People watch movies for all kinds of reasons. We watch them to laugh, to jump, to be affected, or to learn. We watch the ones we love over and over again to relive fond memories. What films do best is make us feel. Watching a movie can cause elation, depression, fright, fury, repulsion, arousal, or any combination of emotions. Watching a movie set in blistering heat can make us throw off our jackets, make us feel like if we don’t get that Icee from the concessions stand we may just fry. In the same way, a well made movie set in frigid temperatures may make us bundle into our coats, burrow farther under blankets, and prepare for metaphorical hibernation.
Following the massive release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 three weeks ago, December 10 brings us the release of the third Chronicles of Narnia movie. For some of us, this confluence of wintry fantasy movies signals that the holiday season is in full swing. The Narnia and Potter movies aren’t always holiday-centric, but they call to mind snowscapes and cocoa and the comfort of a warm theater while the wind howls outside. For this week’s Listicle, William Bibbiani, Dan Fields, and I (Julia Rhodes!) have compiled a list of our favorite winter movies, be they holiday-related or just snowy. Forgive our tendencies toward the horror genre–we each have our weaknesses, and while we’re no Scrooges, we simply happen to prefer the dark and twisted. Mostly.
30 Days of Night (dir. David Slade, 2007)
30 Days of Night is based on a graphic novel by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith. Director David Slade went on to direct another, (ahem) more famous vampire movie, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, which probably made him rich but was really awful. 30 Days of Night deliberately takes the “sexy vampire” mythos in a strangehold and crushes it. It’s not an entirely original approach (both Let the Right One In and the American version, Let Me In refute the Twilight and Anne Rice versions of sexy vampire too), but 30 Days of Night‘s moodiness makes it a fun watch nonetheless.
Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost town in the U.S., enters its annual month of darkness–making it a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet for creatures of the night. First comes The Stranger (Ben Foster, who transitioned magnificently from Canadian teen TV to really fantastic roles), a frostbitten and crazy-eyed man who warns the citizenry of their impending doom. Then enter the vamps, led by Marlow (Danny Huston). They speak their own language, a series of grunts, shrieks, and squeals that’s as unfamiliar to the human ear as can be. They’re monsters through and through, attacking without mercy and splattering blood all over the pristine white snow. The movie features sweeping shots of snowy tundra, a forlorn ship abandoned in the midst of icebergs off the coast, and a constant undercurrent of whistling, moaning wind. While it’s not a great movie, it certainly succeeds at one thing: the cinematography and sound effects will chill you to the bone.
The Ice Storm (dir. Ang Lee, 1997)
If the title weren’t indicative enough, watching Ang Lee’s underappreciated family melodrama The Ice Storm is one of the coldest experiences you’ll have indoors (and I mean that both literally and figuratively). Based on a novel by Rick Moody, The Ice Storm tells the story of philandering husband Benjamin Hood (Kevin Kline), his wife Elena (Joan Allen), his mistress/neighbor Janey (Sigourney Weaver), and all of their children during a fateful Christmas in New Haven, Connecticut in 1973. In the early ’70s, the sexual revolution had made it all the way back to the suburbs, and the Hoods attend a key party after Elena finds out Benjamin has been cheating on her. Meanwhile, total space cadet Mikey Carver (Elijah Wood) makes out with miserable Wendy Hood (Christina Ricci), who then plays you-show-me-yours-I’ll-show-you-mine with Mikey’s younger brother Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd). Elena takes up with Janey’s husband Jim (Jamey Sheridan), leaving her drunken husband to mourn his mistress’s departure. The Hoods’ son Paul (Tobey Maguire) goes to New York to try to seduce his crush Libbets (Katie Holmes), who passes out with her head in his crotch after taking a few too many Valium. All of these are horrible mistakes made by people desperate for some kind of real feeling. And all of them take place during a record (you guessed it) ice storm.
The movie isn’t for everyone. None of the characters are particularly likable, and all of them are patently miserable. Like Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, this story features no one character with whom you can identify, but you’ll probably find yourself caring anyway. The film is very blue in tone, its characters’ skin pale and chapped. Shiny, hard glass surfaces play a large part in the mise-en-scene, and ice distorts every surface upon which it settles. As a period piece, it’s a masterwork: costumes, music, and set design take you straight to the wealthy suburbs of ’70s New England.
