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.