Slay The Date is a bi-monthly column bringing you something different, compelling, and fun with each edition. Justin Lockwood shares with us his favorite horror films for every season.
An exploration of wintertime horror, the other spooky season that will chill you to the bone and the horror films that make use of winter's "cold as ice" setting.
There’s something naturally eerie about wintertime. Snow, icy temperatures and the isolation of it feel like the perfect backdrop for a scary story. After all, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) follows a long tradition of Christmas ghost stories—check that line in “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” that goes “There’ll be scary ghost stories / and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.” Beyond Christmas, horror films like Black Christmas (1974) and Gremlins (1985), that make effective use of their wintertime settings, a number of great horror films have capitalized on the winter spooky season.
No discussion of winter horror would be complete without acknowledging the two heavy hitters, The Shining (1980) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). They’re obvious choices, but that’s in no small part because of how well they capitalize on the isolation of their winter settings. It doesn’t hurt that both are masterpieces, frequently topping folks’ best of the genre lists. In The Shining, the wintry isolation is so prominent that it doesn’t just cause Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), the hotel caretaker to go mad, it’s practically a character itself. The ghosts of the Overlook Hotel are diabolical, but they’re aided immensely by the fact that the location is cut off from civilization for six months out of the year. When Jack turns to the darkside, lost in his delusions, he’s able to use this to his advantage, trashing the CB radio and disabling the snow mobile, ensuring that his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son, Danny (Danny Lloyd) can’t escape his homicidal rage. Of course, kindly Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) puts a wrench in that plan—though it comes at the expense of his own life.
The vivid cinematography and bone chilling music by Wendy Carlos, one of the great innovators in synth and electronic music and Rachel Elkind, among others—give The Shining a deliciously “chilling” mood. So, too, do Kubrick’s stunning shots of the Rocky Mountains and the edifice of the Overlook Hotel, actually the Timberline Lodge in Mount Hood, Oregon. The interiors were all captured on a soundstage.
Isolation is also at the heart of The Thing, in which a team of scientists in Antarctica cross paths with a deadly alien life form that can mimic any living thing it wants. After all, "Man is the warmest place to hide." The all male cast, led by a steely Kurt Russell as R.J. MacReady, is just as isolated as the Torrance family, but this time, the motivation for cutting the team of scientists off from the outside world is altruistic. Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley) knows the world will be doomed if the alien escapes the outpost. It takes the half the film's runtime for the other characters to come around to his line of thinking. The wintry atmosphere is deployed very well, aided by an eerie synthesizer score credited to legendary Italian composer Ennio Morricone, but covered in Carpenter’s distinctive fingerprints. It’s no wonder this is a go-to film for many a winter-bound horror fan.
A lesser known entry in the snowy horror genre is Dead of Winter (1987). The thriller stars Mary Steenburgen and legendary gay actor Roddy McDowall. It’s a sleeper that seems to have a growing reputation, with at least one person tweeting that it would be a huge success for A24 if released today. Steenburgen plays Julie, a struggling actress who’s ecstatic to win a role she's auditioned for with producer Mr. Murray (McDowall). Julie travels to Murray’s isolated home to film the part, but it’s probably not spoiling much to reveal that all is not what it seems with either the part or the producer. Steenburgen is an underrated, always dependable actress who does strong work and shows off her range here. While McDowall pulls off the villainous Murray with aplomb. The snowy setting and the house itself—a mini mansion in the Clue mold—add immeasurably to the film’s quality. It’s not as scary as I remember it being when I was a kid, but damn if it’s not fun and a perfect watch for a cold winter’s night.
Of the dozens of slashers that appeared between 1979 to roughly 1985, Curtains (1983) is a minor effort, but its canny use of wintry isolation earns it a spot on this list. A group of women are invited to another sketchy character’s isolated home—this time it’s film director Jonathan Stryker (John Vernon)—to audition for the lead role of “Audra.” He’s had his usual lead actress (Samantha Eggar, The Brood) committed to an asylum for supposed “background research,” but she ultimately escapes and makes her way to the remote mansion property.
Meanwhile, a killer in a distinctive hag mask is carving up the actresses one by one. The highlight of the film is a murder on the ice, complete with an ice-skating killer. There’s also an inventive, if overly long chase through scenery and props, and actress Patti O'Connor (Lynne Griffin), gets to show off her acting chops in a bigger part than her Black Christmas role. Curtains isn’t a masterpiece, but its embellishments on the slasher formula and overall sense of fun make it worth checking out. One could even program it as a Samantha Eggar double feature with The Brood, a great David Cronenberg flick with an effective winter setting of its own. Enjoy these wintry chillers and feel free to add your own favorites in the comments.
Justin Lockwood is a Brooklyn-based film writer, contributor for Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, Scream Magazine and many more in addition to being a lover of campy, “Psychotronic” B movies. He's a lifelong horror fan and recurring guest on the Slay Away horror podcast.