George Mendeluk’s debut feature Stone Cold Dead (1979) is a sleazy exploitation flick. Having seen his follow-up TV movie The Kidnapping Of The President (1980), starring William Shatner, I should have known that I was in for a slowly paced and meandering thriller. What writer, producer, and director Mendeluk manages to do well in Stone Cold Dead is capture the atmosphere of Toronto’s red light district.
The film follows Detective Boyd (Richard Crenna) whose hot pursuit of drug dealer and pimp Jules Kurtz (Paul Williams) is interrupted when a sniper begins murdering sex workers on his beat. Boyd calls in his contacts MacAuley (Belinda Montgomery) and Monica Page (Linda Sorensen) for leads but the trail of the sniper goes cold. That is until Monica’s daughter Olivia (Alberta Watson) begins to complain about her professor stalking her.
Mendeluk combines two well worn tropes to create his serial killer. Like Mark Lewis in Michael Powell’s seminal masterpiece Peeping Tom (1960) the killer has attached a camera to the murder weapon to record the moments of the victims’ deaths. Mendeluk adds an element of giallo to the mix by only showing the sniper’s black gloved hands and long trench coat.
The problem is that Stone Cold Dead is not focused on the sniper. Instead Mendeluk turns his attention to how the lives of sex workers intertwine the lives of Boyd and Kurtz. Stone Cold Dead operates more as a melodrama than a thriller in how it prioritizes the minutia of the characters’ every day lives. This could be interesting except for that fact that every time the film settles into one kind of pacing it abruptly shifts into thriller mode for a couple of minutes.
I personally came into this film as a fan of Paul Williams hoping to see the singer/songwriter tackle a role not dissimilar to that in Brian De Palma’s classic Phantom Of The Paradise (1974). Somehow Mendeluk manages to waste Williams’ impressive talent for playing campy, oddball villains. When that became clear I was sustained by the possibility of catching scream queen Linnea Quigley and classic bad guy Michael Ironside in one of their earliest appearances.
Something about Stone Cold Dead reminded me of the Robert Butler television film The Blue Knight (1973), starring William Holden. I suppose the films are linked thematically by over-the-hill cop characters obsessively pursuing a single criminal but I think it’s something more elusive. Either way, Stone Cold Dead feels very much like a Saturday night television movie that’s had additional scenes of explicit sex and gore added in for its home video release. Some might find a little bit of nostalgia there but I didn’t.