Dead Of Winter (1987)

JULY 18, 2010


I don’t know when we started getting MGM HD but I’m starting to appreciate it. Whereas Showtime and TMC (channels people PAY for) air the same 15 movies over and over (I come across Saw V airing at least once a week - which is about as often as I channel surf so it probably airs 3x as much as I think), MGM HD apparently never re-airs much, if anything. I discovered this when two friends told me that they were showing Without Warning, a slasher in the vein of Predator from 1983 (starring David Caruso!) on a particular Saturday. So I went and looked through its upcoming schedule so I could record it when it aired again. But it didn’t! However, I saw a “triple feature” of horror (two unseen, one forgotten) airing a few days later, so I recorded all three. First up is Dead Of Winter, and I hope it’s the weakest of the three.

The concept was fine, and could have been a good nail-biter in the vein of High Tension or Dean Koontz’ Intensity (which was made into an overlong TV movie instead of a good, taut feature). Basically, a woman is led to believe she is auditioning for a film and is instead kidnapped and held for ransom by two killers. I was hoping for a lot of cat and mouse sequences and genuine thrills, but instead its mostly a bore, with our heroine putting in hardly any effort to escape. Granted, it’s the “DEAD OF WINTER” and the place is isolated, but she also has about 30 years on the younger of her two captors, and the older one is an invalid. They don’t drug her or even do much to confine her (tie her up, maybe?), and thus we are denied a sort of basic element of these type of things - how our heroine can use her brains AND survival instincts to get out of a bad situation. Even the woeful While She Was Out offered something along those lines, but our heroine never seems to have more of a plan than “run!”.

She is played by Mary Steenburgen, which is another of the movie’s problems. Nothing against the lady, but she also plays two other roles in the movie, which is at LEAST one, more likely two, too many. Because, you see, the plot is about a woman named Evelyn (Steenburgen) who has had her sister Julie (Steenburgen) killed over some blackmail issues, and our villains have found Katie (Steenburgen!) and are using her to continue the blackmail plot against Evelyn. I was fine with the one Steenburgen being killed and then the main one coming along, but when they had the third one (Evelyn) the movie just lost me entirely. The plot that kicked the whole thing off didn’t rely on them being twins, so why Evelyn had to be yet another Steenburgen made no sense. It seems to exist solely to have an obvious twist in the 3rd act where Katie kills Evelyn and dresses like her in order to trick her captors. But once again she displays a strong lack of “wanting to get the fuck away” - she could have easily just left at that point, but decides to stick around and follow one of them (Roddy McDowall!) around the house for what seems like an eternity, which I guess would have worked if it wasn’t so obvious that it was really Katie. The film was based on a book, and I assume that it makes a lot more sense on the page to have 3 women who look a lot alike (or even twins and a 3rd, similar looking party) than seeing the same actress playing three roles. But the lack of good suspense was more crippling anyway.

McDowall is the other problem - he’s just not a menacing villain. He was more of a threat in Fright Night when he was hosting the TV show than he ever comes off here, which is a bit of a problem when he’s one of two villains in a suspense thriller. As he yammers and stutters his way through several scenes as if he was in some Broadway comedy, I kept wondering why Katie didn’t just throw the nearest object at him and knock him out cold, as he was certainly not really equipped to handle any sort of attack.

The other guy isn’t much better, though he at least seems like if not for his bum leg that he could be a genuine threat. Indeed, the closest the movie gets to a good chase scene is during the climax, when he abandons his wheelchair and begins hobbling about trying to find Katie. He’s played by Jan Rubes, whom I instantly recognized as the replacement “old guy” from Mighty Ducks in D2 (original old guy Joss Ackland sat that one out, but he came back for D3). Now, I haven’t seen that movie in at least 15 years, so why the hell I remembered this I have no idea. But flashing back to the first two Ducks films (I never saw the 3rd one in its entirety, I just remember Ackland coming back and Estevez being in it only fleetingly as some new coach took over) provided more entertainment than this movie did, so I guess it was worth those brain cells and synapses retaining this bit of otherwise useless trivia.

Otherwise, my favorite thing about the movie was that Steenburgen and McDowall are given two free goldfish at the gas station as a reward for buying at least 10 dollars’ worth of gas. I have no idea what the hell the point of it is, but it does provide the film with one of its most menacing moments (Rubes purposely steps on one of them). Also, the blackmail and “shock” moments were sort of in the vein of old Hammer movies, the ones like Scream of Fear or Paranoiac. It wasn’t about someone being driven insane, but it had that “people will go to some overly complicated lengths to get some money” quality that all those films had, as they seemingly all exist in a world without either the lottery or bank robbery. No, much easier to use your position as a psychiatrist to get information on a patient’s wealthy sister, blackmail her, and then create a fake movie (with fake news clippings and fake autographs of Malcolm McDowell to boot) in order to entice hopeful actresses to come see you in hopes that you will find someone that looks just like the patient so you can continue the blackmail scheme once the blackmailee murders said patient. It’s almost too easy... But back on point, I do appreciate the attempt to make a 60s style thriller in the late 80s, amidst all of the FX driven horror films of the time. But as the saying goes, the road to being shown only at odd times on 3rd tier cable channels is paved with good intentions.

What say you?

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  1. Was this the one where she gets her fingers cut off or something? I haven't seen this movie since it came out and I remember liking it. Maybe it was the snow. I like films with snow in them.

  2. Yeah they cut off one finger to send to the woman they're blackmailing.

  3. Brian--
    Re MGMHD: I think Dish is running that and a handful of other HD channels as a free preview. (Along with RetroHD, which ran CREEPSHOW 2 last night.) I've been DVRing like crazy. I don't know when the free previews are supposed to end, they usually only last a weekend or a week, but this one seems to have been going on for about 2 weeks already.

    Were the other two movies in the triple feature THE DARK HALF and SQUIRM? ;)

    Correction: WITHOUT WARNING is from 1980. (Not '83.)

    Re-DEAD OF WINTER: I grabbed this on DVD about 8 or 9 years ago, remembering it from my teens as a taut, Hitchcock-style thriller, that it was smart and suspenseful (and icy cold and starred Roddy McDowell).

    It turns out I should have left it as just a fond memory because jesus it doesn't hold up. You're right on the money. The scheme is ludicrous...hell, the whole movie is ludicrous.

  4. I've always had MGM-HD, but I just noticed I had RetroPlex HD and MoviePlex HD. I'm not sure if they're free previews or not. I hope not, as RetroPlex is playing some awesome blaxploitation films here and there.

    Oh and according to the MGM-HD site, Without Warning is on again a couple times in the near future. It's pretty good, I'd recommend it.


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