Producer's Blog

Our Top Ten Favourite Winter-Set Horror Films

Our Top Ten Favourite Winter-Set Horror Films

In anticipation of our first feature-length film, COLD WIND BLOWING, we decided to post a countdown of our favourite Winter-set horror films. There really isn't any season more inherently spooky than the haunting danger that a brisk winter night presents, and each of the below films relish in the atmosphere that a sprinkling of drifting snow provides. Take a look below to see Dionne and I's ten favourite Winter horror films!

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10) FROZEN (Dir. Adam Green)

Having skied my whole life, this film brings to life a nightmare I’ve had on several occasions. Stuck on a chairlift at the end of the ski season, three friends are forced to find a way off the mountain—and then a pack of wolves shows up. This film works for its likeable group of characters, who are forced to make increasingly risky and unfortunate decisions as the night drags on. The performances and cinematography really work to make the audience feel the blistering cold of the mountain air, and it's because of that tangible Winter atmosphere that this film opens our list.

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9) MISERY (Dir. Rob Reiner)

Kathy Bates is amazing as the villain in one of the rare times that the film adaptation may have outdid the original book. Like most films on this list, the central action is reserved to one location out in the winter wilderness, and the exterior cold is only one of many obstacles preventing our hero’s escape. Rob Reiner is perhaps the reigning king of King adaptations, and Misery is possibly the best filmed version of a King horror story. ("I wouldn't go that far, my choice would be Carrie!" -Dionne)

8) I SAW THE DEVIL (Dir. Kim Jee-woon)

This might be the best that snow has ever looked on camera, with the Winter setting so integral to the film’s style that just watching the film makes you feel cold. The serial killer plot turned cat and mouse game is also more fresh and thrilling here than it has been in most films post-Silence of the Lambs, albeit this leads to an incredibly dark film that requires space between rewatches. 

7) TALES FROM THE CRYPT: AND ALL THROUGH THE HOUSE (Season 1, Episode 2 – Dir. Robert Zemeckis) 

"Although not a movie, my love for Tales from the Crypt runs deep and I couldn’t, in good conscience, leave this episode off the list of my favourite winter set scares. A simple premise, a woman murders her husband on Christmas Eve, all the while an escaped maniac in a Santa costume stalks her around her property trying to get into the house and at her young daughter. It’s a fun 22 minutes of stalking and slashing punctuated by the Crypt Keeper’s signature puns and if you’re looking for something to whet your appetite for the Holiday Horror season, I recommend starting off with this to get you in festive spirits." -Dionne

6) PONTYPOOL (Dir. Bruce McDonald)

The most creative take on the zombie film in its post-genre revival, this one-location Canadian horror story follows one night in the studio with a radio disc jockey as unknowable events begin to occur outside. Although it's entirely interiors, the space of the station still feels hauntingly cold and isolated, with an atmosphere so suffocating that you feel like you’re trapped there with the characters. It’s chilling isolationist Canadian horror done in the way that only us Canadians know how.

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5) THE THING (Dir. John Carpenter)

The reason that The Thing works so damn well is the time that Carpenter takes to familiarize the audience with his characters before all hell breaks loose. The first portion of the film is made up of small moments in which the limited cast of characters waste time against the backdrop of a timeless eternal Winter. You like pretty much everyone in this movie, which makes each surprising death all the more painful and the isolation of the arctic that much more vast. The body horror effects are also obviously unmatched by any other film, although it’s Carpenter’s subtle directorial touches and the memorable characters that have made it a lasting classic.

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4) WOLF’S CHALET (Dir. Věra Chytilová)

A group of ten teenage students are invited to a retreat at a remote mountain chalet, but eleven students arrive at the peak of the mountain. What progresses is a psychological onslaught of adolescent torment as the chalet’s supervisors tell the students to out the intruder. The film only gets crazier from there, and the cinematography relishes in the bitterly cold environment that the unfortunate students find themselves in. Not entirely unlike a revisioning of The Thing but with teenagers, underrated master of Czech cinema Věra Chytilová presents a chilling tale of paranoia and isolation that is an unknown gem of Winter-set horror cinema.

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3) GINGER SNAPS 2: UNLEASHED (Dir. Brett Sullivan)

A follow-up to my favourite Canadian horror film, Ginger Snaps, in some ways the sequel delivers better horror than the original. The atmosphere is more fully realized as Emily Perkins’ character finds herself locked in an institution and forced to come up with creative and deeply unsettling solutions to her lycanthropy problem. Katherine Isabelle even returns to mock our hero’s attempts, while a young Tatiana Maslany plays a haunted teenager with a disturbing backstory. The film eventually leads to a freezing cold Straw Dogs with werewolves, which is the best possible climax for a creature feature.

