Frigid frights: a few great thrillers for winter

By Cody Willoughby -

Provided Photo Jack Torrance greets his wife in “The Shining”.

Provided Photo Jack Torrance greets his wife in “The Shining”.

Provided Photo Annie Wilkes gets sentimental in “Misery”.

In the mood for a cinematic thrill? Too frigid outside to shovel your way to the local multiplex? Fear not, humble readers – there are a number of chilling, winter-themed horror/suspense films ready for home viewing.

It’s always irked me when people plug a film like “The Shining”, for example, into their scheduled Halloween programming; “The Shining” is not a Halloween film, and is most definitely best viewed in the dead of winter. Don’t get me wrong – that’s wonderful; we need solid genre films all year long. Sometimes it’s just easy to forget about them in unconventional months, so it seems fitting to compile an official shortlist.

Here, in the order of release, is aforementioned list; bundle up and don’t let the vampires bite.

1) The Shining (1980)

Easily the most famous entry on the list, “The Shining” has endured for years not just because of its memorable performances or its timeless haunted-house narrative, but also due to the intricacy of its production. Stephen King has been on record many times over the years spouting his vitriol for Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation, particularly regarding the changes he made to King’s novel (not to mention elements Kubrick excised all together). In a way, it makes sense where King is coming from, but on the other hand, it doesn’t seem entirely fair.

What Kubrick has crafted is near-perfect streamlined horror, its slow-paced, lingering camera work and stringy score giving the impression of an hours-long nightmare. The production design of the Overlook Hotel is intimidating and unnerving; it’s entirely believable that this place has riddled the mountains with evil for decades on end. The lead performance by Nicholson (one aspect King criticized especially) is as effective as any standard horror-movie monster, and is easily among the most iconic roles that Nicholson ever played.

Best of all, “The Shining” refused to resort to cheap jump scares, opting to build tension with ever-growing suspense and a constantly looming threat of oncoming violence. Once the violence does arrive in the film’s final act, it feels earned and, therefore, very satisfying.

As a piece of operatic winter-horror bombast, “The Shining” towers over the pack. In a way, it’s sad to list at the very beginning.

2) The Thing (1982)

“The Thing” is a movie that has never quite gotten the credit it’s due. It had the misfortune of premiering in theaters the same weekend as “E.T.”, which financially bombed it into near-oblivion almost immediately. When the public has an alien to glom onto as lovable as E.T., there’s not much room for this monstrous, Lovecraftian stuff. Thankfully, “The Thing” has since found an audience on home video and T.V. syndication.

For the uninitiated, “The Thing” chronicles the struggle of 12 men, led by Kurt Russell, living at a scientific outpost in Antarctica, who discover that all the men at a neighboring outpost are dead after having uncovered an alien spacecraft from the ice. Eventually, it becomes clear that somebody among the men may not be who he says.

What “The Thing” does best is the capturing of extreme paranoia in a dire circumstance, as small sabotages begin to crop up throughout the outpost, some of which lead the men who to point fingers at others. By the time “the thing” itself is revealed midway through the film, the movie has already won the audience over with its terrific character work and suspense-building through good plotting and dialogue.

To speak of the chilling impact of the film’s special effects don’t do justice to actually seeing them onscreen. It’s the visceral stuff of nightmares, showcasing a creature that can shapeshift in seemingly any horrible fashion it pleases.

Despite its initial failure at the box office, “The Thing” may stand today as the best work ever released by director John Carpenter.

3) Misery (1990)

The second of two Stephen King-adapted entries on the list, “Misery” chronicles the plight of writer Paul Sheldon, who, after an automobile accident, finds himself holed up against his will in the snowbound homestead of nurse/superfan/raging psychopath Annie Wilkes.

“Misery” is a small-scale thriller, and all the better for it. Most of the film stays within the walls of Annie’s house, allowing us to get to know its two lead characters intimately, and also to understand the helpless confinement of Sheldon and how escape in his condition may be impossible.

