Friday, June 24, 2016

Carrie (2013)

Carrie-make (2013)
Dir. Kimberly Pierce
Written by Lawrence Cohen and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Starring Chloë Grace Moretz, Judy Greer, Portia Doubleday, Julianne Moore, Ansel Elgort

THE CARRIEMAKE isn’t just a shameless, opportunistic retread of a genre classic, created exclusively as a tired cash-in on the name-recognition still enjoyed thanks to the longevity of Brian De Palma’s 1976 classic, affixed, leechlike, to the cynical hope that maybe people who don’t know better will get confused and buy the wrong one. It’s also not just a needless, trite regurgitation of the well-worn iconography made famous by its predecessor, and a starkly inferior rip-off. I mean, it is those things, don’t get me wrong. It’s certainly more business plan than movie, and a mewling, whimpering grift of a business plan at that. But if that were its biggest problem, it might not be so bad. It would hardly be the first movie to be made for crass, transparently exploitative commercial concerns, and it would certainly not be the first movie to eke out a parasitic half-life by brazenly copying something more popular, in the hope that the lazy and gullible might be suckered into parting with their money by mistake.

No, the problem here is that this movie just sucks. It’s shrill and phony and desperate, with a crippling divided loyalty between slavish, braindead devotion to the source material and an insecure sycophantic compulsion to undermine that very source material in order to produce shallow, easily digestible genre goods. It tries --to the extent that it can be said to be “trying” for anything-- to have everything both ways, and predictably ends up with nothing. In every imaginable way, in fact, this is a movie with an almost uncanny ability to sabotage itself and end up with not just less than the sum of its parts, but rather with the sum of some kind of purely theoretical anti-parts. It’s an anti-movie, which deletes itself before your very eyes. I honestly don’t know that I’ve ever seen anything so actively self-destructive, which is particularly remarkable given how shatteringly banal and derivative it is on the surface. How does a movie this unambitious end up this disastrous? It’s borderline miraculous, but THE CARRIEMAKE pulls it off.

What results is a nigh-on unwatchable, profoundly misguided embarrassment. Everything about this is wrong, from its generic corporate style, to its completely inappropriate lead actress (who they didn’t even try to ugly up with glasses or anything), to its garish, plastic computer effects, to its tragic career low for Julianne Moore (who, painfully, seems to be really going for it, which just makes it even more embarrassing than it would be if she was just coasting for a paycheck.) None of it works, and, unfortunately for the movie, that’s especially galling giving how closely it hews to the iconic De Palma version (they even brought back original screenwriter Lawrence Cohen, apparently to just re-write the same stuff he wrote 40 years ago).* So not only does this modern copy pathetically fizzle, but we have a vivid memory of what a good version of this exact material looks like. This adds up to a movie which is so utterly broken that it’s hard to even summon the necessary energy to get mad about it. It’s a movie that inspires catatonic depression more than righteous indignation. But I’ll try, for the future.

Let’s start the autopsy with the most obvious disaster here, which is the casting and direction of Chloë Grace Moretz (KICK-ASS, LET ME IN) as Carrie, and Julianne Moore (TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE: THE MOVIE, THE FORGOTTEN) as her mother. Of course, I needn’t tell you that both these actresses can be great. Moretz was even great in a very similar circumstance, the equally unnecessary remake of a beloved classic LET ME IN, which --in no small part due to her work-- is only a little worse than its source material. And Moore has no shortage of great movies under her belt (though let’s not forget that she’s also in THE LADIES MAN, THE FORGOTTEN, SEVENTH SON, THE CARRIEMAKE, etc) and of course she also has some hands-on experience with baffling remakes of beloved classics, from her time on the PSYCHO REMAKE.

So on paper, their casting should be a good sign. But oh man, are they both poorly served here. Moretz, at 15, is the first actual teen to play the role (Sissy Spacek was in her mid-20’s), but unfortunately that’s where the realism ends. Not to overstate the importance of personal experience to a role, but Moretz has been a famous, busy actress since before she was ten. Casting an actual teen instead of a dressed-up twentysomething seems like a gesture towards authenticity, but that impulse is definitively repudiated by casting an actual teen who has no experience whatsoever living the life of a normal teen --let alone a repressed outcast-- someone whose entire adolescence has been one of celebrated celebrity. And of course there’s a great reason she’s been famous so long -- she’s utterly charismatic, movie-star pretty, and imbued with a natural confidence in front of the camera. In other words, the exact opposite of everything Carrie is supposed to be. Acting, of course, is by definition pretending to be something you’re not, and it wasn’t completely inconceivable that with the right direction, Moretz might have been able to pull off the role anyway. But man, she strikes me as uniquely ill-suited for it, and director Kimberly Peirce (holy cow, the director of BOYS DON’T CRY and STOP-LOSS, slumming here like you wouldn’t believe) does her no favors by letting her go as broad as possible and insistently shooting her like the star she obviously is. Hard to know which of them is more to blame, since they’ve both done good work in the past, but in any case the end result speaks for itself: she looks like a popular girl play-acting the corniest possible stereotype of a socially awkward outcast. There is never a single moment in the film where it’s not obvious that we’re watching a pretty young starlet act like a social pariah, even if it’s simultaneously obvious that she’s acting really hard.

But fortunately for her, Moore --perhaps hoping to help her youthful co-star avoid total embarrassment-- selflessly elects to throw her body onto the grenade of the most humiliating performance, and damn the consequences. It’s like that scene in BILLY MADISON where Adam Sandler notices one of his young classmates has mistakenly pissed his pants, and decides to be the bigger man by pretending he’s done the same, sparing his little friend from suffering alone. Whatever Moretz is doing, Moore multiplies it exponentially, delivering a performance so bracingly hammy that even Nic Cage might advise her to back off a little (in fact, with Cage as her dad in KICK-ASS and Moore as her mom here, it makes you wonder if this is just how Moretz thinks adults are). But alas, Moore is no Nic Cage. She’s an actress who does best with nuance and realism, and seeing her crank it up to 11 here is more embarrassing than exhilarating. You’d think it would be fun to see her go way over the top, but unlike the best mega-actors, this never seems like an easy or natural mode for her; instead she looks like she’s constantly straining to act as hard as she can, and the result is a painfully ineffective performance which is pitched so piercingly loud that it’s impossible to ignore it. There’s no way around it, this is overacting, not mega-acting. It’s arch and theatrical, and it doesn’t work at all, even as some kind of ill-considered camp. Moore’s too good an actress to not convey an innate emotional seriousness to the role, but this character is too outrageous and exaggerated for that emotional core to be remotely appropriate, and the two warring impulses clash disastrously. It’s not just  self-defeating, it’s outright self-negating. Considering how much work Moore’s doing, the fact that the character barely leaves an impression is nothing short of astounding, and a perfect testament to the movie’s near-miraculous alchemical ability to cancel itself out.

It doesn’t help that it’s also a powerfully visually unappealing movie, slick and plastic and disposable in the most egregious Platinum Dunes / Nu Horror sort of way imaginable, but somehow also looking much chintzier and flatter, a tendency which is exaggerated by its muddy, desaturated palette and dime-store computer-assisted chicanery. That’s especially stunning given how openly it quotes Mario Tosi’s iconic images from the 1976 version, proving yet again that it’s possible to be virtually identical and yet objectively much worse.

But its biggest problem, beyond its boneheaded acting and aesthetic displeasures, is that it’s just such a fundamentally empty movie. You’d assume that --particularly with Pierce on board!-- the point of this otherwise needless remake would have to be to explore its bedrock metaphors about gender, female sexual awakening, and the various cultural forces which conspire to exert coercive control over female sexual desire and self-determination. I mean, the story kicks off with Carrie’s confusing, humiliating first period, and her conflict almost entirely revolves around her mother’s tortured relationship with her daughter’s burgeoning sexuality and her own feelings of repressed sexual terror. The question is not if you should explore these themes; the question is, how can you possibly avoid them? And yet, that’s exactly what THE CARRIEMAKE somehow manages to do, methodically, heroically, ignoring every possible hint of these themes, not even offering a cursory, perfunctory nod to them. 40 years later (and directed by a woman no less!), CARRIE is somehow even less feminist, even less interested in the inherently prickly sexual elements of this story than the De Palma version was, to the point of flagrantly, actively spurning them. It’s a movie which resolutely refuses to engage with its own inherent symbolism, and, having rigorously accomplished that goal, sets itself about the business of refusing to find anything else to be about, either.

