“It’s all contactless,” says Harry (Oliver Maltman) at the beginning of The Dead of Winter.
Harry is apologising for having no change to the man (James Swanton) whom he has just encountered, indeed practically stepped on, in a dark alley outside the pub. That man was not just lying unnoticed, curled up in a thin blanket on the ground, but also wheezing and dying in the cold December air, as Harry chatted obliviously on his mobile with his wife Chloe (Christina Cole) about what luxury Christmas gift he was supposed to be picking up for their young son. As the homeless man, in all his desperate need, reaches out his hand, this is the contact that Harry denies, in an asymptotic collision of two contrasting worlds. Moneyed, middle-class, mendacious Harry feebly fails to offer help or even accommodation that he could clearly spare, and leaves the man behind, forlorn, forgotten, for dead.
Or does he? For later that evening, insulated back in his opulent modernist home in the wooded suburbs, Harry is distant and distracted, even from the flirtatious innuendoes of his wife, who if anything cares less about those in need, even with Henry Edwards’ Scrooge (1935) and a help-the-homeless ad playing on the television as moral chorus and corrective. Yet Harry, haunted by a scruple that he cannot fully acknowledge, still hears the man’s wheezing, gasping breaths in the air, and is about to have another uncanny encounter across the class divide, not just in, but with, the dead of winter.
Writer/director Stephen Graves’ short film is a Yuletide ghost story that comes wrapped in psychological packaging. For as tipsy, sleepless Harry’s hypocrisies come home to roost and he is made truly to see how the other half lives, we are witnessing the mysterious workings not just of a down-and-out revenant, but of a “guilt-tripped” conscience – and while there may be a ghost, it is the living, in all their selfishness, who prove more ghastly. This also serves as a j’accuse, placing the viewer in uncomfortable alignment with its protagonist, and showing us an unpleasant picture, through him, of ourselves on the other side of the screen, as it makes its plea for less cold shoulder and more warm contact.
strap: Stephen Graves’ short Christmas ghost story confronts a modern-day Scrooge with how the other half lives… and dies
© Anton Bitel