No cure for cabin fever: 16 memorable films set during cold snaps
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1. Fargo (1996)
Few films have managed to convey the brutal oppression of Minnesota winters as accurately as Fargo. The citizenry's blank stoicism grows as much out of human helplessness in the face of such killing cold as from any inherent aspect of the Scandinavian stock. From the film's opening shot of a car making its lonely way through a vast expanse of white to the hilarious moment where outsider Steve Buscemi attempts to mark the location of his ransom money by sticking a tiny plastic widget in a huge snowdrift, indistinguishable from hundreds of others, Fargo lets those from warmer climes feel the northern winters in their bones. The moment where a frustrated, lost William H. Macy explodes in anger while scraping ice off his windshield may seem like just a swell piece of acting, but that moment is all too familiar to anyone who's ever had to drive in the Twin Cities in February.
2. Doctor Zhivago (1965)
Like many movies set in frozen landscapes of snow and ice, David Lean's epic adaptation of Boris Pasternak's novel was mostly filmed in 90-degree heat. But the chill of the Russian winter still comes across, as Zhivago and Lara crisscross the early 20th century, searching for love amid multiple revolutions. It isn't the sub-zero temperatures that cool the inner being as much as the smothering blizzard of a lonely fate. And when it comes to staying frosty, it's much better to freeze from the inside out.
3. Alexander Nevsky (1938)
Sergei Eisenstein's masterful piece of war propaganda had a double life: When it was first commissioned, the Von Ribbentrop Pact (ensuring non-aggression between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany) was still in force. Stalin found the anti-Teutonic themes in its story of pagan Russia defending itself against invading Crusaders too blatant, and ordered the movie suppressed. But when the Nazis inevitably betrayed the pact and invaded Russia, it found widespread acceptance as a call to arms against a new Teutonic threat. The movie's final battle scene, of a titanic clash between the outnumbered Russians of Novgorod and the Christian knights, is a brilliant piece of staging, with stark period detail and a bloody, tragic clash on the frozen Lake Piepus. The invading Germans would soon learn that the folly of winter warfare in Russia wasn't just confined to myth.
4. Never Cry Wolf (1983)
Although Charles Martin Smith acquits himself admirably in one of his rare lead roles—and few actors besides Brian Dennehy can pull off being unstable and repulsive and still come out looking like a guy worth having a beer with—the true stars of Never Cry Wolf are the white-capped Alaskan and Yukon mountains which loom over every scene, icily immutable and indifferent. Dropped off by Dennehy's besotted bush pilot on a vast frozen lake that threatens to swallow him whole, Smith's nebbishy biologist at first looks like a sure candidate for hypothermia, not to mention easy prey for the wolves he's there to study. But as Smith adjusts to the wilderness with the help of his new Inuit friends, he also learns to embrace the cold, swimming in melting glacial lakes and even running naked across the tundra in a scene that makes members of the Polar Bear Club look like rank amateurs. Upon its original release, Smith's bare ass got some Disney-heads all hot and bothered, but it's likely to have most viewers reaching for an extra pair of pants.
5. The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
Perhaps it's a little unfair to include The Day After Tomorrow in the "cold snaps" category when the film contains so many different exciting types of weather. However, it's when the temperature turns chilly that the action, er, heats up in a movie that treats the oh-so-topical concept of global warming as if it were Godzilla. Long story short: Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid, and some other people are tormented by tornadoes, hurricanes, a tsunami, and then a satisfying deep freeze and blizzard, which are made more laughably memorable by the accompaniment of untimely blood poisoning, a yacht stuck on a major New York City thoroughfare, and, yes, wolves.
6. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
Setting his revisionist Western McCabe & Mrs. Miller in the cold, snowy Pacific Northwest was one of many perverse spins Robert Altman put on the sturdiest of Hollywood genres. But he wasn't just thumbing his nose at convention. When snow blankets the town of Presbyterian Church right before the de rigueur gunfight between "hero" Warren Beatty and a gang of corporate-funded killers, Altman uses the desolate surroundings to bring out the sadness inherent to the lonely wanderer who is, to quote the Leonard Cohen song that plays over the film's opening credits, "just some Joseph looking for a manger." In the end, Beatty must face his enemies alone, and when he's wounded while successfully fighting them off, the snow removes all traces of his presence.
7. Dersu Uzala (1975)
Dersu Uzala seems like a hiccup in Akira Kurosawa's filmography, a Japanese-Soviet co-production that finds the director outside his comfort zone—or anyone's comfort zone, for that matter, since the action takes place in deepest Siberia. Detailing the relationship between an early-20th-century Russian explorer who mapped the Krai territory of Russia's Far East and the nomadic hunter who serves as his guide, the film is a prime example of Kurosawa's mastery of landscape and the elements. (By the he made Ran, he could apparently control the weather.) There's no colder sequence in cinema than when the two adventurers get caught the open, frozen marshland as day turns to night and the bitter Arctic winds kick in. With little to thatch together for even the flimsiest shelter, they're left exposed in the Siberian darkness, scrambling frantically to stay alive.
8. The Shining (1980)
The mountains of Colorado are an ideal destination for vacationing skiers, but the Overlook Hotel anticipates such a deluge of snow every winter that the roads are closed, the rooms are left vacant, and the only occupants are a lone caretaker and the family he tries to kill when he goes mad. Though much of that madness comes from within the hotel's haunted rooms and corridors, director Stanley Kubrick heightens the feeling of isolation by blanketing the setting with chest-deep snowdrifts that are virtually impossible to traverse. When groundskeeper Scatman Crothers responds to a psychic distress call, Kubrick makes a joke out of the sheer arduousness of his journey, which culminates in an epic trip up the mountain that ends with shocking abruptness. And in the end, only the elementary forces of snow and cold can stop the otherworldly powers that drive a man to the brink.
