Do you want to be frozen in fear this winter? Whether you’re after splashes of blood across a fresh fall of snow, the uncanny quiet of a snow-covered landscape, the inherent danger of snowy roads and frozen lakes, or the paranoia and disorientation that comes from being snowed in – we’ve got you covered (in snow)…
The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick’s haunted hotel movie, based on Stephen King’s novel, is surely the quintessential winter watch. Jack Nicholson’s performance as the volatile father of a young family, who relocate to the Overlook Hotel as caretakers for the winter, has gone down in horror history as one of the greats. Plus Shelley Duvall has recently had her powerhouse performance graciously reassessed. The isolation of The Overlook – largely due to the huge quantities of snow dumped upon it – drives the action and madness of Kubrick’s ghostly masterpiece, culminating in a truly terrifying set piece in the hotel’s maze, and a now iconic (and well-memed) shot of poor old frozen Jack.
For more snowy ghosts, try Kwaidan (1964) from director Masaki Kobayashi. This classic Japanese ghost story anthology includes the segment The Woman of the Snow, in which a young woodcutter falls prey to a spirit (Keiko Kishi) under a surrealist eye-shaped moon. A story of romantic love and motherhood, responsibility and betrayal, this one will chill you to the bone.
The Thing (1982)
Turning 40 this year, John Carpenter’s alien shocker was released to chilly reviews but is now regularly cited as one of the best horror movies of all time, if not thebest sci-fi horror. Kurt Russell leads the cast of doomed researchers trapped in an Antarctic base with a less-than-friendly extra-terrestrial and a healthy dose of paranoia. If snow suggests isolation, it doesn’t get more isolated than this. Throw in Rob Bottin’s legendary creature effects and a bleakness that verges on nihilism, and you’ve got a stone-cold classic.
The Chill Factor (1989)
“I was young and pretty and I could ride a sled better than any of them.” So opens this occult oddity, directed by Christopher Webster in the midst of the late-80s slasher slump, that sees a group of friends stranded at an abandoned camp after a Ski-Doo accident. There’s all you’d expect: friendly rivalries, unrealistic sex, a satanic cult, and elaborate deaths – including, importantly, one involving an icicle to an eye hole. There are some pacing problems, some truly terrible line delivery, and some dated casual racism, but otherwise this is a fun watch on a cold day under a blanket.
Another Stephen King adaptation and another terrifying set of circumstances surrounded by the white stuff – although unlike The Shining the horrors here are solely human. Towards the end of his flawless 1986-1992 directorial run, Rob Reiner made Misery,the story of writer Paul Sheldon (James Caan) and his biggest fan Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates, in an Oscar-winning turn that gave us one of cinema’s scariest villains). Snow once again creates heightened isolation, as Paul is trapped in Annie’s house away from any apparent rescue, and helps to build the near-unbearable tension that engulfs the film. You’ll never look at a porcelain penguin the same way.
Let The Right One In (2008)
Based on the terrifying novel of the same name, Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation is a beautiful and brutal film about loneliness, love and vampires. Set in the suburbs of Stockholm in the early ‘80s, Oscar and Eli meet near a snow-covered climbing frame, only for their blossoming friendship to irrevocably alter both their lives – or ‘journeys’ might be more accurate in Eli’s case. A violent and cathartic denouement, staged in a municipal swimming pool, has become the film’s stand-out scene, but the snow is present throughout, giving Let The Right One In a washed-out palette and creating a stark backdrop for the vampire lore to manifest against.
For more snowy vampires, with less tear-jerking first love and more vicious blood suckers dragging people screaming from their living rooms, see 30 Days of Night (2007). Set in a small town above the Arctic Circle, where darkness descends for a full month, this one makes plenty of use of those striking blood-on-snow visuals.
A radio DJ arrives at work in the middle of a snowstorm after an odd encounter with a woman muttering something on the road, and that’s the least weird thing that’s going to happen to him for the next 90 minutes or so. Bruce McDonald directs Stephen McHattie in this smart zombie-adjacent Canadian chamber piece. Rather than a virus or chemical spill, it’s language that prompts a quarantine situation, and the snowy set-up doubles down on the feeling of confinement and tension as we experience and understand events from the perspective of those with whom we’re trapped. An underseen gem, this one should be top of the woodpile for a new winter watch.
Dead Snow (2009)
If you prefer your zombies less cerebral, Tommy Wirkola’s Norwegian cult classic Dead Snow (Død snø) is for you. A group of horny students head to a mountain cabin on vacation – so far, so standard. Less expected is the squad of zombie Nazis, looking for their treasure and massacring their way through the friends in this lighthearted gorefest – and there’s more Ski-Doo action. Ein Zwei Die!
Gaspar Noé’s thumping psychedelic dance horror Climax opens with a birds eye shot of a young woman sobbing and stumbling through deep snow while wearing next to nothing for the conditions. She falls, the camera spins (thanks Noé), and she begins to laugh maniacally, writhing amongst the freezing white. Something’s very wrong here. The majority of the film takes place inside the dance studio nestled in this snowy wilderness, but knowing the landscape that’s lurking outside the door lends a perfect sense of dread to proceedings – both for anyone who may be ejected, and for anyone trying to escape.
The Lodge (2018)
This genuinely disturbing psychological familial horror from Goodnight Mommy (2014) directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz disappeared for a good while after it premiered at London Film Festival in 2018 but thankfully has recently appeared on streaming. More people need to experience this taut lesson in oppressive remoteness, fuelled by cults, suicide, abandonment, dark looming structures, danger and madness. Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell and Alicia Silverstone star in this feel-bad Christmas film for all the family.