As the nights grow long and the temperature drops, it has long been a tradition to sit around and tell each other scary stories. There’s something about the barren winter landscape, the shocking contrast of blood on snow, and the way that it muffles your desperate screams, that makes a wintry landscape the perfect eerie backdrop for tales of horror and suspense. If you’re looking for a movie to terrify you this winter, here are our picks.
The Wolf of Snow Hollow
Our first entry into the snowbound sub-genre is a recent movie. The Wolf of Snow Hollow is a new addition to the werewolf cinematic canon, pitting a recovering alcoholic detective against a deadly fanged menace. The small-town mundanity offsets the brutal slayings brilliantly, and director/writer Jim Cummings is hilarious as the petulant and sarcastic policeman John Marshall. In a world where good werewolf movies are difficult to come by, The Wolf of Snow Hollow is a very welcome example of the monster done right.
Because it had to be on here, right? John Carpenter’s Arctic thriller is one of the undisputed classics of the horror genre. Carpenter uses the freezing backdrop to great effect, capturing the isolation and the eerie emptiness of the deserted snowscapes. In his hands somehow the icy expanses of nothingness feel as claustrophobic and oppressive as the cramped corridors of the research station. As unlikely as it seems that anyone reading this has never seen The Thing, if that applies to you, we can’t recommend it enough.
Anything for Jackson
One of our very favourite discoveries in 2020, Anything For Jackson is a reverse exorcism movie that juxtaposes the “Minnesota Nice” tone of Fargo with the occult shenanigans of Rosemary’s Baby. It’s funny, gory, creepy, and even oddly heartwarming at times, thanks to the veteran actors cast as the hapless elderly satanist couple. The snow-covered exterior shots don’t take up too much of the runtime, but they certainly add to the sense of being cut off from the outside world in their increasingly deadly homestead.
It may not be our favourite Nazi zombie movie (that honour goes to bizarre dieselpunk curio Frankenstein’s Army, whose absolute bonkersness never fails to warm our hearts), but goddamn, if Dead Snow isn’t one hell of a good time. At a remote ski cabin, a group of med student friends have hunkered down for a relaxing drunken getaway. When they disturb some stolen Nazi gold, they awaken the wrath of a crack SS division who rise from icy graves to reclaim their prize. It’s a hilarious and bloody romp in the tundra, with the visual juxtaposition of blood and snow used throughout to great effect. There’s also some great fun to be had with the careful application of snowmobiles and chainsaws.
A real masterclass in simple but effective screenwriting, the stripped-back nature of this story gives it a chilling immediacy. The unnervingly plausible plot sees three friends blagging their way onto a ski lift right before the resort shuts down for the weekend. Disaster strikes when the oblivious operator clocks off, leaving them stranded and hanging in mid air. The temperature plummets, and with the resort shuttered for the next three days, the would-be skiers face certain death, either from hypothermia or the wolves circling below. It’s a gripping tale with some excellent performances that really bring the terror of the scenario to life.
The Deeper You Dig
This year gave us a plethora of fantastic original projects. One of the most ambitious indie offerings was The Deeper You Dig, a film that asks the question: what if The Lovely Bones went goth as hell? A young girl is killed in the wilderness, and her mother is determined to use occult gifts to find out exactly what happened and who is responsible. There is already something otherworldly about the snow-covered landscapes and frozen woodland that the film takes place in, but when we journey into the other side, get ready for some truly surreal and striking imagery.
Drawing comparison with Hereditary, this icy thriller is a tense familial drama with deadly repercussions. Trapped in a snowbound lodge with the mistrustful children of her new boyfriend, a young woman is suddenly confronted with a past she thought she had left behind. At twelve years old, she was the only survivor after her father led his doomsday cult into a mass suicide. Now the past is refusing to stay buried. From the directors of Goodnight Mommy, this is a film with an astonishing mastery of mood. The snowy backdrop is integral to the sense of isolation and despair that runs throughout.
