DIRECTED BY: Eric Mandelbaum
FEATURING: Thora Birch, Keith Carradine, Brendan Sexton III, Leo Fitzpatrick, Dean Winters
PLOT: An unambitious young man balances uneasy alliances with the authorities and his psychopathic girlfriend when she involves him in a meretricious murder case.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Non linear story telling, oddball characters and incomprehensible motivations combine to weave a tapestry of weirdness in this contemporary film noir mystery.
COMMENTS: Some movies don’t have to be garishly bizarre to be weird. Winter of Frozen Dreams employs a soft, almost poetic production style to tell a tawdry tale of twisted topics set down as causally as if the story were an episode of the Donna Reed Show. The nonlinear plot is partially presented through the flashbacks and subjective impressions of a cast of oddball, unsavory characters whose disorganized, irrational lives inexplicably intersect in a convoluted morass of lies, depravity, deceit and murder.
Set in 1977 Madison, Wisconsin, Winter of Frozen Dreams relates the events of the notorious Hoffman murder case. On Christmas day, Gerald Davies walked into the police department and announced that he had helped his girlfriend dispose of a bloodied, battered corpse at the Blackhawk Ski jump park near Middleton. Police accompanied him to retrieve the body of Harry Berge and a series of perplexing events began to unfold that led to the arrest of Barbara Hoffman. The case drew a great deal of attention because it was the first televised murder trial in the state.
Of even greater interest to the public was the fact that the accused was a beautiful girl with an IQ over 140 who led a triple life. In addition to being a straight ‘A’ biochemistry student at the University of Wisconsin, Barbara Hoffman was a psychopathic whore and dominatrix. It was further alleged that she dated clients outside of her capacity as a hooker, convincing them to become engaged to her and to make her the sole beneficiary of their hefty life insurance policies. Her first trial ended unexpectedly when prosecutor Jim Doyle, later to become governor, dropped the charges. As Hoffman was leaving the courthouse, the police halted her and slapped the cuffs on her again. This time she was charged with two murders, those of Harry Berge and Gerald Davies.
The actual events easily lend themselves to the contemporary film noir atmosphere of Winter of Frozen Dreams. In the film, the actions of the quirky characters are as puzzling as the murders are mysterious. Hoffman (Birch) keeps a chemistry set under her kitchen sink that would make 1950’s children’s’ science show host Mr. Wizard pop his stopcock with envy. There is evidence to suggest that she uses it to make the poison of the week, depending upon her passing whim, anything from cyanide compounds to botulism. She inexplicably brags of her plans to murder her fiancé and collect the insurance money to some miscreants at the whorehouse, then roughs up a fellow employee when the girl takes exception to her announcement.
Having let spilled the Castor beans and incurred ill will, she intends to proceed ahead with the plan unperturbed. Her boyfriend, Davies (Sexton), another “fiancé,” believing that Babs was set up to find the body of the trick in her home, goes to the police and spills his guts about helping her dump the deceased. Yet he comes home to Barbara like nothing happened and announces that the police intend to charge her and that he will be their star witness. Barbara is remarkably nonplussed and unemotional at receiving this news, even when she learns that their conversations are being monitored and that he is under 24 hour surveillance in case she decides to kill him. Despite the fact that he is now a pawn in the police strategy to convict Hoffman, Davies professes his love for her and isn’t bothered by eating food and taking drugs that she prepares for him in her little kitchen of toxic tinkering.
Winter of Frozen Dreams spends scant time exploring rationales for the bizarre actions of its characters, declining to provide background explanations, but cutting right to the viscera so that the viewer can discern for himself what is on the serving platter and why. For example, the audience never finds out why an intelligent, straight ‘A’ biochemistry student decides to sell her body as a low level hooker. Nor is the onlooker enlightened as to why her clients accept her professions of love so unquestioningly, or why she would publicly announce her illegal plans, or keep poisons and damning lab equipment in her home where they are easily found once she becomes a murder suspect, or why Barbara’s boyfriend remains her boyfriend while he is being used by the authorities to send her to prison.
There is an interesting scene which provides some glimpse into Davies’ motivations, but it is so odd that it simply amplifies the enigmatic nature of the story. Believing that Hoffman is innocent, Davies explains to her that going to the police to report the body is the right and proper thing for law abiding people like him and Hoffman to do. He makes this speech while manicuring a large quantity of cocaine on her kitchen counter.
Winter of Frozen Dreams is a peculiar sort of film noir mystery. It is never made certain whether Hoffman committed the murders or not. As with Rashomon, the audience must piece the facts together from a collage of differing versions of events presented by a sleazy selection of illogical participants, each harboring ulterior motives, dirty dealings, questionable backgrounds, and all having plenty to hide. This combination of atypical story telling technique, unsettling occurrences, and oddball people who take unfathomably perplexing actions makes for one of the weirder cinematic experiences to be found in a serous motion picture since The Reflecting Skin.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: