Hell on Ice

Courtesy of Lot 47 Films

Q: What makes a great winter movie? A: No fat man in a red suit. And no children waiting for the arrival of a fat man in a red suit. This is not to say that Christmas movies can't be entertaining. It's just that they tend to use snow and cold as cinematic window dressing, not as the malevolent natural force that they are.

The best winter movies, by contrast, weave the horrors and menace of winter into plot and theme. The six films listed below invoke the misery of the season to make you cringe and shiver. By the end, you don't know whether to pull the blanket over your body or your eyes.

The Shining The greatest cabin-fever movie of all time is, technically speaking, not a cabin-fever movie, as Jack Nicholson loses his shit in a luxury mountaintop hotel. That said, Nicholson does come down with an extremely nasty case of something—you know he's symptomatic after he begins kicking down doors and chasing after the wife and kid. Nicholson's descent into bat-shit madness quickens as a winter storm grips the Rockies. Before you know it, kindly old Scatman Crothers has an ax in his chest, Shelley Duvall is bug-eyed—even more bug-eyed than usual—and Nicholson lies in a hedge, wearing a laurel of icicles.

A Simple Plan Like a latter-day Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Sam Raimi's taut thriller is a loving tribute to the power of greed. The good times start rolling when two brothers and a friend happen upon a plane wreck in the Wisconsin woods. Venturing inside, they discover a dead pilot and $4 million in cash. The crows that have descended on the wreck have already discovered that soft tissue tastes best when chilled. Naturally, the unexpected treasure soon becomes a curse, brother turns against brother, and those lovely, snowy woods end up dappled in blood. The killing of the farmer on the snowmobile? The best killing of a farmer on a snowmobile in cinematic history.

Affliction In the course of a single, cold New Hampshire winter, troubled small-town cop Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte) drinks too much, fights with his ex-wife, pulls out a bad tooth with a pair of pliers, and becomes convinced of a sinister conspiracy among some of the town's leading men. Then he starts to come unglued. The scenery is simultaneously lovely and claustrophobic, and the hunting-accident-in-the-snow scene has the random crackle of authenticity. Spring never comes for Wade Whitehouse. Almost impossibly, the film is every bit as depressing as the Russell Banks novel from which it is adapted.

The Thing Why does anyone go to Antarctica? There's nothing there but penguins, snow, and ice—and, in the case of John Carpenter's epic gross-out-fest, a malignant alien shape-shifter that does some seriously disgusting shit with German shepherds and Norwegian scientists. But while the Thing is the main enemy ("Man is the warmest place to hide" is the flick's tagline), the unforgiving, arctic cold comes in a very close second.

Fargo The Coen brothers' depiction of Minnesota's winter landscape is so bleak that it had to be the work of native sons. Even though many of the movie's pivotal moments occur against a winter backdrop, there isn't a single postcard moment. Indeed, the snowy outdoors is the setting for the movie's most disturbing moments: Kidnapper Steve Buscemi shoots the ransom-courier on the roof of a parking ramp and Buscemi himself runs through a wood chipper outside a cabin in Brainerd. That said, Fargo's teat-numbing authenticity takes a blow when we see city-dwellers bundled up to shovel snow that has already melted.

Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) It's a safe bet the Igloolik people don't sweat when the weatherman predicts a slushy rush hour. In Canada's Nunavut, a little snow might warm up the endless sheets of ice. Winter pervades every scene in director Zacharias Kunuk's absorbing tale of jealousy, murder, and evil in the barren Canadian Arctic. No movie ever made the viewer feel colder, especially the scene where the fleet-footed protagonist—pursued by a murderous rival and his lackeys—makes his escape by running across the ice. In bare feet. Completely naked. A test of manhood in every sense of the word. 

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