Saturday, May 14, 2022

Cold Night's Death, A (1973) (TV)

... aka: A Morte Numa Noite Fria (Death on a Cold Night)
... aka: Chill Factor, The
... aka: Der eiskalte Tod (The Cold Death)
... aka: Kylmä kuolema (Cold Death)
... aka: Terreur dans la montagne (Terror on the Mountain)
... aka: Una fría noche de muerte

Directed by:
Jerrold Freedman

At a remote Arctic research station high in the mountains, Dr. Vogel has been conducting altitude, temperature and food deprivation experiments on chimpanzees for the U. S. space program. In recent months, contact with the scientist has been sporadic at best and his rantings and ravings have become increasingly unhinged. After five days with no contact at all, a university sends in two new doctors; Dr. Robert Jones (Robert Culp) and Dr. Frank Enari (Eli Wallach), to relieve Vogel of his duties, take over and finish up these experiments. After four long years spent on the project, a deadline is fast approaching and they now have just three months to wrap things up. Upon arriving at the Tower Mountain Research Station with their pilot Val Adams (Michael C. Gwynne) and new chimpanzee Geronimo (who will be used as a control subject), the men find the station in complete disarray. Not only that, but doors and windows are open, the heat is turned off and the monkeys left in Vogel's care are all nearly frozen to death. 

An even more grim discovery is soon made: Vogel, still sitting upright in a chair by the radio, is dead and covered in ice. Death or no death, Val still has to fly out before the weather gets too bad. He shows the men around and how to use the radio, generator, water system and their other necessities, then loads up Vogel's body (they just assume he's died of a heart attack) and is off.

The downbeat, gloomy Robert, who's prone to extreme boredom and depression unless assigned exciting projects containing elements of the unknown (he's not expecting that to be this case here... how wrong he'll turn out to be!), and Frank, who's much more orderly, even-keeled and by-the-books, set about finishing up the project. The men receive a radio call from their colleagues after an autopsy is conducted on Dr. Vogel's body. It turns out that he didn't die of a heart attack as they presumed. In fact, his pathology is completely clean and the only explanation for his death is that he froze to death. The fact his body was found in the only room with a lock on the door and a window was left open in 20 below temperatures means that things don't quite add up. Being drawn to solving elaborate puzzles like he is, Robert starts neglecting his work and becomes obsessed with the death of his colleague.

Inexplicable things soon start occurring. The audio tapes made during Vogel's stay there have all been mysteriously erased. The caged chimps start going wild in the middle of the night. Electronic equipment is turned on seemingly by itself. Closed and locked windows are found ajar. And, perhaps most distressingly, the generator is shut off in the middle of the night and almost bursts their pipes, which would really screw them. It's as if someone has been going around in the middle of the night doing all this while Robert and Frank are sleeping...

The lack of any kind of concrete explanation behind these events cause the two men to become increasingly more paranoid and they start point fingers at one another. Pipes freeze again, their kitchen is ransacked (which they assume is by Geronimo, whom they usually let roam free) and soon the men are at each other's throats. The more imaginative (and possibly also mentally unstable) Robert, who's prone to more fantastical belief, suspects there may be some kind of supernatural explanation behind these events while the more grounded Frank is certain there must be a rational explanation... and yet the only really rational explanation is that it's his colleague is attempting to either sabotage the project or kill him.

Now this is right up my particular alley, and it will perhaps be right up yours too if you're the type who appreciates a well-executed, moody, deceptively simple paranoia chiller. With its tiny cast, non-flashy direction, dialogue-heavy script and feet firmly grounded at just one location, there doesn't appear to be much to this on the surface. However, generating fear, suspense and tension, a genuine feeling of claustrophobia, isolation and hopelessness AND achieving effective atmosphere whilst not needlessly over-complicating the plot is something I'm always impressed by. Freedman (whose previous genre experience was limited to directing six episodes of the Night Gallery TV series) does all of that here and is able to turn what are usually debits into pluses.

All of the pieces seem to fall right into place here. There's a well-written script by Christopher Knopf, an eerie and offbeat electronic music score from Gil Mellé, purposeful camerawork and shot framing, effective art direction inside the small facility, sound (particularly the ever-present howling wind) used to heighten atmosphere and tension and, most importantly, fantastic performances from Culp and (especially) Wallach, who have to carry the much of film on their shoulders. Thankfully, both bring their A game here.

Also worth noting is how this nearly completely disregards most standard horror film trappings. Don't expect gore, special effects, jump scares, overbearing music cues, a lightning-fast pace, shock-cut editing or lots of running around shrieking. This is very much about establishing a quiet, eerie mood until it finally plays its cards, which is done with just the right amount of ambiguity to make it linger in one's memory. All of the above also make the frequent comparisons to THE THING (1982) not particularly apt. While both films share a similar setting, paranoia elements and some other superficial similarities, Carpenter's film is explicit in showing you its horrors while this film is much more about horror in things unseen.

This debuted on the ABC network and was produced by Leonard Goldberg, Paul Junger Witt and Aaron Spelling; all of whom had long and prolific careers working in television. There was also a novelization written by Barbara Harrison, published in 1973 by Award Books.

There's no official DVD or Blu-ray release for this title and I could only find evidence of a single legit VHS release, which was in Finland on the Virgin Video label under the title Kylmä kuolema ("Cold Death"). A French-dubbed version played on Belgian, Canadian and French TV, and there are also German and Spanish dubbed versions that I'm aware of, as well as what appears to be a Spanish theatrical poster, so this very well could have had theatrical bookings there and elsewhere.


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