Taiwan-born filmmaker Lee has managed to repeatedly relate small, very American stories that radiate into large-scale cultural commentary, first with The Ice Storm, then with Brokeback Mountain, and again with Taking Woodstock. Although he rarely works with the same cinematographer, his movies generally share a similar cool color palate, sweeping shots of landscapes, and a focus on art decoration. All of these are pretty good tales of Americana, but The Ice Storm is the only one that’ll make you feel chilly, both inside and out.
Edward Scissorhands (dir. Tim Burton, 1990)
Is it weird that Edward Scissorhands and Gremlins are two of my favorite Christmas movies? Yes, probably. But both are firmly cold-weather movies that deal, in a roundabout way, with the dysfunctional nature of a season that’s ostensibly about family and security, but is often about stress, anxiety, and the crazymaking nature of gift-giving and appearances.
Edward Scissorhands is a piece of brilliance on Tim Burton’s part. The story is a fable from beginning to end, and Burton’s stylistic tendencies toward the gothic and weird work unbelievably well with the tone. At the beginning, an old woman tells her grandchild the tale of why it snows. Then we fall back to the story of Edward (Johnny Depp) and his creator, the Inventor (Vincent Price), who lives in an enormous, gothic mansion atop a mountain. The Inventor dies after creating Edward, a Frankenstein’s-monster sort of creature (Burton adores this trope–witness Frankenweenie), but before he can manufacture hands for him. Edward lives a long, lonely time in his mansion before Avon lady Peg (Dianne Wiest), desperate for a sale, ventures up the mountain to see him. Suburbanites Peg and Bill (Alan Arkin), along with a collection of nosy, bizarre neighbors, live at the foot of the mountain in a wonderland of pastels, Astroturf, and blacktop. When Peg brings Edward back to the neighborhood, the fun really begins.
Peg’s daughter Kim (Winona Ryder) becomes enamored of Edward’s gentleness and melancholy, but unfortunately Kim’s dating a violent, jealous guy (Anthony Michael Hall, firmly shrugging off his Brat Pack nerd role). When Jim and the neighbors meddle, Edward has to retreat to the mansion on the mountain. Not before the fickle community who so revered him at first abuses, belittles, and attacks him. During one of the movie’s most iconic scenes, he uses his scissors to carve a beautiful ice figure, sending ice chips flying through the air. This little suburban town, much like anything you’ll see in a 1950s sitcom, never saw snow before Edward fell in love with Kim, but now it snows there every Christmas. It’s a pleasant but sober fairy tale, told as only Burton could do it. And it never fails to prepare me for the craziness of the holiday season.
Black Christmas (dir. Bob Clark, 1974) & Black X-Mas (dir. Glen Morgan, 2006)
As far as holiday movies go, Black Christmas and its terrible (read: guilty pleasure) remake Black X-Mas will never be up there with Miracle on 34th Street, White Christmas, or even The Santa Clause. Nonetheless, if you’re not feeling particularly cheery but you’re feeling the holiday spirit, these are probably just the flicks for you.
Ah, Christmas, that time of year when we each feel the glow of peace on earth and goodwill toward men. That anxiously awaited time of jingling bells, Rudolph’s hooves on the rooftop, children laughing as they build snowmen, and “Santa Baby” on the radio. Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy, eh? Try working retail around the holidays and see what you think of Christmas then. (Okay, maybe I am a bit of a Scrooge.)
Black Christmas is a horror show through and through–it just happens to be set (cynically) at Christmastime. Have you ever noticed how horror gravitates toward sorority houses? Guess it’s all the possibilities of scantily-clad co-eds behaving in an untoward fashion. In Toronto, Canada, the ladies of Delta Alpha Kappa settle in for their Christmas party, all unknowing a murderer is stalking them. Miserable, outspoken Barb (Margot Kidder) passes out drunk while Jess (Olivia Hussey) tells her creepy pianist boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea) she’s pregnant and getting an abortion. The local police force (led by A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s John Saxon) are a bunch of bumbling idiots who can’t seem to figure out what they should be paying attention to.
As the ladies of Alpha Kap start disappearing into the house one by one, the Christmas cheer rages on. The sounds of clapping as house mother Mrs. Mac opens her gift masks one killing, while exuberant carolers cover the sound of another brutal murder upstairs. The happy sounds of Christmastime disguise the macabre. Poor Jess, our Final Girl if Black Christmas has one, keeps finding her valid concerns overridden by the chaos that comes with the holiday season. What makes Black Christmas a genuinely good slasher is the way it builds the creeps slowly using stalker cam (the origin of which most attribute to Halloween); dissonant, raucous music and voice-overs; and rude, selfish behavior. What makes it really interesting is its ambiguous ending.
