The oddity of Dead of Winter (1987)
Arthur Penn’s Dead of Winter (1987) is a film best-described as an elaborate – if silly in terms of plot – suspenser which primarily benefits from style behind the camera and a seasoned cast.
Roddy MacDowell and Jan Rubes are the filmmakers hiring Mary Steenburgen’s struggling actress to replace another whose left their small production. Invited to the producer’s isolated home, the film is an increasingly disturbing game of cat-and-mouse between Steenburgen and her ‘hosts’, set against an ongoing blizzard. MacDowell plays the part of an innocent but creepily resourceful manservant to the hilt and Jan Rubes is the wheelchair-consigned producer whose wit and charm soon slide to reveal a malicious streak. Mary Steenburgen spends most of the screentime as a petrified woman unable to fathom what is happening to her.
The film starts off with a sweetly choreographed murder sequence, which could be straight out of a DePalma or Hitchcock picture. Penn stays with these directors in terms of theme; there’s a sense of VERTIGO (1958) throughout with the idea of a doppelgänger and dual intendities featuring as prominent plot devices. Out of nowhere really, the threat-level jumps during the last 40 minutes when previous pacing has led us slowly into a mystery more than a thriller. To be sure, one of the film’s big successes for me is this transition away from a poignancy which had earlier characterised Steenburgen and MacDowell’s relationship.
For an 80s movie, the film just feels bizarre. It’s an old-fashioned approach which relies on the strength of its characters and the draw of its photography. The decade’s excesses seem a million miles from the proceedings here – and it’s all run in something of a parallele universe, dominated by the rich and famous playing games with one another. Indeed, a perceived lack of realism was one of the reasons Dead of Winter achieved a hit-and-miss critical reception. It’s an unfair criticism of a film which is more interested in the fantastical than the real.
Well worth your time.
Hotdog rating: 7/10