing as much to the mindless exhibitionism of Girls Gone Wild as to low-rent thrillers like Turistas, but it’s not truly unpleasant until Josh (Julian Morris, of TV’s ER) shatters the mood with a lethal blow to the back of Lisa’s neck.

From there, Donkey Punch unravels with a sort of workmanlike efficiency, as the boys resolve to dump the body at sea and blame Lisa’s death on an overdose. Sensing an uncomfortable shift in the power dynamics aboard ship – Josh in particular seems to embrace his inner sociopath with mercurial swiftness – Tammi (Nichola Burley) and Kim (Jaime Winstone) arm themselves for a fight, and the resulting bloodbath is exhaustively detailed, though pointless.

Donkey Punch
is scheduled to hit San Francisco theaters this Friday for what should be a mercifully short stay, while Cold Prey went straight to DVD in the U.S. after a wildly successful run in Europe. Why the difference? It could boil down to something as simple as subtitles: Cold Prey is presented in its native Norwegian, while Donkey Punch is ostensibly for English-speaking audiences, though a murky mix renders some of its dialogue barely comprehensible. Neither was lavishly funded, a point driven home when Uthaug explains Cold Prey's lack of a filmed alternative ending as his concession to no-frills financing.

Yet in more important ways the differences between his film and Donkey Punch have less to do with budgets than with creative sensibility. While Cold Prey has an obvious affection for its characters, memorably fleshed out in Thomas Moldestad’s script and by a young, spirited cast, Blackburn's collection of victims-in-waiting exists for a single, cynical purpose. Having no money may explain some technical shortcomings, but it doesn’t excuse an absence of soul.