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20 Essential Cold-Weather Thrillers

Photo: Vulture

This list was originally published on February 2, 2019.

There’s a cinematic tradition of snowbound thrillers that make the weather a crucial part of the action — an obstacle, a character-builder, and a source of tension and visceral agony. The cold-weather films we’re focusing on here are all about isolation, and many are about the madness that follows, as days of either being stuck outside in the snow or penned inside by it lead to hysteria, desperation, and powder-reddening spasms of violence. They’re also a great excuse to bundle up on the couch, sip from a bottomless mug of coffee, and take pleasure in the frostbitten misery of others.

20. Cold Prey (2006)

For Americans, it can be reassuring to learn that other countries, despite their advantages in health care and education, are still full of stupid, horny young people who ritualistically strike out to a remote location and allow some lunatic to hack them to death, one by one. It’s no surprise that the director of the Finnish slasher Cold Prey, enviably named Roar Uthaug, would emerge in Hollywood over a decade later with his Tomb Raider reboot, given his handle on genre formula and facility with the great outdoors. There’s not an unexpected note in this horror-thriller about attractive snowboarders who hole up in an abandoned ski lodge hiding a mysterious and stabby host, but Uthaug effectively contrasts the mountain exteriors and the muted interiors, which have the sickly pallor of the newly dead.

19. Wind River (2017)

In many respects, Wind River is a standard procedural, a follow-the-bread-crumbs thriller about an FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) investigating a rape and murder with guidance from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent (Jeremy Renner) who has a better feel for the territory and its customs. Yet Taylor Sheridan sets the film on a Wyoming Indian reservation in the middle of winter, and does everything possible to emphasize its brutality: The official cause of death is a pulmonary hemorrhage caused by breathing the subzero air, and conditions are so terrible that it’s a challenge just to get to the scene of the crime without perishing, too. The weather is one obstacle among many, but Sheridan frames it as a symbol of a Native American culture that’s intensely insular and unseen.

18. Dead of Winter (1987)

The legendary Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde) took over Dead of Winter as a gun-for-hire after the original director bailed, but that gun still had a little ammunition. With a debt to Vertigo, the film casts Mary Steenburgen in a triple role — as a desperate New York actress who takes a mystery gig in a snowy manse upstate, as the missing actress she’s replacing, and as the sister of the producer/doctor (Jan Rubeš) who seems to be hiding a few dark secrets. Penn makes upstate seem like another planet, a snow-caked hinterland of eccentricity — a gas-station attendant gives out goldfish at the pump — and Roddy McDowall is particularly good as the grinning, Igor-like production assistant who lures Steenburgen into a nightmare.

17. In Order of Disappearance (2014)

There’s not much qualitative difference between Cold Pursuit and its Norwegian source, In Order of Disappearance, perhaps because director Hans Petter Moland did not want to rebel against the director of the original film, Hans Petter Moland. Even the jokey name of the hero — Nils Dickman here, Nels Coxman in the remake — isn’t much of a tweak. But this one makes the list for being first and for casting Bruno Ganz as the leader of a Serbian mob that’s squaring off against a humble snowplow driver (Stellan Skarsgård) hell-bent on avenging his son’s murder. Both films are silly to a fault, but Moland’s efforts to take the stuffing out of the revenge-thriller genre are a long-needed corrective to one-man wrecking crews like Charles Bronson and, well, Liam Neeson.

16. The Grey (2011)

Of all the entries in the Neeson action cycle, Joe Carnahan’s The Grey stands out for attempting to extract their masculine essence, casting him in a survivalist action movie that pits Neeson against a pack of wolves, Neeson against the Alaskan elements, and Neeson against some of the half-dozen other men who question his leadership. Carnahan does nothing halfway: Before his transport plane even crashes, Neeson’s grizzled oilman is contemplating suicide, which makes the events that follow seem both reckless and restorative, because he acts without fear of death. With nature as the primary foe, The Grey puts its hero through an elementary struggle that goes a long way toward justifying its testosterone kick and lupine hysteria.

15. Transsiberian (2008)

Inspired by writer-director Brad Anderson’s own adventures on the Trans-Siberian railway, a famed stretch of track that extends from Beijing to Moscow, Transsiberian is one of the better post-9/11 movies to play on American fears of a hostile reception overseas. As beautiful as the sightseeing can get on this journey, there’s really no point where riders would want to take an unscheduled stop, lest they be interrogated by a Russian narcotics officer in the desolate chill of a foreign land. That’s the dilemma facing an American couple (Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer) as they hop on the train in Beijing, become bunkmates with a sexy-but-dubious pair (Eduardo Noriega and Kate Mara), and get embroiled in a drug-related homicide case that jettisons them into the barren tundra of Siberia.

