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‘Dead of Winter’

By Paul Attanasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 06, 1987


Arthur Penn
Mary Steenburgen;
Roddy McDowall;
Jan Rubes;
William Russ;
Ken Pogue
Under 17 restricted

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In "Dead of Winter," director Arthur Penn tries to build a better mousetrap. This he does. Better, yes -- but still a mousetrap.

Katie McGovern (Mary Steenburgen), an out-of-work actress, auditions at an open call where Mr. Murray (Roddy McDowall) gives her the nod. He tells her the star of the movie has had a nervous breakdown, and so McGovern, who looks a lot like her, can fill in. So Katie packs up and travels with Murray into an Upstate New York blizzard. Little does she know that she's not involved in a movie at all, but in a blackmail plot involving Murray, two crazy sisters (who also look alike) and a crazier psychiatrist, Dr. Lewis (Jan Rubes).

Lewis is a hulking paraplegic with the cadences of a knackwurst grinder. So was the villain of Penn's last, "Target." Why the wheelchair-bound Hun has become Penn's epitome of evil is anyone's guess, but it does at least inject some personality into a movie that's a bit too studiously machined. When in "Dead of Winter" you see a bear trap lying in the attic, it doesn't take Henrik Ibsen to figure that someone's eventually going to stumble into it.

Mostly, though, you see Penn's presence more subtly, in the movie's cold-blue good looks and intricate production design, in the ingenious camera angles and in the performances. Rubes growls agreeably through his role, and McDowall plunges hammily into the hammy part of the mad butler. And while Steenburgen plays a touch too naive at the outset (when she grows resourceful later, you wonder where the resources come from), she manages with e'lan an assignment that has her playing three parts -- Katie and the two sisters.

The triple-identity shtick doesn't kick in till well over an hour has passed, and that's the moment, too, when Penn stops playing with camera angles and begins to enjoy the sheer theatricality of the movie's premise. An hour's worth of exposition is a long wait, and if the payoff isn't quite worth it, it is fun. After nine yards of soggy oatmeal, you're reintroduced to the pleasures of an old-fashioned haunted house.

"Dead of Winter" is rated R and contains violence.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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