Kathy Bates won a Best Actress Academy Award for her performance in 1991, an unconventional choice at the time, as horror/suspense films rarely received such acclaim (and still don’t). The Oscar, however, was well earned; Annie Wilkes proves a complicated beast, shifting aggressively from tender affection to violent rage from scene to scene. That violent rage is particularly indelible in one grisly scene involving a sledgehammer, which went on to become the movie’s hallmark horror moment.

Laced with a bit of dark comedy and highlighted by wonderful acting, “Misery” holds up as a thriller with edge.

4) Let the Right One In (2008) / Let Me In (2010)

Based upon the Swedish novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, “Let the Right One In” may be the least scary entry on the list, but it certainly still exists within the parameters of well-established horror tropes.

Playing almost like a dark “E.T.”, “Let the Right One In” follows Oskar, a lonely young boy from a broken home who contends with bullies on a daily basis. One night, he meets a strange girl in his apartment complex named Eli, and as their relationship develops, it becomes increasingly clearer that Eli is actually a centuries-old vampire.

What makes this story so special is that it approaches the melancholy side of vampirism, studying its emotional isolation and playing up the sadness of the curse. In exploring those elements, it emphasizes how important the relationship developing between Oskar and Eli truly is, and how the two characters both need each other, albeit for very separate reasons.

The 2008 film was adapted in Swedish, so if subtitles aren’t your bag, check out the 2010 American remake, starring Chloe Grace Moretz as the vampire girl. It’s a surprisingly great remake, actually managing to improve on a couple of elements from the original while maintaining its bittersweet sentiments.

5) Frozen (2010)

There are no enchanted ice castles or singing snowmen to be found in this film.

Standing as the lowest-budgeted entry on the list, “Frozen” is about three twenty-somethings who find themselves trapped on a ski lift when the resort unknowingly strands them after shutting down for the weekend, leaving the trio to face impending hunger and thirst, perilous weather, towering heights, and ravenous wolves. Obviously, bleak circumstances ensue.

“Frozen” does a commendable job at showing the characters try to solve their problem rationally, and display the reasons why different attempts to escape are futile. Did you know that ski lift cables are razor-sharp? Well, the movie makes sure you know multiple times. It’s easy for a viewer to put themselves in the place of a character in a film like this, frequently considering what they would do in the same situation, and “Frozen” is quite savvy to that effect.

It doesn’t seem a huge spoiler to divulge that not all of the characters will make it out of the film alive, and when casualties do take place, it leaves an impressively sickening feeling in the gut of the viewer; there’s something about plausible, real-world horror that’s even more foreboding than more fantastical threats like slashers or spooks, and “Frozen” taps into that dread with flying, frigid colors.

6) The Revenant (2015)

Hear me out on this one!

It’s true; “The Revenant” is not traditionally thought of (nor was it marketed as) a horror film, but for all of the dread and angsty feelings it lobs at viewers’ eyeballs, “The Revenant” stands toe-to-toe with the best of them.

Based on an allegedly true story, Leo DiCaprio stars as Hugh Glass, a fur trader who is mauled by a bear and left for dead by his nefarious companions. For the record, that isn’t a spoiler – that all happens in the first half-hour.

What follows is two more hours of dire, perilous misery, in which Hugh Glass is forced to crawl across dozens of miles to civilization. Pain is present in nearly every scene. There’s rape, the eating of raw organs, the soldering of open wounds, brutal rampages by hostile Natives, and multiple depictions of scalping. And that all comes after that stinking bear attack, which rolls on in real time for several minutes, utilizing special-effects trickery that’s equal parts wondrous and riveting.

The remarkable thing about “The Revenant”, and what the film was marketed on during Oscar season, was just how difficult it was to make, and how much actual discomfort the cast and crew endured throughout the production. The acclaim was well-earned; as a depiction of the American Frontier in the 1820s, “The Revenant” is a beautiful, cold-blooded horror show, and a delightful way to round out the list.

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Provided Photo Jack Torrance greets his wife in “The Shining”. Photo Jack Torrance greets his wife in “The Shining”.

Provided Photo Annie Wilkes gets sentimental in “Misery”. Photo Annie Wilkes gets sentimental in “Misery”.

By Cody Willoughby