There are very few levellers left in the twenty-first century. But one phenomenon still guaranteed to wipe away social barriers is the snow-day. A liberal sprinkling of the white stuff and it no longer matters if you’re upper class, lower class, no class, black, white, green, old, young or anything in between. You’ll say hello to strangers, you’ll stop to admire your surroundings, you’ll fill up with the glee of a ten year old child. At the very worst, if you’re heading into work your journey will be more eventful and picturesque than the usual slog; a mini adventure if you will. If you’re lucky enough to have a snow-day to yourself the world transforms into a Victorian Christmas card, a pure white playground for kids and adults alike. The unashamed joy of a snowball fight or a sledging session is yours no matter what your demographic. But when all the chilly fun has been soaked up and night draws in what do you do next? A good snow-day is such a rare occurrence I almost feel guilty for not making more of the opportunity even after the sun has called it a day. There isn’t much to do though apart from stare out the living room window into the gloomy whiteness. Unless that is you have one of the following ten movies in your film collection. There’s a good film for every occasion and snow-days are no different. So when you’ve finished frolicking in heaven’s powder why not cap off the day with a film that also takes advantage of winters finest weather.
- THE GOLD RUSH (1925)
Most people underestimate classic comedy. In the face of the uber sophisticated, high-speed mirth of modern cinematic rib-tickling the clowning of Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello and the black and white era comics seems whimsical. But unlike most other movie genres, time is kind to comedy. What was funny a hundred years ago is still funny today. Unaware clod falling into a hole in the ground; they laughed in medieval times and we laugh now. The champion of clowning during cinema’s toddler years was Charlie Chaplin. You might have heard of him; he was the guy Hitler ripped off for his slick hair, square moustache look. Shame the Fuhrer didn’t steal his sense of humour as well. Great comedy doesn’t always need sound and Chaplin with his character for the ages, the Little Tramp was the master of the visual gag. His most focused and oft imitated outing was his turn in The Gold Rush (1925). Written, produced and directed by Chaplin we follow the Tramp to the Yukon where he aims to earn his fortune in the Klondike gold rush. Instead the hapless Tramp finds himself stranded in a log cabin thanks to harsh wintery weather with fellow prospector Big Jim and fugitive-on-the-run Black Larsen for company. The clowning as always is exquisitely executed but what surprises even more is the heart and pathos that creeps into the story, carried mostly by the relationship between the Tramp and Georgia Hale as the female saloon worker. In 1942 Chaplin re-released his snowy classic, adding a full score, editing key scenes and recording his own narration. Luckily the release helped to preserve this cinematic milestone forever with the original 1925 prints showing considerable signs of aging by the turn of the century.
Tasty Morsel – Chaplin’s wife at the time Lita Grey was originally cast as the saloon worker, but with their marriage on rocky ground Hale took Grey’s place early on in shooting.
- ICE STATION ZEBRA (1968)
There are many films that have great snowy moments in them, The Empire Strikes Back (1980), The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) but a good snow-day movie has to have more than just a passing dalliance with winter weather. Snow needs to be raised to the level of permanent cast member and have as much screen time as the heroes and heroines. One late sixties action movie that made solid use of its frozen setting was the John Sturges directed Ice Station Zebra (1968). With the likes of Gunfight At The OK Corral (1957), The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963) already in his back catalogue Sturges was no stranger to top-end action movies and manly ensemble casts by the late sixties. For his latest effort he gathered together another testosterone fuelled line-up, featuring man’s man veteran Rock Hudson, the dependably gruff Ernest Borgnine, former American football badass Jim Brown and Danger Man himself Patrick McGoohan. The Tom Clancy of the time was Scottish writer Alistair Maclean, a skilled thriller scriber who always had plenty of twisty espionage spewing from his typewriter. The Guns Of Navarone (1961) had already shown Maclean’s writing to be cinematically lucrative so Sturges took a swing at his 1963 novel Ice Station Zebra. The story sees a US Naval Commander tasked with accompanying an assorted band of interested parties to a weather station on top of the world to mount a rescue mission. But the weather station isn’t all it seems and there’s another gang out there who are intent on ruining the rescue mission no matter what it takes. The film’s plot is certainly more hackneyed than Maclean’s original novel and the reliance on boys-own action seems almost quaint in the face of today’s CGI employed octane. But its the big characters that carry the movie, embodying all the brawny posturing of an era when movie men had ungroomed stuble, whiffed of Brut and weren’t afraid to lob a handful of snow in a bad guys face if they thought it would help them grab the upper hand. As Hudson enthuses, "We operate on a first name basis. My first name is Captain”.
