Chill Factor (The) AKA Demon Possessed (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Arrow Films
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (21st July 2019).
The Film

The Chill Factor (Christopher Webster, 1993)

Synopsis:
A sextet of friends – Jeannie (Dawn Laurrie) and her fiancé Tom (Aaron Kjenaas); Tom’s sister Karen (Connie Snyder) and her lover, junior doctor Chris (David Fields); and their friends Ron (Jim Cagle) and Lissa (Eve Montgomery) – are traveling through the snowbound wilds on their snowmobiles. They stop off at a bar, where Lissa, who is of Haitian descent, is confronted with some racist abuse by a couple of locals. Her lover, heavyset American football player Ron, scares them off.

Afterwards, a waitress, Bessie (Bekki Vallin), apologises on behalf of the community. When Chris and Tom get into a friendly argument about which of them is capable of driving their snowmobile the fastest, Bessie suggests they should stage a race on the nearby Black Friar Lake, which is frozen. Bessie gives them directions but warns the friends that they should turn back if a snowstorm hits.

The group head on their snowmobiles to Black Friar Lake, where they engage in a race across the frozen waters. However, Tom crashes his vehicle, tumbling over the handlebars and colliding head-first with a tree. He’s in a bad way, and the weather is worsening. Junior doctor Chris tells the others that they need to find shelter for the comatose Tom. Exploring the area, Ron and Lissa discover a boarded up summer camp filled with religious paraphernalia. They bring the others to the camp, and against Lissa’s wishes Ron decides to head back, alone, to the nearest town in order to seek help for Tom.

Karen explores the camp and finds some old photographs and letters which help to build a story of the camp’s purpose: the buildings formed a summer camp run by Dominicans – hence why the nearby lake was named ‘Black Friar Lake’. Old letters discovered by Karen and the others suggest that the camp closed 20 years previously, after one of the children in the camp’s care was killed under mysterious circumstance.

In one of the rooms, Karen discovers what seems to be a Ouija board – but Lissa corrects her, telling Karen that it is in fact a Haitian ‘Devil’s Eye’ board. Like a Ouija board, it is used to communicate with the dead. Karen suggests using the board to pass the time; Jeannie is initially resistant but eventually concedes. As those at the camp experiment with the Devil’s Eye board, Ron is caught in a trap and crashes his snowmobile.

Shortly afterwards, Tom regains consciousness. As Karen and Chris retire for the night, Jeannie stays by Tom’s side and Lissa explores the camp. However, Lissa is pursued by a strange… thing with supernatural powers. The creature corners Lissa and kills her by causing a rotating fan to descend from the ceiling before cutting into Lissa’s flesh. As Tom’s behaviour grows increasingly strange, the survivors are threatened and picked off one-by-one.

Critique: Made at the same small independent studio, Windsor Lake Studios (owned by director Christopher Webster) in Wisconsin, as Trapped Alive (Leszek Burtynski, 1988) – which was also recently released on Blu-ray by Arrow Video and reviewed by us here - The Chill Factor was filmed under the title Demon Possessed and was, like Trapped Alive, apparently shelved for several years before being released to the straight-to-video market.

With its ‘Ten Little Indians’-style plot and isolated setting, Chill Factor loosely fits into the paradigms of the bodycount/slasher movie. The film follows many of the beats of the slasher movie, including separating the most physically imposing of the protagonists (Ron) from the rest of the group early on, allowing his death in the wilderness to underscore the vulnerability of the remaining few. The bulk of the film’s narrative takes place on the grounds of a former summer camp, which evidence discovered by the characters suggests has been abandoned for approximately 20 years following the mysterious death of one of the children; this setting links the film to other summer camp slashers of the 1980s, including, of course, Friday the 13th (Sean S Cunningham, 1980), The Burning (Tony Maylam, 1981), Madman (Joe Giannone, 1981) and Sleepaway Camp (Robert Hiltzik, 1983). In its focus on a snowbound setting, which always adds no small amount of atmosphere to the proceedings regardless of how lacklustre the execution of the film may be, Chill Factor connects with a small group of snowbound slasher films that also includes the likes of Dead of Winter (Sidney Lumet, 1987), Curtains (Richard Ciupka, 1983) and the deliciously atmospheric Ghostkeeper (Jim Makichuk, 1981). (We could include in this list the second season of the recent television series Slasher, ‘Guilty Party’, which like Chill Factor is set in a snowbound former summer camp.)

