DVD: Dead of Winter (1987)
Label: MGM/ Region: 1 (NTSC) / Released: December 3, 2002
Genre: Mystery / Thriller / Horror / Grand Guignol
Synopsis: An acting job turns into a nightmare when a woman is forced to play a role to the death!
Special Features: Theatrical trailer / B-side: Full screen version
Released quietly to theatres in 1987, and not soon afterwards doing rotations on pay TV, Arthur Penn’s Dead of Winter was and remains a misunderstood genre riff – not of a mystery suspense thriller or gothic horror entry, but a Grand Guignol shocker that begins with a simple, innocent hook.
Mary Steenburgen plays Katie McGovern, an aspiring NYC actress who accepts a job to cover a role from a production kept in stasis, after its star has suffered a serious breakdown. When she arrives at the house of the film’s producer in Canada, she has no idea she’s to become part of a human chess game, played between a celebrity doctor named Joseph Lewis (Jan Rubes), his loyal servant / ex-mental patient Mr. Murray (Roddy McDowall), and the mysterious Evelyn who’s after a big satchel of money. Or so it seems.
MGM’s theatrical trailer (archived on the DVD) was programmatic to the point where it blew every single twist by intercutting shots of major plot points, so that’s one promo element that must be avoided at all costs, because while the story isn’t brilliantly clever, it ever so gradually eases into a strange mood that has everyone playing some kind of role, like a chamber mystery.
Dr. Lewis is known and respected within the insular community, but one soon suspects he isn’t a genial old gentleman, maneuvering around the house in an electric wheelchair with a big warm smile. At one point, his position as a celebrity shrink becomes suspect when he signs a congratulatory message to himself from “Malcolm” on what’s unsubtly camouflaged as a head shot of actor Malcolm McDowell – ready to be framed and nailed to the wall in the drawing room with the other fakes.
Mr. Murray is an able cook, mouse trapper, butler, driver, and assistant producer of sorts, but he’s only mentally stable as long as he follows Dr. Lewis’ directions. Katie never finds it odd that Murray auditions her in NYC, drives her personally to the northern location, and becomes a butler once they arrive at the doc’s stately wood-paneled home. She also doesn’t question the first lie she’s told by the doc: that the director to arrive the next morning is in fact the good doctor. By the end of the film, poor Katie must use her talent to play a different role in order to escape the doc’s very dangerous game.
Marc Shmuger and Mark Malone’s script (an uncredited adaptation of Anthony Gilbert’s novel “The Woman in Red,” previously filmed in 1945 as My Name is Julia) has a few big holes, but director Arthur Penn gets around those issues by making sure his cast is strong, compelling, a bit wry, and certainly with Lewis and Murray, enjoying and exchanging side comments on what’s an amusing experience. At least in the early stages, neither seems to worry whether their plan will go wrong, and that’s partly due the stakes still being low in the first act.
McDowall’s inherent ticks and weird dialogue delivery suits Murray’s undercurrent of lurking maniacal violence, and Rubes – best-known as an opera singer, and host of a beloved kid’s show in Ontario – clearly relished his character’s dual personality of being a Socratic, smiley force of mental good, and a hunter thriving on the stalking, cornering, and killing of a human target.
Once their rival enters the picture, things become particularly grisly, and Penn has fun constructing canted sequences to enhance Katie’s grim situations, not to mention exploiting the house’s art and décor to foreshadow concluding mayhem. Dead of Night is a beautiful production: the locations, set décor, and Jan Weincke’s cinematography are superb, and Penn opted for a cool colour scheme that reflects the chilly snowy winter conditions without draining the film’s colour saturation.
The director and cinematographer also seem to have selected a high grain film stock for capturing both low light situations, and giving scenes tactile grit, as though snow were bleeding into the image from the howling exteriors.
Perhaps the strongest glue that holds the drama together and reinforces Katie’s own emotional fragility – which is why her escape attempts are rather feeble – is Richard Einhorn’s score, beautifully performed by a small chamber orchestra, and based around a simple two-note motif that establishes Katie’s character long before she’s introduced into the story.
Arthur Penn would make one more theatrical film, the comedy Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989) before disappearing into TV and cinematic obscurity. Whereas co-writer Malone (who also plays Katie’s idiot brother) would write a handful of scripts, Shmuger became a studio executive at Columbia and Universal.
Rubes, best-known for the TVO kiddie series Guess What? (1975-1983) and the moral Eli in Witness (1985), parlayed his benevolent psycho performance in the similarly warped (and quite sick) Blood Relations (1988), and also appeared in the absurd shocker The Kiss (1988). Other thriller work include Blind Fear (1989), The Amityville Curse (1990), and the Damian Harris dud Deceived (1991).
Supporting actor William Russ, who plays Katie’s husband / boyfriend Rob, also appeared in the cult classic Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977), another U.S. production shot in Ontario.
Prior to his fine work in classical music and composing the excruciatingly beautiful music for Carl Dreyer’s silent classic Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Einhorn scored a number of cult horror films: Shockwaves (1977), Don’t Go in the House (1980), Eyes of a Stranger (1981), The Prowler (1981), Blood Rage (1987), and Bill Condon’s directorial debut Sister, Sister (1987).
Film adaptations of Anthony Gilbert’s work include the anti-Nazi thriller They Met in the Dark (1943), Candles at Nine (1944), My Name is Julia Ross (1945), and the Argentinian production La trampa (1949).
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan
DVD / Film: My Name is Julia Ross (1945)
Related external links (MAIN SITE):
DVD / Film: Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977)
Amazon.com – Dead of Winter
Amazon.ca – Dead of Winter
Amazon.co.uk – Dead of Winter [DVD]  [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Categories: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review