It's gonna be prom-demonium!

Nowhere is that more clear than in the film’s miserable, clumsy stabs towards “updating” the story. So of course, Carrie’s embarrassing shower scene must now be uploaded to youtube, holy shit, this changes everything. That’s hacky enough to damn a movie all on its own, but things are made so much worse than you would guess a lazy “update” would be capable of. A generic update which naturally incorporated modern tech and current fashion would be an empty enough idea, but the film’s stubborn insistence that it’s set, like, right now can’t help but highlight the fact that fundamentally, this movie doesn't even really make sense anymore. The world in which these events were originally written is now forty years in the past. To give some context: 40 years before King wrote his original novel, the year was 1934. The changes that have taken place in the intervening forty years are not just cosmetic things that can be papered over with new technology -- they’re fundamental cultural shifts, a fact which becomes more apparent when these aggressively modern artifacts are clumsily sutured to a story which was written for, and about, 1974.

I just plain don’t buy that this story takes place this way in the modern world. I don’t buy these pretty, stylish Hollywood people in this supposed small podunk town. I don’t buy that Carrie’s mom can be this cripplingly unstable and still afford rent on her storefront and a two-story house. This lady who bangs her head on the wall when upset and can’t even fake a normal business transaction without cutting herself... filled out a loan application, applied for a business license, petitioned to rezone for commercial use, found industrial material suppliers, organized a business plan…? Fuck you. I don’t buy that these youtubing contemporary kids with trendy haircuts would go out to a farm and kill a pig to get its blood, or that they’d even be able to pull this off if they tried. The ‘76 kids were convincingly rural, small-town hicks, who obviously knew their way around agriculture, but these kids don’t give the impression they’ve ever been out of the LA suburbs. Look at the fuckin’ abs on this supposed high schooler, for Christ’s sake:

And mostly, I don’t buy that Carrie doesn’t know about periods. Not in this day and age. I know her mom is real strict, but the modern world is simply inescapable today. You can’t be this naive, it’s just not realistic. Small town and religious mom or no, people are just more savvy than that. Even the most conservative deep South small towns have built-in health curriculums that teach you about periods and that you should leave room for Jesus when you dance or you’ll get pregnant. There are tampon dispensers in every gym locker room. Teachers have been giving internet-based assignments since Carrie was in middle school. I don’t care how unpopular you are, there’s simply no avoiding modernity here.

Which just begs the question of why Carrie is even in public school in the first place! Carrie’s mom was pretty far out there way back in 1974, but her conservative views on religion and women weren’t utterly out of line with the more reactionary mainstream of her time. I guarantee there were many people at her local church who would have at least broadly agreed with her outlook; she was an outlier, but there was definitely a place in that culture for her. That was 1976, though. The culture overall has lurched impressively leftward in the intervening decades, and, if anything, Carrie’s mom is presented as even crazier and more old-fashion in this iteration. She was anachronistic even at the time, and that was forty fucking years ago! Today, every single facet of society is working against her efforts to turn back the clock. She would have to be some kind of isolated, rural hermit for this to make any sense at all. Hell, it makes THE VILLAGE seems halfway plausible.The idea that she could keep her daughter this impossibly unsophisticated while maintaining even a small level of contact with the outside world is ludicrous. So if you buy that this is really her intention… you really think this lady is going to let her daughter go to public school? I guarantee there’s an out gay kid in her school. There’s probably a fucking skeptics club. Even the most regressive right-wing douchebag in school isn’t even within sight of Carrie’s mom’s worldview. This whole scenario just plain makes no sense in a modern setting, it wouldn’t happen this way. It might happen a different way, of course, but the movie is very insistent that no, it happens exactly the same way as you remember from before, except with cell phones.

