Richard Crenna and Paul Williams Square off Amid the Rampage of “The Sin Sniper”
DIRECTED BY GEORGE MENDELUK/1979
STREET DATE: OCTOBER 3, 2017/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
A modern-day Jack the Ripper is loose in late 1970’s New York City… and only one man can stop him.
Such is the implied premise of 1979’s down n’ gritty murder thriller, Stone Cold Dead, based on the novel The Sin Sniper by Hugh Garner. That “one man” is police Sergeant Boyd, played by veteran actor Richard Crenna. With his dirty raincoat, expressionless face and not even enough downtime to feed his beloved pet fish (he’s rigged a makeshift fish-feeding contraption to his telephone, so all he has to do is call), the question of just how much this film’s title applies to him is plenty valid.
Boyd, in his unrelenting quest, has in his sights a crime lord/pimp named Kurtz, played in effectively bizarre fashion by Paul Williams. Of course this isn’t the first time in 1979 when a stoic man on a mission locked in on taking down someone named Kurtz. (Though strictly speaking, Stone Cold Dead didn’t play wide until March of 1980, whereas Apocalypse Now opened in August of ’79).
Williams as Kurtz may represent a high watermark as an actor amid his 1970’s ubiquitousness. While his performance and presence are not unlike what he was doing in Brian De Palma’s The Phantom of the Paradise (Stone Cold Dead‘s director admits as much in his new on-camera interview, included in the bonus features), his Kurtz brings a layer of pained vulnerability, even internal struggle, to the festering menace and unmistakable vocal tenor. On his finger is the red impression of a removed wedding ring. If this was merely the result Williams’ own ring having been taken off for the role, it’s telling that the decision was made not to conceal it. In any case, Williams brings the film an unease, pathos, menace and sensitivity that is all his own. If, like me, it’s his involvement that spurs you to check out this movie, follow that urge.
Sergeant Boyd spends a lot of time on the dark and corroded streets of Times Square, shaking down hookers, dealers, johns, and whatever other manner of criminal element provides the necessary leads for whatever case he’s embroiled in. They say that for this movie, a low budget Canadian production, they actually employed real prostitutes to play the street-hardened strippers and sex workers that are everywhere in this movie. If true at all, this is the filmmakers playing with fire in a bold, if haphazard, way. The results, anyhow, are believable.
The biggest problem with Stone Cold Dead lies not within the film itself, which is truly a quite competent and engrossing feature debut for now-successful television director Mendeluk, but in how it presents itself. In an age of emerging cheap slasher pictures and the continuing proliferation of exploitation flicks, the title “Stone Cold Dead“, scrawled in apparent blood, no less, makes for an immediately misleading ad campaign.
Compounding it, though, is the salacious variant poster image of a naked woman murdered in a shower. No such moment occurs in the movie proper, yet this is the default image Kino Lorber unfortunately selected for the cover of its otherwise stunning Blu-Ray. Thankfully, this release offers reversible cover art, featuring the film’s far more conservative (if also generic) chalk body outline & rose image. Both images date back to the original release. While it’s good to have the original marketing of the film represented and preserved, the shower image plays negatively into the film’s overall critical commentary on the culture of scum and filth so prevalent on 42nd Street of the time. This, even while the mystery murderous “Sin Sniper” is picking off random sex workers, playing judge, jury and executioner with one squeeze of the trigger.
The amazing image transfer on this disc makes the movie look bold and brand new, a truly eye-popping marvel of quality film restoration. Yet, at the same time, part of me thought that this film might be more at home with a murky and faded transfer. Although I’d never heard of Stone Cold Dead prior to this Blu-Ray, it completely matches the profile of something I’d run across on late night local television, edited for content but “dangerous” nonetheless.
It’s said that the 42nd Street of today is a vastly different experience, often lamented as “Disney-ified”. Having never been there, I don’t entirely know what that means. But wallowing in the sleazed-out version of yore via this film led me to conclude that if one can be nostalgic for this 42nd Street, with it’s rampant prostitution, strip dives and porno parlors, one can be nostalgic for anything.
Paul Williams as Kurtz may represent a high watermark as an actor amid his 1970’s ubiquitousness.
Director Mendeluk is featured in a new ten minute interview in which he fondly recalls how Stone Cold Dead helped launch his further prolific career, and almost getting arrested for public urination during its production. The extras also offer a serving of trailers for this film as well as those for a smattering of other Kino Lorber Studio Classics that someone deemed similar enough to this movie to warrant their inclusion. Film historians Howard S. Berger & Nathaniel Thompson are on hand to detail the careers and reception of this film, as well as certain intricacies of the Canadian filmmaking system (Stone Cold Dead was filmed mostly in Toronto) of the time. It’s an engaging, focused, conversational track.
With some inspired borrowing from Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (the camera mounted on the sniper’s rifle, capturing the moment of death on film) and Italian giallo, is a surprisingly satisfying whodunnit set (but not filmed) in bygone New York City. Far lighter on skin and blood than one might expect, Stone Cold Dead, while indicative of its era and genre at the time, nevertheless hits the target.