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Best winter horror movies

Jack Torrance in the snow
(Image credit: Warner Bros)

Most of us have probably spent more time than usual in our homes this year, and after eight months, it's probably getting fairly maddening. Worse, it's not going to change anytime soon, as many states have been forced to increase curfews and close down more businesses in an effort to keep the virus from spreading even further. There's really no sugarcoating it: it sucks!

But horror movies have a secret power that's rarely considered: they make things seem better in your own life. Had a bad camping trip? Couldn't have been as bad as the ones depicted in Sleepaway Camp or Friday the 13th! Can your fights with your family possibly turn out as bad as the ones in Hereditary? Bad dream? Well, you woke up, didn't you? So you're not on Elm Street. Sure, a good horror film can scare us out of our wits while we're watching, and maybe even keep us rattled after the credits have finished, but ultimately one can say "At least I didn't have it that bad."

So in honor of our forced staycations for the winter months ahead, let's take a look at some of the best "snowbound" horror movies, where our heroes (and villains) have to choose between sticking around inside with a possible killer (or ghost, or monster, or...) or freezing to death outside. After taking in a few of these, maybe missing a few parties and doing all of your holiday shopping online won't seem so bad?

The Shining (1980)

There are several horror movies about writers secluding themselves to write their new novel/play/etc. only to be constantly distracted by ghosts and other supernaturally charged beings, and every single one of them (post-1980 anyway) owe a debt to Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining. While perhaps not the most "faithful" telling of Stephen King's bestseller, the film nevertheless produced a seemingly endless number of images that are forever burned in the minds of anyone who has seen it. "Here's Johnny!", the sisters standing in the hall, the blood spraying from the elevator doors, hell, even the carpet pattern is instantly recognizable. And to think, Jack Torrance was only trapped there for six months! We're on eight and counting - so now we're all officially qualified to serve as the Overlook's caretaker!

The Thing (1982)

Believe it or not, John Carpenter's 1982 adaptation of John Campbell's novella "Who Goes There?" (which was very loosely adapted in 1951's The Thing From Another World) was a box office flop when it was released, with E.T. partly to blame - audiences wanted cuddly aliens, not scary monsters who would impersonate your coworkers and bite your arms off. But over time it has been rightfully reappraised as a classic, with many listing it as Carpenter's best film, one that has inspired a video game sequel and 2011 prequel (both confusingly also just called The Thing), plus a board game. 

All that stuff is fun to have, but the film itself is all you really need; Carpenter's pitch perfect depiction of isolation and paranoia among the dozen men who find themselves trapped on their Antarctic base is just as effective now as it was then. Rob Bottin's special effects haven't aged a day, and the Ennio Morricone score (with some additional cues from Carpenter himself) ranks among his best. And you can practically FEEL how cold it is, even before Kurt Russell's MacReady reenters the base with a frozen beard (which still looks glorious) after being stuck outside for only a few minutes. You're better off with the shapeshifter.

Misery (1990)

Had James Caan's Paul Sheldon taken his car trip in the middle of the summer, he probably never would have met his "Number One Fan" Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates, who rightfully won an Oscar for her work here). But his Camaro was no match for the icy roads in Colorado, and we can debate all day whether or not it would have been preferable to freeze to death in the car or get "rescued" by Annie. The snowy conditions are her excuse for why he's stuck there at first, but even when it becomes clear that it's not the real reason, it certainly plays a part in why he can't easily escape either - even before his foot meets the business end of a sledgehammer. 

30 Days of Night (2007)

The 2007 adaptation of the best-selling comic series stars Josh Hartnett and Melissa George as an estranged couple who find themselves trapped in their Alaskan town of Barrow during an extended period where the sun never comes up - a perfect place for hungry vampires, who as we know aren't exactly simpatico with daylight. The frozen temperatures prove to be just as dangerous as the bloodthirsty creatures that swarm the town, with our heroes looking for shelter and supplies that can last until the sun finally comes up (in, you guessed it, 30 days). Director David Slade and DP Jo Willems never tire of showing blood spraying across pure white snow, all under an unending darkness and constant howl of the wind that never lets you forget that the sun is going to save our heroes in more ways than one. 

Cold Prey (2006)

Fans of old-school slasher films like Friday the 13th and The Burning should find lots to like in this Norwegian thriller, the debut feature from Tomb Raider director Roar Uthaug. Our heroes are a group of snowboarders who are having a perfectly enjoyable time on the slopes until one suffers a nasty injury. Looking for shelter, they find an abandoned lodge that - as is often the case in such things - is unfortunately the home base for a local masked murderer. The above average likability of the kids and emphasis on suspense over a body count makes it a stronger than expected entry in the sub-genre, and Uthaug utilizes the setting for maximum potential - complete with a cute little nod to The Shining for good measure.

