Sometimes a small cast and an intriguing premise are all that’s needed for effective TV horror. (And it makes it a hell of a lot cheaper to produce too.) Case in point: 1973’s A Cold Night’s Death, starring Eli Wallach and Robert Culp, a two man tour de force pitting man against man against the fragility of the human mind. Plus monkeys!
ACND originally aired on Tuesday, January 30th as an ABC Movie of the Week, which was always a top 20 performer, getting trounced only by Maude and Hawaii Five-O over at CBS. (It’s hard to beat the combined star power of Bea Arthur and Jack Lord.) But fans of finely turned horror always knew that ABC was the place to be.
Let’s check out our brittle and frosted faux TV GUIDE to see what’s in store:
A COLD NIGHT’S DEATH (Tuesday, 8:30pm, ABC)
Two Arctic scientists must confront not only their inner demons, but an unknown outside force looking to destroy them. Eli Wallach, Robert Culp star.
Scientists Robert Jones (Robert Culp – Santa’s Slay) and Frank Enari (Eli Wallach – The Sentinel) arrive at the Tower Mountain Research Station to check on a fellow scientist who has ceased all radio transmissions. Once inside, they find him at a desk dead and frozen solid, with the window open as the oppressive weather continues to wash across the room. Pilot Val (Michael C. Gwynne – Knowing) takes the dead scientist’s tape recorded notes back to headquarters to analyse, leaving Robert and Frank to continue the research. And what would that be? To test the effects of extreme climate change and isolation on primates.
At first, the two men adjust fine and the research goes well. Robert is put in charge of operations (shovelling snow inside the facility to maintain the water supply, and running the heater, etc.) while Frank looks after the cooking and cleaning. With their oddly domestic roles in place, Robert (and only Robert) is privy to strange happenings – he finds that blasted window open again; the recording equipment is turned on in the middle of the night; their food supply displaced and their sleep disrupted. Eventually Frank accepts that something is going on, but being the “rational” scientist to Robert’s “emotional”, believes a logical explanation must be found (he thinks Robert is off his rocker). Robert however, is convinced there is something insidious controlling their fate; the incessant, howling winds mocking them both, leading towards an inevitable conclusion.
When you only have two characters to play with, you’d best make them and their interactions damn interesting. A Cold Night’s Death focuses completely and from the start on the back and forth between the couple. And I mean couple; Christopher Knopf (20 Million Miles to Earth)’s teleplay slyly sets up Robert and Frank in domestic isolation, where the only options are to either yell at each other or the wall. (During one verbal exchange, Frank picks up his bedding and storms out of the sleeping area; proving that in the Arctic, no one can hear you sulk.) It’s a dance, really; each making sure, at first, to speak in measured tones and not step on the other’s toes. But as situations escalate so do emotions, and by the end the relationship has soured, filled with paranoia and resentment.
All in a tidy 74 minutes, to boot. Surprisingly, ACND moves very well for a chat fest; limited locations (a lab, a hallway, a shuttered room and the snow-caked exterior) offer little in the way of activity, but director Jerrold Freedman (Night Gallery) uses the inertia to slowly ratchet up the suspense while we’re not looking. By the time the final resolution hits, we realise how cleverly we’ve been played.
Sound and vision are given unusually high priority for a TV film. Gil Melle (The Sentinel)’s electronic score disorients the viewer, emphasizing the cold, passive, creeping precision of cinematographer Leonard J. South (Hang ‘Em High); the telefilm feels like a study of a study. It’s amazing how much mileage he gets out of the same settings, scene after scene.
As our test subjects, Culp and Wallach simply couldn’t be better. Wallach plays against type, offering up a sober, thoughtful man of science, with reason his only ally. As his resolve is slowly chipped away however, his insecurities and emotions can’t help but be brought to the surface. It’s a terrific, layered performance. Culp’s laid back style suits Robert’s initial casual attitude; but watch as the film goes along – he becomes withdrawn, sullen, his mind finally able to compute what is really happening, but not until it is too late. It’s subtler work than we usually see from Culp, and the two have a great chemistry.
The sinister notion of isolation is the main theme at work here; the more we’re alone, the more we hunger for connection; with others, and especially with our own sanity. A Cold Night’s Death may feel like a clinical, low key lesson in dread, but I promise you, as a horror fan, that the final shot will make you feel very warm inside.