Christmas is long over now – the good cheer and egg nog are gone. And all we’re left with in January is the dark, bone-chilling cold and isolation that comes with the saddest month of the year. But don’t despair. What better way to escape the winter blues than a horror film marathon that celebrates the best of snowed-in chills. Our first posted list ranks my picks for the five best winter-set horror films. These aren’t Christmas-themed films; this list ranks horror films that take place in winter settings.
5. 30 Days of Night (2007)
Based on the graphic novel of the same name by Steve Niles, 30 Days of Night puts an interesting spin on the tired, long-in-the-tooth vampire mythos with a simple but effective premise. Set in a small Alaskan town, a coven of vampires invades during a 30-day long polar night. That’s right, 30 days without sunshine in the frigid Alaskan winter. I enjoyed 30 Days of Night the first time I saw it and it has stood up to multiple viewings without losing any of its impact. Featuring a solid cast that includes Josh Hartnett (Halloween H20), Melissa George (The Limey, Turistas), Mark Boone Junior (Sons of Anarchy), Manu Bennett (Arrow), Ben Foster (3:10 to Yuma), and Danny Huston (Wonder Woman), director David Slade makes maximum use of the isolated winter setting and premise to create a sense of hopelessness and desperation. Slade also forgoes casting his vampires as sophisticated, aristocratic monsters opting instead to characterize his vampires as cruel, almost feral creatures. Danny Huston, as the coven leader, is menacing, while Ben Foster almost manages to steal the film with his portrayal of The Stranger, a nameless vagrant who wanders into the town to warn its residents. 30 Days loses some points for its overreliance on CGI-rendered gore (but there is plenty of it) and relationship drama, but the film never loses its grip on the sense of desolation central to its atmosphere and the climax works. I’m always surprised at the lack of love shown for 30 Days of Night; it’s certainly no classic but it belongs on this list.
4. The Blackcoat’s Daughter
The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2017) snuck under the radar to become one of my favourite horror picks from 2017. It marks the directorial debut of horror film royalty, Oz Perkins, son of Anthony Perkins. With his first effort behind the camera lens, Perkins immediately positions himself as a filmmaker to keep an eye on. I won’t say much about its plot as much of the fun watching The Blackcoat’s Daughter for the first time is getting lost in the story weaved by Perkins. Briefly, The Blackcoat’s Daughter follows two different storylines that are ultimately doomed to converge. In one storyline, two teenage girls at a boarding school – freshman Kat and the older Rose – are seemingly left behind at break when their parents fail to arrive on the last day of classes. Kat, haunted by nightmares of a car crash, believes her parents are dead. Rose is afraid she may be pregnant so she lied to her parents about the pick-up date to give herself some time to sort matters out with her boyfriend. Alone in the largely abandoned Catholic boarding school with the exception of two nuns, Kat begins to exhibit increasingly strange behaviour as she becomes more obsessed with Rose. The second storyline introduces the audience to another young woman, Joan, a drifter waiting alone in a bus station where she is offered a ride by a stranger named Bill. Oddly fixated with her, Bill confesses that Joan reminds him of someone; Bill’s wife seems less impressed by her husband’s charity. A quiet and pensive character, Joan is ripping off a medical bracelet when we first see her and, later in the film, we see that she has a bullet wound on her shoulder. Like Kat, we know something is not quite right about Joan. To say much more about how these storylines ultimately converge would ruin the tale that Perkins has masterfully weaved.
Like other films on this list, The Blackcoat’s Daughter takes full advantage of its winter setting. A somber, slow-burn of a horror film, the events of The Blackcoat’s Daughter unfold almost like a lucid dream that feels as cold and isolated as its snow-covered Catholic boarding school. Perkins perfectly captures that feeling of quiet solitude and loneliness you might associate with late winter walks. There are no real jump scares in The Blackcoat’s Daughter; the horror emerges slowly from the pall and mounting feeling of dread cast over the proceedings.
3. Dead Snow (2009)
Horror and comedy are difficult genres to blend together. But when it’s done right, as it is in Dead Snow, the result can make for a lot of fun. Dead Snow, released in 2009, is a Norwegian zombie film that follows a group of medical students retreating for a vacation in a remote winter cabin. The drinking and partying are quickly interrupted when the students run afoul of an army of Nazi zombies guarding a hidden treasure. Yes, that’s right – Nazi zombies. Dead Snow takes a lot of cues from The Evil Dead franchise, and that’s a good thing. This is a true splatter film with ridiculous amounts of intentionally over-the-top violence and gore that will have you simultaneously screaming and laughing out loud. Yet in spite of its premise and cartoon-level of gore Dead Snow somehow manages to give you characters that connect with the audience. The ending sets up for sequel, which is almost if not maybe even more ridiculously entertaining as the first. Dead Snow is the winter brethren to The Evil Dead, an uproariously fun, bloody horror film.
2. The Shining (1980)
My top two picks are almost a ‘coin toss’ decision and, like any list, it’s all subjective and comes down to personal preference. One of my first introductions to horror films was catching the famous ‘Here’s Johnny’ scene while The Shining played on cable television during a family dinner party. I couldn’t have been much older than 8-years-old at the time, and it was the only scene I caught, but it stuck with me. No list of horror films set in the winter is complete without referencing The Shining; from Jack Nicholson’s over-the-top performance to director Stanley Kubrick’s innovative camera movement and use of colour, The Shining stands out as a classic for any number of reasons.
Yet its placement on this list reflects how its wintery setting enhances the overall ‘feel’ of the film. The imposing Overlook Hotel and its placement in the isolated, winter Colorado wilderness conjures up images of classic horror iconography – The Overlook Hotel looms in this dark winter landscape like a classic haunted house. Both ghost story and psychological horror, Kubrick employs a familiar literary device – pathetic fallacy – to allow the audience to vicariously experience Jack Torrance’s increasing descent into madness. As the winter storm worsens and The Overlook Hotel is cut off from the world, Torrance is also isolated – cut off – from his family by the otherworldly forces lurking in the hallways and rooms of the Overlook. It’s climatic chase through the hedge mazes in the bitter cold is likely to leave you sufficiently chilled to the bone before leaving you with its last, haunting image.
1. The Thing (1982)
For me, personally, it’s hard to beat The Thing in this category. Considered a failure at the time of its release, The Thing is a somber, nihilistic piece of horror film-making. A remake of a 1950s science fiction film, The Thing is set in an Antarctica research facility where a small team of researchers are confronted by an alien lifeform that assimilates and perfectly imitates anyone with whom it comes into contact.
A prime early illustration of the body horror subgenre, The Thing is now widely considered a class of the genre. The practical monster effects, created by special make-up effects artist Rob Bottin for which he received an Oscar nomination, are innovative and have lost none of their ability to shock. Released over 30 years ago, The Thing still has one of the best jump scares in horror film history. Like the other films on this list, the winter setting of The Thing plays on important role in not only its atmosphere but one of the central themes underlying it. In a film where characters are threatened by the unseen presence of an alien that can look exactly like one of them, in one of the most remote areas of the world where there is no one close to help you, mistrust and paranoia are strong parts of The Thing. Carpenter maximizes the desolate winter setting to amplify the increasingly hopeless situation. The film’s scores, composed by Ennio Morricone, lends to the eerie feelings of isolation. Its end, among the bleaker you will find in horror films, almost perfectly captures how depressing a late January evening can be some days.