Snow Business - 9 Films With Snow in Their Veins
Countless films feature snow. In many cases, it’s due to a film being set around holidays or simply rooted in a wintry climate. But then there are the films where snow is more than a device but mutually exclusive to the root of the story. The following highlights some of those films where snow is essential to the theme of the piece, in no particular order.
The Empire Strikes Back
Arguably the best entry to come from the ever-growing Star Wars universe, and for me, one of those reasons is the epic battle scenes where the Rebel Alliance duke it out with the Galactic Empire on the snow-covered Hoth. Star Wars took us to the desert lands of Tatooine, and it’s follow up brought us the more challenging and aesthetically rich territorial palette, and Hoth is the most memorable of this space epic.
All That Heaven Allows
Nobody does melodrama like Douglas Sirk, and - if you can forgive the expression - this film’s utilization of snow is something of a perfect storm. Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson are at their career best, but Russell Metty’s technicolor cinematography brilliantly captures the vivid artifice of fifties-era American cinema, making this slick of Sirkian life a gold standard for modern drama, as well as elemental symbolism.
Although David Lean’s sweeping epic mostly sidesteps the political rhetoric of its setting in favor of telling a rosy revolutionary love story, the director's dedication to scope and detail pay off in dividends as this is a truly magnificent realization with some unforgettable set pieces. Whether its the Tsarists reigning on demonstrators in the snowy streets of Moscow, or the iconic ice palace at the finale (which, as it turns out is made of wax), it’s a showcase of directorial prowess led by an all-star cast, but my favorite memory is the abundantly lush climate that envelops this larger-than-life story.
Snow is beautiful as an artistic device, but in the business of suspense and supernatural horror what’s better than the naturally occurring, relatively debilitating, and genuinely lethal power of snow? The Shining is a masterpiece of terror and Kubrick employs a delirious slew of surreal imagery that continues to terrify, but what’s more terrifying is the fact that there’s no escaping it (unless you have a snowcat).
A future where the human race is fated to our own destruction is the backstory to most of our allegorical sci-fi dystopias. But Snowpiercer is a different case, containing a trenchant anti-capitalist, colonialist, classist, and fascist commentary. Bong Joon-ho’s visceral action and stylized violence is bolted with a crisp sense of humor, that translates in this brilliantly conceived tale. It's rumored that Bong Joon-ho read the entire graphic novel "Le Transperceneige" while standing in a comic shop in Seoul, and I believe it because it’s directed with the same kind of unpredictable energy, fascination, and detail that you’d expect to see from someone with boundless passion and dedication.
John Carpenter’s The Thing spares us nothing; it’s nasty, suspenseful, scary, funny, gross and the effects are still astounding. But most importantly, Carpenter sets a tone from the first few scenes; whatever these guys are doing, it sucks. Even with the seemingly endless bottles of scotch, chess wizard computers, and flamethrowers - it’s cold, and just when things can’t get any worse they do. But it’s that invasive climate that makes the alien parasite in The Thing so much more dangerous because you can’t escape it, not to mention it gives us an endlessly debatable variable in the film's finale.
Surviving in the wild is a simple story. We’ve seen it in hot and cold climates, so what could The Grey do to stand out in this subgenre? It’s not remarkable film, but a swiftly brutal one that gets its strength by turning up the intensity level by applying pressure to the elements, pressing the graphic to the visceral, and countering dramatic conventions. Here, anyone is expendable. There’s enough tension in The Grey to keep you squirming, but the unshakable presence of the cold, whether it's the sound of snow squeaking underfoot, or the whistling wind, the most significant threat isn’t a pack of wolves, it's freezing to death. (I guess you’re still edible when frozen; you can always freeze after being gnawed on by some canines. Regardless, it’s a pretty shitty situation.)
The Hateful Eight*
For a change of pace, Quentin Tarantino's last directorial outing was a dialed down, confined whodunit western. And in the spirit of great Agatha Christie-like mysteries, it's the surrounding elements that's keeping a group of disparate people limited in one area. While we spend a lot of our time inside a cabin where bloodshed and witty diatribes populate a nearly three-hour runtime, we never forget just how nasty the weather is outside of Minnie's Haberdashery. "You’re starting to see pictures now, ain't ya?"
This might seem like a cheat since it’s got snow in the title, but in sifting through the countless samurai films with epic duels in the snow, it was Meiko Kaji’s deadly assassin that came through as the most potent instances of how beautiful bloodshed can be presented when it’s spraying on freshly fallen snow. This harmony of tranquility and gore is distinctly Japanese, and Lady Snowblood is the apex of artful exploitation.
Here are some honorable mentions of films in which snow is essential:
The Brood - Mallets, killer dwarves, tumors, Oliver Reed, the Canadian Tax Shelter era, and snow, snow, snow.
Goyokin - Hideo Gosha’s samurai epic is desolate and beautiful.
Fixed Bayonets - Another punchy slice of Samuel Fuller’s life tracking a snowbound military regiment, Kino Blu Ray is pristine.
Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain - High flying wuxia from Hong Kong master Tsui Hark features some beautiful imagery amid the high titular mountain.
Crimson Peak - Never a shortage of visual expression with Guillermo Del Toro, the visually sumptuous bloodied snow will certainly leave an impression.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars - I guess the red planet had a lot of glaciers, not scientifically accurate but a lot of fun. Look for a young Adam West in the film's first act.
The Long Day Rises - Davies’ whimsical iteration is a slice of folksy realism that finds beauty in the every day. Peering out the window and seeing the falling snow is experiential.
Fanny and Alexander - One of Ingmar Bergman’s many masterpieces is a mostly winter-bound epic, and a wonderfully conceived period drama.
Downhill Racer - Donald Richie’s skiing feature is a stark masterpiece of competition and ego, featuring a young Robert Redford.
Andrei Rublev - It’s kind of a cheat putting Russian epics on here, but Andrei Tarkovsky’s sweeping epic is best watched on a lazy snow day.
Slaughterhouse-Five - Like Kurt Vonnegut's novel, this adaptation is nearly impossible to describe, and difficult to explain, just see it to believe it.
Abashiri Prison - A desolate and crackling yakuza/prison movie, Ken Takakura is at his best here.
A Midnight Clear - Criminally underrated anti-war film with a brilliant cast.
The Fearless Vampire Killers - Roman Polanski’s horror comedy is a visual feast, replete with vampires skiing down mountains in coffins. Need I say more?
The Man Who Knew Too Much - Head and shoulder above the 1950s remake, the snowy European backdrop is unforgettable.
The Idiot - Ambitious if a tad uneven, Akira Kurosawa’s Fyodor Dostoyevsky adaptation is a challenging, but immaculately designed feature.
Black Narcissus - Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are one of the great directing teams, and the snowy Himalayan mountain-bound setting (actually a sound stage) is iconic.
* Despite the inclusion of The Hateful Eight there’s a bevy of snowbound westerns that you’re probably thinking were sidestepped, but don’t fret as they have been set aside for another snow themed list.