Tasty Morsel – Rock Hudson has gone on record as saying that Ice Station Zebra was his favourite movie. He’s not alone in his appreciation. Director John Carpenter has often quoted it as his most guiltiest of pleasures and infamous nut-job Howard Hughes use to watch the film as often as he could convince TV stations to air it.
- THE THING (1982)
Man is the warmest place to hide, though a five-bar-fire would probably give us a good run for our money. Unfortunately portable heating units were in short supply at US Science Institute Station 4 so John Carpenter’s squibbly, beyond the stars visitor had to settle for squeezing into his the director’s all male cast instead. Good thing to, from a horror fan’s point of view. When it comes to movie’s set in the snow they don’t come any better than The Thing (1982). A remake of The Thing From Another World (1951) Carpenter’s movie makes unparalleled us of the wintery setting, employing all many of lighting affects to bring the white set to life; Science Institute Station 4 is skin-crawl central. To achieve the right look Carpenter’s crew headed up to British Columbia to build the sets for the Science Institute in the summer. They then let the winter weather take hold before heading back up to film later in the year. The result was a perfect looking set that Carpenter could do with as he pleased; and knee deep in snow, my word did he have some fun with it. You’d have thought The Thing would make for the perfect snow-day movie then but it’s not quite as simple as that though. The movie is a tough ride, on two counts. Firstly, when it comes to studies in paranoia you’re unlikely to find a more intense experience. As the defrosted alien impersonates the inhabitants of the Station one by one you won’t know where to look next, down which frosty corridor to peer and who to trust, including defacto front man Kurt Russell. Secondly, when the alien does reveal itself the repulsive explosion of body horror is likely to put a strain on the hardiest of stomachs. It’s an exhausting journey and the ambiguous finale offers little comfort. All the more reason though why it stands as one of the most outstanding pieces of cinema ever made. A surprisingly accomplished prequel that leads perfectly into Carpenter’s movie was released twenty nine years later, confusingly titled The Thing (2011).
Tasty Morsel – Perhaps the high point in cinematic practical effects work, the stunning hands on visuals were not without their casualties. Lead effects expert Rob Bottin was only saved from a complete breakdown when fellow FX wizard Stan Winston stepped in to help.
- DIE HARD 2 (1990)
With the same shit about to happen to the same guy for the fifth time this year, there’s not better time to revisit John McClane when this sort of thing was a mere déjà-vu. It seemed vaguely plausible that Officer McClane might find himself caught up in a second bout of terrorist bashing; he’s a policeman after all. So it was director Renny Harlin found himself with the difficult task of following up John McTiernan’s wonderful Die Hard (1988), with the Natatomi Plaza action just two years in the memory. Harlin started with solid source material, the Walter Wager novel 58 Minutes which follows a New York detective who has just under an hour to defeat a villain who has taken over JFK airport and is threatening to drop circling passengers planes out of the sky. NYPD’s Frank Malone became NYPD’s John McClane and Bruce Willis found himself neck deep in bullets and bad guys once again. Washington Dulles airport finds itself helpless via a similar terrorist takeover and McClane’s wife Holly is back in the thick of things circling the airport in one of the many now blinded planes running on fumes. The final fly in the ointment is a snow storm that has descended on Washington DC. What Harlin sensibly realised was that the success of Die Hard wasn’t down to Willis alone. He had a snowplough full of top drawer supporting players who ensured that the McClane free scenes were equally entertaining, the likes Alan Rickman, Reginald VelJohnnson, Paul Gleason, Bonnie Bedelia, William Atherton and Robert Davi hamming up a feast of memorable scenes. Harlin got Bedelia and Atherton back on board for a second go round and threw the likes of Art Evans, Fred Thompson, William Sadler, Dennis Franz and John Amos into the mix, to fine affect. The result was a repeat performance of McTiernan’s stellar part one and the launch of an action franchise that has seen McClane limp threw three more unlikely episodes.
