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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Dead of Winter
Dead of Winter
MGM // R // December 3, 2002
List Price: $14.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted November 29, 2002 | E-mail the Author
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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?

Video

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.

Audio

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.

Extras

The only special feature is a trailer for the film. Menus are straightforward and easy to navigate.

Final thoughts

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.

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