Özge Dogruol drives her taxi through the streets of downtown Vienna, conveying the extremely drunk and the overtly racist to their ultimate destinations. Her cab cuts through the roiling smog of the Austrian capital, her potential fares shrouded and mysterious. She encounters sexual predators, overly inebriated dudebros and, perhaps worst of all, someone who refused to tip her for her services.
As we join her on her route (which, much like the opening title sequence of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, is perfectly accompanied by a lonely saxophone) we never get the sense that she is unhappy. Sure, we get a few eye rolls and disgusted looks from our protagonist, but we also get the feeling that she is exactly in her element. Without hearing a single word from her, we already know that she is comfortable surrounded by the dangerous. She feels at home when she is engulfed in chaos. She is a Turkish immigrant in a city that doesn’t want her there and will never accept her as one of their own. It looks to us as if she is completely fine with that sentiment. She’s tough, she’s independent, and she’s unafraid. That all comes crashing down after she gets home from work, however, and comes face to face with evil.
Özge returns home to the smell of death. She wrinkles her nose in disgust and searches her flat for the source. Her nose follows the fumes to her bathroom, where she opens the window to see a horrifying sight. Her neighbor across the way is lying naked on her floor. Bound, broken, flayed and obviously dead. Özge stares back at the dead woman, not with disgust or fear, but almost matching her blank stare. That’s when we see the shadows move in the dead woman’s apartment. The killer is still there, and he is looking directly at Özge, marking her as his next victim. She goes to the police for help, but what help can you receive from an organization that is conditioned to not care whether you survive or not? What follows is a race against time that sees the killer track Özge as she tries to convince the police to believe her and find him before he is able to fulfill his murderous fantasies.
Steiner– “Are you Turkish?”
Özge– “I’m Austrian.”
Steiner– “…Since when?”
Cold Hell is directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky, who won a Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award for his 2008 film The Counterfeiters. Ruzowitzky’s confident and skilled hand is evident in every frame of this film. From the camera movements to the frame-stuffed shots of Vienna’s backstreets, this is a film that does more with its 91 minute run-time than some series can achieve with multiple installments. It stars Violetta Schurawlow as our protagonist Özge,Tobias Moretti as the cantankerous Detective Steiner and Friedrich von Thun as Steiner’s senile father Karl. The killer, Saeed el Hadary, is played with a chilly entitlism by Sammy Sheik, who is able to be aloof and cold one moment and consumed with a righteous religious fire the very next.
Where Cold Hell truly shines is in the relationship between Özge and the men that surround her everyday. To the police, she is nothing but another Muslim immigrant who is probably a sex worker and deserves anything that comes her way. At one point in the film, she picks up her phone to call Austria’s version of 9-1-1 and report that the killer is trying to get into her flat, and she just stops. What is the point? To them, she is less than human. Does she really think that they will rush over to save the day? She decides then and there that she is better off defending herself. We have already witnessed her ass-kicking prowess in the MMA gym where she works out, so why does she need saving?
After the killer finds out who she is and what she does for a living, he finds his way into the back of her taxi. What ensues is a masterclass in action and aggression. The camera frenetically bounces from road, to car, to the knife slashing through the air and back again, leaving the viewer completely breathless. Özge survives this attack by jumping into the freezing river, barely escaping with her life. She stands in front of a hospital mirror and removes the bandages that cover the hateful slashes that criss-cross her body like a map. She doesn’t cry, she doesn’t feel sorry for herself. She simply stares at her naked body and states: “I am going to kill you”.
Cold Hell borrows many things from genre and exploitation films of the past. The religious serial killer hell bent on ridding the world of Muslim sex workers, the car chases, and the beautiful female ass-kicker not afraid of her sexuality or her brutality. What this film is not, however, is gratuitous. Its few scenes of nudity are not meant for titillation or arousal. The opening kill scene involving the killer and Özge’s neighbor shows her nude body, but it is meant to show the killers psychosis. It shows his willingness to brutally destroy something that is beautiful. The same is true for the scene where Özge examines the damage done to her by Saeed. She is nude, but it is not for our pleasure. it is an empowering moment for our heroine. This is her body, and whoever trespasses upon her body will meet her wrath. She will never again be subjected to the will of a man without her consent.
Saeed– “See what you made me do? You think I like doing this?”
After the attack in the cab, Özge holes up at the apartment of Detective Steiner. He finally believes what she says and sees her as more than just an immigrant. He sees how much she cares for her cousin’s orphaned daughter, and it humanizes her in his eyes. There is a love scene that doesn’t belong in the film, but it is not distracting enough to take away from the emotions that drove it. Özge allows herself to see kindness for the first time in a long time, and it allows her top feel safe and to open up about the events that have rocked her world. This is the only time where the film slows down, but it isn’t a drag. It is a set of for a dynamite final 20 minutes that will leave you breathless.
Cold Hell is one of those rare thrillers that stays on your mind well after the final credits roll. It doesn’t possess the ominous mystery of Zodiac or the palpable menace of Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, but it is in touch with its emotions. It is an island surrounded by frothing, violent hatred. Ruzowitzky finds small silences amidst the blood to show that we are all humans and we all deserve love and respect. Özge is not unlike the thousands of immigrants in America that are too afraid to call the police when something happens to them. They fear deportation, mistreatment and dehumanization in the eyes of the “true” American ICE agents. She is a strong woman that has been subjected to violent sexual assault and the will of hateful men. Not unlike members of the #MeToo movement, she claims her body back from those that would objectify it and use it for their own pleasure. She stands up and says that she will not take it anymore, and she shows bravery above and beyond other action heroes by doing something about it.
You can see Cold Hell exclusively on Shudder, and I recommend that you do it as soon as you possibly can. If you aren’t already a member of the streaming service, then sign up and watch this film. It is a timely tale of survival that is filled with intense action, brutal violence and quiet moments of humanity. The soundtrack from Marius Ruhland is every bit as energetic and explosive as the action on the screen, even down to the absolute #Banger of a track from Iranian-born-Austrian (not unlike Özge) rapper Nazar that plays over the final credits. It has a few moments of unbelievable detective work where the killer is found pretty easily, but that’s not enough to detract from what is, ultimately, a brilliant film.
After you’ve watched Cold Hell, join our Facebook group, Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street and let us know what you think. Keep an eye on our homepage at Nightmare on Film Street for the latest news and reviews.