When folks say they love winter, typically they refer to the earliest months of the season, with winter beginning on Dec. 21 in the northern hemisphere. In those early days of holiday cheer, there is something familiar and comforting about the cold. But eventually the bright lights go away, and the wind howls louder. Eventually, all you’re left with is icy darkness.
Perhaps that’s why so many of the best horror movies are set during the winter season! Utilizing folks’ fear of barren bleakness, and the tedium of being trapped inside becoming lethal, filmmakers who run the gamut from Stanley Kubrick to John Carpenter have imprinted our worst nightmares onto the snow. Below is a list of their frozen works.
30 Days of Night (2007)
They have lived in shadows long enough. They are the last of their kind. But above the Arctic Circle there’s a party going on, and the main attraction is Vampires on Ice in this snowbound gorefest. For these are no mere arctic performers, the vampires of 30 Days of Night embrace the an old school brutality we haven’t seen since Nosferatu. All long claws and sadistic, cruel stares, there is nothing seductive to these demons. They’re as cold as death itself, and for the 30 days when northern Alaska is plunged into darkness every year, they are going to feast.
It’s in this context we meet Sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett). Despite being charged with the safety of his town, he quickly is reduced to trying to save at least his estranged wife Stella (Melissa George) from cretin who have turned his neighbors into cattle at a slaughterhouse. One of the niftier ideas for a vampire movie, 30 Days of Night is a gushing blast, and as much fun as seeing a creature of the undead get thrown into a snow plow.
The Abominable Snowman (1957)
Known in the U.S. as The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas, this Hammer production came from the pen of the often brilliant Nigel Kneale, the writer behind the Quatermass series and other seminal works of British sci-fi. Adapted by Kneale himself from his BBC teleplay The Creature, the film stars Hammer staple Peter Cushing as a British scientist who joins an American expedition (led by Forrest Tucker of F-Troop fame) in search of the legendary Yeti.
What they find in the high, remote and ice cold regions of the Himalayas is a surprise that’s on par with the rest of Kneale’s often ambitious and cerebral sci-fi output: The Yeti are not monsters, but an intelligent species waiting patiently for humankind to destroy itself so that they can have the planet to themselves. Director Val Guest (the first two Quatermass films and The Day the Earth Caught Fire) captures the sharp characterizations and themes of Kneale’s script, but the movie suffers from a slow pace and a low budget that keeps its wintry locations stuck on a studio backlot. Still, it’s worth watching for Kneale’s story, Cushing, Tucker, and some atmospheric moments.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter
While certainly an acquired taste, Oz Perkins and A24’s The Blackcoat’s Daughter still feels underrated. A deliberate and brutally cruel mystery that waits nearly its whole running time to unfurl its depravity, the film is relentlessly bleak with one of the biggest gut-punch endings we’ve seen in the last decade.
The film follows two separate threads that will inevitably intersect. The first is that of Kat (Kiernan Shipka), a young lonely girl who has nowhere to go at her boarding school over holiday break. She thinks she’s found a connection with an older student named Rose (Lucy Boynton), who also has also elected to stay behind. But Rose has other things on her mind, including stories of occult witchcraft in the basement down below. Meanwhile a separate former student named Joan (Emma Roberts) is on her way to the same school… for reasons unknown.
The less you know about this the better its devastation plays.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
As a film that is actually set around almost an entire year—1897, to be exact—Francis Ford Coppola’s luscious and decadent chiller memorably concludes in the dead of winter when the snow is piling high. The film might be deceptively titled, but Bram Stoker’s Dracula is nevertheless a tour de force in old school film production, complete with Oscar winning costumes and makeup, and special effects resurrected straight out of the Vaudeville era. This includes its wintry wickedness too.
With only a single shot actually filmed in natural daylight, there is a heightened hysteria to the way Coppola conjures a stylized vision, including his third act snowstorm in the wilderness of Transylvania. As alluring as any other of the movie’s feverish dreamscapes, the white powder that falls on Winona Ryder and Anthony Hopkins’ cloaked heads never looks exactly real, yet is impossible not to find seductive with its painterly quality and rich cinematography. The lurid claustrophobia only grows as Ryder’s vampire-halfling momentarily ensnares Hopkins’ Van Helsing, and Van Helsing then in turn uses his actual sword while visiting Dracula’s Brides in their crypt. The effect is operatic and ponderous, and finally overwhelming as audiences are driven into the mania that pushes the vampire hunters and their prey during a climactic horse chase over icy mountains. It all leaves every character mad… and buried under an Eastern European cold that’s as enthralling as any vampire bite.