This makes no sense, I don't relate to this at all, what's the problem here?
Ooooh, I get it, they're using technology to bully her!
 It’s just phony, completely contrived and anachronistic and haphazard. Other than the timeless phenomena of bullying, I can’t imagine this is even remotely relatable to today’s youth, and frankly I don’t even buy that the bullying would be so old-fashioned. Moretz is all wrong for the part, sure, but frankly I don’t think it was ever playable the way it’s written. A modern teen just straight-up would not act like this, and yet the script requires her to both be a thoroughly modern teen and behave like a teen from nearly a half-century ago. Good god, this movie has a unique ability to find unlikely ways to nullify itself.

In fact, the only thing that might resonate with kids today is the movie’s least savory change, the one thing which really does kind of separate it from the De Palma version: at its heart, this version is a revenge fantasy. It turns Carrie into a school shooter, and although the movie ignores this implication every bit as studiously as it ignores every unavoidable metaphor inherent in the story, there’s also no way to miss it. Part of this is Moretz’s performance; where Spacek made her finale a tragic, near-catatonic, instinctual lashing-out, Moretz’s Carrie is distinctly focused, confident, deliberate and gleeful in her final bloody rampage. But an even bigger part is the way the sequence is orchestrated and written. This Carrie is explicitly an active shooter, picking targets and murdering them, righteously culling the villains from the innocents and sadistically relishing the sudden power shift. It’s a straight up revenge mass killing, and the movie gives us a tacit pass to enjoy it because she’s only murdering the bad students.

What fun.

On one hand, this is the one and only thing that makes the movie distinct, and the only thing it offers which is even theoretically enjoyable, nevermind the weightless, comic-book-movie CG. But while there’s a certain perverse pleasure to be had by smashing the mechanically despicable Chris (Portia Doubleday, HER)’s face through a windshield in pornographic slow motion, it’s exactly that instinct of “ooh, let’s put in a really over-the-top death!” which defeats the entire tragic dimension of the climax and makes it feel generic and disposable. If the telekinetic killing spree is a cathartic and empowering step for Carrie --instead of a product of her total surrender to despair-- it brusquely reverses the entire meaning of the story, categorically invalidating the entire course of the tale up to that point.  So the only part which manages to even fitfully shake the languid doldrums of the story is also the same part that completely negates the story’s most basic themes, turning the entire previous movie into a lugubrious nothing. Good god, this movie has a unique ability to find unlikely ways to nullify itself.

There’s hardly a single aspect of the movie which that statement doesn’t apply to. It seems to exist in some kind of nightmarish alternate universe where everything it adds has the paradoxical effect of actually detracting from the experience, to the point where it ends up spectacularly, possibly uniquely in the red. I honestly can’t say that I’ve ever seen another movie which works this hard to not just tread water, but to actively get worse. And I take that to be a consequence of intent, or, rather, the yawning lack thereof. Nobody involved here seems to have had any idea why this movie was made, or even what it’s fundamentally about (outside the need to remake it because it’s, you know, a name that people have heard of before). Which is no surprise, because it doesn’t have any reason to exist. No substantial story changes, no new perspective, no distinct thematic focus, just added cell phones and unconvincing CG. It’s utterly, utterly empty. It’s an empty, awful movie, and worse still, it’s an empty, awful movie which is inescapably mimicking a genuinely iconic movie. Without the original De Palma version, this would still be a pathetic joke; with the De Palma version, its existence is nothing short of an insult. And that insult isn’t really to its superior predecessor, which will comfortably remain the definitive vision of this story. It’s an insult on the audience, who the film expects to be so undiscerning that they’ll swallow whatever warmed-over disinterested retread the studios can think of, as long as they recognize the brand name. Case in point: The tagline (which comprises the entire poster) literally is, “you will know her name.” Which is surely the only motivation the hucksters behind this desolate leftover ever had.

In closing, please remember: there’s nothing funny about menstruation. Period.

*His last script prior to this was in 2006, so I have my doubts that he was involved creatively at all; I think there’s a good chance they just nakedly stole so much and re-wrote so little of his previous screenplay that they had to credit it.


