In the bleak Midwinter: Films for Winter Nights

Want to avoid Mrs Brown’s Boys, The Queen’s Speech and whatever else TV throws at us this Christmastide? Of course there’s the great Ghost Stories for Christmas drama series and re-watching childhood favourites such as The Box of Delights but here we take the snow shovel and dig up some other possible additions for your alternative winter watching on the cold dark nights …

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Valkoinen Peura (The White Reindeer) – 1952

The White Reindeer (1952)

Original title – Valkoinen Peura. Directed by Erik Blomberg, this Finn classic concerns itself with a newlywed woman Pirita (played by Mirjami Kuosmanen) who visits a local Sami Shaman for help in spicing up her love-life. The spell cast indeed turns the woman not only into a seductress – but into a true femme-fatale as she now has a vampiric hunger. The White Reindeer’s star has shone brighter again in the advent of the folk horror revival yet this beautiful dark tale deserves to be seen more widely still.

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The Curse of the Cat People – 1944

The Curse of the Cat People (1944)

Directed by Robert Wise and Gunther von Fritsch, The Curse of the Cat People is a sequel to 1942’s Cat People, though it can be watched in isolation as the film differs quite differently from its predecessor (which is certainly well worth a watch also). Less of a ‘horror’ than its antecedent, Curse centres on Amy (Ann Carter) the 6 year old daughter of Ollie Reed (Kent Smith). Amy is a dreamy child who finds herself different and therefore somewhat alienated by her peers. In her solitude she finds an ‘imaginary friend’ who just happens to be the late first wife of her strict and rather arrogant father. In addition to Irena (Simone Simon) – the ghost or daydream first wife and cat person (although cats do not feature in this film), Amy also befriends an old woman – a reclusive former actress with dementia, much to the envy and upset of the woman’s own daughter.

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Morozko -1964

Морозко (Father Frost / Jack Frost) (1964)

Directed by Aleksandr Rou, Morozko or Father Frost is based on Russian folk and fairy tales and follows the trope of a young girl, Nastenka (Natalya Sedykh) who on the cusp of coming of age is ill-treated by a mean and jealous stepmother. Meeting a potential suitor Ivan (Eduard Izotov) doesn’t exactly bode well when a spell turns Ivan’s head into that of a bear. (Looking like a surreal, mangy version of Bungle from British kid’s show Rainbow is one of the reasons this children’s film ends up on a darker film list as it is potential nightmare fuel for some). Folkloric figures such as Morozko – a Russian winter spirit who has traits of both Father Christmas and Jack Frost and witchy favourite Baba Yaga also serve to make this film a weird watch.

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Wind Chill – 2007

Wind Chill (2007)

Directed by Gregory Jacobs. When a university student accepts a car share lift at the start of the Christmas holidays she soon realises that the driver is not exactly whom he claims to be, yet as they are driven off the road in a remote area in sub-zero conditions there is more still to worry about as both the present and the past threaten to claim their lives.

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Kwaidan – 1965

Kwaidan (1965)

Directed by Masaki Kobayashi and based upon Japanese ghost stories and folk-tales collected and translated by the folklorist Lafcadio Hearn is a classic of Japanese cinema. Though the whole portmanteau film is a visual delight, it is the Yuki-Onna tale that most concerns us here today. In this segment two men are caught out in a winter blizzard and seek refuge in a fisherman’s hut. During the night, their shelter is violated by a beautiful yet deadly woman of the snow. One man loses his life but their supernatural assailant takes pity on the other due to his youth and good looks. She warns him never to speak of what happened that night, but his life remains haunted by the strange encounter.

Blogging By Cinema-light: The Fearless Vampire Killers
The Fearless Vampire Killers – 1967

The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)

Also known as Dance of the Vampires and Pardon Me, But Your Teeth are in My Neck is directed and co-written by and stars Roman Polanski. Polanski is understandably and justifiably a difficult figure due to the crimes he has committed in his off screen life. Whether to divorce art from artist or to bypass the work of contentious or criminal figures is a personal choice, but within the realm of film it is a case that the output is a communal effort of many members of crew and cast. And together they have produced a strange addition to the many Vampire films out there. Set in the dead of winter, this comedy -horror film has the look and feel of Slavic fairy-tale cinema and has a great soundtrack by Krystof Komeda. It is notable also for starring Sharon Tate – the former wife of Polanski and tragic victim of the Manson Family Murders.