Tasty Morsel – Many of the external shots were filmed in Denver, but when the Mile High City proved unseasonably snowless the crew had to bring in crates of fake white stuff to compensate.
- CLIFFHANGER (1993)
Stallone was one of the few eighties muscle-heads who managed to carry his success into the nineties, at least for a little while. While Schwarzenegger was pissing his career up the wall with the self indulgent Last Action Hero (1993) Sly continued earning plaudits in smart action movies like Demolition Man (1993) and Renny Harlin’s Cliffhanger (1993). Continuing his predilection for snowbound action Harlin journeyed up the mountain with Stallone in toe and a smart story from Michael France and John Long in his backpack. Sly plays a hot-shot mountain climber with a tragic accident in his past who finds himself embroiled in a failed heist as a US treasury plane crash lands in the Rocky Mountains. John Lithgow, employing one of cinema’s worst British accents, is the villain searching for the grounded plane and its cargo of cash. Providing his muscle is one time Eastender Craig Fairbrass in a rare Hollywood outing, while Stallone has the superb Michael Rooker in an equally rare but welcome good-guy turn as his friendly rival and brother in arms. Together Sly and the Rook have to foil the heist using their mountain climbing skills as they are forced into helping Lithgow track the knackered aircraft. The on-mountain stunt work is both dizzying and dazzling and Stallone manages to convince as an everyman hero despite his A-list background, doing for chunky pullovers what Willis did for vests five years prior. The film was a surprise box office smash and even the critics were placated, but both Harlin and Stallone's careers hit the icy skids in the years that followed. Stallone started a decade long tumble from fans and critics hearts with the dour The Specialist (1994) while Harlin served up the renowned cinematic catastrophe Cutthroat Island (1995). And while Sly has returned to our good graces with some recent return to form, Harlin’s answer was to serve up further turds in the form of Driven (2001), Exorcist: The Beginning (2004) and 12 Rounds (2009).
Tasty Morsel – Christopher Walken was originally cast as chief bad guy Qualen but chose to leave the project just before shooting began, allowing Lithgow to bring his wonderful accent skills to the big screen.
- ALIVE (1993)
Rugby is a tough old game, especially when you find yourself stranded on the side of an Andes mountain with no food, no shelter and no chance of a rescue. Such was the fate of the Uruguayan rugby team in October 1972 when their plane clipped a mountain in bad weather and crashed into a snowdrift 3,600 metres above sea level. Tragically, sixteen of the passengers died in the crash and a further thirteen succumbed to their injuries and the harsh conditions of the freezing terrain. When the survivors heard on the radio that the search for them had been abandoned three of the group decided to trek throw the Andes in search of rescue. Following a ten day slog threw impossible conditions two of the group managed to raise help and the remaining survivors were found. It seems a story so terrible and awe-inspiring you wonder whether it slipped off the pages of a Hollywood scriptwriter. But this incredible story was true and Frank Marshall’s movie retelling the events, Alive (1993), rose directly from Piers Paul Read’s 1974 acclaimed book Alive: The Story Of The Andes Survivors. There were a number of pitfalls Marshall had to sidestep. The danger of sensationalising proceedings was handled but letting the true facts tell the story; no need for unnecessary melodrama here. More potentially controversial was the point during the story where the remaining crash survivors turned to cannibalism in order to cling to life. With nothing around them to eat but rock, snow and mangled aluminium all the group had to eat were the frozen, preserved bodies of their friends and teammates. It must have been an agonising decision at the time and Marshall once again relies on the weight of the situation to convey the drama, a shocking moment tastefully portrayed. The cast, led by Ethan Hawke are universally wonderful and do both the survivors and the victims proud. It might be heavy viewing matter at the end of your own long day in the snow but it’s a movie experience you’ll never forget, from the opening terrifying plane crash to the exhausting trek to the bitter sweet finale.