You know how Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake took everything that was understated and spooky out of the original John Carpenter version–and made it IN YOUR FACE!? Yeah, that’s what the Black Christmas remake did. It’s a terrible movie, but in terms of atmosphere and sheer silliness, it ups the ante on any other Christmas-centered horror flick. Glen Morgan (who’s responsible for the Final Destination series–known for their brilliant death scenes and terrible everything else) cast a number of recognizable female faces: Lacey Chabert, Katie Cassidy, Michelle Trachtenberg, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead play sorority members. Unlike in the original, where the girls strive for a kind of dysfunctional sisterhood, the ladies of the new Black Christmas are truly horrible bitches. And that crank caller and ambiguous ending? Yeah, that has a ridiculous backstory involving a liver disease, incest, cannibalism, eye-poking, and an asylum. “Agnes” and “Billy,” whose names are tossed about in the original, get a full family history. There is no burnt-orange goo for blood and a vague hint of a throat slashed–oh no, the remake is gory and splattery. It’s everything you want in a B- or C-grade horror flick, and the constant refrain of classic Christmas music, absent from the original, is enough to settle you into the season.
Both movies feature a snowy Canadian setting–and the wind howling around the eaves of the house, along with a constant barrage of snow, adds a shivery undertone to the already spooky material. They’re not for everyone, but if you want an alternative to How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Miracle on 34th Street this year, they’re worth checking out.
Fargo (dir. Joel Coen, 1996)
Because of this movie, lots of people think Fargo is a town in Minnesota. The title refers not to the movie’s main setting (in and around Brainerd), but to the fateful meeting that opens the story (held across the state line in North Dakota). This is not all that important, but an interesting bit of trivia anyway. Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo is one of those comedies so dark it almost can’t be called one. Still, you’ve got laugh while you squirm. A “simple” kidnapping hoax organized by desperate businessman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) turns into a horrifying bloodbath when neither he nor the two-bit sociopaths he hires (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) prove competent to pull it off. In the end it is up to heavily pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) to run down the guilty parties, and even at the contemplative pace of her life she stands a good chance of doing it. Her advantages over the bad guys are the simple virtues of honesty and common sense, which almost no one else in the film seems to have.
Through the Coen lens, the small-town Midwest is a frozen wasteland. Whether trudging through massive drifts or huddled against driving blizzards, these characters live in an alarming state of geographical (and sometimes moral) isolation. At the same time, those not directly involved in criminal activity have a delightfully wry and insular quirkiness to them. They speak and act slowly, with a kind of reserve that could put British aristocrats to shame. Meandering conversations about the weather and the local gossip punctuate Marge’s detective work at regular intervals. The folksy goodness of everyday people in Fargo makes the brutality of the crimes around them seem even more absurd and pathetic. This is the heartland, where people live by simple values and only prosper by living in peace with their neighbors. It is the same charming Midwestern temperament that Garrison Keillor has spun into comedy gold for years. Anybody not inclined to offer you a neighborly wave and a “Hiya!” may well be a dark and dangerous outsider. Surviving the elements is tough enough in Brainerd. Complicating life with inhumanity toward others is a sure recipe for self-destruction.
The most poignant illustration of this principle is a scene featuring Steve Buscemi’s character, whose world has gone completely to hell. He has been badly wounded in a ransom drop gone very wrong. He is on the run, loaded down with money, and has no safe place to hide it. At random, he picks a snow-covered spot by the roadside, indistinguishable from any other as far as the eye can see. Searching in vain for a landmark to help him find the spot later, he jams a red windshield scraper into the frozen ground and hits the road. Neither he nor the audience can seriously believe he will ever see that money again.
Gorky Park (dir. Michael Apted, 1983)
David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago is both an epic and a classic – something the director of such other films as Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge On The River Kwai managed an astonishing number of times in his career. One of the movie’s particular distinctions is being one of the coldest, snowiest pictures ever made. And indeed it is. Yet there is another story of Russian intrigue, a far more bleak and sordid one, which packs nearly as much miserable winter atmosphere into a significantly shorter running time. Michael Apted’s Gorky Park, a tale of gruesome murder and dirty money in Soviet Moscow, sets most of its important scenes out in the bitter cold. William Hurt plays Arkady Renko, a militsiya investigator who begins to suspect KGB involvement in a bizarre triple homicide. Digging deeper, he starts to think he has been set up to take the fall in a case that nobody really wants solved.
