It’s the most wonderful time of the year, apparently, which for a lot of us (writing from the winter wasteland of Canada here) means stocking up, hunkering down, and trying to get from point A to point B with all extremities frostbite-free.
Winter is a pain in the ass as is, but when your only safe haven from freezing temperatures is suddenly compromised by a mysterious and murderous force, well, damn. That is problematic.
The terror of extended winter isolation is a theme throughout the horror genre – as seen in The Shining, The Thing, Pod, 30 Days of Night, and Black Mountain Side – but it usually acts as a component of the action rather than the catalyst.
There’s an added monstrous feature – whether human or something more overtly sinister – that jump-starts the fear that has already been creeping through the cold and oppressive atmosphere.
Arctic abandonment is an answer to the obvious solutions of “Why don’t you just leave?” or “Call for help!” in a way that is far more believable and understandable than “Oh no my phone isn’t working in the middle of this forest that is probably about a half hour away from civilization”.
Communication is complicated, running to a neighbor’s house is actually impossible, and paranoia is at an all-time-high when you’ve got nothing to do but sit around and suspect everyone else of foul play. Danger could very well be lurking around every corner, and frankly, there aren’t many places to hide.
A classic example of winter-themed horror is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Isolation goes hand-in-hand with paranoia – it ends up being more of a warning sign for the audience than the characters directly involved. When the hotel is occupied and busy it is non-threatening, but as soon as the Torrance family is left alone with the reminder that no-one is there to help them, shit goes a bit sideways.
There’s a healthy combination of internal and external factors – Jack Torrance brings his owns issues in but the Overlook Hotel certainly stirs the pot – and the extended period of seclusion puts a lot of pressure on an already difficult scenario.
A relatively recent example of sub-zero horror is Nick Szostakiwskyj’s Black Mountain Side. The setup is simple but the results are effective; A group working at an archeological site in Northern Canada unearth a bizarre structure and are plagued with odd illness, malfunctioning communications equipment, and hallucinations that guide them to paranoia and violence.
It’s an excellent love letter to John Carpenter’s The Thing, skillfully made with a great tracking shot to start the film’s climax. The extended moments of calm are pierced by violent discoveries that give a swift kick to the pacing – though the film doesn’t waste any time in kicking off the plot points.
The distrust that builds between the characters is well played – as some of the workers retreat early, the remaining group tries to hold out to get the job done, but it’s clear they’re starting to fray – and the breaks between scenes to demonstrate the passing of time give a good sense of how quickly things can turn.
There are some beautiful establishing shots at the opener that show just how remote they are (in Northern Canada, no one can hear you scream). The ending is abrupt and bleak to echo the stark landscape. It’s a new winter staple for me and it definitely makes me feel better about bundling up to seek out rations. I mean, things could be a lot worse.