Snowbound cinema


A satellite view of snow across Great Britain on January 7, 2010.

Walking the snow-laden streets this week felt like a considerable novelty when we rarely have snowfalls of any depth here and what there is never lasts much longer than a day. The current low temperatures which began just before Christmas may be inducing a national trauma but the genuinely wintery weather makes a change from the dreary weeks of rain and cold which usually prevail until April.

Whilst trudging through the crusted ice I found myself remembering favourite films which make the most of winter landscapes. Here’s a short list to follow the earlier winter-themed posts.

McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971)
Several Westerns before this one had featured winter scenes but I think Robert Altman’s was the first to be set at the height of winter in a snowbound town. Memorable for Vilmos Zsigmond’s photography, Leonard Cohen’s lugubrious songs, Warren Beatty’s doomed businessman stomping around wrapped in furs muttering “Pain, pain, pain!”, and the finale when he’s hunted down by a trio of assassins.

The Shining (1980)
Has anyone not seen this film? Despite the artificial snow, Kubrick’s direction and John Alcott’s photography communicate authentic chills, both meteorological and metaphysical.


Yes, it’s a genuine Christmas postcard from Oregon’s Timberline Lodge which became the model for Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel. Writer Tom Veitch sent me this some years ago.

The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s grisly Antarctic horror is the film I still find to be his best. Like his earlier Assault on Precinct 13, this is another siege situation borrowed from Howard Hawks only this time the enemy is within. Until someone films At the Mountains of Madness, this is the closest you’ll get to Lovecraft’s polar nightmares.

Runaway Train (1985)
Few people know this: escaped convicts Jon Voight and Eric Roberts find themselves on the titular train with rail worker Rebecca De Mornay, and it’s a long ride through frozen landscapes as they try to escape the law and the train itself before it crashes. Andrei Konchalovsky directs a story by Akira Kurosawa rewritten by Edward Bunker (who has a cameo) and others. The result is a strange blend of hardboiled drama and existential symbolism with a great score by Trevor Jones.

Fargo (1996)
One of the Coen Brothers’ best. Watching this again over Christmas along with many of their other films, it was amusing to see Steve Buscemi transform from Fargo‘s vicious and splenetic kidnapper to the mild-mannered character he plays in The Big Lebowski. Despite the statement at the beginning of the film, Fargo isn’t a true story but its existence became tangled with some curious real-life events.?

Update: I was reminded on Twitter about Altman’s bizarre future Ice Age drama, Quintet, which I should have mentioned above. Not as successful as the earlier film but its setting certainly suits the weather.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Bruegel in winter
Winter panoramas
Winter music
Winter light
Kubrick shirts
At the Mountains of Madness
Images by Robert Altman

9 thoughts on “Snowbound cinema”

  1. Like his earlier Assault on Precinct 13, this is another siege situation borrowed from Howard Hawks only this time the enemy is within.

    Actually, he went right past Hawks and back to the original source material, John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?”.

  2. Dear John,

    Great piece but am I permitted to point out two more great snowbound westerns with bleak endings that possibly filtered down to Altman: Andre De Toth’s Day Of The Outlaw and Sergio Corbucci’s The Big Silence. True, the snow is never as deep as in McCabe but both are worthy of mention. Also, who knew that Kubrick filched the Shining opening from that Chevy Chase/Goldie Hawn romcom, Foul Play. Type both films into Youtube to see what I mean.

  3. Hi Tim. Yes, Carpenter’s version owes a lot more to Campbell’s Who Goes There? but I’d argue that without the Hawks/Nyby film he ever would have made The Thing. The Hawks film is quoted in Halloween, after all, and Carpenter returns to Hawks-like groups under siege in other films such as The Fog and Prince of Darkness. It’s also arguable that Campbell’s story was inspired by Lovecraft’s since At the Mountains of Madness was published by Campbell in Astounding, which would make both films obliquely Lovecraftian.

    Thanks Andrew. I suspected there’d be a De Toth or Mann Western which made use of snow. And I’ve only seen The Big Silence the once so it’s not been memorable enough. (By coincidence, I just did a quick layout job on a Spaghetti Westerns book which has Klaus Kinski on the cover.) That Foul Play/Shining interface is…uncanny.

