Movie: Cold Heaven (1991)

Mark Harmon is a man with some issues in 1991’s Cold Heaven.  First, he’s fifth billed in the opening credits.  Even worse, his character keeps experiencing brief intervals of death.  I will call his illness “necrolepsy”.

His first death happens after he is struck by a boat while he and wife Theresa Russell are vacationing in Mexico.  The driver of the boat wasn’t paying attention and Harmon takes a fatal blow to the head.  Well, temporarily fatal. 

She had been working up the nerve to tell him about the affair she has been having with James Russo, and that she is planning on leaving him.  That seems like a cruel thing to do to your partner on vacation, but then, when is a good time?

Harmon is taken to a hospital, which is where he dies, briefly.  His corpse vanishes overnight, which should have made for a more exciting movie than what follows.

Which is very odd, since the director is Nicholas Roeg, who helmed such unique pictures as Walkabout and The Man Who Fell to Earth.  I thought this was going to a thriller in the mold of his Don’t Look Now, and how wrong I was.

Like that feature, there’s a fair amount of sexual content here.  At the least, Russell and Julie Carmen spend a notable amount of screentime in various steps of wardrobe malfunction, or dangerously close to it.

And that material is part of the problem with Cold Heaven.  It is filmed flatly, but with obvious aspirations, so it feels and looks like one of those middling Skinemax films of that era which had delusions of being art.  But then there are slashes of Roeg’s trademark weirdness.  The result is wildly uneven, akin to watching Red Shoe Diaries, only to have it to repeatedly interrupted by snippets from the weirdest parts of Roeg’s Performance.

To top it all off, very little actually transpires over the course of the movie.  I only realized this shortly after it was over.  There isn’t much that happens once you set aside the window dressing and misdirection.

Most of the little action that happens is at a seaside golf resort in Carmel.  In occasional snippets of flashback, we see Russell standing at the top of a cliff there.  This scene is from a year earlier.  It is hard to tell if she is having some sort of religious epiphany or if she is going to leap to her death.  Of course, she’s alive a year later, so I guess it’s a foregone conclusion the latter didn’t happen.

I doubt anybody would be able to guess the final direction of this picture, regardless of the hints I might inadvertently drop here.  I will say is it is batshit and it made me do a dry spit-take.  Still, I would hate to say I spoiled the movie for anybody, so please indulge me as I touch on some random aspects of it which intrigued me.

One scene I liked is where Russell is in the hospital as she is waiting for news about her husband.  We hear her overlapping threads of internal monologue on top of a bed of other voices around her.  I thought it effectively conveyed the sensation of being overwhelmed.

Less successful is a bizarre cutaway at one point to an alleged photo of Theresa as a teenager in a Catholic school.  I know this was before Photoshop but, wow, this attempt at fakery is weirdly blatantly artificial.  It’s like a game to see how many things you can find wrong with this picture.

I was glad to see Seymour Cassel here, but his screentime is so brief as to barely be a cameo.  In the hospital office in Mexico, he translates one doctor’s dialog from Spanish to English, for Russell’s benefit.  What I found odd about this scene is there is another doctor in the room, and we were already made aware he is bilingual.  It may seem like I’m taking a cheap shot there, but this is indicative of the kinds of problems throughout the movie.

And it may seem like I am damning with faint praise, but I liked many of the interiors.  Russell and Harmon’s hotel room in Mexico has a chunky repeating block pattern on the walls that reminded me of Harrison Ford’s apartment in Blade Runner (which, was itself, inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House in L.A.).  Every location in the US is heavy on the wood, which instantly reminded me of Twin Peaks and its Great Northern Hotel.  So I wasn’t too surprised when that series’ Lenny von Dohlen makes an appearance (uncredited, and I wondered why that was).

Russell was married to Roeg at the time they made Cold Heaven.  I wonder if she would have starred in it if they had not been together at the time.  There’s also a brief moment where he films her from such an unflattering angle that I wondered how healthy their relationship was at the time.  If their marriage was as much of a mess as this picture, then it must have been a particularly rocky time.

Dir: Nicholas Roeg

Starring Theresa Russell, Mark Harmon, James Russo

Watched on Scorpion Releasing blu-ray