The Children (2008)
The idea of our very children turning against us is hardly a new one—it’s manifested in everything from Village of the Damned to Who Can Kill a Child? to The Good Son—but it was brought home in especially nasty fashion with this 2008 horror thriller directed by Tom Shankland (who has recently directed episodes of The Leftovers and The Punisher). Two sisters and their families get together at the elder sister’s secluded country home for Christmas, only for the children to begin turning against their parents in homicidal fashion, forcing the adults to fight for their lives, even as they grapple with the idea of killing their own offspring.
The film’s holiday backdrop, normally a respite for families, is ironically turned into a festival of death as the tots find macabre ways to off their parents. It’s never really explained what turns the kids into literal little monsters (there are suggestions of some kind of infection early on), but what gives The Children an extra twist of the knife is the exploration of the parental urge to defend one’s own kids, even in the face of their worst possible behavior. Tautly written and directed and genuinely disturbing, The Children will leave you chilled in ways that have nothing to do with its winter setting.
Dead Snow (2009)
Snow and Nazi zombies. Do you really need to know more? Tommy Wirkola’s film is heavy on style and completely absent of anything resembling substance, but in the long nights of deep chill, who is looking for anything too meaty in their entertainment? Thus enters Dead Snow, a gonzo horror movie in which Third Reich, goose-stepping ghouls parade around a Norwegian mountain cabin that is ostensibly for skiing, yet primarily exists to provide the zombies with a fresh stream of meat to devour. You see them eat, machine gun, and slice humans who in turn get to use all manner of World War II tech against the hordes of corpses who seem inexplicably less scary in death than they did in life. For those who just like mayhem, complete with some Edvard Grieg music to class things up upon occasion, this is hard to beat.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Stanley Kubrick‘s final film is also the director’s most polarizing, yet hypnotic picture. Eyes Wide Shut is a stunning plummet down the rabbit hole of fidelity and the limits of romance and trust, as Tom Cruise’s Bill Harford experiences the craziest night of his life. This film may be notorious due to its raucous orgy scenes, but those same set-pieces are also master classes in tension and suspense. Kubrick doesn’t shy away from Bill’s lurid journey. The performances also hit a little harder when then-married Cruise and Nicole Kidman are the ones who bring this central (and frustrated) couple-in-crisis to life.
Eyes Wide Shut might not initially seem like the most winter-centric film, but Kubrick uses the season as a thematic sounding board. Elements like Christmas trees are meticulously placed and Kubrick perverts the symbol for his own pleasures, all while the universal beige of winter weather gnaws at its hero with as much indifference as so many masked naked bodies. Also, that Chris Isaak song cannot be beat.
Adam Green has gone on to make a career out of franchise slashers thanks to his cult-popular Hatchet series, but he’s never been better than in this humble horror film, Frozen (note: not the one with Anna and Elsa). Here’s the setup: Three people get stuck on a ski lift at a resort that’s closed for the weekend. That’s it. The film does a beautiful job as it explores the futility of this situation. Every conceivable escape plan is considered, and it’s devastating to see that these aren’t stupid characters, they’re just stuck in an impossible scenario.
Frozen excels at small character moments and relationship drama, but what this film does best is make you feel cold. The film is a constant reminder of how much it sucks to be stuck out in subzero temperatures. There’s a certain scene that involves someone falling asleep with their face on cold metal and if it doesn’t make you cringe, then you’re simply not human. Frozen makes the most out of a minimalist situation and completely delivers.
The Invisible Man (1933)
Every year in Brooklyn, the Polar Bear Club strips down to swimming trunks to take a dip in the frigid waters off Coney Island. Across the pond, in the Lion’s Head Inn in the English village of Iping, Dr. Jack Griffin does them one better. He doesn’t just unwrap his scarf. He fully exposes himself to elements cold enough to freeze the icicles off an Eskimo. Released in 1933, The Invisible Man was released before the Code, so when Claude Rains bares it all, he is truly out of sight.
Griffin went to the country to deal with seasonal depression in solitude. When he finally comes out of his shell, he gives the country bumpkins a bit of a shock, but his oh so subtle charm starts to win them over. He even frolics with Una O’Connor, and leaves behind a nice bedtime story.
The eeriest thing about Lamb is how seriously, and even pleasantly, it treats its premise: After Christmas Eve, two lonely and grieving sheep farmers (Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason) make a horrible discovery. Something has impregnated one of their livestock with a creature that is half-human and half-lamb. And in her own personal despair, Rapace’s Maria makes the unnatural choice to raise this creature as her own.
