There aren’t a lot of movies set in snowy climates, and even fewer set in the Arctic, so I had to loosen my definition, to include films that take place in any locations that existed above the snow line, or movies that were set during Winter.
An interesting aspect of these movies, isn’t just the setting’s effect on the plot, but the time period in which the movies occur. In wintry settings, most scenes are set at night, as in Let The Right One In, or specific times of the year, such as 30 Days of Night, when the sun doesn’t rise for a prolonged period of time. Night time scenes are always more effective in horror movies, because having the story take place in the dark, does at least half the work of inducing fear in the audience, and icy, snowy settings already produce a feeling of existential dread, and isolation.
Three of the most basic types of plots for most horror movies, is something I briefly discussed in one of my other posts about landscapes and settings. There is the horror that comes from Inside, from within, (i.e. possession movies, which also include alien possession, body snatching, body horror. This includes psychological, emotional, drug and hallucinatory horror), the horror that comes from Outside the self, (monster movies, slasher films, alien invasions, disease pandemics, and the apocalypse), and the horror of Place, which is the environment, the landscape, itself.
The majority of movies set in snowy, cold, and/or wintry, climates are monster movies, the kind of horror that springs from an Outside source. Most of these movies involve at least two of the elements of horror; that of Place, and from Outside. The horror from Outside involves monsters, or creatures, sometimes native to the environment, sometimes not, but often asleep, or in hiding, deep in the snow and ice. They are accidentally awakened by the presence, or activity, of human beings. This includes movies like The Thaw from 2009, in which ancient bugs are awakened by archaeological activity, and Blood Glacier, a horror comedy from 2013, in which a strange red liquid is released from a melting glacier in the Alps, and begins mutating the local wildlife.
Much of the horror of such films, comes from the harsh, and unforgiving, nature of the setting itself. Survival in such an environment is more precarious than in almost any other environment. The cold, the scarcity of sustenance and water, and even the wildlife, can all work against human life, and sometimes characters not only have to withstand the environment, they may have to fight any Outside forces that have either dropped into the environment with them, was hidden within it, or came along with them, like their companions, or their own weaknesses of character.
Two movies that are about the horror of Place, is the 2010 horror movie, Frozen, and 2012’s, The Grey, which stars Liam Neeson. In Frozen, a group of skiing friends get trapped on a ski lift, during a holiday weekend, and need to fight, not just against the terror of their isolation, and the freezing temperatures, but against a pack of hungry dogs circling beneath the ski lift, as they get picked off one by one. In both movies, the characters have to survive multiple dangers, none of which are paranormal or supernatural. The Horror comes entirely from being trapped in an environment from which it is almost impossible to escape alive.
In The Grey, a team of oil drillers get stranded in Alaska after a plane crash. Liam Neeson’s character, Ottway, has made a living killing the wolves that threaten the drillers, and is contemplating suicide, before surviving the crash, with several companions, and who now realize, they are in the territory of a large wolfpack, and being hunted. Ottway and his companions must try to survive frozen rivers, hypothermia, hunger, and the wolves, in their attempt to reach civilization. In a final irony, only the previously suicidal Ottway is left alive to battle the pack for his survival, the outcome of which is not certain.
Icy, snowy, landscapes are often used as a stand in to provoke questions about humanity and civilization, that don’t normally get asked in more temperate landscapes. Since everything is about survival, the characters find out what kind of people they are, when all bets are off. What kind of people are we, who do we become, what will we do, and how far will we go, when we have to fight every second to stay alive? Will we remain cooperative with the other human beings around us, or will we turn on them, to ensure our own survival? This makes wintry, snowy, settings perfect for tales about cannibalism, as in the movies Ravenous (1999), and The Donner Party, (a 2009 film based on a true story) where people turn on one another as a means to survive.