Wind Chill (2007)

A cautionary tale about riding with strangers (from a pre-Uber time, no less), the film stars Emily Blunt as a student who hitches a ride with Ashton Holmes after finding his name on their college's ride sharing board. But this is no rom-com; the two of them don't exactly hit it off, and to make matters worse Holmes' car breaks down somewhere on a Pennsylvania back road, miles away from any help. Not that they can just walk to the last gas station or whatever; as the title hints at, it's below freezing out and neither of them are prepared for such a hike. They're also not prepared for the ghosts and other creepy visitations that plague them as hypothermia sets in, making an already bad situation much worse. The moral of the story: stay home! 

Frozen (2010)

No, Elsa and Olaf aren't in this one. This 2010 thriller from Adam Green finds a trio of snowboarders trapped on a chair lift that is shut down with them still on it, due to miscommunication from the ride operator down below. With the local ski area closed until the following weekend (it sounds silly, but that is a real thing for the smaller ski areas in New England where the film is set, as they're only open on weekends for a chunk of the season) the three have a choice between hoping rescue will come, waiting out the week in sub-zero temperatures with no supplies, or trying to get down from their rickety chair a hundred feet up. It's the best kind of survival thriller, where you in your comfy home can play armchair quarterback, only to see the characters try those very things and pay dearly for it. 

The Lodge (2019)

This recent festival hit from the makers of Goodnight Mommy tells the story of Grace (Riley Keough), a troubled young woman who has recently struck up a relationship with Richard (Richard Armitage), a divorced man with two children. Hoping to bond with her future stepchildren, the quartet decide to spend Christmas at the family lodge, only for work issues to call Richard away for a few days, leaving Grace alone with two kids who don't seem to like her much. As the snowstorms keep them confined to the house more and more often, Grace starts to crack - or are the kids trying to drive her crazy so that their father will break up with her? This slow burn chiller was actually one of the last movies released in the US (limited) before the Covid-19 shutdowns started, so if you were lucky enough to see it then you can consider yourself part of an exclusive audience. No one seeing it in theaters thought that this would be their reality for the bulk of the year! 

Krampus (2015)

Most Christmas movies feature snow in some form or other, but Michael Dougherty's Krampus - a cinematic cousin to his earlier Trick r' Treat - is one of the few that treat it as a detriment to the proceedings. With a house full of obnoxious family members (think Christmas Vacation), Adam Scott and Toni Collette wake up one morning to discover that the power is out, all of their neighbors are gone, and a never ending snowstorm is keeping them from getting very far from each other OR the monsters that besiege them as night falls. All of it is the work of the titular monster, who has unusual ways of getting them to appreciate the holiday. And by unusual I mean creepy af (with some goofiness thrown in for good measure) and surprisingly violent for a PG-13 film, though with a macabre sense of humor that makes the whole thing an offbeat but enjoyable take on the "stuck with the in-laws" trope. 

Storm of the Century (1999)

Nearly twenty years after The Shining, Stephen King cut out the middleman and wrote a snowbound horror directly for the screen. The small screen, that is, as Storm of the Century was an ABC mini series that premiered during a snowy February. The plot is vintage King; an evil force (in the form of a man named Andre Linoge) arrives in a small town and turns Tim Daly and the rest of its residents against each other, not unlike Needful Things and Tommyknockers before it (and Under the Dome after it). The key difference is that they're all trapped by the titular storm, said to be the worst in a hundred years - and even more problematic when they're on an island. The mystery about what Linoge wants is inspired by Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, and given our current situation it's perhaps a timely film to revisit as it depicts how quickly people can turn on each other instead of doing right by their neighbors.

Bonus: If you want to make it a double feature, Daly's longtime Wings co-star Steven Weber played Jack in the ABC miniseries version of The Shining

In addition to WhatToWatch, Brian Collins has written for Fangoria, Shudder, Bloody Disgusting, BirthMoviesDeath, and ScreamFestLA. He is also the creator of the long running Horror Movie A Day blog, which has spawned a book and a screening series at Los Angeles' famed New Beverly Cinema. When not watching and writing about horror, he can be found giving himself carpal tunnel on Twitter or watching his son play Minecraft on a TV that he can barely consider "his" at this point.