2) WENDIGO (Dir. Larry Fessenden)

"If it were not for the sentimentality I hold for Black Christmas, then Wendigo would be number one on my list. This is a master class in film-as-character study, with incredible performances and superb writing. This is far and away the most atmospheric film on the list and a film I force everyone I know to watch when they come over to my house (then I judge them on whether or not they cried). It's also filled to the brim with stylistic flourishes, and as a filmmaker I'm left shaking my head at how they could have pulled off some of the unforgettable shots in this film. Larry Fessenden is the master of all things Wendigo and this film, for me, cements his place as a horror auteur, with his ability to evoke emotion and terror without relying on shocks to tell a story." -Dionne

1) BLACK CHRISTMAS (Dir. Bob Clark)

"My best friend, Jessoa, and I have been celebrating our own Christmas since we were eleven years old on every December 23rd. We binge on snacks, exchange gifts, and watch horror movies (sometimes we get food poisoning and fall asleep on the bathroom floor, but only if we’re really lucky). In 2007, I brought a copy of the original Black Christmas for us to enjoy. As seasoned horror fans, there’s very little that scares us, but this was an exception that made us scream out loud and sleep with the lights on, not to mention every single year we forget that Billy is hiding behind the door. The sound design is superb, including the haunting use of Christmas music to invoke terror. This is also the best example of the classic ‘the calls are coming from inside the house’ plot (see the clip below for the first phone call). Black Christmas is also a brilliant Canadian-set female-lead story, making it not only my number one Winter-set film, but my favourite film of all time.” -Dionne

Sorry, but "Post-horror" is just another unnecessary elitist label

Sorry, but "Post-horror" is just another unnecessary elitist label

From It Comes at Night to A Ghost Story, a new breed of horror is creeping into the multiplex, replacing jump-scares with existential dread. We talk to the auteurs breaking all the rules.
— Steve Rose, The Guardian
A Ghost Story (A24)

A Ghost Story (A24)

Let me describe a few scenes from a movie to you. A deranged maniac cuts off another man's face and wears it. A serial killer abducts women and makes a suit out of their skin. The killer stalks the “final girl” in a pitch-black basement and she uses her cunning to take him down. Gore, stalking, murder, darkness, and an overall atmosphere of disturbing visuals and set-pieces would make you think that this 1991 classic were a horror film, but you might be surprised that it would be found in a different genre category on Netflix: Psychological Thriller.

As The Silence of the Lambs was poised to win an outstanding number of Academy Awards, it being a prestige picture and all it certainly couldn't be lumped in with the much maligned horror genre. Let us not forget that by the late 80s to early 90s horror wasn't exactly in good critical standing, with most of the previously consistent masters of horror making what at the time were considered some of their most derivative works (and if it wasn't a retread of familiar territory like Shocker [1989] then it was too narratively weird or experimental to reach a critical consensus, such as with Prince of Darkness [1987]). With the perceived decline in quality throughout the horror genre came with it a lack of critical respect, as gone were the days that capital-H Horror films such as The Exorcist (1973) could deserve a Best Picture Nomination. So, that's how we get the separation that now classifies every serial killer picture as a Psychological Thriller, as no longer could a horror film feature the proper prestigious intellectualism of the Hannibal Lector-type killer (which left an admittedly confusing line between genres when “torture-porn” emerged as a style post-Abu Ghraib). So let's not mention that smart killers have taunted their prey in countless horror films pre-Silence of the Lambs, albeit I will admit that few do match Anthony Hopkins' charm. The important point to take away from this is that at the beginning of the 1990s, with critics completely baffled by the abundance of schlocky and gory slasher films, the gatekeepers of cinema decided to uphold a new generic classification in order to justify their praise of The Silence of the Lambs (and other similarly prestigious horror films; I challenge you to look at the "Psychological Thriller" category on Netflix without getting mad).

