As I type these words, the temperature outside is nineteen above zero. Add in a brisk ten-mile-per-hour wind, and things get downright chilly. I’m someone who likes colder temps. Fall is my favorite season. But once you get to the point where the cold physically forces itself into your bones and strips the skin off your face, you have to admit that enough’s enough. My local forecast also calls for snow and freezing rain in the next twenty-four hours. Nothing like adding insult to injury. Of course, it’s not the twenty-below that the characters in Jerrold Freedman’s (director of the fun Raquel Welch roller derby film Kansas City Bomber) A Cold Night’s Death (aka The Chill Factor) have to endure, but you know what? They can have it.
Robert Jones (Robert Culp) and Frank Inari (Eli Wallach) are a couple of scientists flown to the Tower Mountain Research Station, where the previous occupant, Dr. Vogel, has apparently gone insane and killed himself via exposure to the elements. Or did he?
A Cold Night’s Death was an ABC Movie of the Week, and it lives up to the genre. This was back when movies made for television were allowed to be scary. They didn’t necessarily need all kinds of shit blowing up. They didn’t need mass quantities of gore. They didn’t need swearing for the characters to be believable in their situations or have tits and ass hanging out of every frame (no matter how much you’d personally love to see Wallach in a thong). All of those things, incidentally, are fine and dandy with me in the right time and place. There was a very tangible sense of dread (and even a grimy level of sleaze from time to time) that these films carried; something lost today where spectacle has replaced things like tension, story, etcetera. What I’m saying is, the constraints forced the filmmakers to get creative with how they crafted their chills and thrills; something I enjoy. In fact, whenever I hear people complain about how repressive the Forties and Fifties were in terms of cinematic themes, I always think that, yes, this is true, but look at how much more effort was put into getting their point across or tackling things considered risqué. Subtext, a thing as rare as hen’s teeth these days, was necessary. There’s a reason why people often say it’s better to suggest a monster than to show it. Compare Robert Wise’s The Haunting to Jan de Bont’s version for further proof. I’m not saying I’m against seeing monsters. I love monsters. But sometimes it really is better to conjure something in your head, at least in terms of actually producing scares. Plus, some monsters just shouldn’t be shown. I’ll let you debate which ones should be included on that list. You can level the “he’s just old-fashioned” argument against me about this topic if you wish. That doesn’t make me wrong.
One very large comparison almost every person who sees this film will make is to John Carpenter’s The Thing (which was released and bombed nine years later), so I may as well do it, too. There is the setting itself, naturally (and this is really a large portion of what lines can be drawn between the two). There is the helicopter ride in with pilot Adams (Michael C Gwynne), though he is only in the film for a few minutes, and he isn’t a spot on Kurt Russell’s MacReady. There is the discovery of the frozen dead guy in the electronics room. Most especially, there is the haunting sense of isolation, and I would say it’s amplified in this film, because there isn’t a whole team of men in these tight quarters. It’s two men in a place that now expands out the areas where dread lurks, because there are no warm bodies filling them. What Freedman does to augment this is employs a lot of low angle shots and some slight Dutch angles, keeping us from experiencing this world from a normal perspective. Throughout the film, he also composes shots where the characters are seen through cage bars, chicken wire, door windows, and so on. In other words, these guys are confined, the same as the primates on which they experiment. They can go anywhere inside the station they would like, but they can’t leave, and they never may.
A Cold Night’s Death plays with paranoia and obsession, and its leads are perfectly cast as semi-foils to develop this. Jones is an explorer, a detective, while Inari is more affable, less audacious. It’s marvelous watching the protagonists slowly become more paranoid, more suspicious of each other as the story unfolds. They have only each other, and though they are both friends and colleagues, there are resentments lying under the surface of their amity, and these will inevitably come to the fore. Being out of contact with the rest of the human race, their minds fill the gaps in logic that they encounter with suspicion and flights of fancy. These are fairly restrained men, so when they experience this loss of control, they respond by attacking each other (verbally; at least, to start). After all, there’s no one else on which to take any of this out. Culp and Wallach embody the characters to a tee, with Culp bringing his usual tight-lipped pragmatism, and Wallach his innocent sincerity. Being the two consummate professionals they are, the actors bring their A Game, and it lends the film a gravitas and believability less capable actors may not have accomplished. Wisely, Freedman never plays his hand until the very end, keeping his camera and editing controlled enough to not give the surprise away while giving enough clues from the start to allow you to figure it all out, if you’re of a mind to. Some might say that the reveal is a tad dumb or even ludicrous, but personally, I loved it, and the closing shot is one of the more chilling (no pun intended; maybe a little) I’ve seen in my horror film watching experience.
MVT: The atmosphere that the film and its actors generate is appropriately heavy and foreboding.
Make or Break: The ending. You’re either going to love it or laugh at it.