Arthur Penn’s Dead of Winter is an old-fashioned Gothic with the plot updated to 1987 but all the rampant implausibilities and absurdities left in. It never quite musters enough brio or depth to become outright good, but its self-indulgent weirdness is more than charming enough to keep it entertaining.
Mary Steenburgen plays Katie McGovern, a just-skating-by actress who gets offered an unusual role. Established actress Julie Rose (also Steenburgen) was partway through filming her latest movie when she had a breakdown, and the show must go on; the urbanely ominous producer, Dr. Lewis (Jan Rubeš), wants to doll Katie up to pass as Julie in her remaining scenes, thus sparing everybody the cost of reshoots. Katie needs the work enough that she’s willing to ignore all the danger signs … including the inexplicable requirement to stay in Dr. Lewis’s snowbound mansion in upstate New York. But once she’s there, bottled up by the bleak weather and isolated countryside, alone with Dr. Lewis and his breathlessly devoted assistant (Roddy McDowall), she starts to realize that she’s in danger.
The early middle scenes of the film are the best, when Penn is leisurely setting up both the sense of Katie’s predicament–which has genuine menace–and the Gothic trappings. There are some reasonably well-executed traditional thriller beats, like Katie discovering the cut phone lines and finding all her identification burning in the fireplace; Penn has done better suspense, but this is still pretty good, especially in the kind of nauseating calculation Katie has to make about when she’ll reveal that she knows she’s in danger. The movie nails that sense of trying to stave off inevitable horror, and you can almost hear Katie thinking, He can’t catch me if I don’t run. When you don’t know if you can win a confrontation, and you don’t know what someone else will resort you, sometimes all you can do is stay polite and faux-naïve while you wait for the right moment.
But the tension still comes in second to the sense of atmosphere and over-the-top genre, which is where the movie really shines. It’s hard to explain how completely bananas Dr. Lewis’s house is, from its secret passageway to its massive taxidermy-preserved polar bear to the body in the attic to the player piano that’s tied to Dr. Lewis’s heart rate. It’s a conscious overdose of tropes, and Penn also throws some Hitchcock into the blender, too, making Katie’s husband a photographer crankily dealing with his broken leg. The plot is the same kind of pile-up of ideas: blackmail, doubles, false declarations of “madness,” sisterly hatred, troubling doctor-patient relationships, and severed fingers.
It could be glorious, but it falls short of that and is instead just fun. The problem is that while we do get an explanation for all this, it’s a bad one. Not just convoluted and unbelievable, which most Gothic–and some Hitchcockian–plots are, but artificial, poorly presented, and lacking in any resonance or oomph. The movie does a good job making some of its weirder throwaway bits come back as plot-relevant details–the gas station that gives away free goldfish, for example–but it fails to notice that there’s no point to Katie’s brother. The best aspects of the plot are related to Katie’s resourcefulness and how she actually gets to exercise her skills to help extricate herself, but that’s not enough to keep this from sagging in the back third. But for wintry atmosphere, a modern twist on classic Gothic tropes, and some good Steenburgen and McDowall, this is a fun–and sometimes darkly funny–way to kill an evening.