Christmas is just around the corner now. Good cheer and egg nog are on their way. But in between Halloween and Christmas, all we’re left with is dark and damp bone-chilling cold. Aside from January, November may the saddest month of the year. But don’t despair. What better way to escape the upcoming winter blues than a horror movie marathon celebrating the best of snowed-in chills. In this edition of The Chopping Block, I picked out five of my personal favourite winter-set horror films. No, these aren’t Christmas horror movies; this list ranks horror films that take place in wintery settings.
5. 30 Days of Night
Based on Steve Niles’ graphic novel, 30 Days of Night puts a fun spin on the long-in-the-tooth vampire mythos. It’s a simple, but effective hook. A coven of vampires invades a small Alaskan town during a 30-day long polar night. That’s right, 30 days without sunshine in the frigid Alaskan winter. Critics weren’t that impressed with 30 Days of Night, but it’s an utterly watchable movie that holds up to multiple viewings.
First, it features a solid cast that includes Josh Hartnett (Halloween H20), Melissa George (Turistas), Ben Foster (3:10 to Yuma), and Danny Huston (Wonder Woman). Additionally, director David Slade makes maximum use of the isolated winter setting to create a sense of hopelessness and desperation. The movie forgoes casting vampires as sophisticated, aristocratic monsters. Instead Slade’s vampires are cruel, almost feral creatures. Danny Huston, as the coven leader, is menacing. But it’s Ben Foster who almost steals the show as The Stranger. Admittedly, 30 Days loses some points for its over-reliance on CGI-rendered gore. Nonetheless, it’s a winter horror movie that never loses its grip on the sense of desolation central to its atmosphere.
4. The Blackcoat’s Daughter
The Blackcoat’s Daughter 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.
Without giving away too much, The Blackcoat’s Daughter follows two storylines doomed to converge. In one story-line, two teenage girls at a boarding school – freshman Kat and the older Rose – are left behind over the Christmas break. Kat, haunted by nightmares of a car crash, believes her parents are dead. Meanwhile Rose fears she may be pregnant and lies about the pick-up date to her parents to sort out matters out with her boyfriend. Alone in the largely abandoned Catholic boarding school, Kat begins to exhibit increasingly strange behaviour as she becomes obsessed with Rose. In the second storyline, we meet another young woman, Joan, a drifter waiting alone in a bus station. 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 masterfully tells.
Like other movies on this list, The Blackcoat’s Daughter takes full advantage of its winter setting. A somber, slow-burn of a horror film, The Blackcoat’s Daughter’s story unfolds like a lucid dream. With its snow-covered Catholic boarding school, Perkins captures a feeling of quiet solitude and loneliness of late winter walks. There are no real jump scares. Instead the horror emerges slowly from the pall and mounting feeling of dread. It also feels like a wonderfully fresh spin on familiar horror story elements.
3. Dead Snow (2009)
Horror and comedy are difficult genres to blend. But when it’s done right, as it is in Dead Snow, the result makes for a lot of fun. Briefly, Dead Snow is a Norwegian zombie film that follows a group of medical students vacationing 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. It’s been done before, most notably with Peter Cushing in Shock Waves. It’s even been done very recently with Overlord still in some theaters.
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. Yet in spite of its cartoonish premise and cartoon-level of gore, Dead Snow still 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.
2. The Shining
My top two picks are a ‘coin toss’ decision. Like any list, it’s all subjective and comes down to personal preference. One of my first introductions to horror was inadvertently catching the famous ‘Here’s Johnny’ scene on cable television. Needless to say, the scene made an impression. No list of winter horror movies is complete without The Shining. From Jack Nicholson’s over-the-top performance to director Stanley Kubrick’s innovative camera movement and use of colour, The Shining is an undisputed horror classic.
Yet its placement on this list reflects how its wintery setting enhances the movie’s overall ‘feel’. The imposing Overlook Hotel and its isolated Colorado setting evokes classic horror iconography. It looms in its dark winter landscape like a classic haunted house. Both ghost story and psychological horror, Kubrick employs pathetic fallacy to allow the audience to vicariously experience Jack Torrance’s descent into madness. As the winter storm worsens and The Overlook Hotel is cut off from the world, Torrance is also isolated from his family by the otherworldly forces lurking in the building’s hallways and rooms. That final climatic chase likely to leave you sufficiently chilled to the bone before leaving you with its last, haunting image.
1. The Thing
Considered a failure at the time of its release, The Thing is a somber, nihilistic piece of horror film-making. A prime early illustration of the body horror subgenre, The Thing is now widely considered a horror classic. Rob Bottin’s practical monster effects are innovative and have lost none of their ability to shock.
Like the other films on this list, the winter setting plays an important role. On the one hand, the barren Antarctica landscapes help define the movie’s increasing sense of dread. In addition, Carpenter employs the wintery setting to develop one of the movie’s central themes. In a movie where characters are threatened by the unseen presence, in one of the most remote areas of the world, mistrust and paranoia are integral elements of The Thing. Carpenter maximizes the desolate winter setting to amplify this increasingly hopeless situation. The film’s scores, composed by Ennio Morricone, lends to the eerie feelings of isolation. Lastly , the movie’s conclusion, among the bleaker you will find in horror films, almost perfectly captures how depressing a late winter evening can be some days.