OCTOBER 25, 2012
After Frozen came out and got some great reviews (which would have translated into biggish box office if Anchor Bay put it out on more than a few dozen screens), we started seeing a few survival movies pop up or at least get announced (including one in a ski LODGE that was buried by an avalanche). But 247°F is the first where it literally seems like someone just watched Frozen and said "OK, let's do that, but with HEAT", and thus came up with a similar premise: three people are trapped and slowly dying to extreme temperature. Except in this case it's a sauna, so we get more skin and fewer wolves.
The title refers to the temperature where the skin would actually start to melt (SPOILER) but sadly we never actually see that happen. That's just what they're trying to prevent, and while it takes a bit longer to get them locked into the sauna than it did for the kids in Frozen to be stuck (at least, it seems like it), the rest of the movie is more or less about the various options that they have, weighing the pros and cons of executing them, etc. For example, there's a thermometer in the room, which is connected to the heating control on the other side of the door (who designed that?) - if they destroy it, it might shut the heater off entirely, OR it might make it burn even harder. Later, they smash the tiny window on the door to let some cool air in, but the drawback is that the thermometer will register that cold air and turn the heat up to compensate. It's an interesting mix of push and pull (unlike Frozen's more or less one-way-out options, like jumping off the chair), and I like that the blond dude (Friday the 13th remake's Travis Van Winkle) was actually quite intelligent and logical, always explaining the risks and rewards of whatever they may try, as well as being the one that came up with the best ideas. In fact it's not until later in the movie where the characters start to behave in ways that might look "stupid" to an audience, but as with any of these, I ask you - what did YOU do when you were stuck in a room at 200 degree temperatures without much water or any supplies?
I also liked the directorial choice to not show us what exactly was blocking the door, only giving us the same sort of glimpse that the characters were given (through the broken window, which is smaller than even a head could fit through). Unfortunately, it's actually serving an attempt at suspense that never quite works. See, one character goes outside of the sauna, and we hear a commotion, and then the door is blocked. We then see the guy who owns the place (Tyler Mane) carrying a shovel and a covered wheelbarrow, so the idea is that we're supposed to think he killed the other guy and locked them in - and since Mane IS "Michael Myers" to audiences, it should all work like gangbusters, right?
Well, no. Here's the thing - movies are a visual medium, and if you're not showing us something huge, it's obviously because there's some sort of trickery at play. It MIGHT have worked if they never left the room, but all the repeated cutaways to Mane "doing SOMETHING" gives it away - it's specifically trying to make us think he did something that he didn't, which means he didn't or else they would have shown it. Thus, the ruse never works even for a second, and then the tension and suspense about their fate(s) is heavily deflated in the final 10 minutes, as things in the sauna are more or less settled and we merely watch a bunch of flashbacks explaining how the door got jammed (it's everyone's fault!), where the other friend was the entire time, etc. Maybe as a novel this concept could be pulled off, but in a feature film, anyone with even the slightest understanding of how movies work will be able to see right through it.
See, Frozen worked BECAUSE they didn't try to make us think anything more sinister was at play. We saw how they got stuck right away, and apart from the wolves there was no "antagonist". So the time was spent enriching the characters, drawing out their various attempts to get off the chair, etc - in other words, it was focused on the situation, as opposed to this, which pads itself out with a bunch of extraneous, go nowhere scenes that are designed purely to trick the audience (and, again, they don't work). Thus, the urgency of the situation itself is deflated a bit - every time it starts to really get moving, they cut to Mane and his shovel, or his dog barking or something. The movie is about them being trapped in a sauna, so the dog sure as hell isn't going to get them out of there at the 50 minute mark.
In fact, it's at its most tense right after they first get stuck. Winkle tries opening the door while Compton yells at him, panicking as she is recently claustrophobic (due to a car crash) - as a viewer, I actually felt the frustration and wanted to scream and kick at the nearest object myself. The color timing also helps sell the danger, slowly turning redder/more orange as the heat increases and they start to slow boil, so it's a bummer that one of their plans - shorting out one of the lights in hopes that they're on the same circuit as the heating control - leaves them in near total darkness. I don't know about you, but I associate darkness with being cold, so for the film's final 20 minutes or so, I had a tough time remembering that they were in danger of melting.
Writer/director Levan Bakhia offers a pretty thorough commentary, wisely not spending too much time on boring production stories (i.e. "It rained on this day..." type stuff) but elaborating on certain character decisions that may not have translated on-screen as well as planned (another reason why this might be a better piece of written work). For example, Winkle does something even though he knows it won't help in the long run, but it would help him and the others on a psychological level - on-screen it might just look like he wasn't thinking clearly. He also praises the cast, talks about shooting in Georgia (the country), etc. It can dip into narrative mode at times ("So now he is walking outside..."), and he strangely exits as soon as the film cuts to end credits without even saying goodbye, but it's worth a listen simply because it's the rare commentary where the filmmaker focuses more on his job as screenwriter than as director. A few deleted scenes, all of which occur before they are trapped, are also included; nothing special though there is a pretty funny bit where Mane's character accidentally startles Scout, followed by a pronounced "I didn't mean to SCARE you...". It's the rare in-joke that I actually found amusing, and I wouldn't have minded if it was left in the film. On that note, it was great to see Mane as a nice guy; he's actually got a charming screen presence, but his giant-ness (he's 6'9!) unfortunately means he's often cast as "the heavy".
It's a shame the filmmakers didn't trust in their basic scenario and felt the need to try to trick audiences into thinking they were watching a slasher or something; these movies work best when they play up the very real threat of a natural cause of death - everyone in the audience can probably identify with being stuck somewhere dangerous (albeit temporarily), but few have probably dealt with a serial killer. Using that wasted time on rounding out their characters a bit (we never learn much about the other girl) and/or elevating the threat they face (running out of water, hallucinated reasons to start fearing one another, etc) would have made this a terrific little thriller, rather than a merely serviceable one. You'd think that the "stuck in a sauna" concept would be this movie's problem, but that part was fine - it was everything else they botched.
What say you?