In addition, like some other examples of slasher pictures made in the late-1980s, Chill Factor contains more overt supernatural elements than most of the slasher movies made early in the cycle (ie, between the late-1970s and early-1980s – in which the killers were invariably mentally ill ‘outsiders’, albeit sometimes with hints of supernatural powers). Like the roughly contemporaneous The Berserker (Jefferson Richard, 1987), for example, Chill Factor explores a theme of possession: where The Berserker features a killer who is possessed by an ancient Nordic spirit, Chill Factor’s killer is suggested to be a powerful demon that takes possession of Tom and, later, Ron. The supernatural events in Chill Factor, it is suggested, are precipitated by the group’s use of the ‘Devil’s Eye’ board – a Haitian Ouija board which is designed to facilitate communication with the dead. Why a Haitian ‘Devil’s Eye’ board is to be found in a summer camp run by the Dominican order is anyone’s guess; and the film’s treatment of Lissa is vaguely racist. The dialogue quickly establishes Lissa as an outsider via the racial abuse she suffers in the bar (‘Respect for what? Your nigger girlfriend?’, one of the bigoted patrons spews at Ron) only to dismiss this as par-for-the-course (‘That’s okay’, Lissa tells Bessie when she apologises for the behaviour of the bar’s patrons, ‘Things like that happen to us’) before connecting her to the ‘exotic’ Haitian Devil’s Eye board. Lissa recognise the Devil’s Eye board because her grandmother, who came from Haiti, had one: ‘But I think it’s a load of nonsense’, Lissa offers, ‘They were passing a bottle round every time they saw the pointer move, as I remember [….] The spirit they reached for was the bottle of whiskey they were handing around’. Ron even makes a joke at the expense of Lissa’s heritage, over her inability to hold a tune: ‘I don’t believe it’, Ron says in mock exasperation, ‘I’m in love with the only black girl who sings off-key’.

The references to ‘the beast in the field’ hint at a pagan flavour to the proceedings. As the protagonists explore the abandoned camp, they discover documents that hint at its past: photographs of the children who stayed there; letters from parents stating their desire to distance themselves from the camp following the unsolved death of one of the children. These documents build up a history of the camp: run by Dominicans (hence the name of the lake by which the camp stands, ‘Black Friar Lake’), the camp seemed to emphasise a sense of religious indoctrination. Old photographs discovered by the group of friends suggest a connection between the camp and death – perhaps ritualistic slaughter. When Ron and Lissa first enter the camp, they find an old photograph depicting a group of men with a line of deer carcasses hanging behind them. Reflecting on the religious paraphernalia they find in the camp, Lissa observes that ‘It seems a little spooky to me. This stuff is wild. I was brought up a Baptist, real simple’. When active, the camp’s motto (held up on a sign by some of the children in a photograph of the camp) was ‘Keep the Beast in the Field’; the protagonists argue over how this motto may be interpreted. ‘It’s just to remind the kids to protect the wildlife, look after the animals’, Lissa suggests. ‘Yes, but when the Bible says “the beast” it means the devil’, Jeannie argues. When the creature (whatever it is exactly) manifests itself during the murder of Lissa, it is seen only partially and in shadow and silhouette, but what we see of it suggests it is enshrouded in a cloak and has long, twig-like fingers. In fact, it resembles the pagan beast that is unearthed in a field in Piers Haggard’s Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971).

