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Awesome: 0%
Worth A Look: 11.11%
Just Average: 11.11%
Pretty Crappy: 11.11%

1 review, 3 user ratings

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Dead of Winter
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by Jack Sommersby

"A Lukewarm 'Winter'"
1 stars

More coma-inducing than nerve-jangling. A perfect alternative to Secondal, this.

Dead of Winter is such an irredeemably awful thriller that at first you might think it impossible that it comes from the very same director, Arthur Penn, who gave us two extraordinary movies, Bonnie and Clyde and Night Moves; then again, Penn's track record leading up to this was considerably marred by the imprecise, enervating talking-heads picture Four Friends and the idiotic, incoherent spy tale Target. Working with an abysmal screenplay by first-timers Mark Shmuger and Mark Malone, he's taken it upon himself to try to make something fetching out of a story line that basically involves a woman being systematically terrorized inside a secluded upstate New York home with lots of rooms and corridors, and he fails miserably with a big giant thud -- there isn't so much as a single solitary good scene anywhere to be found, just a plethora of cliches and enough nonsensicalness as to make an Andy Warhol movie seem positively Shakespearean by comparison. And it doesn't help that the proceedings are hokey right from the onset. We see a mysterious-looking woman with a heavy coat and scarf covering most of her face walking into a small-town bus depot at night and retrieving a satchel full of money from one of the lockers; we know there's money in it because not only has the satchel been left open for no discernible reason, but even more inexplicably the woman doesn't even bother closing it as she walks out of the depot and into her car, which is a sorry set-up for her having to cover the top of it at the last minute as she's forced to stop by the police at a drunk-driving checkpoint on New Year's Eve. (In between this, Penn manages to foul up something even more simple: on this sparsely-traveled road, the car and a car following her veer into the middle lane just because Penn has decided to place the camera in the right lane, thus already calling our attention to the movie as such.) The woman drives to a parking lot and phones someone, waits in her car to meet a certain person, and is strangled to death by someone hiding in the backseat. We then forward to Manhattan where we're introduced to Julie Rose (Mary Steenburgen), a struggling actress who's having an argument with her photographer boyfriend; the boyfriend is also struggling financially and Rose's college-age brother is living in their small loft, as well. But Rose succeeds in catching a break: at the audition held by one Mr. Murray (Roddy McDowall), she wins the role in a movie being shot in Canada; she's replacing an actress she looks like who she's told has suffered a nervous breakdown. Offered twelve-thousand dollars, she agrees to go with Mr. Murray to stay with the producer in his home over the weekend to prepare for the role; the boyfriend is far from congratulatory, which doesn't make much logical sense given that they're behind in their rent and his career isn't exactly taking off.

Being the movies, we know there's got to be more to it than this, which isn't exactly beneficial in this case being that the ensuing plot developments are more puerile than palpable. The wheelchair-bound producer, Dr. Joseph Lewis (Jan Rubes), is initially disarming and puts Rose at ease; but she's unable to call her boyfriend to check in because the phone lines are down to a massive snowstorm, and, wouldn't you know, she can't be driven to the nearest gas station to call the next morning because the car won't start. Not necessarily the worst set-up in the world, mind you, but the moviemakers carelessly flub things by then revealing Lewis and his trusty assistant Mr. Murray to be malevolent too early on, with the bungled structure accentuating the ineptness. Instead of seeing things from Rose's point-of-view so the audience discovers things as she does, the narrative jumps all over the place, crosscutting from her to the Dastardly Duo to the boyfriend back home (who's been alerted by Rose of the danger she's in after finding a working phone in an attic) to another mysterious-looking woman of a duplicitous nature who's been sent a tape of Rose's screen test. And it doesn't help that the underlying plot motivation involving high-dollar blackmail couldn't be more tired and trite. Perhaps if Steenburgen were a more captivating screen presence and Penn knew what the hell he were doing, the hackneyed story wouldn't be so bothersome. Whiny-voiced and physically inexpressive, Steenburgen (who surprisingly won an Oscar for her just-passable work in Melvin and Howard) has zero in the way of charisma and appeal, and everything she does is obvious; she never succeeds in pulling us into her character's emotional plight, which is a serious liability in any thriller. And Penn can't even get the fundamentals right in terms of atmosphere and expressive film craft. The camera never seems to be in the right place, the spatial logistics of the house's interior are ill-defined so we're not given a clear sense of where exactly the characters are in relation to one another, and, for all the falling snow and howling gales, there's never a decent sinister shot of the house from the outside -- the movie could be taking place inside the Brady Bunch household for all we know. Added to which, there's a dire absence of sustained tension and suspense (everything seems stuck in first gear), the sequences are atrociously shaped (as if Penn only had his mind on his next project), the dialogue is pure kitty litter (it's wooden and never comes off as naturalistic speech), the non-nuanced Rubes fails at emanating necessary menace, the grand finale involving Rose fighting Lewis off in the close confines of the attic is staged with the utmost unctuousness, and bags of goldfish given away at a local gas station is unintentionally hilarious not just as a dumb plot device but as a blatantly-obvious foreshadowing of Rose's soon-to-be trapped predicament. In this disastrous piece of rock-bottom cinema, Dead of Winter is less a barracuda and more the ultimate harmless guppy.

The DVD is letterboxed but sports an unimpressive non-anamorphic transfer. No special features excepting a theatrical trailer.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=22551&reviewer=327
originally posted: 05/29/11 11:22:09
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User Comments

9/14/17 morris campbell flawed but suspenseful 4 stars
5/30/11 Charles Tatum Agree with Jack, a real disappointment 2 stars
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  06-Feb-1987 (R)
  DVD: 03-Dec-2002



Directed by
  Arthur Penn

Written by
  Marc Shmuger
  Mark Malone

  Mary Steenburgen
  Roddy McDowall
  Jan Rubes
  William Russ
  Ken Pogue

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