Director and co-writer Valdimar Jóhannsson treats this as an Icelandic folktale, which is perhaps why instead of veering toward the conventions of horror, Maria’s household is the image of domestic bliss. But the longer the movie plays, and the older their lamb child gets, the tighter the knot in your stomach will turn.
The Last Winter (2006)
As the last and most expansive of four highly personal horror films written and directed by maverick film entrepreneur Larry Fessenden (whose Glass Eye Pix has been a bastion of off-the-grid indie filmmaking for more than three decades), The Last Winter features Fessenden’s most overtly topical story, as well as his first Hollywood-name cast. Ron Perlman, James LeGros, and Connie Britton work on an oil drilling base in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where the gruff Perlman is interested only in getting the black gold out of the ground while LeGros and Britton are tasked with keeping the operation in line environmentally. A series of strange occurrences, however, begin to chip away at the minds and lives of the crew and soon lead to a realization that nature itself may be seeking vengeance on humanity.
Like The Thing (a clear influence, although the crafty Fessenden zigzags through others as well), The Last Winter benefits enormously from its massive and utterly flat Icelandic locations and the sense of isolation and emptiness they provide. The cold is also an ever-present threat, making us aware that nature can be a formidable danger even without manifesting itself as ancient, angry spirits.
Let the Right One In (2008) / Let Me In (2010)
These back-to-back adaptations of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel are fairly equally matched in heartbreaking tenderness and swirling snow. The original Swedish film is considered the all-time classic, and rightfully so. It made Let Me In possible, and reminisces about white blanketed, 1980s childhoods with longing and dread—and in a vision that far more intensely fears the threat of toxically violent bullies than it does its vampire anti-heroine Eli (Lina Leandersson). Yet its somewhat sweet, and somewhat sinister, romance between a lonely, awkward boy and a deceptively helpless vampire girl is given an extra dimension in Matt Reeves’ underrated American remake a few years later that starred Chloe Grace Moretz as the vampire child, Abby.
This is because Reeves added a Spielbergian quality to the visions of drifting ice, which made the story’s ultimately icy core that much more imposing. Also drawing on Alfred Hitchcock for the murders conducted by Abby’s caretaker (and the boy Owen’s Ghost of Christmas Future), the film’s scenes of human-inflicted violence have a more visceral terror—one that makes for a splashy red glow in the white snow.
No one likes being snowbound. Not only can you not leave the premises, you can’t even leave the house without threat of death. But what if there’s someone—or something—else in the house with you? Stanley Kubrick and Stephen King mined the idea to iconic effect in The Shining, but Severin Fiala and Veronica Franz (of Goodnight Mommy fame) make it fresh again with The Lodge.
The movie features a devastating performance by Riley Keough as Grace, the young, would-be stepmother to children Aiden (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh). After their father is unable to reach their holiday retreat because of a blizzard, Grace is alone with the kids who blame her for their parents’ divorce. But if their judging eyes weren’t enough, the (literal?) ghosts of Grace’s complicated past begin walking the halls with them.
Stephen King was so ahead of the curve that he accidentally invented a metaphor for the parasocial relationships on social media between artists and their fans nearly two decades before Facebook was a thing. And in Misery, that relationship gets physical after the vehicle of Paul Sheldon (James Caan) goes spinning off the road in a snowstorm. When he wakes up, he discovers is life was saved by an avid reader and super-fan named Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates). And Annie has ideas about how Paul’s next book in his popular series should end… and her comment section comes with a sledge hammer. Maybe she should’ve left him in the snow?
An obvious metaphor for the relationship of all writers with their readers, or any artist with an observer, Misery unsurprisingly leans toward the author’s perspective. And it’s captured with a darkly humorous tone by director Rob Reiner who likely could not even imagine the day when major multinational corporations would rewrite the entire plot of a nine-figure movie because of hashtags on Twitter.
The Thing (1982)
It’s lonely being a scientific research team at the very bottom of the planet, where you can freeze to death while taking the trash out. But that’s what life is like for the 12 men in The Thing stationed at an American outpost in Antarctica—men who suddenly find their laconic existence disrupted by the arrival of an alien organism with shape-changing abilities beyond any understanding. Thus our pack of a dozen chilly eccentrics and misanthropes are forced to defend the very world they’ve cut themselves off from.
