So Cold the River‘s successfully unnerves for a while, but ultimately gives into to more gauche and bloody flourishes.
Horror likes to look backward, the ills of the past manifesting as the menace of the present. The supernatural, with a proclivity for possession, spectral tokens, and the like, initially has to be excavated from an insidious history — in this regard, Paul Shoulberg’s So Cold the River, an adaptation of Michael Koryta’s novel of the same name, is a reliable entry in its wedding of haunted antiquity to contemporaneous gloss.
A documentarian, Erica Shaw (Bethany Joy Lenz), is approached by Alyssa Bradford-Cohen (Alysia Reiner) to make a film about her husband’s father, Campbell Bradford (David Myers Gregory), a dying billionaire responsible for his resort town’s tourist industry that has sustained them for decades now. Whatever the Bradford patriarch did, however, to come into control of a rejuvenating hot springs that’s the local business’s lifeforce, is still mostly a mystery, save for a time capsule water bottle that figures as a visual motif throughout the entirety of So Cold the River. In its heyday, the resort housed a murderer’s row of celebrities, criminals, and politicians, and as Erica arrives, it’s in the early stages of returning to its former notoriety.
Shoulberg is architecturally minded, and the sprawl of the palatial hotel at the town’s center, with its humongous domed skylight and panopticon-esque lobby, is suffused with enough dread that violence has no need to rear its head. But when Erica, and a younger Bradford she’s come into contact with, Josiah (Andrew J. West), start experiencing malevolent, sentient hallucinations that draw upon the past, it’s more of a deflation than an augmentation. It’s as if Shoulberg is repudiating the rigorousness of the more prosaic passages, effectively disjointing his film from itself. The frequent employment of shallow focus implies something lurking in the blurred background, the undulating shadows of the pervasive bodies of water a subtle step into the oneiric, the touting of the town’s natural water supply in all its iterations vaguely dystopian. But ultimately, the film’s setup supersedes its climax; its smooth surfaces are more unnerving when they’re not streaked with blood.
Published as part of Before We Vanish — March 2022.