Don't Touch That Dial!

A Cold Night's Death

One of the best-ever examples of made-for-television horror was a series called Beasts, made for ATV in Great Britain in 1976. It ran for six episodes: each hour-long entry involved an animal, but not in the way you might expect. True, one of the most terrifying episodes involved killer rats (though no rats actually appeared on-screen); but some of the others dealt with a grocery store mascot, a mummified badgery-thing, and even the ghost of a dolphin. The real focus of the series, and the hidden meaning of the title, was human behavior, and the animals in each story only served as a sort of catalyst for the true horror. The scripts were intelligent, surprising and often absolutely terrifying.

The creator of Beasts was none other than Nigel Kneale, the legendary creator of the Quatermass series, as well as The Stone Tape and The Woman in Black. Kneale always claimed he wasn't interested in anything so trivial as scaring people... but he knew his craft, and when the story called for a shock, nobody delivered it quite like Kneale. But the shocks in Beasts come from our understanding of the characters and their relationships, far more than from the appearance (or non-appearance) of the featured animals.

To anyone familiar with Beasts, or with Kneale's work in general, the ABC TV movie A Cold Night's Death might seem a little familiar. In fact, one of the highest compliments I can think of for A Cold Night's Death is that at first glance it might almost pass for a seventh episode of Beasts — though it was made for American TV three years earlier. By Aaron Spelling, of all people.

Of course, the comparison doesn't really hold up to close scrutiny, as I'll explain later. Kneale was a far better writer. But in setup, in subject matter, in tone, and even in its technical aspect, A Cold Night's Death resembles Kneale's teleplays far more than it does any of the ABC Movies of the Week that came before or after.

A pair of scientists is sent to a reseach center at the top of a mountain above the Arctic Circle. Dr Enari (Eli Wallach) and Dr. Jones (Robert Culp) have been sent to replace the station's sole original scientist, Dr. Vogel, who had suddenly started babbling about his conversations with Napoleon and Alexander the Great before lapsing into total radio silence. Clearly the cold and isolation had unhinged him — but not to worry: the two replacements are actually the scientists whose work provided the theoretical basis for these experiments in the first place.

The experiments involve measuring the effects of extreme environmental changes on chimpanzees, and their intent is to gather data to help humans withstand the rigors of extended space travel. Since mission control is worried that the test apes may have suffered from Dr. Vogel's breakdown, a fresh chimp named Geronimo is sent along with the scientists.

Sounds like a promising start for a science fiction-tinged horror tale. If it seems a little unlikely that a research station of such importance, located in such a brutally inhospitable location, would be left in the care of a single scientist, well... forget that for now, and concentrate on the way the movie looks and sounds.

The very first shot of the film is astonishing: the camera swoops at ground level across a snowy mountaintop, accompanied by the sound of strong wind and frantic electronic music. The scene fades to black, and is followed by a shot of the research station in darkness. Suddenly, a blindingly bright abstract pattern fills the screen, and we're startled by the sound of breaking glass. It takes us a moment to realize the "pattern" is a window, seen on a slight diagonal, with snow clinging to it: behind this window, the light has just been turned on. As the camera tracks across the building to the next window, we hear mad Dr. Vogel screaming at the radio: he can hear mission control, but they can't hear him. Gradually the camera pulls away, as Vogels frantic, useless cries for help fall silent; the windows of the station look like eyes in a cold, impassive face.

Already we've been drawn into the atmosphere of the film, and we haven't seen a single character on screen yet. This introduction has been concerned primarily with light, shape and sound rather than story — and that's no more typical of TV movies of the time than it is now. Even when the voiceover starts, and the story proper begins, all the human figures we see are kept at a distance. When Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (released later that year) delayed the appearance of its characters, the result felt like a mistake; but in this case, the intro has impressed into our minds that the scientists are surrounded by a vast, inhuman wasteland. We remember this, even as the claustophrobic main action begins; and the memory helps us suspend our disbelief at the set-bound portions of the film.

When Jones and Enari arrive, they find the station cooling dangerously. The generators have been turned off, and ther lab animals are in danger of freezing to death. While the scientists and their helicopter pilot race to stabilize the building, they come across something awful: the body of Vogel, frozen solid, still clutching the radio microphone... sitting alone in a locked room, with the window wide open to the bitter cold.