The Silence of the Lambs (Orion Pictures)

The Silence of the Lambs (Orion Pictures)

“Post-horror” is the 2017 equivalent of Psychological Thriller. With the release of films such as It Comes at Night (2017), The Witch (2016), and Get Out (2017), insecure film critics once again need to exorcise the feelings of conflict they feel for liking horror movies. Adjusting to the post-video store era has left horror filmmakers in a state of perplexing limbo as not only do none of the 80s tricks seem to work anymore (nudity and blood, specifically), but remakes aren't particularly doing gangbusters either. So what we are seeing now is a lot of minimal* horror that breaks with not only the gore-porn trend of the 2000s, but also steers clear of the themes and iconography of the post-housing collapse Suburban white family horror movies that continue to be mostly successful, with the Paranormal Activity franchise (2007-2015) concluding while The Conjuring (2013) cinematic universe expands its tentacles into multiple properties (*since this is a discussion of semantics, I emphasize that I am not using the word “minimalist”). In short, the economics of modern cinema means that we are getting a lot of horror movies that are more about people talking in a room and building atmosphere than the iconic final girl running from a lumbering stalker.

The linking tissue which connects It Comes at Night, The Witch, and Get Out encompasses both thematic and aesthetic qualities. All three films share narratives which rely on the pride and ideology of an oppressive patriarchal-figure, rely on dream sequences to deliver the spring-loaded-cats (jump-scares), and all have that indie film™ “I'm too cool for artificial lighting”-look. They emerge from the same universal (re: American) anxieties that have been the focus of horror films post-WWII, however lensed through our immediate populist political discussions gripping the world (once again, let's not forget that movies like The Thing (1981) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956/1978) discussed these themes within their own political climates as well). Most horror films deal with populist themes, and as Robin Wood defined the horror monsters of the 1970s, the themes of horror films always dwell in the return of what the mainstream has repressed. That's what helps to make horror films so universal, is that they take their material from what creeps under the bed of our collective conscious. The Witch is the same kind of commentary on female adolescent rebellion and the abject monstrous feminine that Barbara Creed discussed in regards to Carrie (1976) and The Exorcist, and It Comes at Night finds parallels to the mistrust over clashing ideologies faced by the characters in Night of the Living Dead (1968).

The Night of the Living Dead

The Night of the Living Dead

In Steve Rose's article he singles out how the “post-horror” film is a reaction against the profitable mainstream, and celebrates how a movie like It Comes At Night is influenced by the critic-approved cinema of Polanski and Kubrick. Of course, The Shining (1980), Rosemary's Baby (1968), and Don't Look Now (1973) are not simple Horror movies, they are “similar exercises in refashioning horror tropes with an auteur sensibility.” This gatekeeping upsets me, as does Rose's pot-shots towards discontent moviegoers who likely expected to see a James Wan-type screamer and instead got long takes of the New England countryside. Auteur-driven does not automatically signal good horror film, and I love how a selection of Horror's genre-defining cinema have the fact that they are Horror movies downplayed by his statement; the only reason that those films are elevated from being just another bad studio horror movie is that they are “well-resourced studio horror” directed by the likes of Polanski, Kubrick, and Roeg (weren't there great independent horror movies made by newcomer directors with minimal resources and slow pacing back then as well? Halloween [1978]? Black Christmas [1974]? Val Lewton Productions [1942-1946]?). Rose goes on to say that “There will always be a place for movies that reacquaint us with our primal fears and frighten the bejesus out of us. But when it comes to tackling the big, metaphysical questions, the horror framework is in danger of being too rigid to come up with new answers – like a dying religion. Lurking just beyond its cordon is a vast black nothingness, waiting for us to shine a light into it.” I could go on to list movies that absolutely challenge his take on rigidity (and thankfully Nia Edwards-Behi and Nathan Steinmetz‏ did a lot of that work already), but there is certainly a history of Horror films which have tackled metaphysical questions long before A Ghost Story (2017) (Altered States [1980], The Ninth Configuration (1980), Jacob's Ladder [1991], and Pulse [2001] immediately spring to mind).

Altered States (Warner Bros.)

Altered States (Warner Bros.)