Play it Again, Samhain

  • TAGLINE: You Will Know Her Name, which was a revision of their original tagline You Will Recognize This Intellectual Property
  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: Yes, of the 1974 Stephen King novella.
  • SEQUEL: Not yet, although the De Palama version got a sequel in 1999, so we won’t really be in the clear til 2036.
  • REMAKE: Yes, I think it’s fair to call this a remake of the ‘76 version, not just a new adaptation. They even share a screenwriter!
  • FOUND-FOOTAGE CLUSTERFUCK: Mercifully no, and that’s especially true because they could have used the original novel’s epistolary structure to justify it. Fortunately I’m pretty sure no one on this project read the book.
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: Julianne Moore.
  • BOOBIES: None
  • MULLETS: None
  • THE UNDEAD: There’s some stupid twist at the very end which suggest that maybe Carrie will return from beyond the grave, but they’re saving it for the sequel.
  • POSSESSION: No, though much talk of it by Mrs. Carrie,
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): Yes
  • EVIL CULT: Well, Mom’s problems are definitely of a religious nature. Can you be a cult of one? I think so.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Fairly low, major production and decent-sized hit.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: If people are mean to you and you’re a social outcast, what you should really hope for is to someday murder them all with magic.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: Definitely has a character named Carrie in it.

This was a hard one, because it's far and away the most competent movie I've ever given this low a score. I mean, it's in focus the whole time, it has real actors, pricey special effects and all. But I honestly can't think of a movie I watched all month that was as gruelingly unrewarding, so the rating stands. To paraphrase the kind of eloquence you could only get from Roger Ebert: I hated, hated, hated this movie.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Dead of Winter

Dead of Winter (1987)
Dir. Arthur Penn
Written by Marc Shmuger, Mark Malone
Starring Mary Steenburgen, Roddy McDowell, Jan Rubeš

As you can see from the last few reviews, I hit a rough patch as I was entering the final stretch of my Halloween marathon (the reviews for which have now officially crossed the 6-month mark, with a brief palette-cleansing break to talk about real movies in April and May). BLOOD LINK was disappointingly tepid for a psychic-twin giallo with Michael Moriarty in a double role, I DRINK YOUR BLOOD was an unpleasant drag, THE PACT II was a dire retread, and ISLAND OF DEATH was just a miserable, tedious endurance test. And the next movie I watched was the 2013 CARRIE REMAKE, which was so howlingly awful it retroactively made the entire course of my life worse. We’ll get to that one, but I gotta be honest, I was getting depressed all over again reviewing so many unimaginatively shitty movies in a row, and I couldn’t bring myself to do another one (plus I have been running frighteningly low on fresh adjectives for “boring.”) So I’m going to switch around the lineup a bit here. Let’s refresh ourselves by indulging in a cooling sip from the sparkling, fresh waters of actual cinematic competency, before I have to come back and tell you that the Academy should have automatically disqualified Julianne Moore from any further award wins after they saw her shame the entire history of human artistic endeavour with her performance as Mrs. Carrie. But let’s not dwell on what a profoundly, distressingly shitty movie THE CARRIEMAKE is (yet), and instead let’s turn our attention to an unfairly overlooked little gem from 1987.

DEAD OF WINTER only entered my radar because I was shocked to realize there were actually Arthur Penn movies I hadn’t seen. I mean, here’s a guy who got his start as a director in 1958, by turning a teleplay by Gore Vidal and an extremely handsome performance by Paul Newman into a provocative, psychological Western with THE LEFT HANDED GUN. He followed it up with the classic Oscar-winning THE MIRACLE WORKER, followed that with the surrealist, freewheeling (almost Seijun Suzuki-esque) noir MICKEY ONE, and the dense, bizarre Western-drama THE CHASE, starring Marlon Brando. Those were his first four films. Pretty auspicious. And then he went on to change cinema history forever with his monumental, paradigm-shifting BONNIE AND CLYDE, which would go on to establish the tenor of 70’s cinema as much as any movie could ever claim. Then came the zeitgeist-defining ALICE’S RESTAURANT, and two of my very favorite films ever, the whimsical revisionist Western LITTLE BIG MAN and the nightmarish anti-noir NIGHT MOVES. Even his subsequent infamous career-killing flop THE MISSOURI BREAKS has enjoyed a significant critical reevaluation in recent years. At the time, though, it was disaster for him (he didn’t direct again for a half decade), and I assumed it had pretty much finished him off, as the New Hollywood he had helped create was slowly retaken by the suits.

