Mister Frost is one of those movies that I was completely unprepared for. To say that it’s underappreciated is to understate things draastically — few people have ever heard of it, and yet it has a stellar cast (including one of the best of Jeff Goldblum’s career), a solid chiller of a premise, and smart, subtle direction. I knew none of these things when I saw it back in the early 90’s. I just knew it had Jeff Goldblum and something about the devil. What it ended up being is much more than that.
Mister Frost stars Jeff Goldblum, fresh off of a weird turn of surreal romantic comedies like Earth Girls Are Easy and The Tall Guy, and four years after his brilliant turn in David Cronenberg’s The Fly re-imagining. It starts off in England, where after a pair of car thieves make a horrifying discovery in an English country house, authorities dig up over two dozen mutilated bodies in the backyard of Mr. Frost (Goldblum). When initially interviewed by police inspector Felix Detweiler (Alan Bates), Frost offers him coffee and cake, settles in for a cheerful and whimsical conversation, and then casually and pleasantly admits to murder. Shortly after his arrest, he inexplicably stops speaking altogether, and is eventually moved to a prison for the criminally insane. Cut to two years later, and Frost still hasn’t spoken, and Detweiler has developed an obsession with him. Frost is transferred to yet another hospital and to everyone’s surprise, begins to speak, but only to Dr. Sarah Day (Kathy Baker), whom he tries to convince that he is, in fact, the Devil. Yes, with a capital “D.”
From there, the films turns into a strange, disturbing battle between Frost’s efforts to get people to believe in God and the Devil again by compromising and subjugating science, and Day’s persistent belief in science and her diagnosis of Frost’s delusions. Day doesn’t believe him, but his profoundly disturbing effects on the other patients — in fact, on everyone he touches — is undeniable. Soon, Day and Detweiler are trying to wrap their heads around all the terrible things that come to pass, while Frost smugly observes, patiently waiting for Day to begin to believe, so that he may further a far more insidious plan.
It’s a strange, slowly-paced picture that isn’t particularly scary, but is incredibly creepy. The premise is executed flawlessly and without pretense, affect or whiz-bang effects. Instead, director Philippe Setbon uses subtle cues, imagery of crosses and flies, and simply the skills of his actors to make one of the more disturbing “Devil walks among us” films. Of course, part of the fun is actually figuring out whether or not Frost is a nutbag or something far darker and more sinister. Goldblum plays Frost with the same subtlety that pervades the film, and that combination of smart writing and underplayed menace makes the film far more effective. Just as there’s no spinning heads or raining blood or demon visages in the mirrors, Goldblum isn’t wasting time by bellowing proclamations of damnation or with ostentatious demonstrations of power. Instead, he operates as the thinking man’s devil — he’s upbeat and charming throughout the picture, engaged and enthusiastic as he discusses the nature of good and evil with Dr. Day as her world devolves into chaos around her.
This idea of the subtle darkness, the manipulator, is not new, but it’s performed perfectly by Goldblum. Through simple facial tics, sly smiles, the intensity of his gaze and even just basic eye movements, he conveys a wealth of menace and intimidation. Frost is clearly a monster — there’s never a question as to his guilt in the homicides at the beginning of the film. But he’s the anti-Lecter, not a leering, impish mastermind, but instead a quiet, reflective, even at times sweet persona (when asked about his past, he glibly responds, “I’m the gaga man. Boo!”). He enjoys cooking as much as he enjoys corruption, and it’s a role that keeps the viewer constantly off-balance. That twisted playfulness and blithe, mischievous tone allow him to wade through some occasionally clunky dialogue, and gives lines like “Because I’m Chaos. It’s my destiny to destroy” more weight than they perhaps have a right to. At the same time, there’s a nightmare hiding behind those twinkling eyes, which the film manages to convey with deft and quiet direction. Torture porn directors of the world should take some damn notes — the scene where Dr. Day watches a video that Frost has recorded of his killings is particularly chilling. Nothing is shown — in fact, nothing is even heard — instead, the entire feeling of dread and vileness and horror is conveyed only through her reactions. And watching her react, you know there was something horrific happening on the screen.
While Goldblum is busy freaking out everyone in the room, Baker and Bates both give strong performances. Baker is occasionally a bit strained, but Bates is near-perfect in his portrayal of the confused, yet obsessed Inspector Detweiler. He’s a believer, he’s just not entirely sure what the consequences of that belief are, or how far Frost’s reach is. There is a strong supporting cast as well — the only unfortunate aspect of the film is a horrendously ’80s-esque soundtrack, full of long electronic wails and meeps, as if Tangerine Dream got drunk and staggered in off the set of Legend, determined to screw with the mood,
That’s a trifling criticism, of course. Overall, Mister Frost is an underrated, smart, and effectively eerie little film. Despite its obscurity, Goldblum does some of his best work, aided by sharp, thoughtful writing and unobtrusive direction. If you’ll pardon the pun, the devil is of course in the details, and thanks to Setbon’s minimalist approach to the genre, the details are unwrapped by the actors and the writing, not by some CGI army. It’s a throwback film, to be sure, and if you haven’t caught it yet, I highly recommend it. Of course, that’s not the easiest recommendation to make, since it’s near-impossible to find on DVD — you might find a VHS copy scattered around Amazon or eBay — but you won’t regret the effort. Trust me.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.