It's a chance-in-a-lifetime job
for aspiring actress Katy McGovern (Mary Steenburgen)... even if some of the
details are a bit unclear. But pleasant Mr. Murray (Roddy McDowall) is
convinced that the producer, Dr. Lewis (Jan Rubes), will adore her; all she
needs to do is come with him to the good doctor's house for a videotaping
session. All expenses paid, of course. But as the weekend wears on, and the
driving snow outside threatens to cut off the tiny group from the outside
world, unanswered questions begin to loom large in Katy's mind.
Dead of Winter is a
thriller that's frightening and at times disturbing, and it achieves its effect
in the best of ways: through the viewer's imagination and identification with
the main character. Unlike some thrillers that try to shock the viewer through
increasing violence or gore, Dead of
Winter takes a subtle and ultimately more effective path. A few drops of
blood spilled seemingly casually across a sheet is loaded with hair-raising
significance; a character's facade of pleasantness is all the more chilling
when we suspect him of the most heinous plans.
Similarly, the literal
atmosphere of the film is handled deftly to support the growing sense of
tension in the story. The mid-winter darkness outside contrasts with the
brightness and warmth inside Dr. Lewis' home; the blanket of snow envelops and
suffocates the buildings and people it falls on. Yet metaphorically the film
suggests that we might do well to reverse these images: the impersonal winter
weather outside is dangerous but it is perhaps infinitely preferable to the
dangers that arise at the hands of human beings.
A key part of the effectiveness
of Dead of Winter comes from the fact that it respects the intelligence
of its viewers. As the story unfolded, I noticed certain elements that seemed a
little wrong, a little inconsistent with the premise as set up in the initial
scenes... and, in fact, these were clues for the attentive viewer that all is
not as it seems. Toward the end, Dead of Winter does follow a somewhat
more typical thriller development, but the elements of the story are
well-thought-out; the film retains its own flavor and its believability all the
way to the end.
Mary Steenburgen does a fine
job at the various acting tasks expected of her in the film; I can't go into
much detail here without spoiling some parts of the story, but I will say that
her performance is excellent and certainly crucial to the film's success. As
Katy McGovern, she is convincing as a character who could get trapped in a horrifying
situation; the setup is such that anyone might have done the same, and as
things go wrong, she acts sensibly, for the most part. It makes the situation
all the more compelling that we can't say "if she'd only done
such-and-such...!" and encourages the viewer to identify with her: what might
we do in the same circumstances?
Dead of Winter is
presented in a 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio transfer which preserves the
original aspect ratio of the film; however, it is not anamorphically enhanced.
As a whole, the image quality
of Dead of Winter is distinctly below average; it may be a film from
1987, but for a 2002 release onto DVD, I would expect considerably better
treatment of the film. I find it surprising that at this point any new release
from a major studio such as MGM would be non-anamorphic, as this one is;
additionally, the overall image quality of the transfer is disappointing. There
is a large amount of noise in the image, and in dimly-lit scenes a substantial
amount of grain is visible in the print. Also, the widescreen version of Dead
of Winter is allotted only one side of the DVD, with the other side used
for a pan-and-scan version of the film. Unfortunately, this decision has
negative consequences in the image quality, as compression artifacts are
noticeable throughout the image.
English, French, and Spanish
subtitles are available.
The film's Dolby 2.0 surround
track is fairly solid; dialogue is clear, and ambient noises are crisp and
distinct. The film's soundtrack doesn't overuse musical or sound-effect
"surprise" cues, which makes the overall film's audio ambiance more effective;
several times I literally jumped in my seat on account of well-handled audio
effects. The musical score is handled well; it helps to build the suspense, but
never intrudes on the viewing experience.
Dubbed Dolby 2.0 French and
mono Spanish soundtracks are also included.
The only special feature is a
trailer for the film. Menus are straightforward and easy to navigate.
Dead of Winter is a
genuinely creepy, suspenseful film that takes several traditional thriller
elements and builds them into a logical, compelling, and intriguing story.
Despite the disappointing video quality of the DVD transfer, Dead of Winter
is a solid enough film that I'd recommend a purchase for viewers who are
looking for a thriller that will definitely keep them at the edge of the seat.