COLD HELL (Die Hölle) is a 2017 German/Austrian movie that’s still exclusive to Shudder in the U.S. I wish they’d put it out on disc like they have with so many of their exclusives, because this is a good one that I’d like to recommend to everybody. As far as I can find the only part of the world to release it on physical media is Germany.
Wanting to see this movie is what originally inspired me to subscribe to Shudder a few years ago, but for some reason I failed to write it up back then. I watched it again in October and it holds up, so I made sure to share it with everyone this time.
Its greatest asset is a strong lead character, Özge, played by Violetta Schurawlow (HEAD FULL OF HONEY, ICEMAN). She’s Turkish, but a citizen of Austria, working as a cab driver. And the movie slowly unveils how tough she is. At first it just seems like the grit required by her occupation, considering how some motherfuckers treat cab drivers, and immigrants, and women. Then it seems to go a step or two beyond that when she needs two guys to stop blocking an alley and beats one up for calling her the c-word.
After that she gets home from work, jogs up the stairs and takes off her winter coat, and underneath we see that the shiny yellow jacket she’s been wearing underneath says “Muay Thai European Championship” on the back. When they say “show, don’t tell,” I do believe they are specifically talking about showing a badass exposition jacket like this. (Championship rings or belts also acceptable but not as stylish.)
Later still we see a poster of one of her fights, and then a shelf full of trophies. I kinda wish the guy who called her the c-word could see all this, just to rub in what a poor decision he made.
When she gets home to her apartment she smells something horrible, traces it to her bathroom window, and looks across into an apartment across the alley where she sees a dead woman, tied up and badly burnt. Still smoking, in fact. And it takes a second but then she realizes there’s a man standing in the shadows (Sammy Sheik, “Subway Terrorist,” AN AMERICAN CAROL, “Mustafa,” AMERICAN SNIPER) holding a knife, wearing a tie, looking right at her, smiling.
Cops come and clean up the mess, but aren’t much help to her. They rifle through her belongings, ask her insulting questions about her immigration status and “Turkish boxing,” don’t believe her or offer her any reassurance about her safety.
The next day when she goes to the gym everybody looks at her like she’s important, except the guy who doesn’t know her who’s gonna spar with her. Embarrassed by her, he makes the mistake of going at her too hard. She teaches him a lesson, which apparently she does alot, and she gets banned from the gym. (That the owner or manager is her ex-boyfriend who’s still mad at her doesn’t help her case.)
She’s an outsider in Austria because she’s an immigrant, in her culture because of her fighting and life decisions, and in her family for reasons we’ll get into later. And she has trouble trusting or sharing with most people. About the only person she has left in the world is her cousin Ranya (Verena Altenberger), who likes to go out all night with different guys even though she’s married to Özge’s boss Samir (Robert Palfrader) and knows Özge will get stuck in the middle. Ranya is exhausting, but Özge loves her, and lets her borrow her “wicked” Muay Thai jacket. I don’t think that plays a factor in the killer mistaking Ranya for Özge – he attackers her because she comes into Özge’s apartment – but the cops are sure to ask about the jacket so she can feel guilty about it.
Just like her Muay Thai skills, Özge’s family background is doled out a little at a time. She was molested by her dad, who can barely walk now, and resents her brother and mother for taking care of him. I love the scene where she says hello to her pregnant sister-in-law and walks right past her, uninterested, as she blabbers about her epidural and what not. You’re kind of laughing at her, but I’m sure in this male dominated family she’s desperate for an outlet.
Anyway, Ranya’s young daughter ends up with the parents, and Özge doesn’t want her father anywhere near the kid, so she takes her. So now she’s not only alone, but responsible for a child as she’s being hunted by a vicious and brazen serial killer. The wreckage of abuse is all around – she tries staying at a shelter where the woman tells her, It helps to talk about what men have done to us.”
Eventually her solution is to show up at the home of Christian Steiner (Tobias Moretti, A HIDDEN LIFE), an asshole cop who gave her his card, and sort of push him into sheltering her and the kid. Christian remains unfriendly but becomes humanized as he reluctantly helps her and as we see his hardships taking care of his very confused father Karl (Friedrich von Thun, SCHINDLER’S LIST, and Albert Schweitzer on two episodes of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles) who, for the record, is one of the more authentic depictions of a person with dementia I’ve seen. The one disappointing thing in the movie is that she hooks up with Christian, which I’m glad is her choice at least, but it definitely gives me that same sense as the GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO movies (as much as I like them) that they have this fierce woman character and then they seem to say “Don’t worry though, she doesn’t hate at all men – you could be the older white dude she has an unlikely thing for!”
But that’s over quick and I’ll pretend it didn’t mean anything.
It’s unusual in Western movies to have a Muslim hero, and maybe even more unusual for her to be a non-practicing Muslim. In a way she represents most of the world, who come from whatever cultures and traditions they come from, but don’t share much with the extreme elements of the related religions. The killer turns out to be an Islamist zealot, traveling between Muslim countries to murder prostitutes in a method based on a certain idea of Hell he read about in the Koran.
“So, he’s a Muslim?” Christian asks.
“No, he’s a maniac,” Özge says. “No true Muslim would do that.”
This guy is so infuriating, my heart gets pumping when she comes face to face with him. To me he represents not just religious zealotry, but all traditions of woman-hating. He seems so offended by her just being who she is. “You want to be a man? A warrior?” he asks. Later he says, “See what you made me do? You think I like doing this?” (Yes. Yes I do.) The only thing more pathetic than doing it: not even being able to take responsibility for it. No, it’s women’s fault that he kills women.
I suppose he’s more serial killer than slasher, and this is more thriller than horror. But the glimpses of what this bastard is up to are so horrific, they make quite an impression. Luckily this study of hopelessness, cruelty and extreme misogyny is leavened by some humanity. I got to really like Karl, and it’s sweet how quickly he grows attached to Özge. There’s also a touching moment of solidarity when Özge sneaks out of a hospital and her lung-cancer-stricken roommate gives her her coat.
The fact that it’s not very standard horror tropes adds to its effectiveness, I think. She gets attacked in her cab, chased in the city, in front of witnesses. There are some really strong chase and action sequences, and a big thrill when she chases and attacks the killer on a crowded subway. Having no idea the context, some people pull her off of him. I hope they saw him on the news later and realized they fucked up.
In case all this wasn’t enough to make me love COLD HELL, there’s a part where she’s been stabbed and nearly drowned and she stumbles out of bed, looks at her scars in the mirror, pulls off her bandages, and says “I’m going to kill you, “timed to a dramatic sting and camera move. I’m not saying it’s anywhere as good as that moment in MANHUNTER when he looks out the window and says “It’s just you and me now, sport,” but it’s definitely following in the same proud tradition.
Director Stefan Ruzowitsky is Austrian and started out directing commercials and music videos, including “Tearin’ Up My Heart” by NSYNC. His 2007 drama THE COUNTERFEITERS won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and after that he did that movie DEADFALL – not the Nic Cage one, the Eric Bana one. But his movies I’m most likely to look into are the horror series ANATOMY (2000) and ANATOMY 2 (2003), especially since the marketing for the sequel apes the Dimension Films post-SCREAM poster style. That might be up my alley.
I hope I’m not overselling COLD HELL (and if you haven’t seen it yet I just spoiled the shit out of it), but it has held up well to two viewings, and it provides a particular type of action-horror kick I haven’t really found elsewhere, despite looking for it. Check it out if you have Shudder or are in Germany, I guess.