But I was wrong -- he actually continued directing well into the 90s. He apparently rebounded from MISSOURI BREAKS with the well-regarded drama FOUR FRIENDS, a crazy-sounding thriller with Gene Hackman and Matt Dillon called TARGET, and then, finally, our subject today, DEAD OF WINTER. This assured and stylish Hitchcock riff was generally well-reviewed, but limped out of theaters with a meager $2,413,427 ($5,103,803.25 in 2016). That’s $25,000 less than MAURICE, a Merchant-Ivory romance about gay British university students in the 1920s, and $75,000 short of THE STEPFATHER. Hell, it’s only a little more than the 1987 Italian-Russian production OCI CIORNIE (DARK EYES), which should not have been a hard thing to beat in 1987. And for God’s sake, MEATBALLS III. That seems to have finally finished it for him; Penn did one more movie (the weird black comedy PENN AND TELLER GET KILLED with the magician duo of the same name playing themselves) and then a smattering of TV, and that was it.

I guess it’s not surprising that genre audiences would have found DEAD OF WINTER a little old-fashioned in the garish throes of 1987 (other horror movies which premiered that year: EVIL DEAD 2, ROCK N’ ROLL NIGHTMARE, HELLRAISER, LOST BOYS, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS, SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE II, PROM NIGHT II, STREET TRASH). It is a little old-fashioned; it has little interest in delivering the over-the-top exploitation elements which mostly defined the horror of the day. But it was their loss, because Penn, 65 at the time, was still resolutely committed to classic thriller fundamentals, which, in his capable hands, are utterly timeless. Obviously I love the outrageous overkill of the era too, but I have room in my heart for both impulses, especially when the execution is this precise.

DEAD OF WINTER, as has been customary for every movie made from 1978-1995, and then again from 2001-2016, stars Mary Steenburgen. Good God, this lady makes more movies than Steven Seagal, and Seagal had two movies released just in the first week of May this year. That impression is probably helped by the fact that I always confuse her with equally ubiquitous 80’s staple Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, but even so, Steenburgen is all over the place, and I’m always glad to see her. An you get plenty of her here, as she plays an impressive Eddie-Murphy-esque triple-roll. Primarily, though, she plays Katie McGovern, a struggling NYC actress who is hired on the spot in a highly suspicious audition run by the shady Mr. Murray (Roddy McDowall, only three years away from doing anti-films like SHAKMA). Amid increasingly dubious conditions, she find her job will be replacing actress Julie Rose (also Steenburgen) who, she is told, suffered a nervous breakdown and had to leave a movie set with her role half-completed. In order to accomplish this, she’s going to have to be locked up in an isolated mansion and record a series of “test” videos, with vaguely sinister messages about an unspecified crime. And then, she’s told, a storm has knocked out the phone lines. And for some reason the car won’t start. Hmmm.

Like all true Hitchcock homages, the plot is fundamentally ludicrous, studiously crafted as a series of artful escalations of tension, rather than an appeal to rigid logic. As things become increasingly sinister, it’s hard to believe McGovern can’t figure out that this is not going to end well (maybe she can’t hear the threatening music?). You may find yourself shouting at the screen and getting frustrated, which I suppose is your right. But if you’re willing to just give in to the appealingly stylish filmmaking (some shots get so canted the camera is at a fully 90° angle!) and not worry too much about how much sense this all makes, you’ll be in for a terrific paranoid thriller. And if you’re not willing to do that, good luck enjoying most of the greatest thrillers ever made. Part of the appeal of this sort of story is that the audience knows something’s up long before the characters do, and it’s the relentless march towards trouble --obvious to us, but not quite so obvious to the characters-- which drives the tension. It’s watching Steenburgen figure out that something’s not right, but allow herself to be talked out of her better instincts by silver-tongued, non-threateningly threatening Roddy McDowell, and his mysterious wheelchair-bound grandfatherly old boss (Jan Rubeš, opera singer and occasional actor, most notably in WITNESS).