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Troll Hunter – 2010

Troll Hunter / Trolljegeren (2010)

Directed by André Øvredal, the Norwegian found-footage / mockumentary telling the tale of a young film crew investigating a man (Otto Jespersen) whose occupation is that of a Troll Hunter sounds like it could be a disaster but it is actually well worth giving a chance to. It is a fun atmospheric jaunt into an aspect of horror folklore that is generally less widely explored in cinema than other monsters. And in the final segment you can almost feel the cold.

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Ravenous – 1999

Ravenous (1999)

Directed by Antonia Bird and set in the Sierra Nevada in the 19th Century, we witness both the hard conditions of weather and war that may set a person on a desperate path but also we see the unfolding of a supernatural curse. Seeking inspiration from such tragic real historical events such as the Donner Party migration and the folklore of first nations people, Ravenous shows us what happens when people become afflicted with the curse of Wendigo-possession.

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November – 2017

November (2017)

Though November may technically be regarded as autumn, this Estonian film is cold and dark enough to make our winter watch-list. Directed by Rainer Sarnet, November tells the tale of a 19th Century Estonian village that is beset by spirits of pestilence. In a bid to survive the harsh conditions, villagers turn to theft involving nefarious and esoteric means but it becomes an obsession outweighing their needs and no good can come of that. November boasts some especially stunning cinematography.

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The Lodge – 2019

The Lodge (2019)

Directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala and produced by the revived Hammer studios, The Lodge in keeping with Hammer’s revival has no resembelance to their campy gothic output of the 1950s, 60s and 70s but is instead as dark and chilling as its intense wintery setting. Following the suicide of their mother, a pair of children accompany their father and his new lover, Grace, to a remote lodge for a Christmas holiday. Whilst their father is called back to the city by work commitments, the children, who resent Grace, discover that she was the sole survivor of a death cult. As strange events occur within the isolated chalet, their survial, mortality and existence come into grievous question.

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Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka – 1961

Evenings on A Farm Near Dikanka / Вечера на хуторе близ Диканьки (1961)

Based on the story ‘ The Night Before Christmas’ by Nikolai Gogol ; Evenings is directed by Aleksandr Rou and shares the same visual and atmospheric strangeness of his later more well known film Morozko. Amid the seasonal revelry in a snowy Ukrainian village a blacksmith Vakula, (Yuri Tavrov) seeks the aid of the devil to transport him to St. Petersburg in Russia so that he may obtain a pair of slippers belonging to the Empress, in a bid to woo a local maiden Oksana (Lyudmyla Myznikova).

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Black Robe – 1991

Black Robe (1991)

Directed by Bruce Beresford and though not a horror film as such the aesthetic, setting and grim events portrayed in this Canadian film should likely appeal to many fans of folk horror. In it we journey with a Jesuit priest Father LaForgue (Lothaire Bluteau) and his mostly Algonquin travel party across the wilderness of New France in winter as he intends to establish a new Christian mission in a far-off village. In addition to the terrain and hard weather, prophetic dreams, old faith and hostile strangers mar their way.

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Winter’s Bone-2010

Winter’s Bone (2010)

Again not a horror film, Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone will nonetheless appeal to some fans of the Backwoods and Midwestern Gothic sub-genres. A 17 year old girl. Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) is struggling in impoverished circumstances to look after her troubled mother and her brother and sister in the absence of their father imprisoned for the production of meth amphetamine. Survival is paramount to Ree who strives to teach her siblings how to live off the land but more troubles still fall upon the family due to the missing patriarch’s involvement in the meth trade.

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Let The Right One In – 2008

Let The Right One In / Låt den rätte komma in (2008)

Adapted from John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel, Tomas Alfredson’s movie is a beautiful piece of cinema. When a strange young gir Eli ( Lina Leandersson) moves into a Stockholm apartment complex in the early 1980s, she strikes up a friendship with a 12 year old boy Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) who is something of an outsider himself and a target of school bullies. However there is a lot more to Eli than meets the eye as we discover in this atmospheric slow-burning tale.

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The Blackcoat’s Daughter – 2015

The Blackcoat’s Daughter / February (2015)

Directed by Osgood Perkins, The Blackcoat’s Daughter centres around a Catholic girls’ boarding school in upstate New York. Whilst most of the pupils have headed home for the winter vacation, Kat (Kiernan Shipka) and Rose (Lucy Boynton) find themselves left behind and despite their difference in school age and personality types, they find their lives fatefully entwined and to that of a young woman called Joan (Emma Roberts) who escapes from an insane asylum some years after the girls’ stories unfold.

Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning – 2004

Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning (2004)

The third of the Ginger Snaps franchise (this time directed by Grant Harvey) differs from the coming of age contemporary-times werewolf tale of the first two of the film series by taking the story back further to the early 19th Century but again starring Katherine Isabelle and Emily Perkins as sisters Ginger and Brigitte. This tale of lycanthropy follows an ill-fated winter trading excursion to the Hudson Bay, whereupon the girls find their way to an abandoned camp and then to a fort, where they find shelter but only the start of their troubles.

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Black Christmas -1974

Black Christmas (1974)

Directed by Bob Clark and also known in the USA as Silent Night – Evil Night has less connection to folk horror than others mentioned here but arguably could fall under our remit as urban wyrd (but who really cares about labels unless they are attached to Christmas presents?) Included because not only is Black Christmas one of the best Christmas slasher horror films, it is quite possibly one of the best Christmas films and Slasher films too. Simple and straightforward yet eerie and rather tense in its execution it tells the story of college girls in a shared accommodation that during the festive season are gifted first with dirty phone-calls and then with a more deadly Christmas presence.

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The Shining – 1980

The Shining (1980)

Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, adapted from Stephen King’s novel of the same name, needs little introduction – both a classic of winter horror and urban wyrd, this story of Jack Torrence (Jack Nicholson) a caretaker and aspiring author succumbing to cabin fever and / or possession whilst holed up in a remote Colorado Rockies hotel over the heavy winter with his wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall) and psychically gifted (or cursed) young son Danny (Danny Lloyd) has a habit of getting under the skin. In it we bear brutal witness to how Jack’s own buried alcohol-induced violence resurfaces towards his family but how also how violence is embedded into the very foundations and sinuous recurring history of the building itself.

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Морозко – 1964

Selection chosen by Andy Paciorek

Dark Films for a Dark Season

As we move further into the dark as long nights draw in ever closer, we bring to you some movie suggestions that go against the grain somewhat of mainstream horror. Films that burn slow and burn both beautifully and grotesquely like candles made from human tallow. Films that haunt the mind …

In no particular order …

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The Wind (2018) –

Directed by Emma Tammi. Written by Tessa Sutherland.
Cinematography by Lyn Moncrief

In New Mexico in the late 19th Century, two couples strive to make a life for themselves on the wild frontier. As the story unfolds in a non-linear motion, we see their relationships and lives fall apart as something else stalks the threshold.

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The Lighthouse (2019)
Directed by Robert Eggers. Written by Robert & Max Eggers.
Cinematography by Jarin Blaschke.

The simple tale of a Lighthouse keeper and his new assistant that get marooned on the rock in a raging storm. But even this wild weather is not as tempestuous as their relationship which descends into madness and a Promethean struggle over control of the light. Sirens and seagulls make their presence felt too on that ocean blasted crag. The dialogue in this film is coarsely mellifluous especially as it drips off the tongue in a sterling performance by Willem Dafoe. Robert Pattinson also firmly shakes off his twilight sparkle in the shit and kerosene of this brilliantly bat-shit crazy film.

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Marrowbone (2017)
Written & Directed by Sergio G. Sánchez.
Cinematography by Xavi Giménez.

Set in rural Maine, but actually filmed in Spain, this film does have the feel of Spanish classics such as The Devil’s Backbone and Spirit of the Beehive – the sense of childhood sentimentality with a bitter under-taste of something strange, perhaps sinister.
A single mother and her 4 children move from England to start a new life in what seems to be a haunted house but as her health worsens the family find out that their past is more haunting still.