In possessing Tom, the beast draws out Tom’s incestuous desire for his sister Karen, so much so that after he awakens from his coma and engages in intercourse with Jeannie, he penetrates her from behind and for a second we see from Tom’s point-of-view as, via a clever edit, Jeannie ‘transforms’ into Karen. However, Tom’s desire for Karen is evident even before the group reach the camp. In the bar, towards the start of the picture, Jeannie and Chris look on as Tom and Karen are next to one another, talking to the waitress, and Tom’s hand moves to Karen’s rump. Cutaways to closeups of Jeannie and Chris suggest that they register the position of Tom’s hand and disapprove of it, but strangely nobody in their party questions Tom’s subtly inappropriate behaviour with his sister – including their flirtatious dialogue which is loaded with sexual innuendo. ‘You ain’t married by any chance?’, Karen asks Tom. ‘No, but I got a sister’, he jokes in response. When the party relocates to Black Friar Lake, Jeannie’s narration highlights the fact that Karen takes delight in seeing ‘the two men in her life [her brother Tom and her lover Chris] battle it out’. Later, when Tom miraculously revives from his coma following the other members of the group’s encounter with the Devil’s Eye board, Karen calls her brother a ‘pain in the ass’. ‘I’ll give you a pain in the ass’, Tom responds, the actor’s reading of the line imbuing it with innuendo.

The film’s structure is fairly non-linear. There is some highly effective cross-cutting during the sequence in which Ron leaves the rest of the group at the camp and attempts to return to the nearest town in the hope of getting a helicopter to come out to the camp and assist Tom. As Ron races through the wilderness, those who remain at the camp discover the Devil’s Eye board and experiment with it. As the pointer spins and the dead begin to communicate with the living, Ron is ‘clotheslined’ by a rope that has been tied between two trees – a trap that seems to have been set solely for Ron. This non-linearity is evident from the film’s opening sequence: the picture begins in media res with the snowmobile chase on the way to Black Friar Lake, during which Tom is injured when his snowmobile hits an object and Tom flies over the handlebars, striking his head on a tree. This scene is accompanied by a voiceover from a significantly older Jeannie which reveals the scene to be a premonition of an event that takes place later in the story: ‘The nightmare came to me before dawn’, she narrates, ‘sneaking into my mind, disguising itself as an ordinary dream. And that was when the first chapter of my life, my childhood, ended. What I didn’t know was that the nightmare would come true; and when it was over, it would just be the beginning of something far worse’. Following this scene, the film takes us back in time, to the group’s arrival at a bar before they set out, at the waitress’ suggestion, for Black Friar Lake. The voice-over from a much older Jeannie seems to have been a last minute addition. Though slightly poetic at times (‘Black Friar Lake was white, a shifting blanket of snow driving across the dark ice beneath us’), it’s utterly redundant and doesn’t bear close scrutiny: Jeannie claims to be narrating 30 years after the events depicted in the film, which given that the narrative is clearly set in the late-1980s/early-1990s, would suggest Jeannie is narrating from circa 2020 (ie, in the now-present day). Nevertheless, the narration – which frames the action, beginning with the opening frames and carrying us into the final moments of the film – gives the events depicted in the main narrative the taint of memory: the viewer might wonder, given that Jeannie’s narration takes place 30 years after the events depicted in the story, how reliable Jeannie’s account is – leading us to question both what she says and what we see depicted on the screen (in the manner of the famous ‘lying flashback’ in Hitchcock’s 1950 thriller Stage Fright).

Video

Presented here uncut with a running time of 85:32 mins, Chill Factor was shot on 35mm colour stock, presumably with the intention of finding theatrical distribution, but sat on the shelf for several years before being released as a straight-to-video picture. Arrow’s presentation presents the film in the 1.78:1 ratio, which presumably is near-as-dammit to the intended ratio (which, one would imagine in the context of the filmmakers’ presumed intentions in having the film released theatrically, was 1.85:1); the mid-1990s VHS release/s presented the film in an open-matte 1.33:1 ratio. Certainly, the compositions seem fine at 1.78:1 and an open-matte 1.33:1 presentation would leave far too much headroom.

The presentation fills approximately 20.3Gb of space on the Blu-ray disc, and the 1080p presentation uses the AVC codec.

In the early daytime sequences, contrast is fine and evenly balanced. Strongly defined midtones are complemented by a pleasingly subtle escalation into the shoulder, resulting in the snowy whites which dominate the landscape retaining their texture and depth. When the group get to the abandoned camp, the film’s photography comes to be dominated by some heavy chiaroscuro lighting, characters picked out often by Godfried Schalken-like single light sources (eg, the fire the group set in the hearth, or candlelight) with the rest of the background tapering off into shadow. Again, the contrast levels within this presentation capture this very well, defined midtones being accompanied by a subtle drop-off into the toe, with necessary shadow detail being present and deep blacks throughout. Colours are naturalistic and consistent, with the scenes lit by fire and candlelight containing a warmer hue that is in line with the light sources used (or inferred to be present).

