From To Die For to The Shining, these powerful cinematic snow sequences make for beguiling winter watching
“The very fact of snow is such an amazement,” the late film critic Roger Ebert once said. And it’s true: of all the many varieties of weather, nothing beats snowfall for its mysticism or transformative powers. It is no surprise, therefore, that throughout the history of cinema filmmakers have employed the icy covering as a beguiling backdrop to drama, murder and romance. Here, as the winter cold deepens and we prepare ourselves for Christmas, we present seven of the best alternative snow scenes on screen for your holiday viewing inspiration – spanning decades, genres and continents.
1. To Die For (1995)
Gus Van Sant’s discreetly dark 90s comedy stars a faultless Nicole Kidman as the utterly self-absorbed Suzanne Stone, a small-town weather reporter whose dreams of becoming a celebrity news anchor know no bounds. She agrees to marry the affable but unremarkable Larry, believing that his family’s comfortably profitable business will provide for her as she embarks upon her quest for stardom. But when Larry suggests she take time off work to have children, she decides he has to go, enlisting the help of three young students to dispose of him in a staged armed robbery.
Everything goes according to plan, but it’s only a matter of time before Suzanne’s sinister secret starts to unravel, prompting Larry’s mob-connected family to wreak revenge. The final, deliciously disquieting scene sees Larry’s sister Janice (Illeana Douglas), clad from head to toe in pale pink, ice skating on the frozen lake, beneath which her fame-hungry sister-in-law has been laid unceremoniously to rest.
2. The Shining (1980)
It wasn’t just the vast barricades of snow that chilled audiences to their core upon the release of Stanley Kubrick’s cult horror film The Shining, the story of Jack Torrence, an aspiring writer, who accepts a winter caretaker role at an isolated hotel in the in the Colorado Rockies. He is joined by his wife, Wendy and young son Danny, who is plagued by premonitions of impending bloodshed, soon set to come true. In what is arguably the film’s most iconic scene – featuring Jack Nicholson’s oft-impersonated line, “Here’s Johnny” – Jack, in a psychotic frenzy, hacks at the family’s bathroom door with an axe in an attempt to get to Wendy. Danny has escaped from the bathroom window, and a desperate Wendy attempts follow suit, only to find herself stuck halfway out, arms flailing in her purple bathrobe against a mound of crisp white snow.
3. Cool Runnings (1993)
While perhaps not adhering to the dictionary definition of alternative, an extensive scour of various snow-themed film lists finds Disney’s 1993 classic Cool Runnings criminally under-represented. It is of course the (loosely) true story of Jamaica’s first Olympic bobsled team, and their unlikely rise to stardom during the 1988 winter games. It begins in the sun-kissed climes of the Caribbean island, where a runner named Derice, his dreams of joining the country’s track team dashed, calls upon a former American bobsled champion (John Candy) to train up a team from scratch. Under their reluctant coach’s guidance, and following many a mishap, the motley crew defy the odds and make it to the try-outs in Calgary. Upon arriving in the Canadian city, they encounter sub-zero temperatures unlike anything they’ve ever imagined – resulting in a hilarious scene in which the team goofball Sanka puts on every item of clothing he's packed, as well as the bag he brought them in, before stepping out into the bracing cold.
4. Fargo (1996)
Of all the Coen brothers’ inimitable characters, it’s hard to find one more heartwarming than pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson (an Oscar-winning Frances McDormand) in their icy 1996 crime drama Fargo. Determined to solve the series of homicides besmirching the good name of her Minnesota hometown, while simultaneously satisfying her near-constant pregnancy cravings, she is, to quote Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey, “a good cop who not only doesn’t have a bad cop, but doesn’t need one”.
Marge is a beacon of kindly reason in a world where husbands pay to have their wives kidnapped, in return for hefty ransoms, and blood flows as freely as coffee. She first appears on our screens 30 minutes into the film, attending to the visually arresting aftermath of the kidnapping-turned-bloodbath on a frosted roadside. The chief‘s hopeless deputy Lou watches cautiously from the sidelines as she trudges from body to body, through thick blankets of snow, pausing only to announce in her thick midwest drawl that she’s “about to barf” before declaring herself hungry once again.
5. Doctor Zhivago (1965)
David Lean’s sumptuously shot adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s 1957 novel boasts this list’s only indoor snow scene, and one of the most ingenious set designs of all time. Set in Russia in the build-up to the First World War, Dr Zhivago is a love story between the titular doctor (Omar Sharif) and the much-sought-after beauty Lara (Julie Christie), whom he meets as a young medical student in 1913 and is forced to watch from afar as she promises herself to another man. Years pass and the duo cross paths intermittently as the war rages, falling ever deeper under each other’s spell despite being married to other people. Whenever they act upon their desires, fate intervenes and tears them asunder, but they do manage to steal a precious few days in each other's company before being separated for good. The setting for this final, dreamlike reunion is the magnificent Varykino estate, which, since being abandoned during the fighting, has transformed into a spectacular ice palace, adorned with glistening stalactites. Fun fact: the entire set was constructed from cellophane before being covered in white paraffin wax.
6. Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003)
Quentin Tarantino sure knows how to deliver a showdown, and the final face-off between Uma Thurman’s vengeful protagonist The Bride and Lucy Liu’s O-Ren, former member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad who tried to kill her on her wedding day. Having travelled to Japan and acquired a finely crafted sword from a fabled swordsmith, The Bride tracks down her nemesis at Japanese restaurant, The House of Blue Leaves. There she brutally eliminates O-Ren’s skilled army of fighters before taking on the white-robed assassin on the restaurant’s snow-dusted rooftop garden, her yellow tracksuit gleaming like a blood-stained sun. Surreally set to the jazzy sounds of Santa Esmeralda’s Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood, what ensues is a mesmeric and immaculately choreographed sword fight, and a climactic beheading.
7. Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Romantic scenes set among falling snow are a well-worn cinematic trope – but Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands gives the set-up an unconventional, but no less moving twist, at the hands (or shears) of Johnny Depp’s idiosyncratic protagonist. Edward, the unique creation of a deceased scientist, has been rendered an outcast by his dangerous appendages. When he is taken in by a kindly suburban saleswoman, he falls in love with her pretty young daughter Kim (Winona Ryder), who like her mother, sees past Edward’s oddities to his sweet personality. A talented sculptor, Edward crafts an angel out of ice as a gift for the family’s Christmas party, resulting in the film’s most magical sequence which sees Kim dance among the snow flakes created by Edward’s chiselling. As Kim grows old, snowfall becomes a reassuring sign that the being she once loved, but could never be with, is still busy creating.