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.


Little Game, A (1971) (TV)

Directed by:
Paul Wendkos

The classic The Bad Seed (1956), based on the popular 1954 Broadway stage play by Maxwell Anderson, which itself was based on the best-selling novel by William March, is the title most film scholars cite as the first important entry in the killer kids subgenre. And that's accurate enough. I can't think of an earlier film centered entirely around an evil child and its massive popularity (it was not only a top-grossing box office hit in both the U. S. and UK but also earned four Oscar nominations) certainly helped to popularize this particular type of film. Even to this day, this 66-year-old movie is still used as a reference point any time a new killer kid film is released.

The homonymous source novel for A Little Game, written by Fielden Farrington and first published in 1968, couldn't avoid the Bad Seed comparisons either. In fact, publisher Walker and Company relished those and very consciously worked the similarities right into the tagline ("All that THE BAD SEED was... and more...") to help sell the book. Also written right on the cover of the original 1968 edition of the novel is the promise "Soon to be a major motion picture," which makes one wonder if a major studio was considering this for a theatrical release at one time. However, that never happened and it was filmed three years later as a modest ABC TV movie instead. An online bio for Farrington written by his great-nephew simply brushes this adaptation off: "Unfortunately the movie did not capture the story well." That may have to do with the author not being directly involved in adapting his own work. Sole credit for the teleplay is given to Carol Sobieski.

However, comparisons don't really extend much further than the obvious. The Bad Seed's Rhoda was extremely manipulative and consciously used her age and angelic appearance (blonde pigtails and cute little dresses) to her advantage to manipulate all of the adults around her. In other words, she was capable of putting on such a faux naïve, squeaky-clean act that the idea she could be also be a psychotic killer was unthinkable to most of the adults around her. The kid in this movie, however, is another beast entirely! He's a hateful, rude, insufferable, unsubtle, temperamental little bugger who has a very difficult time hiding his feelings and intentions, let alone being able to pull off a completely different persona to fool the adults around him. He actually doesn't even try!

13-year-old Robert Mueller (Mark Bruner) hasn't been the same since losing his beloved, bridge-designer father in a car crash. His mother, Elaine (Diane Baker), was driving at the time and caused the accident that cost her husband his life. She has since moved on and remarried nice guy history teacher / writer Paul Hamilton (Ed Nelson). While their marriage works out fine whenever Robert's away at military boarding school, everything's far from rosy during the time's he is home. Now with Christmas right around the corner, guess who's coming back for a long visit? Robert isn't looking forward to it. Neither is Paul, who has thus far failed to establish any connection with the child despite putting in some effort. Since his neglectful parents are too busy to look after him, Robert's dorm mate Stuart Parker (Christopher Shea) accompanies him home.

After showing Stu many of his late father's belongings and photos, Robert confides that he considers his stepfather to be a "bug" and "something to be gotten rid of eventually... when he gets too annoying." Robert uses physical violence and threats (like carving an "L" into his forehead for "liar") to keep his "best friend" in line, plus makes him take part in a blood ritual where they burn a mixture of their hair and blood to solidify their loyalty to one another. Robert has developed a similar dynamic with their Mexican housekeeper, Laura (Katy Jurado). Since the father (who appears to have been a complete p.o.s.) also distrusted Laura, naturally so does Robert. Unbeknownst to Elaine, her son has already threatened to stab Laura to death if she says anything bad about either him or his father.

Elaine is that well-meaning though incompetent parent who inadvertently does more harm than good by constantly shielding her child and making any and every excuse under the sun to excuse their bad behavior. She refuses to send Robert to see a psychiatrist, downplays his obvious mental issues as him just being "difficult," claims his poor treatment of his friend is due to the fact he's so smart and smart people tend to be bossy and believes all her son really needs is a good male role model around to change his ways. Because his father was an avid hunter and gun collector, Robert has become a weird extreme gun fetishist himself. Elaine even encourages Paul to kiss up to her son by buying him a rifle for Christmas at one point! Interesting to note that the whole gun-loving-child aspect was treated as a major warning sign and cause for concern back in 1971. Jump ahead to today and it's fairly common for U.S. politicians and evangelicals to pose for holiday cards with an infant in one hand and a semi-automatic in the other, or just hand guns off to their toddlers and young children for photo ops. Just as Jesus would have done!

Thankfully, there's at least one adult in the room and Paul refuses to buy into any of this bullshit. While he loves Elaine, he does not like Robert and actually has the balls to directly tell his new wife as much. While he does promise to try to be patient, he still calls the boy things like "nasty little kid," nicknames him Rasputin and says he would have fit right in as a member of Hitler Youth. Way to go not sugarcoating it, Paul! He also flat out refuses to buy the kid a gun and questions the bizarre master-slave relationship between Robert and Stu. While Stu is polite and friendly, he's not the brightest bulb and has an unstable home life with parents who don't want much to do with him; traits that make him extremely impressionable and thus open to easy manipulation.

And then there's this mysterious incident that occurred at their boarding school. Paul overhears an argument between the boys, where the topics of killing and Robert's former dorm mate come up. After finding Robert's diary, Paul finds it filled with murder plots that the two boys claim are only horror comic-inspired fantasies about killing those they don't like. That's enough for Paul to seek out the help of private eye Al Dunlap (Howard Duff), who starts looking into what happened at their school.

While the usual TV movie limitations do hold this back a bit and keep it on the talky side, this still has both fun elements (especially some amusing dialogue / digs, when Paul and Robert begin their little "war" over the mother's affections) and potent dramatic elements, which also manage to go into some subtly creepy Oedipal territory as Robert hopes to replace his late father and be the ONLY man in his dear mother's life.

All of the actors (particularly Nelson) give strong performances and even both child actors are very good. Shea was the voice of Linus in a duo of Charlie Brown TV holiday classics: A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) and It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966), and this was to be his last film appearance. Gruner would bow out of show business after playing Sheriff Brody's son Mike in Jaws 2 (1978), which seemed an odd note to go out on as that film was a big hit and he was only 19 years old at the time of filming.

Farrington, who passed away in 1977, was a radio and television announcer, penned 21 scripts for the CBS Radio Mystery Theater between 1974 and 1976 and wrote four other novels. One of those - the hostage thriller The Strangers in 7-A - was also made into a Paul Wendkos-directed TV movie. Ironically enough, Wendkos would also go on to direct the 1985 TV movie remake of The Bad Seed. This has never had an official home video release anywhere in the world to my knowledge and the best print that's currently available is an old worn VHS copy from an old TV broadcast.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...