“Even winter bleak has charms to me,” wrote Robert Burns. Seems like most filmmakers scribbled that memorable line of verse on a post-it note a long time ago. Snow-covered vistas are an irresistible visual, capably employed by directors from the Coen Brothers to Sam Raimi to Christopher Nolan to John Carpenter. Any movie set in a frosty environment has an automatic in with me, and one of my favorites is the little-seen 1987 thriller Dead Of Winter.
Mary Steenburgen plays an actress who is lured to a remote, snow-bound mansion, only to discover that she’s become ensnared in a lethal game of blackmail. Shrill and largely helpless at first, she slowly turns the tables on her captors, outwitting them using her skills as a performer. This throwback thriller (loosely based on the 1945 film My Name Is Julia Ross) plays like a feature-length version of Where’s Waldo for cinephiles: spot all the Hitchcock references! Some are obvious (shrieking violins as a knife plunges), but some are quite subtle (a tall glass of milk on a platter, as per Suspicion). Roddy McDowall steals the show as the droll, effete, eccentric manservant. Meanwhile, the underrated Jan Rubes (so paternally benevolent in Witness) is deliciously evil in a hammy villain role, the sinuous tones of every syllable he speaks suggesting guile and charm in equal measures.
The movie nicely conveys the chill of winter, with whistling windstorms, snowglobe-style visuals and a sparse piano-based score. But the entertaining tone makes the film a good deal less depressing than some of the other movies that utilize similar environments (downers like Fargo, A Simple Plan, et cetera, which used barren settings to mirror the bleak desperation of their characters). Thematically, it plays much in the same key as Rob Reiner’s Misery – a violent but highly diverting cold-weather chiller.
So, when the mercury dips and you decide to stay in for the night, check out Dead Of Winter. A cup of hot chocolate in hand will help, too (just don’t let Roddy McDowall prepare it – trust me on this one).