Freezer Burn Commentary

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If the Earth must be invaded by alien capitalists wanting to use it as a sort of inter-Galactic Club Med, then the invasion might as well start in a place where people are polite and don’t question authority: Canada. But not just anywhere in Canada, deep in the prairies in a small town called Laxdale: a place so economically and spiritually depressed (i.e. so lax) that even Hockey no longer provides it with a moral centre. When little kids can get away with kneeing a former hockey player in the groin, things have gone terribly wrong.

This is the premise behind Josh Miller’s (Best Served Cold, City General) 2008 science fiction comedy starring Tom Green (Stealing Harvard, Tom the Butler) and Crispin Glover (Back to the Future, River’s Edge). The plot slowly drags a former small town hockey hero and the town itself back to life through the use of a well-worn, science fiction motif: saving the world from certain destruction by rapacious and seemingly invincible aliens. Like much science fiction, Freezer Burn uses an external threat (them) to existing society (us) as a barometer for the values that should sustain us. And there is nothing like imminent slavery or extinction to return us all to first principles. As a nation, are we who we say we are? Are we who we think we are?

On the face of it, Freezer Burn is just another mildly sophomoric way to pass a cold winter’s night. But all the “hoser” antics (Paul Spence and David Lawrence), puck-bunny eye candy (Sarain Boylan), and Don Cherry imitations (Scott Hylands) float deceptively above a mildly satiric purpose. Canadian audiences will not only recognize the beer-guzzling losers, the hockey groupie and the hometown coach; they will recognize the bad guy, Vergacht, because they have seen him before. Canadians don’t live in a branch plant economy for nothing.  We recognize the suit. We recognize the lure of big money for our natural resources, and high-paying jobs with good benefits… if only we will be quiet and obey. In writer-producer Josh Miller’s view, there may be a small step from branch plant employee to slave. And what better metaphor to use than the relationship between Club Med and the “Third World”? Once “we” allow “them” to come, they will never go away. After “they” undermine an economically depressed region with the promise of wealth, “they” can easily remove or control the means of political self-determination. Al Lipinsky (Dave Brown), the deluded and grasping mayor of Laxdale, allows himself to be co-opted to the extent that he has no suspicion about who the supposed Dutch businessmen really are – even when he sees the evil yellow glow in their eyes. Vergacht restrains his “chauffeur” from killing the mayor until they have the whole town under control; once this has happened, there will be no need for local elected officials or for the local cop. Colonization will be complete.

But, first, Vergacht must deal with Bill Swanson. Brought out of his drunken self-pity by the expropriation of his “land” (an abandoned grain elevator and a broken-down holiday trailer), in the interests of rural economic development (an oil refinery), Bill resists. He’s not quite sure what is happening, but none of it feels right to him. Having been ejected from the NHL at the age of 19 after taking “a puck to the head,” Bill has returned to his hometown, bitter and cynical. Suspicious of GazCon’s promises as nothing more than corporate greed, he consults his former coach, Arnie Filmore (Scott Hylands), who has never given up on Bill. Arnie’s mantra of being a team player, staying in shape and never backing down, ring hollow with Bill, who lost his career by agreeing to do those very things. But something strange has happened to Arnie. After having a Roswell-esque experience one evening, he takes refuge in the local arena where he encounters something gruesome in the locker room. What is more, he has discovered the one way to destroy the aliens: the cold. In a wonderful reversal of the Snowbird mentality, which has thousands of Canadians fleeing winter each year for the sun and the sand, Freezer Burn makes a virtue of what we have lots of. Arnie has therefore purchased every air conditioner in Laxdale and barricaded himself in his house, where he eventually dies from hypothermia, but not before warning Bill about GazCon by sending him to the arena.

This, of course, is the turning point to Bill’s slow decline. Forcing himself to enter a hockey arena after all those years, he takes a quick shot at the empty net, misses by a mile, and finally admits to himself that he probably hadn’t been that good anyway. Then he discovers the horrible alien corpse in the locker-room, destroyed by the cold. Now Bill is a man with a mission; he must warn the town; they must find a way to get rid of the aliens. The rest of the film is predictable, but funny. In the end the town pulls together and the world is saved, not by the usual pyrotechnics that accompany Hollywood and British versions of this genre, but by a dufus and his girlfriend, who have covered their hockey helmets with tin foil, are wearing shoulder pads over their shirts and spraying the aliens with slushies from giant water pistols. How very Canadian!

About 20 years ago, First Nations writer and broadcaster, Tom King, tried to untangle the cultural dimensions of native writing by devising three categories. There is First Nations writing that faces completely outward, which any reader from any culture can enjoy and understand; there is First Nations writing that contains a mix of outward and inward cultural references such that non-First Nations readers will miss some of the meaning; and then there is First Nations writing that has so many embedded cultural references that a non-First Nations audience would have difficulty understanding it at all. All cultures have this sliding range of coded content.

Freezer Burn lies somewhere in the middle of the range. It is filled with filmic references that any viewer would know: from the well-worn conventions of sports come-back movies and alien invasion movies, to the evil German (Glover’s character) who burns his hand on the amulet that Indiana Jones needs to locate the Ark of the Covenant. There is even a flash of the Norwegian film, Kitchen Stories, when the line of holiday trailers appears on the horizon. Director, Grant Harvey (American Beer, Ginger Snaps 3), invests Freezer Burn with enough of these elements that any film audience would find itself laughingly comfortable. Even references to hockey can be understood by non-Canadians these days, since the game is played in so many countries around the world. But the purely Canadian references to prairie small towns, to our tricky cultural relationship with the U.S., and to hockey as national culture are just for us. And that’s okay.