When someone asks us for a Stephen King recommendation, whether in fiction or film, we tend to forgo the sprawling, epic expanse of The Stand or the spectacular small-town shenanigans of It. Instead, we usually find ourselves reaching for Misery, one of King’s most enduring tales, which is all the more effective for its relative simplicity. An author who, over the years, has grown to despise his most famous creation, a romance heroine called Misery Chastain, believes himself to be finally free of her. However, after a drunken car wreck in a snowstorm, he finds himself completely at the mercy of his number one fan. This is a tense and horrifying tale of obsession and control, with an extraordinary, iconic performance from Kathy Bates. The harsh winter setting only compounds the protagonist’s helplessness, making assistance an impossibility and forcing him to rely on his wits to survive.
The Last Winter
With its icy outpost setting and gruff protagonists, this 2006 offering draws easy comparison with The Thing but has its own unique set of charms. On a remote oil-drilling station, an irritable head of operations (Ron Perlman) is upset to return to find an environmental consultant has arrived, giving grave warnings about the ecological impact of their work and vying for the affections of his love interest. Soon, mysterious happenings begin to befall the crew of the oil station, and violent deaths aren’t far behind. Slower paced than Carpenter’s mutant monster flick, and with more complex character development, The Last Winter balances a lot of elements quite well over its run time, weaving atmosphere, suspense and minimal but effective gore into a compelling tale. Some unfortunate CG lets it down in the final stretch, but it is still a strong and unfortunately underseen film.
30 Days of Night
A film that stands as the antithesis of the sexy vampire trope that was all the rage back in 2007, 30 Days of Night paints the undead as animalistic, slavering ghouls. In a small Alaskan town, residents are hunkering down for the annual month of darkness. A local policeman (Josh Hartnett) is called on to investigate some brutal killings, and pretty soon it becomes clear that an army of vampires is about to descend on the town. Retaining some of the grindhouse grot that marked the comic book source material, 30 Days of Night was an action-oriented survival/siege movie in the vein of Dog Soldiers, with perhaps a bit more of a Hollywood sheen to it.
Next we’re heading to 1983 for a classic slasher movie in the original mold. A director has invited a group of actresses to his remote chalet in order to assess their suitability for a role. However, competition for the part is fierce, and turns deadly when a mysterious killer wearing a wrinkly mask begins to pick off the thespians one by one. Curtains hits all of the marks for a by-the-numbers slasher movie, but it delivers its kills and thrills with a self-aware, tongue-in-cheek and humorous approach that make it endlessly enjoyable. It boasts a legion of memorable moments, including but not limited to the infamous skating scene. For fans of old-school slashers, Curtains is an underappreciated must-see.
This yuletide horror movie somehow never seems to make into Christmas horror listicles. It might be because the transgressive nature of its story makes viewers forget that this was ever a Christmas tale to begin with. An extended family have gathered at a country retreat for the holiday season. As the children begin to show signs of illness, it soon becomes clear that they have been infected with a disease that transforms them into psychotic killers. This is a film that absolutely understands the cinematic taboos around violence towards or by children, and it has great fun playing with and pushing these boundaries. The Children is chock full of inventive kills, offset with occasional bleak humour. It’s perhaps too reliant on shocking set pieces to tell a truly cohesive story, but this indie British offering is a surprising and energetic romp.
We Are Still Here
,This gory haunted house movie is a loving homage to films of the 1970s, most notably The House by the Cemetery. A middle-aged couple move into a property in a picturesque small town. The house has a sinister history, and when things begin to go bump in the night, they conduct an ill-advised séance to get to the heart of the matter. Events go awry, and soon demons, in the form of charred corpses, are making the would-be homeowners reconsider their purchase. Veteran horror actors such as Larry Fessenden and Barbara Crampton tear into their roles with glee, and widescreen photography lends the snowy landscape an unsettling aspect. With elements of small-town conspiracy, occult creepiness and shocking gore, this film is a love letter to the classic grindhouse films of yore.