  4. While Europe freezes to death, we are drowning in rain, here in Brazil. But I did see the films above. Quintet is very strange, quite expreimental, but that’s why I like it. McCabe and Mrs. Miller is wonderful and Runaway Train is probably the best filme I’ve ever seen with Jon Voight (well, there´s Catch 22 as well…). Well, hope your winter go away soon, as well as our summer.

  5. Runnaway Train is brilliant. Even Eric Roberts is actually good in this one. And I consider The Thing to be the most lovecraftian film ever (well, at least until Gillermo Del Toro or someone makes At The Mountains Of Madness).

  6. The Big Silence or ‘The Great Silence’ as it was titled over here, is indeed ‘great’, but I hope Del Toro ‘never’ is able to make At the Mountains of Madness. Over the past decade his output has grown more and more simple minded. Those Hellboy movies, especially the 2nd one, were basically like watching a geek with a huge budget and a small penis, beat off on screen, imagining things most would snicker at, oh wait, that’s exactly what what they were. They made Magnolias actual comics seem like Moore’s, thats how bad those movies were. Pan’s Labyrinth seemed so forced and scatterbrained, trying to be everything to everyone who saw it, failing in every one of its wildly divergent arenas.

    One could say, A Company of Wolves had some wintry moments about it, as did the 2nd piece in Kwaidan. About the most recent fantastic themed wintry movie(not necessarily fantastic in quality) was that 30 Days of Night film, which will necessarily be followed by 10 direct-to-video sequals.

    The Thing was my favorite as well, though the Shining had some impressive music, that relatively simple score to the former seemed even more powerful, like an eternal dirge.

  7. I’m pleased to see Runaway Train isn’t the obscurity it often seems when I mention it to people.

    Wiley: I nearly had some involvement in 2002/3 with Del Toro’s ATMOM. By a fluke I knew someone who knew the producers attached to the project at the time when it would have been a film for Dreamworks. I sent them a load of my work with the suggestion that I do conceptual design for the alien architecture. The producers were keen, Del Toro far less so when I finally got to speak to him. In fairness, he said it was too early for him to make up his mind (this was when he was about to make Hellboy) but I suspect he would have wanted Mike Mignola and Wayne Barlow to do a lot of the design since he’s had them work on subsequent films. I remember him saying he wanted to do it as a period piece, not modern-day, which was a plus. On the debit side, the person writing the script also wrote Mimic. The trouble with ATMOM is that there’s no real story; they travel to Antarctica, make some world-shattering discoveries then literally run away. The risk with a film is you’d get some typical Hollywood hack storyline imposed on it.

    Ennio Morricone’s score for The Thing was very smartly edited by Carpenter who removed a lot of typical clanging Morricone stuff in favour of that minimal drone and synth pulse.

    Meanwhile, this is either good or bad: The Prequel.

  8. Well, I ‘ve enjoyed most of Del Toro’s films (apart from Mimic), so I wouldn’t mind him adapting Lovecraft at all. Lovecraft means different things to different people though, so I wouldn’ t expect a consensus regarding the suitable director. Some people like Stuart Gordon’s stuff for example, although I think he misses the point completely. No accounting for taste, etc, etc…

    30 Days Of Night had a lot of things going for it (fantastic central concept, truly scary vampires, Danny Houston) but the result was less than the sum of its parts my opinion (plus, Joss Harnett always looks like a teenager, so I couldn ‘t take him seriously as the Sheriff). And while we ‘re on the subject of Winter films (and vampires), can I suggest Let The Right One In? I loved that one.

    i shudder at the thought of a prequel to The Thing (despite Ron D. Moore’s involvement). I recently read that Stephen King is writing a sequel to The Shining as well. I think that some stories do not need to be expanded upon. I hope they prove me wrong though.

  9. I saw a DVD of Let the Right One In at a reduced price this Saturday. Thought about buying it but I’m rather tired of the current tide of vampires and zombies. (Really tired of the latter!)

    I wish people would stop diminishing the value of things by jobbing out prequels and sequels; this is how money ruins art. A prequel to The Thing would have the immediate effect of spoiling the horror of those scenes at the destroyed Norwegian camp where the doctor asks “What happened here?” Sometimes it’s more horrifying when you don’t know.

    Then there’s all the kind of crap which Hollywood does today that spoils things: repeating dialogue/events from the earlier film, ramping up the threat or menace to a ridiculous degree, losing whatever subtlety the earlier work had, etc. Lots of pitfalls that could make the film an irritation.

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