A religiously motivated serial killer is targeting Muslim female sex workers and subjecting them to grotesque death by torture in this gripping action thriller from Austrian Oscar-winner Stefan Ruzowitzky. Even if the premise sounds sleazy and exploitative, Cold Hell (Die holle) puts a smart contemporary spin on lurid giallo-style ingredients, minimizing the voyeuristic violence and maximizing the feminist revenge elements. This stylish, fast-moving exercise in hard-boiled pulp noir punches way above its weight.
Ruzowitzky made his name with superior slasher movies before winning an Academy Award for his Holocaust drama The Counterfeiters (2007). After taking a box-office battering with his English-language debut Deadfall (2012), he returns to home turf with Cold Hell, which is arguably his best work yet. Fresh from its U.K. premiere at FrightFest in London, the film screens at Fantastic Fest in Austin next month. AMC’s horror-focused streaming service Shudder have signed up rights for North America, Britain and Ireland, with an early 2018 debut date.
Uzbekistan-born beauty Violetta Schurawlow plays Ozge Dogruol, a Turkish immigrant in Vienna who earns her meager living as a cab driver. On top of festering anger issues with her abusive family, she also deals with non-stop casual sexism and racism every day. Ozge vents these pressures by pummeling male opponents to a pulp in her local Thai kickboxing gym, and occasionally doing the same to rude taxi customers, random douchebags who cross her and even the occasional policeman. A mix of Lisbeth Salander and Travis Bickle, she is part kick-ass action heroine and part unhinged vigilante.
At the end of a tough work shift, Ozge’s bad day turns considerably worse when she catches a fleeting glimpse of the man who has just tortured her prostitute neighbor to death. More worryingly, he also sees her face before making his escape. Police detective Steiner (Tobias Moretti) is initially unhelpful and unsympathetic, brushing off Ozge’s fears that the murderer may target her as a witness. Sure enough, he soon returns to the scene of the crime, leading to a spectacular life-or-death battle in a taxi as it hurtles the wrong way around Vienna’s famous Ringstrasse.
Ozge fights back and escapes alive, but the predator is relentless and goes after her cousin Ranya (Verena Altenberger) instead. Bloodied but unbowed, an incandescent Ozge vows vengeance. Unable to seek refuge with her estranged family, she goes on the run with Ranya’s young daughter Ada (Elif Nisa Uyar) and forms an uneasy alliance with detective Steiner, who shares an apartment with his dementia-afflicted father (Friedrich von Thun). Together they resolve to take down the killer, even if it means bending police rules and putting more lives in danger.
Cold Hell takes its title from Zamhari, a deep-frozen zone in the Islamic concept of hell (Jahannam) where sinners face the dual punishment of extreme heat and extreme cold. Much like the Biblical serial killer in David Fincher’s Seven, the murderer here (Homeland and American Sniper co-star Sammy Sheik) sees himself as a devout holy warrior doing God’s work by cleansing the impure: “See what you made me do?” he screams at Ozge during their final pyrotechnic death match. “You think I like doing this?” The film’s implied criticism of violent, doctrinaire, warped interpretations of Islam strikes a timely note, though it is pleasing to see negative stereotypes balanced by complex and sympathetic Muslim characters, including the heroine.
Clocking in at a lean and punchy 91 minutes, Cold Hell does an impressively efficient job of grabbing viewers by the throat and never letting go. Indeed, the breathless pace means there is scarcely any time to ponder the suspiciously convenient guesswork and coincidence driving the plot, or to puzzle over why Ozge frequently endangers herself with suicidally reckless behavior. Refreshingly, despite proudly embracing a pulpy genre aesthetic, Ruzowitzky resists the soft-porn leering that characterizes most films about sexualized violence against women. That said, screenwriter Martin Ambrosch does include a brief sex scene that strays a little too far into implausible male fantasy.
There are redeeming points of levity amidst all the trauma and terror, including a laugh-out-loud visual gag involving a baby’s milk bottle. But above all else, Cold Hell is a great platform for Schurawlow. On this evidence it is easy to envisage her making the leap to bigger English-language productions in the future, following in the ass-kicking footsteps of fellow Euro stars like Olga Kurylenko, Noomi Rapace or Alicia Vikander.
Production companies: Allegro Film, The Amazing Film Company, X-Filme Creative Pool
Cast: Violetta Schurawlow, Tobias Moretti, Robert Palfrader, Sammy Sheik, Verena Altenberger, Friedrich von Thun, Elif Nisa Uyar, Murathan Muslu
Director: Stefan Ruzowitzky
Screenwriter: Martin Ambrosch
Producers: Stefan Arndt, Thomas Peter Friedl, Helmut Grasser
Cinematographer: Benedict Neuenfels
Editor: Britta Nahler
Music: Marius Ruhland
Sales agent: Beta Cinema, Munich