This betrayal of civilization is also what happens in the classic film, The Thing, from 1982, when a group of researchers accidentally thaw the frozen body of an alien, that begins killing and mimicking them, so that it can survive. Unlike the first films listed here, whose plots involve the horror of Place, combined with the horror from Inside, The Thing is a movie that combines all three types of horror. Everything in this environment is working against the characters, as they’re trapped in an extreme landscape, with a hostile Other, that was hidden within it, which has taken up residence in at least one of them, causing them to all turn on each other to survive. Both the men, and the alien, are fighting to survive the environment, and each other.
The fear, dread, and paranoia, of the characters is echoed in the bleakness of the landscape, which is as cold and dark as the outer reaches of space, from which the alien intruder fell. Over time, any fellow feeling they shared is lost, as the team spirals down into a paroxysm of violence, vandalism, threats, and murder, while they try to find out who is possessed by the alien, and who isn’t. The Thing is complex, in its plot and themes, but that wasn’t always the case.
In earlier horror films, the horror of Place was mostly paired with some horror from Outside, in the form of a monster, as in the original 1954 film, The Thing From Another World, starring James Arness, which was based on John. W. Campbell’s science fiction story, Who Goes There? Or the 1953 movie, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, where scientists, in the Arctic, accidentally dig up a dinosaur, which proceeds to rampage its way back to its ancient spawning grounds, conveniently located in New York city. In both movies, the monsters are an external force, awakened by hubris, or carelessness. The interior lives of the characters is given minimal attention, and have little effect on the plot Often their characters can be defined by how they respond to the monster.
Movies set during Winter seem especially appropriate for hauntings and ghost stories, as such bleak landscapes are used as a metaphor for death. In the 1981 movie, Ghost Story, starring Fred Astaire, based on the novel by Peter Straub, a group of elderly men gather in a New England town, one Winter’s night, to discuss the murder of a young woman they were involved with, several decades ago, and the idea that her ghost may be haunting one of them. It is their weakness of character that sets the entire plot in motion, and determines the outcome. Ghost Story is an example of the horror of Place, used as a backdrop for the conflict between the horror of the Self (Inside), and the horror of a malignant external force (Outside). Its the kind of story that could be told in any setting, but here, adds to the atmosphere of mourning, and despair. These are men at the twilight of their lives, haunted, literally, by the ghosts of their past misdeeds.
The most famous movie, that tackles the themes of both external and internal forces of horror, is The Shining. Released in 1980, and starring Jack Nicholson, Shelly Duvall, and directed by Stanley Kubrick, it is based on the original Stephen King novel, about a haunted hotel, set in the middle of a wintry Colorado. Jack Torrance is hired by the manager of the Overlook, to maintain the premises, but Jack, a former alcoholic, domestic abuser, (and latent psychic), is easily goaded by its murderous ghosts, into killing his fragile-seeming wife, Wendy, and his powerfully psychic son, Danny.
The horror comes from the combination of environmental isolation, the malignancy of the paranormal entities, and Jack’s emotional weaknesses. Occasionally, a wintry landscape is an obvious stand in for a character’s emotions, indicating coldness, or a lack of love or warmth. Jack’s personal insecurities are turned against his family, by the ghosts in the hotel. He becomes as emotionally barren as the landscape which isolates them. In the end, it is the environment which kills Jack, after he chases his wife and son into the hotel’s snow covered hedge maze.
The colors most associated with this type of landscape are cool dark blues, neutral whites, grays, and blacks, which emphasize the use of primary colors, red, and yellow, in the forms of blood and fire, which is especially appropriate imagery in movies like, 30 Days of Night (2007), based on the graphic novel by Steve Niles, in which a pack of vampires take over the town of Barrow Alaska, in the middle of a thirty day cycle, where the sun never rises, and Let The Right One In, a 2008 movie about a little boy who befriends a child vampire. The movie takes place in Sweden, a place known for its especially long and frigid winters, and is an especially appropriate residence for an avatar of death.
Dark snowy, landscapes make for some of the most classic and/or notable films in the horror genre. The setting lends itself well to stories involving ghosts, death, human depravity, survival, and of course, monsters, as the setting doesn’t just play an integral part in the plot, but often becomes the plot, for stories that can be told in no other place.