DEAD OF WINTER doesn’t reinvent the wheel or anything, but it doesn’t have to, because until we finally invent those hovercars we’ve all been patiently waiting for, the wheel is still a really fuckin’ useful thing to have around. There’s a good reason that the wheel IS the wheel: it works. Modern movies tend to get so caught up in high-concept premises and circuitous twisty endings that it seems like they’ve forgotten that sometimes focusing on the fundamentals --acting, editing, structuring-- of an elegantly simple plot can be a lot more gratifying than trying to overwhelm audiences with a mountain of convoluted nonsense to disguise the empty core. DEAD OF WINTER has a premise and execution which was studiously old-fashioned even at the time (in fact, some sources claim it’s a loose remake of the 1945 noir MY NAME IS JULIA*), but 30 years later, time has been much kinder to it than, say, a Donald Cammell’s WHITE OF THE EYE, a fellow 1987 thriller which does try to reinvent the wheel, and instead comes up with some kind of awkward trapezoid which admittedly looks appealingly exotic, but has almost no actual utility. I love weirdo, misguided experimental cinema too, of course, but sometimes it’s even more pleasurable to simply listen to a real master play the classics.

And make no mistake, DEAD OF WINTER is an immensely pleasurable experience. It’s easy to hear “classic” or ”old-fashioned” and imagine something stodgy and dry, a museum piece you feel obligated to respect, but struggle to get excited about. Fortunately, that’s not the case here; it’s classic because it’s simple, not because it’s retro. It hits exactly the right notes to be gripping but also fun. It knows it has to take itself seriously enough that we can get invested without taking it too seriously. There’s some harrowing moments here, but nothing so brutal it completely spoils the fun, nor anything so pithy that it ruins the tension. Instead, we’re treated to a parade of great thriller set pieces, from a hidden one-way mirror to a secret corpse to a mistaken identity to a clue involving a goldfish in a plastic bag. It’s just good, solid stuff all the way through. Steenburgen has fun in three separate roles, at least one of which is teetering on the edge of charming camp; McDowell is delightfully sketchy, and Rubeš is top notch, just radiating friendly menace. And ridiculous and somewhat familiar as it is, I have to admit it had me entirely transfixed trying to figure out just what the fuck was going on. My only gripe would be that the lighting could stand to be a bit more expressionistic (it’s a bit overlit for something this paranoid), but it’s not a game-killer when everything else is so good. Ironically, for all its confident, unflashy professionalism, apparently behind the scenes the story was anything but seamless; co-writer Marc Shmuger was originally slated to direct, but “soon ran into difficulties” and was temporarily replaced by producer John Bloomgarden, before Alan Ladd Jr. convinced Penn to step in and save the day. Lest you find the happy ending here unlikely, remember that sometimes even a movie which goes through three directors during production can turn out this seamless.

*Based on the IMDB plot description it sounds only vaguely similar, but I haven’t seen it to confirm. Sounds pretty good though. Random side note: another movie it weirdly resembles is actually TUSK. Wheelchair-bound captor, isolated mansion, protagonist (spoiler) wakes up with finger cut off, SO and friend have semi-comic subplot trying to find her.

Play it Again, Samhain

  • TAGLINE: None apparent.
  • SEQUEL: None
  • REMAKE: It has been stated that it's a loose remake of the 1945 noir MY NAME IS JULIA, though I can find no direct evidence for this and the plot seems pretty different.
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: Maybe Mary Steenburgen? I dunno, it’s a pretty classy pic, though.
  • BOOBIES: None
  • MULLETS: Steenburgen’s husband has a pretty slick 80’s bro mullet
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: Finger cut off
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): No
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Sadly high, it’s currently so obscure that searching for “Dead of Winter” turns up a zombie-themed tabletop game before this movie. When you’re being beaten by a tabletop game, things are not going so good.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: A surprising amount of people look exactly like Mary Steenburgen.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: It’s winter, so it works.