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Saturday, January 23, 2016

TV Movie Terror: A Cold Night's Death (1973) review


Robert Culp (Robert Jones), Eli Wallach (Frank Enari), Michael C. Gwynne (Val Adams)

Directed by Jerrold Freedman

The Short Version: This chilling slice of isolation horror is among the best examples of TV terror and, unfortunately, one that is buried in obscurity. Two scientists are alone at a remote polar outpost where space exploratory experiments are conducted on chimps; only there's something else inside the station with them. The suspense and impending dread mounts as quickly as the piles of snow dumped by a merciless blizzard. Meticulously paced and possessing an ice-cold sting in the tail, the less you know about this one going in the better.

After losing contact with Dr. Vogel at an isolated animal research facility in the Arctic, two scientists, doctors Jones and Enari, are flown out to the Tower Mountain Research Station to replace Vogel. Upon their arrival they find the facility in a shambles, windows open and Vogel frozen to death. Bringing with them a new monkey for testing, the two doctors continue Vogel's experiments on stress studies for astronauts during space exploration. However, it isn't long before the scientists discover that someone or something is inside the polar station with them.

Frost-biting fear is felt by both the audience and two fine actors stuck in an isolated research outpost with a bunch of monkey's that become increasingly rattled by an unseen entity. Everything in Jerrold Freedman's 74 minute shiver-fest is top-notch; unraveling in methodical fashion, enabling the viewer to wonder if the two men will end up killing each other or if something else will.

Masterfully made by a cadre of NIGHT GALLERY alumni, the chilly atmosphere of A COLD NIGHT'S DEATH is amplified by the photography of Leonard J. South (HANG'EM HIGH [1968]) and the editing skills of David Berlatsky (PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID [1973]). South's slow pans and tracking shots frequently crank up the sense of unease while Berlatsky complements it with his cutting techniques in crucial scenes. For example, a simple camera motion gives clues as to the horror awaiting our protagonists; while rapid cutting creates an unsettling mood during one of the more potentially harrowing moments. The film is so polished, you almost forget you're watching a TV movie. The writing is another area where this modest movie excels.

Christopher Knopf's script is rife with good dialog, giving actors Culp and Wallach numerous opportunities to shine as they become increasingly disenchanted, and ultimately distrustful of one another. Are they losing their minds? Or is it something supernatural? Or maybe something else? Engaging from start to finish, it's only in the last few minutes that the horrifying reality is unveiled leading to a shocker final shot. At 74 minutes long, and with a limited cast, the scenario is perfect for the small screen medium and often feels like an extended episode for either THE TWILIGHT ZONE or the aforementioned NIGHT GALLERY.

Another factor that benefits this night of cold death are the performances. We get to spend less than 80 minutes with them, but to their credit, it seems like months. As the film progresses, both Robert Culp (I SPY [1965-1968]) and Eli Wallach (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN [1960], THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY [1966]) make you believe that one of them could in fact be going crazy from the isolation; their familiar, safer surroundings of home having been replaced by the biting cold and howling wind. This air of confinement, of remoteness, is conveyed in the increasingly argumentative, even hostile conversations between the two men; while the passage of time is evident through their growing fatigue and facial hair.

Prior to helming this tale of horror 20 degrees below zero, Jerrold Freedman directed several NIGHT GALLERY shows; then on to the Raquel Welch Roller Derby drama KANSAS CITY BOMBER (1972); and later the Charles Bronson picture BORDERLINE (1980). Freedman ran the genre gamut, but one wonders what he might of done had he entered horror's theatrical realm considering how good of a job he did within the confines of Made For TV terror.

If Richard Einhorn's skin-crawling cues for SHOCK WAVES (1976) gave you the creeps, you'll get your goosebump fix out of Gil Melle's electronic sounds of frozen doom. Primarily a TV Movie composer, some of his works include NIGHT GALLERY and KOLCHAK, THE NIGHT STALKER episodes; the cult favorite KILLDOZER (1974) and A VACATION IN HELL (1979); and theatrical features like THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971), THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR (1975), THE SENTINEL (1977) and BLOOD BEACH (1981). 

A COLD NIGHT'S DEATH premiered January 30th, 1973 as ABC's Tuesday Movie of the Week. Like a lot of American TV productions, it did get theatrical play in overseas markets. That same year saw other memorable and obscure television horror pictures like the classic DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, THE DEVIL'S DAUGHTER (directed by Jeannot Szwarc), Dan Curtis's creepy THE NORLISS TAPES, and SATAN'S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS to name a few.

A blizzard of great performances and ideas, Freedman's compact and claustrophobic quasi-SciFi Horror deserves rediscovery. A cross between Colin Eggelston's eco-goosebumper LONG WEEKEND (1978) and John Carpenter's THE THING (1982), if you're a fan of bleak, slow-burn horror, than you'll likely warm up to A COLD NIGHT'S DEATH. 


occhio sulle espressioni said...

Oh, a rotten PRE The thing!

Dick said...

Nice write-up Brian. This is one of those movies that I never forgot after seeing it back in 1973. That final shot I can still see clear as day. It's too bad so many of these great 70's TV movies have fallen through the cracks release-wise.

venoms5 said...

Thanks, Dick. Nifty little horror-thriller, this one. I guess MOD type releases are probably the best avenue for these. And there's plenty of good ones to choose from.

KenR said...

A Cold Nights Death – Isolation and Weirdness

Another of those odd 70s TV Movies that immediately drew you in with its curious title - then wouldn’t let you go. Set in the icy wildness of the Tower Mountain Research Station, two scientists are sent to discover why the previous resident scientist committed suicide, or did he?. Odd things begin to happen that cause both men to doubt the motives of the other. Good performances by the two leads make this strange little thriller work, despite some patchy pacing. While its only 74mins, it still needs some editing to keep it on target. The story, sets, and photography are good and the viewer truly begins to feel the chill creeping into their bones - while Gil Melle’s creepy electronic score supplies some goosebumps along the way. Worth a look – that is, if you can find it! Some DVDs exist but many are such poor quality it’s not worth your effort. If you can find one offering 8 out of 10 (or better) visual quality then it could be worth the effort.

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