Almost every line of dialogue in the film is visible, because everyone’s breath fogs (often indoors as well as out). The script makes a number of pointed references to the constant cold, reflecting the general pessimism that afflicts every character. When asked by the lovely Joanna Pacula whether she should sleep with a man for a new pair of boots, Renko grimly jokes that “winter is almost over.” One gets the feeling that winter is never over in a place like this. Everybody has a permanent case of cabin fever. Distrust is the prevailing motivation for all the intrigue, violence, and betrayal. As Renko says later, “I suspect everyone.” Besides him and his love interest, the cast mainly consists of grizzled, sinister-looking men – Brian Dennehy, Lee Marvin, Ian Bannen, and Ian McDiarmid – who look as though they should be working on the Death Star. Small wonder that McDiarmid played the Emperor in Return Of The Jedi that same year.
If you want a mystery for a grim winter’s day, look no further. Gorky Park has all the seedy twists and turns of Chinatown, blanketed in a moody winter frost that only freezes deeper and harder as the truth unfolds.
The Thing (dir. John Carpenter, 1982)
“Five minutes is enough to put a man over down here.” So says one character at the beginning of John Carpenter’s The Thing. When “here” is a research station in Antarctica, that’s certainly true in the best of conditions. But with a hard winter about to descend and untold horrors from outer space buried in the ice nearby, the chance of a peaceful season approaches absolute zero.
Kurt Russell, Keith David, and Wilford Brimley lead a cast of working-class heroes trapped in seriously deadly conditions. The falling temperature soon makes any time spent outside a risky prospect. Meanwhile, the base has been infiltrated by a vicious alien that wants to consume them all, and hides by taking the form of whatever it ate last. In other words, the monster can look just like any of them, and soon nobody knows who can be trusted. Before long the guns and flamethrowers are out and ready, and fights break out over who gets to be party leader. The breakdown of trust and authority in this film is an expert study in fear, as Carpenter paints a fascinating portrait of human behavior under strain. In no time at all these scientists are circling each other like angry dogs, waiting for a chance to defend themselves.
In most horror and suspense scenarios, one option the characters usually ignore is just getting the hell out of the house. However, the winter weather of Antarctica eliminates this choice just when it seems like the only chance for survival. Snow and wind become catalysts for major suspense. As the tension among the characters burns ever hotter, it becomes more and more apparent what a small space they have been forced to share. With deadly weather outside, and a lethal combination of alien and fellow man inside, this movie brings new levels of meaning to the word “stranded.”
In a situation like this, the strong have no option but to fight, and the weak have no choice but to hide where they can. Finding out who’s who is the fun part.
Ski School (dir. Damian Lee, 1990)
Ah, Ski School… How I love you.
Ski School hails from that period when the sexy theatrical comedies of the 1980’s turned into the sexy “late night on Cinemax” comedies of the 1990’s. Production values dwindled (moreso), the writing got lazier and the sexiness was no longer fun… it was mandatory. Ski School, my favorite comedy of this particular era, straddles that thin line between straight-to-video sexploitation and hilarious comedy. It’s highly entertaining, genuinely funny, and only occasionally really, really sleazy.
The proof is in the pudding, and for the purposes of this conversation the pudding is none other than Dean Cameron. 1980’s icon Dean Cameron doesn’t make bad movies, just movies that need a little more love than the rest. He’s like a horticulturalist specializing in those little baby trees from “The Charlie Brown Christmas Special.” Connoisseurs know that the presence of Dean Cameron means even the weirdest (Rockula) or most lowbrow productions (Miracle Beach) will have a likable protagonist who can not only carry a film but turn even the dorkiest joke into a timeless zinger for the ages. My brother and I may not agree on much, but thanks to Ski School we can always look at each other and say, simultaneously, “Payback. Yes, I think so!”