Tasty Morsel – To prepare for the scene where the decision is taken by the survivors to eat flesh from the bodies of the deceased, all the actors involved fasted for two straight days to give them some idea of the extreme hunger faced by their real-life counterparts.
- A SIMPLE PLAN (1998)
With The Evil Dead (1982) being a universal cult hit directorial superstardom was almost assured for Sam Raimi. But like his in-front-of-camera buddy Bruce Campbell the stars didn’t quite align. Evil Dead follow-ups left critics unmoved and box office tills empty. Not that the likes of Darkman (1990) and The Quick and the Dead (1995) were bad movies, but they didn’t embody the ferocity of creativeness that fuelled Raimi’s horror debut. By 1998 Raimi decided to dial it back a few notches and chose a more low-key project, an adaptation of Scott Smith’s 1995 novel A Simple Plan. It was the first character piece Raimi had tackled but he had some safe hands to help him along the way. Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton play two brothers who along with their friend Lou (Brent Briscoe) discover a crashed plane in the woods with $4million in the wreckage. The plot becomes increasingly fraught as the threesome try and decide what to do with their discovered loot, soon turning to murder, covered tracks and FBI intervention. The likeability of Paxton and his dim brother Thornton will have most viewers watching with crossed fingers and toes, hoping that they manage to see out the winter with the hidden cash undetected in their hands. But as the title suggests, simple plans never run smoothly and a final twist in the tale leaves a taste as bitter as the cold Minnesotan weather. There must be something about the combination of snowy weather and plane crashes that breeds top notch cinema. A Simple Plan (1998) raised Paxton and Thornton’s reputations once again and the pair were able to bolster their CVs with further choice roles. Raimi did even better and finally reached the promised land of the cinematic directorial A-list when he somehow nabbed the helming job for Spiderman (2002) and delivered one of the greatest comic book movies of all time.
Tasty Morsel – Keep an eye out for the man who confronts Bill Paxton in the feed store. The actor was Bill’s real-life father John.
- ICE AGE (2002)
Hopefully if you’ve got kids in your household they will be thoroughly knackered after a full day of snowman building and heading to the land of nod by the time your snow-day evening arrives. But if the thought of a second day in the white stuff is keeping them up and you don’t fancy scaring them to sleep with a 30 Days Of Night (2007) indoctrination, sit them down with Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha’s Ice Age (2002). Pixar’s Toy Story (1995) was a watershed moment, not only in terms of computer animation, but also in the way they are written. Scripts for children’s movies now had to be smart. Writers and directors realised almost universally that a children’s movie could no longer rely on the simple facets of hero and heroine sprinkled with a dusting of peril that would be easily brushed off for the sickly sweet finale. Children’s scripts now had to have proper humour, rounded characters, in-jokes, real pathos and genuinely gripping storylines. Post Toy Story successes such as Shrek (2001) and Monsters Inc. (2001) embraced these principles, and one of the best Woody and Buzz inspired films was Ice Age. Smart enough to launch its own franchise thanks to a witty script, Wedge and Saldanha made some great choices in voice talent to bring life to their prehistoric creatures, Denis Leary, Jack Black, John Leguizamo and Ray Romano. It was another legacy of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen’s star vocal turns. Starting small, we meet sabre-toothed squirrel Scrat who is trying to look for a safe home for his prized acorn. From this small begin we tumble hilariously into the path of a pack of loveable ancient creatures who are fleeing for their lives from the encroaching ice age. Three surprisingly good sequels have been released to date, Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006), Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009), and Ice Age Continental Drift (2012).
Tasty Morsel – Leary’s character Diego originally died at the end of the film, but when test screenings caused a number of kiddie viewers to cry his fate was rewritten.
