So Cold the River
Right up front I want to apologize for the length of this review, but I was really excited to see this film. The book is by a local bestselling author, it’s made by a local film production company, and was filmed completely in Indiana. Best of all, I rarely get a chance to watch a scary movie on the big screen and this one was showing in a fancy local theater as a special engagement complete with a local distillery serving specialty cocktails based on the movie. When we arrived, there were women queued to climb into the claw foot bathtub on the sidewalk out front so their friends could take their picture. Didn’t see any guys waiting. Funny, that.
The trailer shows a lot of outdoor shots with West Baden Springs Hotel and French Lick Resort in the background. Way, way in the background so you can see all of it, which is the filmmakers yelling, “We have grand things in Indiana! Look!” I didn’t mind that much, the complex is pretty impressive. The West Baden Springs Hotel is an old time monied structure, the kind of place Hollywood royalty, real royalty, and gangster royalty used to spend large amounts of time. The French Lick Resort is a bit older, a huge yellow brick structure with a host of hoity toity amenities including an Olympic sized hot tub, and real gold leaf railings in the lobby. And a casino. So I’ve been there a few times. The place really stinks sometimes, though, like a bad fart. That would be the sulpher spring out back that helped make the place famous. They used to bottle that nasty sulpher water and leave it outside the guests’ room of a morning for their “health”.
It was called Pluto water, a whole horror by itself with the sulpher smell and taste and a devil stamped onto the bottle. The film sets up a bottle of Pluto water as otherworldly when it survives a bad car crash that destroys the car and kills the driver. The driver’s sister gives that unscathed bottle to a documentary filmmaker while talking her into taking an assignment. Do a piece on Campbell Bradford, a very bad man who ruled over West Baden. She has picked this filmmaker because all of her documentaries are about dark subjects, and Campbell is very dark indeed. She goes to Indiana and discovers mystery and supernatural evil. Or does she?
That’s the major weakness of the film. There are some clever things in the movie, but they tend to be balanced by drawbacks. The heartbeat on the soundtrack accompanying the car crash slows as the camera pulls back to show how horrific the scene is. But it doesn’t stop as the focus falls on the Pluto Water bottle. This is the first clue that it’s otherworldly but not the only. Still, at the end of the film my viewing companion and I couldn’t decide if events happened because of the documentarian drinking the water, or because she’s a seer, or because she’s being targeting by a supernatural being. Normally it’s a clever method of quickly telling backstory to show a montage of old photos, usually during the opening credits. Not so clever was the photo montage of the crash victim because it went by way too quickly. Too Quick was a major theme of the film. Sequences came and went and they may have been connected somehow, but everything happened very quickly, with no context to give more than a bare hint to the connections and meaning. Essentially, the filmmakers were trying to tell at least three or four separate stories at once. They are linked, but it’s difficult to keep things straight.
Telling too many stories at once and not connecting them clearly makes the plot murky and full of holes. At the Q&A after the film I discovered it’s a case of Big Name Author having too much influence on the screenwriter. He also directed the movie and I think the actress playing the intern bullied him into accepting her often incomprehensible speech. The production company is relatively new, but I think they should have gone with a more experienced director.
I don’t know if it’s the author or the filmmakers, but there are a lot of obvious influences. In the spooky train sequence we catch a glimpse of a guy wearing a porkpie hat, so he must be evil. And what city slicker goes into the middle of the woods at night unless it’s The Blair Witch. An opulent hotel in the middle of nowhere full of partying swanks? Crazy guy in an old resort? Right out of Stephen King’s The Shining. The screechy violin score irritated me, though my viewing companion was okay with it. I kept hearing notes from other movies, like hints from Aliens. Her pet peeve was not coaching the violin playing kid to look like he knew more than which end to hold.
One reason I went was for a scary movie, and my biggest disappointment of the night was here. There was one effective jump scare, if the audience was any indication. I may even have heard a scream. An early sequence with some creepy camera screen work was effective and novel. Mirrors have a long history in horror films, and So Cold has lots of mirror work. Like, lots and lots and lots of it. It’s a cute trick to have a supernatural character show up suddenly in a mirror and then disappear quickly. Why do it fifteen times? (I’m not kidding.) If you like old fashioned looking guys staring ominously at things from the shadows, then this is your movie.
A few things were completely clever. Lighting is subtle and interesting. In one scene a character just sitting and talking slowly becomes more sinister, mostly done with a soft spotlight on his eyebrows. There are some nice drone shots, including inside the West Baden atrium – it’s that big.
Most of the acting is good. Bethany Lenz (Colony, many romance movies) is controversial documentary film maker and seer Erica Shaw. Alysia Reiner (Ms. Marvel, Orange is the New Black) is the pushy sister of the accident victim. Andrew West (Once Upon a Time) is Josiah Bradford, maintenance man and last blood relative to the evil Bradford. Last but not least, Deanna Dunagan plays local historian Anne McKinney. The actress looked really familiar to me but on checking her filmography this is the first thing I’ve ever seen her in. She’s a Tony award winner and it shows. Not only is she subtle and strong emotionally but she absolutely nailed the accent. I would vote for a supporting actress Oscar, she was that good.
I enjoyed the experience of the night but not the movie, except for a few bright spots. Some of the acting was solid, the lighting and drone work was great, and there was an occasional funny line. One drew an extended laugh from the audience. Motivations were lost. Like, is the pluto water haunted? Is it causing the woman to see and do things? Is it causing others to see and do things? Did it bring back porkpie guy or was he there all along? What the heck was the importance of the kid playing violin and why was his almost-but-not-quite story told in super short snips throughout the movie instead of as a three minute flashback that could have made the story understandable and tie it to the contemporary plot. And what does the river have to do with anything?
I feel like I’m being too picky, and if you’re looking for a spooky thriller set somewhere different then you will probably like this all right. I recommend watching with someone to talk about it afterward and maybe taking a lot of notes.
CFR: In Addition: OMG. Now I want to see this movie. I mean, I totally understand Mildred’s excellent and lukewarm review. However, well, I just want to see French Lick Resort on the big screen. I mean good grief. Is there a Hoosier* alive who hasn’t said “Red Rum” when driving by it? Saw Joan Jett perform there on her birthday a few years ago and OMG it was GREAT! Just look at it: French Lick Resort. That place is a behemoth of a building! HUGE even.
Plus I hear they have a great spa.
ALSO! Pluto is NOT a demon but rather a god of the oceans. Good grief get your supernatural entities right!
Hey Mildred! Wanna get some Pluto Water?
*someone from or someone who lives in Indiana