Sunday March 20 is the first day of spring, but it also seems that winter is making a last stand in the northeast, a last sheet of snow and ice likely to blanket many parts of the region.
In honor of winter’s likely last resurgence, I’ve made a list of five horror films set in frozen landscapes that you may not have heard about—and that are all really worth watching. It’s a beyond-The- Shining-and-beyond-The-Thing list—for all those who love the harsh bleakness, the existential desolation, of those snow-blasted films.
-1. The Last Winter, directed by Larry Fessenden (2006)
I wrote a short post a while ago on The Last Winter as eco-horror [http://www.horrorhomeroom.com/the-revenge-of-fossil-fuel/], as driven by the revenge of an exploited nature, and particularly by our ravaging of the land for fossil fuel. The film takes place in a camp in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge where a group of oil company representatives are working with environmentalists on procedures for extracting oil. Soon, though, members of the group start suffering hallucinations and dying. At first it seems like it might be a form of cabin fever, or possibly a virus, but soon characters theorize that the “ghost of fossil fuels” may finally be punishing their rapacious species. The film does a great job of portraying the claustrophobia and paranoia of life in the arctic camp—as well as the seemingly supernatural phenomena that eventually erupt.
-2. Cold Prey, directed by Roar Uthaug (2006)
Uthaug recently brought us the exceptional first disaster film out of Norway, The Wave (2015)—and his earlier slasher film, Cold Prey is a horror gem. In fact, it’s near the top of my list of best European horror films. The plot is pure formula slasher, following five friends on a snowboarding expedition in the mountains. When one of them breaks his leg, they seek refuge in an abandoned hotel, only to discover it may not be completely abandoned. Cold Prey features likeable characters, a great “final girl” in Jannicke (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), and a killer with an intriguing backstory. It also offers strikingly beautiful landscape shots as Jannicke fights for her life. This slasher does absolutely everything right: it’s one of those rare films that follows a formula and yet does so with such style and skill that you’ll remain enthralled to the end.
-3. Dead Snow, directed by Tommy Wirkola (2009)
Dead Snow is another great Norwegian horror film. It’s that variant on the slasher—the cabin in the woods horror film, except it’s set in the mountains, not the woods. And the group of teens is beset by zombies—Nazi zombies, no less—not a psycho-killer. While the film, like Cold Prey, is pure formula, it offers (also like Cold Prey) real and likeable (not throw-away) characters. But mostly this film is interesting because it directly evokes the history of Norway’s occupation by Nazis during World War II. While Cold Prey presents a threat to young people that arises from an individual trauma, embodied in one damaged individual, Dead Snow features a collective trauma. In both films, the past doesn’t stay past, but rather thrusts itself into the present with deadly consequences. Dead Snow’s shots of Nazis bursting from the frozen ground is a brilliant, literal rendition of how the present remains in thrall to a horrifying history. (And I have to add that The Last Winter fits this pattern too, with its spectacular punishment of humans for past sins.) Dead Snow is streaming on Netflix.
-4. Frozen, directed by Adam Green (2010)
Frozen is an example of how terrifying a simple, pared-down horror narrative can be. Three friends are trapped on a ski lift after a ski resort closes early due to an oncoming blizzard. Once they realize what’s happened, they struggle with what to do, whether to risk their lives by jumping or stay and wait for help. One of them does jump, and not only does he horribly damage himself but wolves appear. The tension in this film is often unbearable—as are the choices the characters have to make when confronted not with inhuman killers or zombies but with forces of relatively mundane nature. The performances of all three actors (Emma Bell, Shawn Ashmore, and Keven Zegers) make this film both believable and devastating.
-5. Force Majeure, directed by Ruben Östlund (2014)
Force Majeure is a brilliant film, and while it is not a horror film, I would argue that the central defining scene of the film is horrifying. Like the other films in this post, Force Majeure involves a group of people heading into snowy regions: in this case, a Swedish family heads to the French Alps for a skiing vacation. As in the other films, the “group” (family) is threatened—experiencing, close to the middle of the film, what seems to be an avalanche. What happens in the face of this threat is where the existential and very human horror of this film emerges. Like much in horror film, things are repressed, but denial always reaches its limits. As in Frozen, characters in Force Majeure must make (do make) chilling decisions in situations that are very real, not shaped by supernatural monsters—and we see instincts for survival vie with the “better angels” of human nature. Force Majeure is streaming on Netflix, and it’s one of the most thought-provoking films I’ve seen in the last couple of years.