9. A Simple Plan (1998)
Snow covers a multitude of sins in A Simple Plan, where the discovery of a downed plane carrying $4 million leads to paranoia, deceit, and murder among two brothers, a friend, and their families. Sam Raimi's use of the remote Wisconsin countryside recalls the work of his former collaborators the Coen brothers in Fargo, another film where seemingly happy-go-lucky Midwesterners are revealed as greedy, weak, and desperate to escape the consequences of their heinous actions. In the end, family man Bill Paxton avoids the law but loses his fortune, all because he couldn't wait out an endless winter to collect on the bounty.
10. The Ice Storm (1997)
As the tagline for Ang Lee's 1997 film goes, "It was 1973, and the climate was changing." Sure, that's a metaphor for the post-counterculture experimentalism that had seeped into the Connecticut suburbs, the setting of Lee's adaptation of Rick Moody's novel. But it's also pretty literal: The film centers on the events of Thanksgiving weekend, just as fall slowly abdicates to winter. It's cold, but not cold enough for snow in the upper atmosphere. Closer to the ground, it's below freezing, so the moisture from a drizzly rainstorm coats everything in ice. It's beautiful, but also dangerous if you're driving—or taking a stroll, as Elijah Wood discovers.
11 and 12. The Thing From Another World (1951) and The Thing(1982)
Both adaptations of John W. Campbell's short novel Who Goes There? share its remote, frigid setting, though they don't have much else in common. The first, which bears a heavier stamp from producer Howard Hawks than from journeyman director Christian Nyby, finds a group of scientists in Alaska pitted against an emotionless vegetable alien intent on destroying them in order to sustain itself. The film's rapid dialogue and the image of hardworking men and women banding together to perform a difficult task mark it as a Hawks film, and its transplanting of free-floating fear to a monster from space would be much imitated throughout the decade.
The cold hinders the characters in Nyby's film, but it's downright hostile in John Carpenter's remake, which faithfully adheres to Campbell's original premise of an alien capable of imitating the form of humans, or any other living creature. Moving the action to Antarctica, the film uses cold to pin its characters inside as they turn on one another. There's no fleeing the scene when the cold itself can kill. And there's no Hawks-inspired bonding among people when anyone on the site might be an evil alien. Carpenter made no secret of his admiration of Hawks, but he essentially made the opposite of a Hawks film. Where Hawks left viewers with a defeated enemy and the command to "Watch the skies," in Carpenter's film, the chill shows no signs of lifting.
13. The Gold Rush (1925)
Charlie Chaplin went into insulin shock after shooting dozens of takes of the scene where he eats a licorice boot. For those without a taste for Chaplin's brand of comedy, that's a lot funnier than anything else in the movie, but The Gold Rush is still considered one of his greatest films. Although the story of a lonely prospector looking to hit it rich in the Klondike was largely a studio creation, it's a testament to Chaplin's Hollywood clout at the time that he was actually able to film one scene (of gold miners trudging up a mountain pass) on location in Chilkoot, Alaska. The Gold Rush was so influential that it handed down dozens of cold-weather tropes; 75 years after its release, The Simpsons was still riffing on the "two guys who hate each other get trapped in a cabin by an avalanche" scene.
14. Quintet (1979)
Here's something to know about Quintet: It's bad. Really, really bad. It would probably be the worst movie ever to feature Robert Altman's name in the director slot if not for the existence of H.E.A.L.T.H. Still, it's one hell of a cold-weather picture. Filmed at the ruined site of the 1967 Montreal World's Fair in the dead of winter, it conveys, if nothing else, what a drag it must be to live in the post-apocalyptic ice age in which it's set. Filmed in the weird part of the 1970s (as evidenced by the presence of Nina Van Pallandt), Quintet is about a drifter, played by a cold, pissed-off-looking Paul Newman, who wanders into a futuristic city and gets involved with what seems to be a futuristic version of the Mafia. If this movie had been made 16 years later, it would have cost half a billion dollars and been called Waterworld. The lesson? Count your blessings.
15. Ice Station Zebra (1968)
Although star Rock Hudson cited it as his favorite role, John Sturges' Cold War thriller Ice Station Zebra isn't anything like a classic. There are some good performances by Hudson and Patrick McGoohan, but Jim Brown as a nail-chewing Marine looks totally lost, multiple writer turnovers resulted in a messy script, and it's at least half an hour too long. Still, it works for two reasons: It nicely presages the great-game spy thrillers of the 1970s, and it puts the cold in Cold War, with its narrative of a desperate submarine sent on a reckless rescue mission to a remote arctic weather station. At any rate, reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes liked it: He ordered his Las Vegas TV station to show it more than a hundred times before finally buying a print which played on continuous loop in his Desert Inn hideout.
16. The Ice Harvest (2005)
It's Christmastime in Wichita. A couple of thieves (John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton) have just lifted more than $2 million in cash from the local mob and need to get out of town. Fast. And yet it's clear from the opening scene of The Ice Harvest that it isn't going to be possible, as the Midwest plains are coated in a sheet of ice. Director Harold Ramis, working from a wry script by Robert Benton and Richard Russo, turns the forbidding landscape into a metaphorical running joke, as the thieves slip and slide desperately across the terrain without actually getting anywhere.