A strong level of detail is present throughout the film. Some minor damage is present here and there, including white scratches and a few white flecks and specks here and there – indicating scratches and debris on the negative. Finally, the encoded to disc presents no problems and retains the structure of 35mm film.



Some full-sized screengrabs are included at the bottom of this review, including some full-sized grabs taken from the workprint. Please click to enlarge them.

Audio

Audio is presented via a LPCM 2.0 track. This is rich and deep, displaying good range. The soundtrack features some atmospheric ambient sounds, carried well by the audio track on this disc, as the characters explore the abandoned camp, and there’s some impactful use of music too: for example, when Jeannie awakens and explores the camp in the morning, daylight filling the crevices and making the space seem alien once again, a bizarre but strangely effective minor key version of ‘Three Blind Mice’ plays on the soundtrack. Optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing are included, and these are easy to read and free from errors.

Extras

The disc includes:
- An audio commentary with Hank Carlson and Josh Hadley. Carlson, who worked on the special makeup effects for the film, provides a commentary with his friend Josh Hadley. With good humour throughout, the pair reflect on Chill Factor’s production and talk about the history of Windsor Lake Studios and some of the challenges involved in making low budget features.

- ‘Lights! Cameras! Snowmobiles’ (13:02). Production manager Alexandra Reed talks about the production of Chill Factor, which was part of a three picture deal that Windsor Lake Studios struck with a company named Films Around the World, New York. The three films were to be shot for $500,000 apiece, but the first picture (1988’s Trapped Alive, recently released on Blu-ray by Arrow Video and reviewed by us here) ran over budget so the budget for Chill Factor was reduced to $400,000 to compensate for this. She says that Windsor Lake Studios was run by ‘a bunch of British guys’ who were outsiders to Northern Wisconsin and didn’t know much about the area. However, by the time the group came to making Chill Factor, they planned to shoot in January-February because at that time of the year, temperatures dropped to zero degrees or below. Reed says that Webster was passionate about horror films and loved making these kinds of pictures. Reed discusses her role as production manager and what this entails, and she talks about some of the special effects in the picture. Reed also talks about the voiceover being added during post-production; in the initial assembly, the thrust of the narrative was unclear, Reed suggests, and the narration was added in order to clarify aspects of the plot – ‘to pull it together’.

‘Fire and Ice’ (11:21). Gary Paul, the stunt co-ordinator on the picture, talks about how he was asked by Films Around the World to work on the film in order to ‘make it more exciting’. Paul reflects on some of the stunts he staged for the film and talks about his working relationship with Webster and other members of the crew.

- ‘Portrait of a Makeup Artist’ (15:03). Jeffery Lyle Segal, who worked on Chill Factor as a special makeup effects artist, discusses the production. Segal talks about his work in the theatre, during which time he worked with Stuart Gordon, who invited Segal to work on Re-Animator (1986) as a makeup assistant. This led Segal on to working on John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986); aside from designing some of the effects on the film, Segal was integral to Michael Rooker’s casting in the picture. Segal reveals that the gouged eye in Henry was a hard-boiled egg. After working on Henry, Segal was approached by Christopher Webster to work on the pictures being made at Windsor Lake Studios. Segal talks about his work on Trapped Alive and he fact that when Segal arrived with the dummy ‘monster’, he discovered that the production intended to shoot the underwater sequence first – which effectively ruined Segal’s dummy and its points of articulation. Segal says that this reinforces the importance of any production consulting its makeup effects artists about how their work should be photographed. Segal also talks at length about some of the effects he achieved for Chill Factor, including the icicle-through-the-eyeball scene. Segal also reveals that he wrote the song used in the bar scene and over the end credits.

