Mediocre: Dead of Winter

Dead of Winter (1987)
Directed by Marc Shmuger, John Bloomgarden, Arthur Penn
Written by Anthony Gilbert, Marc Shmuger, Mark Malone
Produced by John Bloomgarden, Marc Shmuger, Michael MacDonald
Starring Mary Steenburgen, Jan Rubes, Roddy McDowall, William Russ, Mark Malone, Ken Pogue, Wayne Robson
Shmuger’s and Malone’s admittedly clever reworking of My Name is Julia Ross was sufficiently dissimilar to Joseph H. Lewis’s mediocre noir melodrama and the novel from which it was adapted (Gilbert’s The Woman in Red) for them to circumvent both copyrights and any associative legal action, but the goofy, glossy result is only technically superior to its source. Later a failed executive of Universal Pictures and Luc Besson’s tiresome EuropaCorp, Shmuger was reportedly unprepared for his first week’s directorial difficulties, and hired Penn to helm this picture while his co-producer Bloomgarden did so intervallically. Nina Foch’s working girl lured though an employment office by a mother and her twisted son to their seaside estate, where’s she’s confined and publicly paraded as his missing wife, is recharacterized as an unemployed actress (Steenburgen) hired at a casting call by the vivacious valet (McDowall) of a crippled psychiatrist (Rubes) to perform a screen test at the shrink’s mansion during a snowstorm in upstate New York on behalf of a Canadian filmmaker who’s reportedly lost to squabbles his leading lady, to whom she’s identical. It’s certainly nice to behold: Jan Weincke’s sharp, brilliant photography is commendable for its distinct yet balanced contrast, exhibiting Bill Brodie’s splendid production design and sets appointed by Mark S. Freeborn and Paul Harding that emphasize the luxuriance of the wealthy mythomaniac’s manse and cozy modesty of Steenburgen’s apartment. Especially in dramatic worm’s-eye and lingering still shots, Penn’s usual craftsmanship is executed as adroitly as ever, and snappily cut by Rick Shaine. However, this particular journeyman’s inclination to grant his casts carte blanche has always determined the varied quality of his best (Bonnie and Clyde, Night Moves, The Missouri Breaks) and worst (Alice’s Restaurant, Penn & Teller Get Killed) movies. Perennial ham Rubes looks and sounds like elderly Werner Herzog channeling one of Adam Sandler’s zanier characters; he hasn’t a line too brief or gesture too small to overplay. Once infallible even whenever over the top (see The Legend of Hell House), McDowall’s instincts were diminished either by years of roles in B-features or Rubes’ influence, for he seems to be vying with the elder Czech for the blue ribbon with laughably mincing mannerisms. Steenburgen tackles three parts with gusto, but falters in two when attempting to maintain tonal accordance with Rubes. Consequently, the third act descends into a silliness that should’ve been suspense. For all this tale’s riveting twists, its production’s polish and a couple of appellative winks to Julia Ross, it’s largely ruined by Rubes’ gaping japery, and his co-stars’ attempts to meet it.

Palatable: The Legend of Hell House

The Legend of Hell House (1973)
Directed by John Hough
Written by Richard Matheson
Produced by Albert Fennell, Norman T. Herman, James H. Nicholson, Susan Hart
Starring Roddy McDowall, Pamela Franklin, Clive Revill, Gayle Hunnicutt
By penning the screenplay based on his novel Hell House, Matheson mitigated his source’s carnality and violence, but left nothing to wayward interpretation, and the subtle superiority of this well-worn premise’s ingenious treatment proves that his work was best produced unadulterate. An elderly nabob (Roland Culver) seeking evidence of the afterlife has purchased a mansion of incomparable infamy, as well as the investigative services of a physician (Revill) renowned for his study and confutations of supernatural phenomena, and two mediums — one (Franklin) attuned to ethereal manifestations, the other (McDowall) to those corporeal…and the sole sane survivor of a catastrophic probe conducted at the estate twenty years prevenient. Cliched accoutrements of gloomy mist, copious cobwebs and a black cat may evoke conventional expectations, but this residence is a clever cut above the average haunted house. Intricately composed and staged, Hough’s dramatic direction’s demonstrated with striking worm’s-eye and overhead shots, startling zooms, creeping pans and close-ups flanked by confrontational profiles. Matheson doesn’t subvert so much as expand this scenario’s compass: Revill’s scientific skeptic isn’t a complete disbeliever, only discounting one paranormal phenomenon for his conviction of others, and at loggerheads with his wife (Hunnicutt) and the psychics of his party as they suffer remote quassation, thermic shifts, ectoplasmic projection, statuary shadows in motion, and faunal, minatory and nympholeptic possession. Within opulent interiors, this quartet’s as outstanding as duly assembled, Revill a charismatically equanimous foil to Hunnicutt’s and Franklin’s inspired perversity and hysterics. Of course, McDowall modestly registers an intimated intensity during the first two acts, only setting his stage to hammily steal the show in the third with a vociferous tour de force. A droning, almost ambient score synthesized by Brian Hodgson and the dread Delia Derbyshire during the latter’s stint as an Electrophon employee quietly resounds to emphasize a commoving miasma. Hough’s and Matheson’s aesthetic and diegetic sophistication breathed to what would otherwise be a routine horror flick a la Hammer or Amicus a far more artful dynamism, and even in the rare moment when it strays to schlock, it’s plainly preoccupying. The answer to their mystery necessitates a synthesis of science and spiritualism, but each of the protagonists is intransigent in his or her hypotheses as their lodging’s specter turns them against one another by exploiting their shortcomings. Who among them can survive to turn the tables?