So much has been written about Carpenter’s sci-fi/horror masterpiece that there is frankly little new ground to cover, but the setting (which comes straight from the original John W. Campbell Jr. novella, Who Goes There?) adds to the tension, paranoia, and dread that the director establishes early on. The endless expanse of white emptiness, the cold, hard ground crunching underneath the feet of the men, the flames glowing against the snow as an alien imposter is set on fire… the film wouldn’t work nearly as well if it was set on, say, a tropical island. In John Carpenter‘s The Thing, the Antarctic wasteland feels as vast and terrifying, and unknown as space itself.
The consumption of human flesh. There is something instinctual, or even spiritual, that innately tells all humans to abhor this morbidity. Not that this means everyone listens to those better angels. Indeed, Ravenous is an absolutely depraved delight as a horror-comedy about what happens when cannibalism becomes regimented. Indeed, the film combines the grisly nightmare of the Donner Party—the expedition to California that was forced to resort to cannibalism after getting trapped in the deep snows of the Sierra Nevada mountains—with exaggerated rumors of cannibalism among certain Native American tribes.
As the anti-Dances with Wolves, Guy Pearce’s Capt. John Boyd attempts to escape ugly memories of the Civil War out in a remote U.S. Cavalry outpost in the mid-19th century American West. It is there that a fellow officer named Col. Ives (Robert Carlyle) appears with a tale of wintertime murder and cannibalism. Yet when Pearce and other soldiers go to investigate what they think is a mere crime scene, what they discover is a much more heinous. For here is not a story of survival, but of spiritual violation, and quite literal soul food. Hence before the spring blooms, Pearce is going to have to face the need for hardy meals if he is to survive this winter. He might even blossom into something stronger as a result.
The Revenant (2015)
There are plenty who would say that Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant does not count as a horror movie. And those people are wrong. For here is the definitive film about the kind of brutal cold that digs so deep into your bones that you’ll forget what warmth ever felt like. It is an unrelenting, grueling tale of macabre survival, one in which different levels of nastiness are endured just by watching Leonardo DiCaprio waste away into frailty for this Oscar winning role which required swimming in actual frozen rivers, climbing naked into the carcass of a dead horse, and finding joy in the simplest whispers of a flame. It’s a film so obsessed with the horrors of wind chill that it moved its production to South America to maintain an authentic wintertime production during what is considered summer months in the northern hemisphere. The Revenant is defiantly sadistic in its lack of heat.
Well except for the sweaty breath of a grizzly bear mounted atop DiCaprio. It is a scene scarier than anything appearing in all the other films in this list, and it will haunt your dreams as assuredly as the snow crusting in DiCaprio’s beard.
The Shining (1980)
The weather outside is frightful. But the Overlook Hotel is so delightful. And since there is nowhere to go (or escape!), the Torrance family could stay there for the rest of their lives. And why not? There’s enough corn for six months of popping. They also have enough meat, milk, ice cream, and chocolate syrup to feed an army for a year. They even have Tang. Why, the stores are so stocked that Jack (Jack Nicholson) gets lost in the possibilities. He barely has time to take his son Danny (Danny Lloyd) for a spin in his Thiokol Spryte Snowcat or write.
When one of the worst blizzards in the history of the Rockies threatens to spoil a fun working vacation, Jack goes to bat for his family in The Shining. Who needs TV when every room in the historical hotel packs a new surprise? Jack is no dull boy, himself, cracking up his wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall) with one-liners sharp enough for The Tonight Show. After a spirited game of hide-and-seek tires out the brat, Jack attempts to put the kid on ice. Jack turns the lights way down low and enjoys a quiet moment to wait out the storm. He lets go of his workaholic ways and decides to let it snow.
Wind Chill (2007)
There’s something particularly unpleasant about sitting in a cold car in the middle of winter, especially if the vehicle won’t start or gets stuck in the snow. Wind Chill takes this idea to a claustrophobic, thoroughly unnerving extreme by stranding two college students (Emily Blunt and Ashton Holmes) on a deserted road at night, with Holmes’ ramshackle car lodged in a snowdrift. As if things aren’t creepy enough—Blunt soon realizes that Holmes may not be on the level—they face the prospect of freezing even as strange things begin to occur on the road outside the car.
Steven Katz’s minimalist script is character-driven and mostly cliché-free, while Gregory Jacobs (Magic Mike XXL) directs for maximum tension and atmosphere. Blunt is an engaging and intelligent presence in just her fourth feature film. Wind Chill is one of those “small” movies that kind of comes and goes in theaters (if it gets to theaters at all), but ends up being a very nice surprise if one catches it on cable or a streaming service, where these kinds of films can live and thrive.