Penn #11 – Dead of Winter (1987)

A long, slow descent into mediocrity.

The Story

Katie McGovern (Mary Steenburgen) is a struggling actress hired to stand in for an AWOL movie star. To get the gig, all she has to do is pass a private audition with the film’s director. At his isolated, snowbound estate. And cut her hair, wear different clothes, and otherwise transform into the missing girl. Hey, New York apartments don’t rent themselves, am I right?

As you may have guessed, Katie has fallen for a classic con, the ol’ “kidnap an actress who looks like a dead girl to blackmail the dead girl’s twin sister” game. There’s a sucker born every minute. Katie is drugged, locked in the house, and terrorized by Dr. Lewis, who passes her off as an insane patient. As Katie’s husband searches for her, she uses her acting skills to bluff through the house, eventually murdering her would-be murderers and winning her freedom.

“Can I still put this on my resume?”

The Production

Arthur Penn never meant to make Dead of Winter. Penn was originally approached as a middleman, a guy who could grease the wheels at MGM for screenwriters Marc Shmuger and Mark Malone, friends of Penn’s son from Wesleyan College. Penn liked their script—a quasi-remake of 1945’s My Name is Julia Ross—and agreed to help them find financing. Unfortunately, problems arose during shooting. According to Penn, the man hired to direct the film was too green, and his homage-heavy shooting style stymied the crew. As MGM debated whether to kill the film, an embarrassed Penn agreed to step in and see the movie over the finish line. It didn’t make much difference. Dead of Winter had an anemic box office take, even for 1987’s low standards, and faded into obscurity soon after.

The Scene

Dead of Winter passes as a thriller partly because it cribs its best moments from more famous films. It’s only near the movie’s bloody climax that it finally lurches into life on its own merits. The audience knows that Katie’s husband is nearby with help, but Mary doesn’t know that, and her murder is imminent. Drugged and barely able to stand, Katie nonetheless goes on murderlock and culls the villain population of the house in a last-ditch escape attempt. Despite being confined to a wheelchair, her primary captor, Dr. Lewis, is the hardest to kill. Did I say confined? Actually, he uses the goddamn thing as a launching pad and claws his way around the house trying to get one good hand around Katie’s throat. The film finally earns its own tension, and stops feeling like a karaoke version of Hitchcock’s greatest hits.

All jokes aside: this made me poop a little.

The Issue

This heading has been dead weight so far, and that won’t change today because Dead of Winter is pretty much devoid of any sort of higher thought. It’s a decent enough potboiler, the equivalent of summer beach reading, but Penn didn’t have a personal stake in it, and so it’s missing any attention to broader issues. I promise that this category will earn its keep eventually.


Dead of Winter is assembled from spare parts and directed by a man who didn’t want the job. The movie has no stars and a plot that loiters on the far outskirts of credibility. It’s not faint praise, then, to admit that, you know, actually it’s kind of watchable.


That’s not quite right. A better description for the movie might be “sporadically entertaining.” There’s just enough atmosphere and mystery to carry an audience through the first two acts, which is when the story happily hands the ball off to the flippin’ batshit insane. Let’s take stock of what this movie has going on:

  • Murderous twins
  • A third woman who could be their doppelganger
  • A villain who is handi-capable of murdering you
  • Roddy McDowell and a bag of goldfish

Together at last.

Yet, why rank the film so low on the list? Is everything from here up a jackpot classic? Laws, no. For starters, Dead of Winter ranks low because it’s tough to parse how much of the film really belongs to Penn. When Roddy McDowell takes an evil glass of milk upstairs, is that Penn’s homage to Suspicion or the original director’s? Penn’s work is always his own; he almost never displays the open reverence that identified the film school brats of the 70s and beyond, and yet Dead of Winter is full of visual references. Is it truly a Penn film?

With Roddy McDowell, the milk is less evil and more “where are my warm sugar cookies?”

Second, as affable as Dead of Winter can be, it’s as forgettable as a midnight piss break. The film aims to please, even if accomplishing that goal means catching a parachute out of your brainpan before you can take a moment to look for plot holes. Penn has bigger debacles (just wait for next week, woof), but those fail in style while Dead of Winter is content to exist in isolation.

Not that it’s a total loss. Dead of Winter is a demo reel on how to shoot old-school suspense. Penn was in television when the rules on how to tell cheap, effective stories were still being written. The man knew his way around a plot point. The camera work in this film is aggressive and disorienting, echoing Mary’s fall down the rabbit hole as gets the scope of her problem. There’s also a recurring visual theme about doubles, foreshadowing the twins and Mary’s transformation. The film is slight, but it takes itself just seriously enough to earn goodwill. Penn never wanted to shoot a thriller, but he wasn’t half-bad. This was a fitting resume credit from the man who originated Wait Until Dark on Broadway; a nice, competent thriller.

With incompetent bad guys.

Unfortunately, “competent” is about the best I can muster up for Dead of Winter. There are worse movies in the thriller genre, but plenty better. This is C material handed to an A director, and the result is a B movie. Hey, it’s baseball season, so in honor of our mangled hero, I’ve got a mangled metaphor: For a film so obsessed with doubles, all Dead of Winter can manage is a solid single.

The Arthur Penn Project

14. Penn & Teller Get Killed (1989)

13. Four Friends (1981)

12. Target (1985)

11. Dead of Winter (1987)

10. ???

  1. #1 by wikirebels on 04/24/2011 - 9:06 AM

    Okay, here’s the thing I love about this. Penn obviously made it past Dead of Winter. But nobody thought Marc Shmuger was going to appear in another IMDB credit after it. But now Uni has put him behind the wheel of a Wikileaks documentary that might actually go somewhere.

    It’s not quite the same kind of transformation as Kathryn Bigelow from Point Break to Hurt Locker, but still fun to watch careers come along.

%d bloggers like this: