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Dead of Winter
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Dead Of Winter

Dead of Winter

One way to drive an actor crazy is to toy with his or her audition. The villains carry that to new heights in Dead of Winter (1987), with Mary Steenburgen starring as an actress whose video screen test in a snow-bound mansion turns out to be a try-out for terror. Dark shadows, things that go bump in the night and a drugged glass of milk help turn method acting into insanity in the thriller, Dead of Winter.

In many ways the film is a reunion for members of the production team from One Magic Christmas, a loose updating of It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Steenburgen had made for Disney Studios in 1985. In addition to Steenburgen, the new film brought back producer Michael MacDonald , production designer Bill Brodie and Czech actor Jan Rubes, making the transition from Santa Claus in the Disney film to a menacing presence in this one.

The story bears a strong resemblance to the classic B-movie My Name Is Julia Ross (1945), in which Nina Foch wakes up in an unfamiliar mansion surrounded by strangers who call her by another name. Although the connection remains uncredited, the filmmakers tipped a hat to the earlier film by naming Rubes' character Joseph Lewis after the director of the earlier film. For the new film, Rubes and cohort Roddy McDowall pursue their own agenda as they gradually take Steenburgen hostage and torment her into helping them with a blackmail scheme.

Dead of Winter posed a challenge for Steenburgen, who had to turn in three different characterizations. After a strong screen debut as Jack Nicholson's leading lady in the Western Goin' South (1978), she had scored an Oscar® as Best Supporting Actress for only her third film, Melvin and Howard (1980). Despite acclaimed performances in such films as Ragtime (1981), Cross Creek (1983) and Parenthood (1989), she would be best remembered by film fans for two films involving time travel, Time After Time (1979), which introduced her to first husband Malcolm McDowell, and Back to the Future Part III (1990). More recently, she completed a two-year run as Amber Tamblyn's mother on Joan of Arcadia and teamed with current husband Ted Danson for the 2006 thriller Nobel Son.

Getting some of the film's best reviews was McDowall, second-billed as the mysterious Mr. Murray. Nearing the end of a long career that had included child stardom, acclaimed stage work and steady employment as a television guest star, McDowall was coming off a surprise hit as a television horror film host in Fright Night (1985) and was actually the first person signed for the film. He and Steenburgen quickly bonded over their love of classic films. They would re-team for the 1995 film version of Truman Capote's novel The Grass Harp, co-starring Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon.

Production on Dead of Winter was not without problems. After a few weeks of location shooting in Ontario, writer-director-producer Marc Shmuger (now an executive at Universal) called in family friend Arthur Penn to replace him. Best known for his revisionist takes on American history in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Little Big Man (1970), Penn seems an odd choice for a taut thriller like Dead of Winter. Yet the film bears a connection to his earlier Mickey One (1965), as pointed out by on-line critic Peter Nellhaus. Like that film's title character, played by Warren Beatty, Steenburgen's actress is a failed entertainer forced to turn in the performance of a lifetime when she's faced with death.

Critics were decidedly mixed about Dead of Winter, with some hailing Penn's subtly threatening atmosphere while others complained about plot inconsistencies and a faltering final reel. Not surprisingly, the film only took in a paltry $2.4 million domestically. Most of the cast came through unscathed, but Penn, coming off a string of box-office failures, had a harder time rebounding. Dead of Winter would be his last theatrical feature to be given a wide release. Two years later, he would direct comic magicians Penn and Teller in Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989), before moving primarily into television work, including a one-year stint as executive producer of Law & Order.

Producer: John Bloomgarden, Marc Shmuger
Director: Arthur Penn
Screenplay: Marc Shmuger, Mark Malone
Cinematography: Jan Weincke
Art Direction: Bill Brodie
Music: Richard Einhorn
Cast: Mary Steenburgen (Katie McGovern/Julie Rose/Evelyn), Roddy McDowall (Mr. Murray), Jan Rubes (Joseph Lewis), William Russ (Rob Sweeney), Ken Pogue (Officer Mullavy), Wayne Robson (Officer Huntley).
C-100m. Letterboxed.

by Frank Miller