It is New Year's Eve, and this woman has something to pick up from a locker, which she does by braving the cold, wind and snow and retrieving the bag, returning to her car and driving off through the bad weather. She is stopped by a traffic policeman who admonishes her for one headlight being broken, especially in these conditions, but she explains she has been unable to get it fixed what with the weather as poor as it is. He allows her to drive on, but as she pulls up a distance down the road, she is briefly startled by revellers; composing herself, she prepares to move on when suddenly a figure looms from the back seat where he has been hiding and murders her, then cuts off her ring finger as a trophy...
That introduction makes Dead of Winter sound like a slasher movie, of which there were more than a few during the decade of the eighties, but aside from being a neat short film in itself, it was also the lead in to a film that did not look to its contemporaries for its gory inspiration, but back to a B-movie of the nineteen-forties. In this case it was the Joseph H. Lewis cult favourite My Name is Julia Ross which detailed the yarn about a woman kept captive in an old dark house as her captors try to convince her she is someone other than who she believes herself to be for their own nefarious reasons. In that film you're unsure for a while what the truth of the situation is, but here you were in no doubt the heroine was being messed around.
That leading lady was Mary Steenburgen, playing Katie McGovern, a struggling actress who happens upon an apparent dream job when she is auditioned by a mildmannered producer, Mr Murray (Roddy McDowall), although once the movie is over, you have to wonder what he would have done if Katie had never shown up for the audition. It's quite the coincidence, and the fact that too much of this was farfetched to say the least might have been more successful if director Arthur Penn had conjured an atmosphere of crazed delirium, but he didn't, for the most part he kept things far too tasteful. So leisurely was his pacing that even when Katie is in danger of losing her life the pulses are not exactly set a-racing, as you observe her mishaps with detatched interest.
Anyway, Murray tells her she is perfect for the job, and before she knows it she has been whisked away to an isolated, snowbound estate in the middle of nowhere and a rambling, cluttered country pile where she is expected to run through some lines as test footage taken on a video camera. Her director? A curious, European-accented psychiatrist in a wheelchair, Dr Joseph Lewis (Jan Rubes - see what they did there?), who proudly displays his collection of stuffed polar bears (taking the winter theme a little too far, it must be said) and his piano which plays itself and begins to suggest Katie should really change her appearance for the role. Hence the distinctive Steenburgen mane of raven-black curls are snipped and shaped into something more conventional.
And her finger is cut off too. But we're getting ahead of ourselves, as it's a slow build up to the revelations of the final half hour and an expression of scepticism that any supposed criminal masterminds might have thought this plan could work. Penn, stepping in at the last moment to direct a script that was meant to be helmed by one of the scriptwriters, litters the movie with Alfred Hitchcock references, not quite Mel Brooks' High Anxiety, but enough to be a distraction when you notice them and Dead of Winter comes up a little short when comparisons are inevitably made. In its favour, the acting was fine, especially McDowall who makes his character's shifts between cowed and sinister very enjoyable to witness in the thriller context, and the look of the production was appropriately icy, one of the few films set at this season which had not one thing to do with Christmas. Yet for a plot which went off in wild directions, this never came across as particularly wild movie, maybe it was the bone deep chill conveyed hampering the excesses which could have made this a cut above. Music by Richard Einhorn.
American theatre and film director whose depiction of the rebellious character in movies found its most celebrated example in Bonnie and Clyde, which was hugely important in ushering in a new style of Hollywood film, not to mention new styles in Hollywood violence. Before that he had helmed psychological Billy the Kid story The Left Handed Gun, the much acclaimed The Miracle Worker, and Warren Beatty-starring experimental flop Mickey One, which nevertheless led to the both of them making the gangster movie that was so influential.