- 30 DAYS OF NIGHT (2007)
Horror cinema has never been shy about exploiting a good setting for its own ends. Almost every corner of our planet has been used to host scares and snowy locales are no different, Black Christmas (1974), Snowbeast (1977), The Shining (1980). At the end of the noughties horror directors seem to recall just how pretty blood looked on snow and a wintery horror revival took place, Decoys (2004), Frostbitten (2006), Wind Chill (2007), Whisper (2007), Whiteout (2009). Leading this blizzard of icy offerings was David Slade’s 30 Days Of Night (2007). Two things struck on my first 30 Days viewing; why had Slade cast Pet Shop Boys singer Neil Tennant as lead vampire, and why had no one thought of this wonderful premise before? The answers were obvious, it wasn’t the West End Girls crooner and someone already had. The inspiration for Slade’s tale was the Steve Niles’ three-part comic mini-series of the same name. With exciting locales being hoovered up at the same rate as fresh storylines, the horror genre always needs new ideas but they are in increasingly short supply. But one stone cold classic of a story twist in the vampire subgenre sprung from Niles’ grey matter in 2002; with vampires only attacking at night, what would happen if an Alaskan town that loses the sun for thirty straight days in winter was besieged by vampires. Chaos would surely ensure, and it did in both the lurid pages of Niles and Ben Templesmith’s comic and on the screen in Slade’s 2007 adaptation. The impressive reception to the comic series ensured that Slade could at least entice some reasonable acting talent for his vampires to hang a fang on and luckily for viewers Melissa George and Josh Hartnett answered the call. They play two of the occupants of Barrow, Alaska preparing for their month long "polar night” when a pack of blood hunters show up with an extreme thirst. Slade works the claustrophobia of perpetual darkness to solid effect, and also ensures that none of the cast, even the two leads, come out of their four week hell in one piece. A ropey sequel 30 Days Of Night: Dark Days (2009) went straight to video two years later.
Tasty Morsel – Niles did in fact conceive the original story as a movie script, but after years of studio rejection he decided to turn the tale into a comic instead.
- LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008)
Do you get pissed off when people moan about how Britain grinds to a halt at the first sign of a snowflake? My urge to kill, something I struggle to control at the best of times, moves dangerously into the red when I’m in earshot of such utterances. When are these morons going to realise that we don’t live in a winter climate country. We’re not geared towards coping with heavy snowfall and it would be retarded to spend millions so that we are. The likes of Norway and Finland live with months of the white every winter so they crack on and make the most of it. This often leads to some great wintery cinematic outings. One of the very best Scandinavian movies crept quietly into cinemas in 2008 when Tomas Alfredson adapted the successful 2004 Swedish novel Lat den ratte komma in by John Ajvide Lindqvist. Fortunately we live in a time where internet access and online shopping has made access to foreign language films a whole lot easier. This is a good thing; think of the delights we film fans would miss out on if not, the Asian horror explosion of the late nineties for one. An annoying offspring of this though is the West’s insistence on remaking every successful foreign language film no matter how good the original was. Let The Right One In (2008) is one of the more remarkable horror films of the last twenty years but that didn’t stop director Matt Reeves offering up the serviceable but pointless Let Me In (2010). There was little hope of actors Chloe Moretz and Kodi Smit-McPhee topping Lina Leandersson and Kare Hedebrant’s amazing 2008 work. It’s an unfortunate truth that most cinematic child performances are painful to watch but what this young Swedish double act created was one of the most affecting relationships ever seen on the screen. As Oscar the bullied schoolboy and Eli the young vampire that lives in the same block of flats the craft a fragile, lovingly platonic bond that cuts clean through all the underlying horror of story right up to the heart-tuggingly sweet Eli-in-a-box closing scene. What director Alfredson ensured was a setting and mode of equal fragility and mystery, transforming the dour apartment block locale into a fairytale-esque world of snow whites and night-time blacks.
Tasty Morsel – If you’re wondering about the movie’s curious title it comes from the myth that for a vampire to enter someone’s home and have their wicked way, they have to be invited in.