Katie McGovern (Mary Steenburgen), a struggling actress living with her photographer husband and college student younger brother in a tiny apartment, answers a newspaper ad that could change her life. When casting director Mr. Murray (Roddy McDowall) sees her at the audition, he's convinced she's the woman his producer, Dr. Joseph Lewis (Jan Rubes), is looking for.
Dr. Lewis's needs are exceedingly precise: he needs a woman who could be the spitting image of his lead actress, who stormed off the set and suffered a nervous breakdown. Katie has the look, but in order to seal the deal with the director, Lewis would like her to visit his home upstate and shoot a test scene on video so the director can make the final call. With an offer of $3,000 just to shoot the test scene, and an additional $9,000 if she gets the part, Katie can hardly say no.
But when she reaches the secluded mansion where the wheelchair-bound Dr. Lewis lives alone with Mr. Murray, things take a twist for the bizarre. The blizzard has knocked out the phone lines, making it impossible for her to call her husband and let him know she's arrived. Mr. Murray promises to drive her into town the following morning, but of course, the car won't start. When her husband tries the phone number she left as Dr. Lewis's contact, he learns it's a fake number tied to a bogus area code.
Stuck in a creepy old house with two men who clearly have more in mind for her than a simple film shoot, bound in by the sub-zero temperatures and raging winter storm, Katie learns she's not starring in a movie at all, but rather a convoluted game waged between Dr. Lewis and a woman whom he is extorting for a large sum of money. A woman for whom you might say Katie could be a "dead ringer".
Dead of Winter is an update/remake of a 1945 suspense film with a similar premise called My Name is Julia Ross. In both cases, a young woman in need of employment secures a job with a wealthy benefactor who turns out to have less than her best interests at heart. But aside from the initial set-up, the two movies diverge greatly on plot, and you can see/enjoy one without ruining the other -- always nice to see when it comes to remakes.
There are really two stand-outs here. The first is Roddy McDowall, who channels the nervous energy of Anthony Perkins seeking mother's approval perfectly. I'm mostly familiar with McDowall from his more comic roles, such as "The Bookworm" on the old Batman television show, "Snowball" from Pinky and the Brain, and "Gregory Benson" in the '65 version of Disney's That Darn Cat, so seeing him go "polite creepy" here was a real treat. The guy's a phenomenal actor, whether he's doing live action or voice-overs, and it was his presence in the film which made me want to give it a chance to begin with. He did not disappoint.
But as well as McDowall plays Mr. Murray, the applause really belongs to Mary Steenburgen, who plays three separate roles, each requiring different poise, vocal inflection, and physicality. Her multi-character performance in Dead of Winter is right up there with Alan Rickman's in Closet Land, requiring her to go from naive innocent to fearful victim to smirking antagonist and back over the course of the movie's 100-minute run time.
That said, it's not all perfect. Despite a sub-two hour length, I found Dead of Winter lagging more than once, mainly when Willam Russ, who plays Katie's husband Rob, is on the screen. Despite limping through the picture with a broken leg, he comes off not sympathetic, just pathetic. What Katie sees in this douche canoe, even by late 80's standards, is anybody's guess. I think this is down to the script more than Russ's acting abilities, as I've seen him in other things where he does a great job (American History X, where he plays Danny and Derek's father, anyone?). I don't think Russ is phoning it in, I think the script just doesn't give him much to work with. Same for Mark Malone, who plays Katie's brother Roland, although when it comes to him, he's a better writer than he is an actor. Thankfully he only has something like five lines in the whole picture.
The other area that deserves massive kudos, though, is this film's set design. Dr. Lewis's house is a character all its own, and the set constructed for the house's interior by production designer Bill Brodie is a masterpiece. Deliberately built to inspire confusion in not just the audience but also the actors themselves, its open floorplan for the downstairs area made it such that there was almost nowhere a person could go where they couldn't be seen by someone else, either through direct line of sight or via reflective surface. Katie's bedroom was built with its ceiling at the proper height, but a door deliberately smaller than it should be. The profusion of antiques and hunting trophies throughout the interior, especially the attic area, lends a gothic menace to every interior scene. The exterior shots, filmed on location in Ontario, carry the same feel of extreme cold and isolation as Carpenter's exterior shots on The Thing. Dead of Winter is wonderful to look at no matter where you are. Even Katie and Rob's apartment, with its mostly bare cinder block walls and crumbling infrastructure, tells a fine story.
Such is the pity, then, of this film's 'disc presentation, which is sorry to say the least. Being released on one double-sided LD in the slightly lower quality CLV format is understandable, but the 1.33:1 pan-and-scan ratio and barely VHS-grade picture quality means we lose a solid chunk of the original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect. There's also no digital audio track, just standard two-channel stereo analog with CX noise reduction instead of the Dolby Stereo track of the theatrical version, which is an insult to Richard Einhorn's score.
Fortunately Scream Factory picked up the rights to this one a few years back, and gave it the Blu-Ray treatment it's deserved. Colors pop, shadows are no longer muddied, and the picture and sound quality have been remastered to deliver a version of the film far superior to this 'disc. If the movie sounds like something you'd enjoy, then this is the way to go:
Otherwise, the LD can be had cheaply on the second-hand market. Just remember, you get what you pay for.