Ski School is one of those skiing movies lampooned so memorably on “South Park,” in which the cool partygoing kids are constantly picked on by the rich boring kids, the bad guy’s girlfriends are inevitably seduced by the heroes, and most importantly the whole thing ends with a skiing competition for “control of the mountain” or whatever. What sets Ski School apart from the competition is the standout chemistry between Cameron and his co-star Stuart Fratkin. (They would go on to star in the memorable but short-lived comedy series “They Came From Outer Space,” also recommended.) Their good-natured charm combined with some particularly unexpected writing – not many skiing movies flashback to the ancient origins of the Lambada (“That’s the forbidden dance!”) – compensate for a particularly tacked-on plotline with the hunky but underwritten Tom Bresnahan (Twice Dead) sleeping with an actress actually willing to get naked, presumably just to meet some kind of obligatoryt naughtiness quota.
Rent the movie, ignore the sleaze, and enjoy the fun this winter. “Snowballs! Get your red hot snowballs!”
Batman Returns (dir. Tim Burton, 1992)
Batman Returns is a wonderful movie, and still one of the best superhero flicks ever produced, but damn it… it’s just not very Christmasy. Which is only odd because Batman Returns is actually set at Christmastime, when Tim Burton’s Gotham City is covered in layer after layer of snow. The result is a color palette so monochromatic it would practically be black and white were it not for the occasional Christmas decoration littering Burton’s bleak landscapes with just the faintest hint of hope and cheer.
Batman Returns is a film of many contrasts, and what was for years the grimmest and grittiest superhero action-adventure ever played gloriously against the chipper backdrop of the happiest time of the year. The cold weather matched the depressing takes on popular characters (Catwoman lashing out after falling victim to a murderous “man’s world,” The Penguin lashing out at a world that turned against him as a deformed baby). Christmas harkened to the film’s themes about unloved children and absentee parents. This movie had McDonald’s tie-ins for heaven’s sake. It’s brilliant, but it’s also really depressing stuff.
The freezing weather is ubiquitous but never much of a plotpoint. (Although I imagine it must have been rather nippy in Michelle Pfeiffer’s cat suit.) It mostly boils down to a wonderful exchange between Batman and Catwoman: “You know, mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it…” “But a kiss can be even deadlier.” Somehow Batman finds the darkness behind an innocent Christmas tradition, while Catwoman finds darkness in the kiss itself. Very clever stuff in a very clever movie. And most importantly, rocket penguins.
Batmen Returns has rocket penguins. Best. Winter Movie. Ever.
Cliffhanger (dir. Renny Harlin, 1993)
Renny Harlin gets picked on a lot these days (although he was kind of asking for it with The Covenant, which was… well, let’s just call it “bad” and leave it at that), but let’s not forget that the man has directed some very good movies in his time. Die Hard 2: Die Harder has its fans, not that I’m one of them, but Deep Blue Sea is a bona fide B-Movie classic, The Long Kiss Goodnight is a total blast and 2009’s 12 Rounds was a rollicking piece of action movie entertainment that most people neglected just because it starred John Cena. But his best movie, by far, remains the exceptional Sylvester Stallone vehicle Cliffhanger… which stands alongside Speed, Executive Decison and Sudden Death as one of the best “Die Hard in a Blank” movies ever made.
Cliffhanger is “Die Hard on a Mountain.” It stars Sylvester Stallone, who also co-wrote the screenplay, as Gabe Walker, a mountain-climbing expert who, in one of the most vertigo-inducing scenes in film history, tries to rescue some stranded climbers and accidentally gets one of them killed. A year or so goes by and Gabe, still traumatized by his failure, returns home to see his ex-girlfriend. Before long, unexpected tragedy strikes and he’s called to action for a dangerous rescue mission. The only problem: the rescuees are dangerous criminals who kidnap Gabe and his partner Hal (Michael Rooker, always good) and force them to be their guides. The money they stole in a daring mid-air plane heist has fallen to various spots around the cliffsides, and they need experts to procure it.
Naturally, it’s up to Gabe to save the day using his sweet mountaineering skills without getting all the hostages murdered by John Lithgow, in his best villain role outside of Raising Cain. He’s a funny but very dangerous man, John Lithgow is, and the presence of a charismatic villain helps raise Cliffhanger about the usual action-movie tripe that Hollywood trotted out in the wake of Die Hard’s success. Also helping is a smart and well-structured script and a bevy of thrilling set pieces that milk the freezing and skyscraping locations for all they’re worth. This is a very strong action movie, and it’s aged unusually well for its era.