14. Pontypool (2008)

In Bruce McDonald’s ingenious twist in the zombie thriller, a radio station in a small Ontario town becomes an island within an island, the center of a desolate snowscape where citizens are suddenly reduced to dead-eyed, babbling monsters. The twist is that the broadcast may be the culprit: The DJ (Stephen McHattie), a former big-city provocateur who’s taken his act to the sticks, makes the situation worse by talking, suggesting that language itself may be to blame for creating and spreading the virus. There’s a big fat metaphor here about the toxicity of talk radio — or any language that trivializes or distorts our understanding of the world — but Pontypool also functions well as a straight-up monster movie, enhanced by the blinding snow and howling wind that keep everyone penned in.

13. The Edge (1997)

Much like The Grey, The Edge is a man-versus-wild thriller set in the Alaskan wilderness that’s all about the forces of nature drawing out masculinity in its purest form. One difference is that The Edge was written by David Mamet, whose career-long obsession with manliness is normally confined to the sales floors and academic halls that work to suppress it. The other difference is that Anthony Hopkins’s billionaire, a man protected by wealth and privilege, is thrown into a situation where he’s facing off against a romantic rival (Alec Baldwin) and a “motherfucking bear,” and accesses brute instincts that blue bloods like him never have reason to summon. It’s maul or be mauled.

12. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Based on Stieg Larsson’s best seller, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo takes place largely on the Swedish island of Hedestad, which the film presents as a bridge away from the rest of humanity, a place where a wealthy family of scoundrels can hide its secrets from the public — and from each other. The book was adapted first in its native country, but David Fincher’s version is better in every respect, particularly at suggesting the icy menace of a locale that’s long existed outside the sort of scrutiny brought to bear by a journalist (Daniel Craig) and the brilliant, damaged hacker (Rooney Mara) who helps him investigate a long-ago disappearance. In some respects, the material is boilerplate Fincher, a return to the serial-murder terrain of Seven, but he’s finally found a clime as frosty as his directorial touch.

11. The Last Winter (2006)

There’s perilously little separating Larry Fessenden’s environmental horror from the actual environmental horror playing out in the Arctic and Antarctic right now. The Last Winter is about a crew from an American oil company seeking reserves in an Arctic wildlife refuge, but in the process of testing the site, they unleash hallucinatory gases that have been under wraps for thousands of years. Set mostly in a base camp where tensions flare between a gung-ho company man (Ron Perlman) and a skeptical environmentalist (James Le Gros), the film is like The Thing without monsters, where weird storms and shifts in the wind portend a catastrophic change that engulfs the entire team. As they go, Fessenden implies, so goes the world.

10. Ravenous (1999)

Antonia Bird’s cult favorite offers a grim scenario: High in the Sierra Nevada mountains in the mid-1800s, a bedraggled stranger (Robert Carlyle) tells a patrol of U.S. Army misfits about his outfit getting trapped in the snow for weeks and eventually resorting to cannibalism to keep from starvation. When they strike out to investigate, the men are confronted by the “Wendigo” myth, which holds that the taste of human flesh creates an insatiable desire for more of it. Yet Ravenous takes this idea in a defiantly odd direction, creating black comedy out of cannibalistic derangement and the redemptive arc of a coward (Guy Pearce) trying to stop it. The eccentric score, by Michael Nyman and Blur’s Damon Albarn, sets the tone for a no-holds-barred gore-fest that nonetheless has its tongue firmly planted in cheek.

9. Insomnia (2002)

Both the 1997 and the 2002 versions of this daylight noir are superbly executed — and, as with In Order of Disappearance and Cold Pursuit, the Scandinavian original stars Stellan Skarsgård — but director Christopher Nolan gets the slight edge for seizing on the guilt that haunts a disgraced detective (Al Pacino) who investigates a serial killer in the Arctic Circle. The permanent daylight of summer in the Arctic contributes to his deteriorating psyche as he enters a cat-and-mouse game with a diabolical stranger (Robin Williams), but it also provides a metaphor for his guilty conscience, which cannot be tucked away in darkness. Nolan’s sense of the locale is eerily beautiful, emphasizing the snow-capped mountains and permafrost of the extreme north and the fog that periodically stands in for the sunset.

8. Misery (1990)

Back in 1990, Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Stephen King’s book about a novelist tormented by his “No. 1 fan” was a clever commentary on King’s ambivalence about his own popularity and an even better showcase for a little-known Kathy Bates as a deranged loner who saves her favorite author (James Caan) from a car accident and nurses him back to health, with ulterior motives. But now, when “fans” of franchises like Star Wars and Ghostbusters can wage harassment campaigns in response to tweaks in the storytelling, Misery seems like an even sharper critique of those who appoint themselves guardians of the material. Reiner keeps the staging simple — this could be a play, with very few changes necessary — but the isolation of the wintry setting, post-blizzard, intensifies the stir-crazy madness that grips both captive and captor.

7. Black Christmas (1974)

In a sorority house on Christmas Eve, a serial killer is stalking and murdering young women, first through heavy-breathing phone calls and then with various implements of death. And the calls are coming from … well, if you’ve seen a horror film, then you know they’re in extremely close proximity. Black Christmas may sound like a standard slasher movie, but there was nothing standard about it in 1974, before many of its techniques, like the first-person-killer cam that was popularized in Halloween and the ’80s knockoffs that followed. What makes the film great, then and now, is the scabrous wit that accompanies the mayhem, much of it coming from the late Margot Kidder as a queen-bee type who openly mocks the madman on the other end of the line.

6. Snowpiercer (2013)

In Bong Joon-ho’s social allegory, the planet has been rendered uninhabitable by a global climate disaster, leaving the last vestiges of humanity to cut through the endless tundra for eternity. But if anything, the old rules of society apply more rigorously than ever, with each train car enforcing a class system that keeps the grimy have-nots toward the back, as the elite enjoy the benefits of luxury travel and education for their children. With Tilda Swinton cast as a deranged authoritarian, like Margaret Thatcher left under a heat lamp, Snowpiercer is a gonzo modern-day Ship of Fools, reflecting an interconnected world where we’re all trapped in the same space together, heading full speed to oblivion as the natural world coldly rejects our presence.

5. A Simple Plan (1998)

After the Coen brothers redefined modern noir as Minnesota blanc in Fargo, their friend and occasional collaborator, Sam Raimi, followed suit with A Simple Plan, which uses the cold to practical and moral effect, as three men try to abscond with ill-gotten money, but can’t hide the tracks that accumulate at the scene and in their consciences. Adapting his own relentless page-turner of a novel, Scott B. Smith emphasizes the class differences between a small-business owner (Bill Paxton) and his dim-witted brother (Billy Bob Thornton) and friend (Brent Briscoe), who find over $4 million in cash in a downed airplane. As their agreement to keep the money collapses immediately and catastrophically, Raimi amplifies the pulpy tension, but the film has a deep emotional undercurrent, too, in the wounded relationship between siblings who have grown apart.

4. The Hateful Eight (2015)

A pastiche of a pastiche by his generation’s most gifted pastiche artist, Quentin Tarantino’s neo-Western recalls the single-setting tension of his debut film Reservoir Dogs and the era-specific racial politics of Django Unchained, on top of a conceit that owes a heavy debt both to John Carpenter’s The Thing and Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians. Yet Tarantino turns The Hateful Eight into an epic-length whodunit that gets the most out of salty character actors — from old faves like Samuel L. Jackson and Tim Roth to new-to-him legends like Kurt Russell and Jennifer Jason Leigh — by piling them into a blizzard-encased Wyoming cabin and letting the accusations (and bullets) fly. The film is a pleasure mostly as a showcase for Tarantino’s adeptness as a storyteller; when eight outlaws are snowed into the same space together, spinning yarns is the only way to pass the time.

3. The Shining (1980)

In the immense isolation of the Overlook Hotel, where caretaker Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) holes up for the winters with his wife (Shelley Duvall) and young son (Danny Lloyd), the grim history of the place, combined with Jack’s own history of anger and abuse, create a kind of hallucinatory pulse, with horrors seeping in from every direction. It’s taken years for critics to come to terms with Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining — the author of the book, Stephen King, is still not onboard — because the film doesn’t operate like a conventional horror movie in any respect. Its mysteries are varied and deep, and its overall effect is to leave the audience feeling completely discombobulated, to where the very basic facts of time and space are thrown into confusion. With the audience scrambling to get its bearings, Kubrick goes on the attack.

2. The Thing (1982)

Opening with the startling image of Norwegians shooting at a sled dog from a helicopter in the Antarctic, John Carpenter’s The Thing is a fat-free thriller that resembles Alien in the South Pole, with the dog carrying an inhuman force that’s primed to decimate an entire crew full of unarmed laborers. Kurt Russell is the Ridley of the bunch, gamely fighting a creature that spreads through a research station like a virus, hiding in its human hosts until it springs forward like a jack-in-a-box. Carpenter’s love for old-fashioned Westerns and science-fiction is evident in the uneasy mix of camaraderie and suspicion that grips the station, and the creature effects, by Rob Bottin, were a high watermark for practical effects, mushrooming into beautiful, grotesque creations. Its use of snow and extreme weather to heighten the tension and psychological duress are a direct influence on many thrillers that followed, including two films (The Hateful Eight and The Last Winter) on this list.

1. Fargo (1995)

The snow in the Coen brothers’ white noir is multifaceted: It can represent the aggravation of living in the bleak flats of Minnesota, which prompts a put-upon car dealer (William H. Macy) to plot a terrible scheme; the domestic bliss that blankets a small-town police chief (Frances McDormand) as she investigates the fallout; and the contrast between the pure white snow and the red blood that spatters it. Fargo is a perfect thriller, balanced between two characters who spout the same colorful midwestern-isms, but occupy completely different moral planes. The Coens’ specificity of language and place make Minnesota seem like both an utterly familiar slice of Middle America and a foreign nation with its own quirky rituals and tics. Depending on who you are, it’s either home sweet home or a hell of your own making.

20 Essential Cold-Weather Thrillers