Horror is one of the least rigid, most undefinable genres. Genre theorists like Thomas Schatz and Rick Altman admitted that horror is one of the loosest generic classifications in that it adheres to no concrete syntax or iconography. Horror films are united purely by their intent (to scare their audience) and by the audience's ritual of going to the theatre to be scared. Generic facets of semantic and syntactic theory act like a duality between linguistic and textual elements (the word and its meaning), however horror's theoretical framework is incredibly difficult to pin down, unlike that of the musical which uses the language of musical numbers to express populist themes or Westerns which use Western iconography to express Western themes in Western settings. Film genres are not platonic categories and do not exist outside of time, since an audience reveals its desires through the films it watches, thus informing the particular satisfaction of desires that Hollywood puts into its films, so genres evolve as the tastes of audiences change. That's why Shane (1953) and No Country For All Men (2007) are both Westerns and Moulin Rouge (2001) and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) are both Musicals. But yeah, horror is by no means one of the more rigid generic classifications (I would argue that it's the least so) and genres obviously must evolve to stay relevant to audiences (and you don't need to create a whole new “post-” to emphasize that observation). By that count, please cut audiences a break for not “getting” It Comes At Night or The Witch because movies like The Thing and Videodrome (1983) weren't exactly major sensations when they came out either (and those are films that scream out a generic evolution). Sometimes genres evolve faster than their audience and sometimes it's the reverse, but let's try to shy away from elite attitudes when an audience doesn't immediately embrace something a little different than they're accustomed to.

Now that I've exhausted everything I can say about Rose's article (and I don't even want to go in on how “Asian Minimalist auteurs” like Tsai Ming Liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul have little place in this conversation because that opens up a whole other semantic can of worms that I could go on about for another essay), let me get around to being a little bit constructive within this whole mess of genre theory nonsense. What I primarily rejected in Rose's article was his overall tone of condescension, which to me speaks to a history of critics who refuse to accept that horror films can be art without adding special labels. I also object to the pretentious attitude of “these films aren't for the mainstream horror fan,” because outstanding horror films have been embraced not only by the horror fans in question, but also by mainstream audiences that have turned horror movies into cultural sensations (re: The Exorcist, Halloween, Hitchcock's oeuvre). I love horror films because they get to be one of the most unforgivingly unpretentious genres, with room for everyone's stories and a space for every type or taste of filmmaker. Horror is inarguably the most diverse genre (which is why it's so much fun to discuss in these contexts!). So, to be fair to Rose's original intent, I'll add some generic discussion of my own, but instead of using a reductive term like “post-horror,” let's instead use a classic like “post-modern horror.”

Scream (Dimension Films)

Scream (Dimension Films)

Post-modern Horror was what “saved” the genre back in the days when Carpenter was making In the Mouth of Madness (1994) and Hooper was making The Mangler (1995) (both remarkably weird and original films that are arguably good Horror films, in hindsight). Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson re-aligned audiences with the Horror genre in 1996 with Scream, which is the most clear representation of post-modern horror. Filmic post-modernism is characterized by empty references to past films, looser or self-aware genre conventions and generic bleed-through, globalization, and treating style as substance, among many other things which can be observed in films from directors like P. T. Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Lars von Trier, and Wong Kar Wai, to name a few. Horror films in the vein of Scream, Slither (2006), and Behind the Mask (2006) are easiest to recognize as post-modern because they come straight out with their playful knowledge of generic tradition and an eagerness to subvert the audience's expectations; in order to evolve the horror genre to meet the sensibilities of a modern viewer, a film like Scream shows through empty citation that it is as smart as its audience. That isn't where the post-modern horror classification ends though, as more minimal and subdued films like The House of the Devil (2009), Wendigo (2001), Open Water (2003), All The Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006), Ju-on (2002), The Blair Witch Project (1999), Trouble Every Day (2001), The Sixth Sense (1999), Amer (2009), A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), and Maniac (2012), as diverse as they are, all encompass the tenets of post-modern horror with their attention to empty citation, aesthetic preoccupations, narrative re-structuring, and generic play.

It Comes At Night, A Ghost Story (2017), and The Witch (as well as other recent critical darlings like It Follows [2014], Get Out, The Love Witch [2016], and The Babadook [2014]) fall in line behind a twenty-year history of post-modern horror, and in my opinion, it's really only because A24 is behind those three films and that they have that indie artsy look to them that an article like this post-horror one was even written. A24 is doing awesome stuff and giving young filmmakers the chance to make really contemplative horror movies that are getting wide releases (which is spectacular!!). But let's not pretend that this is breaking new ground, because it's really just a base standard that we should be holding all film studios to: treating horror films like a worthy genre and allowing filmmakers to have vision. In that same breath, we should hold critics to a similar standard: please discuss horror films as a serious and deserving genre, and for the love of cinema please stop creating new elitist labels for the horror films you like. Surprise, if you like horror movies then you are probably a horror fan! And that's not a bad thing.

The Witch (A24)

The Witch (A24)

written by turner stewart