Larry Fessenden is a name horror fans should perhaps be familiar with. In addition to directing moody and atmospheric (and typically snowy) horror films like Wendigo and The Last Winter, he is also a spirited proponent and producer of low-budget horror films made by others. He openly encourages people to make chilling and oftentimes scary little thrillers that can be made on a shoestring. This is not the cheap silly, gory exploitation of a Troma, but an exploration of horror films that can be made in intimate places with small casts, and still be scary.
Hypothermia, directed by James Felix McKenny and the latest from the Fessenden camp, fits all of these ambitions to a T. It’s low budget, it takes place in a single setting (on the surface of a real frozen lake), it has few characters, and its monster remains largely unseen for the bulk of the film. Its star power is provided by Michael Rooker. The film runs a brief 73 minutes, and doesn’t outstay its welcome. No, the film in not revolutionary, nor is it even necessarily all that great, but the Fessenden camp is doing something important in the world of horror: It’s keeping the ethos alive that low-budget horror can still be made and be made often.
Where Hypothermia excels is in its characters. Rooker, his wife, his son, and his son’s girlfriend have gathered for a winter of ice fishing. They live next to a frozen lake. They talk in real conversations, joke with one another, and allow awkward silences to play out. They seem like real people who have really known one another. Into their idyll bursts a hotshot ice fisher (!) named Steve (Don Wood) and his shy son (Greg Finley) who use much more complex fishing techniques. In a smaller film, the story would have skewed toward fatherly jealousy and one-upmanship, but here, the two adult males continue to connect like real adults. It’s nice to see a small film where people just sort of chat.
Where Hypothermia drags, sadly, is with the monster itself. Our sextet is being stalked at night by a creature that seems to be crawling out of the lake and wrecking their stuff. We know it’s there, as we see many monster-cam POV shots. The monster remains obscured for the bulk of the film, but when we see it, we can’t help but giggle. The monster, it turns out, is a slick, black-skinned gillman with large yellow eyes, a big smiley mouth, and silly looking fins. I have said before that I like when monsters are played by guys in suits, but I would prefer that the suits also look a little less ridiculous than the cartoony thing in this film.
The climax is a little unexpected as the monster, having killed some of the cast, is eventually just talked down by another character. The goofiness of the creature and the oddness of the climax left me a little off-center. Hypothermia starts strong, but eventually, just sort of peters out.