Six chilling flicks

By Garth Brody

The holidays have come and gone, and with them go the last vestiges of seasonal sentimentality. We’ve reached the cruel heart of winter, that interminable stretch between now and April during which Mother Nature treats us to her most brutal conditions: black ice, freezing winds and scraping the frost off the windshield in the morning. Hellish stuff, and bad weather is only the beginning. Snowbound isolation and prolonged darkness make this the perfect time of the year for horror. So toss out your old Christmas trees, snuff the candles on your menorah, and get ready to feel the icy touch of the hereafter. The following films will chill you to the bone, proving that wintertime is just right for fright.

The Shining (1980)

This is cabin fever at its finest. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s 1977 psychological thriller novel has a family of three moving in as the winter caretakers of a remote hotel, with Jack Nicholson playing the frustrated novelist Jack Torrance, Danny Lloyd as his telepathically inclined son and the eternally shrill Shelley Duvall as his wife. The real star of “The Shining,” however, is the terrifying Overlook Hotel, which was built on the site of an old Indian burial ground (figures) and is currently teeming with the spirits of deceased guests, including a fantastically creepy pair of twin girls and an uncomfortably racist butler. It is thanks to the Overlook Hotel that we can never look at an elevator door without getting the heebie-jeebies. The real clincher for the film’s top spot on this particular list comes near the end, and it involves a harrowing chase sequence through a snow-covered hedge maze. For the readers who haven’t seen the movie, you might want to go ahead and skip down to the next item on our list; for those of you who have seen the movie, let’s just leave it at this: Jack Nicholson’s frozen face. Yikes.

The Thing (1982)

Space is pretty cold, so it follows that if an interstellar traveler were to crash land on Earth, they would probably aim for the polar regions, right? That must be why the shape-shifting visitor from John Carpenter’s “The Thing” finds itself wandering into an American research station in Antarctica at the beginning of the film. It quickly becomes clear to the residents at the outpost, chief among them being Carpenter-favorite and general-purpose badass Kurt Russell, that the mysterious creature for which they have provided shelter is none other than an insidious, parasitic alien life-form which is capable of replicating terrestrial species. In other words, no one can be trusted. And anything can be blown up. This movie is the most fun you’ll ever have watching a group crumble into a burning heap of paranoia. Last year, we were treated to a mediocre Hollywood revival of “The Thing,” which itself was a remake of Howard Hawks’ 1951 “The Thing from Another World” (which in turn was adapted from a novella), a troubling pattern that indicates that “The Thing” might be caught in the same endless Hollywood rehash cycle of diminishing returns as “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” a 1956 sci-fi horror film that has seen three remakes (only one of which is any good).

Misery (1990)

Another Stephen King adaptation, this one is directed by Rob Reiner, and it depicts the unique relationship between a popular novelist (James Caan) and his eccentric rescuer (Kathy Bates), after his car goes off the road in a blizzard. Of course, by “unique,” we mean “terrifying and brutal,” and by “rescuer,” we mean “psychotic captor.” This is the movie that gave the sledgehammer a bad name and, in the same stroke, earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Kathy Bates. Luckily, she doesn’t seem to have been too “hobbled” by the sort of typecasting that often follows such an iconic role as Annie Wilkes. Crazy Annie claims to be the absolute number one fan of Caan’s novelist, but she is not so much a fan of the new direction he is planning on taking with his next book, so she strands him in a bed in her tiny, remote cabin. Not only does this film give an intimate portrait of icy alienation, but it also presents some slyly self-reflexive implications about the sometimes coercive role of the audience in the act of artistry. Like a Hitchcock film, but with 100 percent more sledgehammer.

30 Days of Night (2007)

The weeks-long polar night is a fairly horrifying concept even without any supernatural interference, but toss a few vampires into the mix and you’ve got yourself a recipe for chaos. In David Slade’s adaptation of a comic book mini-series, an ancient group of blood-suckers terrorize a tiny arctic town during the coldest, darkest part of the year. Josh Hartnett plays the handsomest sheriff in Alaska, and Melissa George plays his refreshingly competent spouse. Together, they scramble to rescue as many of their beleaguered neighbors as they can from the disturbingly realized vampires slaughtering anything with a pulse and a pickup truck. It’s gritty and urgent, and it capitalizes beautifully on the desolation of its arctic setting. On a side note, it may be just a coincidence that its title sounds a bit like “28 Days Later,” but it’s hard to ignore the fact that this film treats vampires rather like its counterpart treats zombies, which is to say that vampirism is caused by a virus and that those who are afflicted by it always seem to be sprinting everywhere. Dynamite pacing and shiver-inducing gore effects make this a highly recommended wintertime thriller.

Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

The holiday season may be over, but we just couldn’t resist including this controversial classic on the list. You might recognize the title from a viral clip that has been in circulation for years, the one where the dad in a sweater shoots the other dad while he is taking out the trash, but not before awkwardly bellowing “garbage day!” at his hapless victim. That’s a clip from “Silent Night, Deadly Night 2,” which is a horrible and pointless sequel. “Silent Night, Deadly Night,” on the other hand, is an absolute triumph of an ‘80s schlock-slasher flick. Basically, a kid witnesses the murder of both of his parents by a criminal in a Santa suit. We then see a few scenes of violent Catholic repression during his stay at an orphanage, then some time passes, and then boom, he’s working Christmas Eve as the department store Santa. The rest of the film is spent chronicling his ensuing murderous rampage, featuring some of the goofiest and most creatively staged kills you’ll ever see. And despite some low-rent acting, the sharply satirical script isn’t half bad. Upon the film’s release, family values groups like the PTA went nuts and tried to get the movie banned, but you can still find it pretty easily if you look around.

 

Dreamcatcher (2003)

 

Another Stephen King adaptation? Heck yes. Four telepaths, friends since childhood, come face-to-face with an extraterrestrial body-snatching infection in the snowy woods of Maine, and they must stop it before a ruthless general goes too far and kills every human in the region – and even that’s simplifying it quite a bit. This movie is mind-warpingly weird on two different levels. First of all, it’s genuinely creepy. The visceral visual effects on the aliens are pretty freaky, and watching the creatures consume and infect people is awesomely terrifying. Second, the writing is just pants-on-head, Andy Dick-grade wacky, even for a sci-fi flick. One can only listen to four grown men with names like “Jonesy” and “Beaver” spew phrases like “bite my bag” and “f*ck me, Freddy” like it’s totally normal so many times until it gets a bit too quirky even for the science fiction crowd. Despite a promising ensemble cast – Thomas Jane, Jason Lee, Timothy Olyphant, and Morgan Freeman, to name a few – the acting in this movie is a bit stiff, with the best performance coming from Freeman (who is still overacting like it’s going out of style). M. Night Shyamalan could learn a thing or two from this movie, though. For any viewers who think they’re good at guessing twists, there was probably no one who saw this movie and said (spoiler alert): “Oh, the mentally challenged guy is actually an alien who ends up fighting and defeating the evil aliens, I knew it all along!”

Garth Brody can be reached at [email protected] and Dave Coffey can be reached at [email protected].