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Why Has Pop Culture Forgotten ‘Dead of Winter?’

This sly 1987 thriller has plenty to say about the actor/director relationship

“Dead of Winter” (1987) was a respected but little-seen thriller when it first came out and remains that way, a title recalled with admiration but barely in the conscious of even the most studied horror fan.

A recent Scream Factory Blu-ray re-release and an overall appreciation of its star, Mary Steenburgen, and its director, Arthur Penn (of “Bonnie and Clyde”) should have elevated its status. Yet it remains a hidden treasure.

Now, at 35 years old, it remains a modest but impressive work and a real find.

Dead of Winter (1987) - Official Trailer

Steenburgen stars as Katie McGovern, an actress who is summoned by a pair of wealthy but mysterious men (Roddy McDowell and Jan Rubes) to audition for a film role. The catch: McGovern must travel through heavy snowfall to an isolated mansion for the audition.

Whether she gets the role or not, she’s staying in a house with two strange men who are cheerful, encouraging and eager to put her audition on film. Is everything what it seems?

McDowell’s character initially seems obsequious, but the actor slowly turns up the dial on the character’s state of mind, which bears similarities to Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates.

It’s wild to think that McDowell did this back-to-back with the Goldie Hawn/ Kurt Russell comedy “Overboard,” which he co-produced and was released the same year. Unlike his warm, cuddly turn in “Overboard,” McDowell is scary in this one.

Rubes plays Dr. Joseph, the other man living in the house and the wheelchair bound director of the movie she’s been sent to audition for. Rubes, most famous for superbly portraying an authority figure in the Amish community of Peter Weir’s excellent “Witness” (1985), had previously played Santa Claus opposite Steenburgen in the strange Disney cult film, “One Magic Christmas” (1986).

That equally dark film, along with “Dead of Winter,” would make for a weird double feature.

Steenburgen and McDowell are given a goldfish at a gas station as a present for their patronage (“Free with every ten-dollar purchase!”)- we later see she kept it, as it swims in circles in a wine glass, an effective if obvious symbol of her character’s status.

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There are other visual clues and set ups as well, like a great reveal in a fireplace, missing fingers(!) and a bear trap that the film wisely puts to use later.

“Dead of Winter” was in good company in 1987, a great year for thrillers – “Fatal Attraction,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “The Stepfather,” “The Bedroom Window,” “Black Widow,” “The Believers” and “Angel Heart” all opened the same year.

Angel Heart | Official Trailer 4K Restoration | Starring Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro

The storytelling is straight forward and unpretentious. However, Penn’s film isn’t lacking style, but rather rich in atmosphere. Even before we’re at the wintery setting, the snowy environment of the prologue allows stark cold vistas to create an unwelcome feel.

“Dead of Winter” could be a stage play – in fact, it still could, as Stephen King’s “Misery” has proven to be a riveting fit for community theater and Broadway (the acclaimed 2015 Bruce Willis/ Laurie Metcalfe production), then so could this.

Penn’s film is ostensibly about acting, as Steenburgen’s character catches onto to the act her captors are playing on her before they know she knows. Performance is literally what saves her in the final act, which is a lot of fun for the chances it takes.

I loved the in-joke of actor/former husband to Steenburgen Malcolm McDowell’s autograph visible in one scene. The film is a great showcase for Steenburgen, who rarely got to cut loose like this and carry a film on her own.

As a depiction of a warped director/actress relationship and how thespian training can be a weapon or a skill for others to prey on, “Dead of Winter” is oddly similar to the troubled but appreciated Canadian horror film, “Curtains” (1983).

In both films, the actresses are summoned for a major film role and realize how the director is trying to control more than just their performance. Steenburgen has shined many times before, but her work here, which is so atypical of everything else she’s done, is what makes “Dead of Winter” so good.

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