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The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)
Written & Directed by Osgood Perkins.
Cinematography by Julie Kirkwood.

This segmented film focuses around three young girls whose lives are fatefully entwined. As the boarding school they attend in upstate New York breaks up for a February vacation, Rose and Kat are left behind with only the company of two nuns. Rose has chosen not to return home as she fears she may be pregnant whilst the younger girl Kat’s parents fail to arrive to pick her up. It is apparent that Kat is a troubled girl, who feels lonely and isolated even when there are more girls around, but as her stay in the school progresses, her behaviour becomes stranger still.
Joan, the third girl in the story, is a creature of mystery. We first encounter her as she escapes from a psychiatric hospital and is offered a lift by a man and his wife as she sits in a bus station. The darkness and heaviness of the winter permeates throughout this film invoking a strange sense of tension.

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Gwen (2018)
Written & Directed by William McGregor
Cinematography by Adam Etherington.

During the Industrial Revolution a woman struggles to raise her two daughters and run a farm in the hills of North Wales, whilst her husband is away at war. Their lives turn harder still as they lose their sheep to apparently a blood-thirsty predator and as the local people grow increasingly hostile and shadowy figures in the mist watch the farm.
Maxine Peake excels in her role as the hard-bitten mother.

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle (2018)
Directed by Stacie Passon.
Written by Shirley Jackson. Adapted by Mark Kruger.
Cinematography by Piers McGrail.

Adapted from the excellently odd novel by Shirley Jackson, the film adaptation does change some elements but does maintain both the quirkiness of the book and the sense of isolation and ill-treatment that may befall people who are deemed to be outcasts or weird by communities. The Blackwood family are eccentric and insular but the town also fears them due to the matriarch and patriarch of the family having being killed by poisoning, with a finger of blame pointing to the eldest daughter Constance. Her, her younger sister and their confused Uncle Julian (Crispin Glover being cast perfectly in that role) have little contact with the outside world, but one day cousin Charles comes to visit and everything begins to change.

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The Other Lamb (2019)
Directed by Małgorzata Szumowska.
Written by C.S. MCMullen.
Cinematography by Michał Englert.

We are introduced to a female commune existing in what seems to be serenity, but then discover that all of the women and girls are the wives and daughters of a cult leader called Shepherd. Among their number a girl Selah comes of age, which the cult regard to be the curse of Eve and a symbol of impurity. Shepherd however begins taking a greater interest in Selah but she is troubled by strange visions. Being forced off the land by the local police, the group seek their ‘new Eden’ across the wilderness. The use of colour in this film is aesthetically and symbolically stunning, yet it serves also to unsettle us as we feel the undercurrent slowly rising beneath what initially seems to be a peaceful, bucolic idyll.

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Possum (2018)
Written and Directed by Matthew Holness.
Cinematography by Kit Fraser

Possum is a little different from the other films on this list as Possum is a little different from most things. It has a dank damp dark aesthetic with its scrubby nature, edge-land settings and rundown town house interiors. Following some manner of disgrace, a puppeteer named Phillip is forced to return to his childhood home and the company of his unpleasant uncle (played creepily well by Alun Armstrong). When a child goes missing, Phillip finds himself a suspect but his mind is also troubled by a grotesque puppet that he cannot get rid of, but that is not all that haunts him. Adding to the grey cloud of possum is a delightfully dark hauntological score by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

POSSUM Review: Behold, The Most Beautifully Bleak Horror ...
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The Witch: A New England Folktale (2015)
Written & Directed by Robert Eggers.
Cinematography by Jarin Blaschke.

Quite possibly the most familiar title on this list to folk horror revivalists, but even if seen before, always worth a re-watch; though there are those who are not beguiled by its wild charms, I must say it worked its magic on me. A family in New England struggle to survive far away from their Yorkshire home and banished by their brethren community for the father’s religious pride. Their misfortune begins when their youngest born, the baby Samuel is spirited away right from under the elder daughter Thomasin’s nose. On top of tragedy more misfortune falls – their crops are blighted, the nanny goat yields bloodied milk and the eldest son Caleb disappears only to return in a wretched, bewitched condition. Their suspicions turn to witchcraft but could the maleficence spring from a source closer to home?

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Selected by Andy Paciorek