- ‘Ouija and Chill’ (25:28). Hank Carlson, who worked on the film as a special makeup effects assistant, is interviewed by Josh Hadley. Carlson worked on the Windsor Lake Studio productions (and the story of how he came to be involved with the studio is presented in the special features of Arrow’s Blu-ray release of Trapped Alive). Carlson discusses the differences between working on smaller budget films such as the Windsor Lake Studios productions and the bigger budget productions on which he has also been employed.

- Workprint (83:54). Running for just under 84 minutes and presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, the workprint is sourced from a VHS and fills slightly under 12Gb of space on the disc. Aside from being sourced from a tape with the issues one might expect from such a source (eg, tape roll), the workprint displays intermittent print-based damage, including black flecks and specks throughout. Still, the workprint is eminently watchable and differs in some interesting ways from the final edit. Most obviously, the workprint is without the narration from Jeannie, and the film arguably plays out slightly better because of this.

- Still Gallery (4:30).

- Original Home Video Trailer (2:00).



Overall

Though not without its problems, Chill Factor is an interesting little film. The effects work and photography, in particular, are very good, especially considering the budgetary limitations, and these aspects of the picture were somewhat ‘buried’ during its life as a direct-to-VHS release. Arrow’s ‘resurrection’ of the picture for the Blu-ray format allows the rich chiaroscuro photography to shine and also showcases some of the impressive effects work (for example, the icicle-through-the-eyeball shot). On the other hand, the film’s narrative is at times confused and uninspiring; the decision to include narration from a much older Jeannie was made during post-production with the intention of holding the story together, and it shows. The film would arguably work better without this voiceover, embracing its ambiguities rather than trying to obscure or obliterate them. As it stands, Chill Factor moves towards some of the atmosphere found in snow-bound 1980s horror/slasher pictures such as Ghostkeeper and Curtains but stops frustratingly short. There’s also some awkward acting, especially from some of the extras in the bar sequence near the start of the picture (the big chap who hurls racist abuse at Lissa is distractingly dubbed: according to Alexandra Reed, he was a member of the crew and his lines were dubbed in order to obscure his strong Cockney accent).

Regardless of the merits of the picture itself, Arrow’s Blu-ray release of Chill Factor is excellent. The presentation is miles ahead of any release the film has had previously, finally allowing the photography and effects work to have its day. The contextual material is superb too: the commentary from Hank Carlson and Josh Hadley is informative, Carlson being a fascinating interviewee who has a wealth of stories to share about both this film and other pictures on which he worked. The interview with Alexandra Reed is equally insightful, in terms of the issues faced when working on pictures such as this; the production manager’s role is often underexplored in DVD/Blu-ray contextual material, and it’s great to have some insight into this in relation to this film. (Speaking as someone who has worked on independent short films and who is in the process of seeking funding for an indie feature, Reed’s comments are actually quite inspirational.) The comments from Segal and Carlson, in their respective interviews, are equally illuminating. Finally, the inclusion of the workprint is a masterstroke: though sourced from a tape, the workprint shows the impact that the narration from Jeannie has upon the text; one can see why the filmmakers chose to add it, though the picture arguably works better without it. In all, this is a middling picture but a superb release from Arrow, the contextual material here offering much insight into the processes involved in making independent horror films.

Please click to enlarge:
Main Presentation:
vlcsnap-2019-07-17-21h22m37s968
vlcsnap-2019-07-17-21h23m45s831
vlcsnap-2019-07-17-21h24m23s529
vlcsnap-2019-07-17-21h24m50s337
vlcsnap-2019-07-17-21h25m13s337
vlcsnap-2019-07-17-21h25m58s635
vlcsnap-2019-07-17-21h26m37s240
vlcsnap-2019-07-17-21h26m50s438
vlcsnap-2019-07-17-21h27m17s909
vlcsnap-2019-07-17-21h27m32s562

Workprint:
WORKPRINT1
WORKPRINT2
WORKPRINT3
WORKPRINT4
WORKPRINT5
WORKPRINT6
WORKPRINT7
WORKPRINT9

 


DVD Compare is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program and the Amazon Europe S.a.r.l. Associates Programme, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.co.uk, amazon.com, amazon.ca, amazon.fr, and amazon.de.