Not every story based in truth is worth telling. Sometimes, the facts are just that - pieces of reality that lead up to nothing very significant...or dramatic. Clearly, someone thought the story of college genius turned prostitute turned killer Barbara Hoffman deserved the Blood and Money treatment. In 1990, Karl Harter released a book entitled Winter of Frozen Dreams: A True Story of Passion, Greed, and Murder. In it, he outlined the story of a smart, pretty coed who became a paid whore and then befriended men who she murdered for their life insurance. Outside of Wisconsin, where the crimes were committed, the tawdry tale was virtually unknown. Now comes director Eric Mandlebaum and a group of screenwriters. They want to turn Winter into a slow burn suspense thriller overloaded with character, complexities, and incomplete narrative ambiguities. We are supposed to watch this 90 potboiler and wonder if Hoffman really was/is guilty. Instead, we come away convinced that, aside from the lives of her victims, this lady's lame tale stole a hour and a half of our entertainment energies.
One night, Barbara Hoffman calls her fiancÚ Jerry over to help out with a little problem. Seems a dead man is lying in her bathroom and she doesn't know how he got there. Jerry wants to go to the cops. Barb just wants to bury the evidence. Feeling guilty, he goes to the police and confesses to moving the corpse. He implicates his gal pal, but she rebuffs such suggestions of guilt. Barbara claims that her pimp, Ray Curtis, is responsible for beating the man to death. Only later do we learn that the victim was Harry Berge, a lonely older gentleman who claimed that Barbara was his fiancÚ as well. And when he died, he left everything to his new soulmate. While retiring Detective Lulling tries to piece together the clues, Jerry starts wondering about his own safety. After all, Barbara asked him to take out a life insurance policy for $750,000. And he's the only witness to her circumstantial claims of innocence.
Wow, does Winter of Frozen Dreams have pacing problems. As a matter of fact, Eric Mandlebaum's inability to keep his narrative moving forward is the main hitch with this already problematic motion picture. Part of this independent endeavor plays like a Lifetime movie with F-bombs. The rest of it wants to be David Gordon Green circa Snow Angels. With characters we care little about, a plotline that spills the beans right up front (we hear star Thora Birch being found guilty of some crime), and an awkward approach that sees flashbacks meld into current time - and visa versa - with total disregard for the whiplash weariness it will create in the audience, there is no way this film could succeed. But Mandlebaum keeps trying, finding rare moments of truth in what is otherwise a contrived and excessively dull bit of drudgery. We can't even enjoy the windswept Midwest tundra of Wisconsin. The filmmakers made the movie in upstate New York.
Granted, almost all the actors are really reaching here. Keith Carradine as Lulling smokes a pipe like an illustration from one of Dave Berg's Mad Magazine pieces. Brendan Sexton III is actually very good as Jerry, his hound dog demeanor and lack of confidence coming across loud and crystal clear. Dean Winters does his best controlled creepshow as badass pimp Ray, and Dan Moran turns Harry Berge into something akin to a rejected robot. His line readings take alienation and loneliness to whole new levels of laboriousness. That just leaves Thora Birch, and sadly, she's the weakest link in the whole piece. Her Barbara is all baffling motives and misplaced ennui. This is a hooker who never gets mad. She just sits back and sulks whenever something doesn't go her way. We can't even believe in her supposed homicidal streak. While she may be cutthroat and out for herself, this Barbara is a babe in the woods when it comes to killing.
But it's the man behind the lens who's the most mediocre. You can just imagine Mandlebaum believing that he's breaking every convention in the true crime thriller primer. He lets important scenes play out without musical scoring or any other type of cinematic ambiance. His period piece ideals (the movie is set in the late '70s) are unfocused, and occasionally, unrecognizable. He has a hard time digging the meat out of a meaningful exchange, and his camera lingers in the made-for-TV medium shot for far too long. Frankly, it's hard to see what could help this lumbering waste of time. There's no real gore (though Harry's body does look pretty nasty during the opening reveal) and a total lack of dread. This is the very definition of a meaningless, mechanical tale. All we do is watch and wait for the various plot threads to finally meet up and make something sensible. That they barely do is Winter of Frozen Dreams' only saving grace - and it's not a very convincing or accomplished one.
Offered to DVD Talk in a bare bones, "For Screening Purposes Only" digital package, the overall look of this film is hard to grade. Maybe it looked more moody and atmospheric in theaters. Perhaps the lack of any real visual flair played better at 35mm. On this preview disc, the letterboxed image is passable, and that's about it. No score is given since this critic is unsure of what the final version of the title will look like - that is, if the movie ever makes it to a legitimate DVD.
Same thing with the sonic situation here. There's no need to discuss the number of channels utilized or the lack thereof. No need to mention the easily understandable dialogue or the relatively lame shoe-gazer soundtrack. Without a final product to pick apart, all discussions are mere speculation. As a result, no rating is required.
None offered, so none graded.
In many ways, Eric Mandlebaum deserves kudos for at least making an effort. He took a relatively obscure criminal case, developed what he saw as a subjective take on the material, and then did the best job humanly possible under the budgetary, talent, and time constraints. This doesn't excuse Winter of Frozen Dreams' failure. It merely acknowledges that a lot of work went into what turned out to be a fairly derivative offering. Earning a simple Skip It, there may be a few in the less discerning demographic who'll cotton to this kind of movie of the week tell-all tedium. While not the worst movie ever made, Winter of Frozen Dreams suffers from that most severe of cinematic situations. It wastes opportunities and does its real life saga no favors. Of course, it might just be that Barbara Hoffman's case wasn't worth telling. And as a killer who worked as a call girl for a sleazy massage parlor, that's sad indeed.