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DEAD OF WINTER

   

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Jan. 13, 2017

EDITOR’S NOTE: A forgotten but worthy ’80s thriller gets a Blu-ray upgrade from the Shout! Factory. This was Mary Steenburgen’s ninth film in as many years and she acquits herself nicely, stretching her wings in a uniquely challenging lead role. Here’s my February 8, 1987, Deseret News review.

Director Arthur Penn has had a very up-and-down career.

The heights — “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Miracle Worker,” “Little Big Man” — have been very high indeed. And the lows — “Targets,” “Four Friends,” “The Missouri Breaks” — have been, to put it kindly, disappointing.

So now Penn enters the fright-suspense genre and the results are, as might be expected, rather mixed.

This is a very old-fashioned movie in many ways, a basic story of deceit and treachery. A ruse is set up in an “old dark house” during a snowstorm that cuts the occupants off from civilization, the owner of the mansion is an antiques collector with a thick European accent who is confined to a wheelchair, there’s a secret passage behind a mirror and an actress is hired to impersonate someone she resembles — all of which are elements that have been used in countless horror yarns.

Even the presence of Roddy McDowall brings to mind dozens of other such pictures.

And that is perhaps the point, that Penn has no interest in giving us another ’80s slasher yarn … thank goodness. He’s kept the blood to a minimum, despite some aspects that could have gotten quite gory indeed, and the emphasis here is on suspense, and even more on the performances, particularly those by Mary Steenburgen, who plays three roles.

Penn was also very smart to hire Steenburgen. She gives the material a sense of class, a certain air that another actress might not have been able to pull off. And she is quite convincing all the way.

   

Jan Rubes, left, Roddy McDowall, Mary Steenburgen

Steenburgen’s main role is as an actress hired by foppish Roddy McDowall, supposedly to finish a film that is already halfway through production. She is told the original actress playing her part has suffered a breakdown and can’t finish the movie. Since Steenburgen resembles this actress, she will be made up to look more like her and audition at the home of the film’s producer.

McDowall drives Steenburgen through upstate New York in a raging snowstorm and finally they arrive at the huge old house in the middle of a small town. The house is owned by a wheelchair-bound doctor (Jan Rubes), a psychiatrist we soon learn. His house is loaded with an oddball collection of antiques and stuffed wild animals, animals he has killed himself.

McDowall, meanwhile, attends to Rubes’ every need, and proves himself quite the domestic — cooking, sewing, cutting and coloring Steenburgen’s hair, etc.

Steenburgen, of course, finds all of this unsettling, but she goes along, lets them reshape her looks and then performs a prepared scene on videotape, which she is told will be sent to the film’s director.

All of this is, to say the least, quite unorthodox, but since Steenburgen is portrayed as a rather desperate actress we can go along with it.

   

          Mary Steenburgen, 'Dead of Winter'

But eventually she discovers all is not as it seems and before long there are mutilations and dead bodies and all kinds of nasty goings-on. But the surprises are half the scary fun here, so I won’t leak any more.

“Dead of Winter” is quite flawed. The script, by video and commercial makers Marc Shmuger and Mark Malone, is pretty routine and fairly easy to figure out as it goes along. And it doesn’t help that Penn allows silly genre conventions to creep in — as when we hear screeching violins during one stabbing attempt, so obviously ripped off of Bernard Herrman’s “Psycho” theme that the audience tittered.

There is always the possibility that Penn took such liberties purposely, intending all of this as black comedy — and some would argue that almost all films with plots like these are intended as black comedies — but despite a few such obvious moments, we’re never really tipped off in that direction.

Or maybe he just wanted to make an old-fashioned homage to B-horror flicks. If that’s the case, however, he would have been better advised to try making his own film an A-horror flick.

“Dead of Winter” is rated R for violence, but again, none of it is nearly as explicit as what R-rated movies normally offer these days.