Vogel must have gone mad. Why else would he have locked himself in a room and exposed himself to the Arctic blasts? But Jones is troubled: he's seen men who'd frozen to death before, and none of them had the look of sheer panic that Vogel had. Is this really the face of a man who wanted to die?

After the helicopter pilot has taken the body back to the control center, the two scientists try to settle in to a routine. Businesslike Enari has a checklist of duties and responsibilities, but Jones dislikes routine. He'd rather play solo games of pool to compose his thoughts. There's something about establishing a pattern — the shots into the pockets — from the random break of the balls that appeals to Jones. And that's part of the problem: not only does Jones immerse himself in his lonely game to the exclusion of Enari — like a bad husband with his horror movie web site couch, six-pack and television — but his pastime is symbolic of his whole approach to science. Jones wants difficult problems that require speculative, imaginative solutions. Enari wants routine: solid, repetitive tasks to establish definite results. Essentially, the two men can't stand each other.

Now, Kneale understood science, and he also understood scientists. If this had been a Kneale script, he would probably have found a much better way of illustrating the difference between the two men than having Enari actually explain it. As it is, Enari flat-out tells Jones: you like your mysteries, but I like pure method. Let's agree to disagree.

No matter how the relationship of the two men is introduced to us, it's important we understand it when things start to happen.

I need to stress: any minor frictions between the team members could be be fatal (perhaps that's why Dr. Vogel was sent up alone?). There must be a routine, and it must be adhered to. Even such a crucial task as obtaining the station's water supply is a formidable, labor intensive task: somebody has to go out into the cold and shovel snow back into the building, then heat the snow in a big tank until it melts. In an environment like this, small problems lead to enormous consequences. To the movie's credit, the atmosphere is extremely convincing, since the location shooting was done on an actual mountainside at the White Mountain Research Station in Bishop, California; also, the actors do a good job conveying the sheer exhaustion that comes from working in that kind of cold, at that extreme altitude.

And all the effort thet need to expend to keep themselves alive is in addition to the work they need to do for their research.

(As for the research itself, I have to admit I find it difficult to watch Enari and Jones work with the apes. I know they're jut actors, and they're not really putting the apes through stress tests... but I doubt the apes know that: when I see them struggling in their cages and howling in frustration, I don't think it's make-believe. Furthermore, there's the method the actor/scientists use to make their charges tractable — for, say, giving them injections or taking samples: they grab hold of handles on the front of the cages and pull, which bring the rear wall of the cage forward. The unhappy chimp or rhesus is gradually trapped between the constricted walls of the cage. Since it can't move, it's no longer as dangerous, and the scientist can carry on with his test. It seems a harsh enough method when used in real life, but when you onsider that the actors aren't even obtaining any data from their "experiments", I have to wonder if all this realism is worth it.)

One night, Jones is awakened by the animals making a ruckus in their cages. Something seems to have upset them; but when Jones goes to check on Gengi, Allie, Augie, Julie and the others, he can't figure out what might be disturbing them. Checking the rest of the base, Jones finds himself in the room where Dr. Vogel died... and he finds the "medical analyzer" switched on. Nobody's touched the machine since Vogel died... yet there it is, on. When Jones goes to investigate, he also finds the window — that same fatal window — open, and chill air blowing in. As he goes to shut the window, he senses motion behind him. Jones dashes to the door just in time to prevent it from snapping shut, locking him in the freezing room (in his underwear).

Deeply disturbed by this, Jones tries to rouse Enari. Enari — who's been awakened by Jones's return, but is suspicious of him — feigns sleep.

In the morning, Jones wakes to find the base ice-cold. Enari is already awake, struggling frantically to get the generator alight again. When Jones goes to help him, he discovers that the water tank has already started to freeze over. That means the heat has been off long enough for the pipes to start freezing. The two men put aside their differences just long enough to get the station back under control. But Enari thinks Jones must have bolloxed up the generator during his midnight walk. Consciously or unconsciously, he wants there to be a mystery about Vogel's death... so he runs the risk of ending up as dead as Vogel. Jones, for his part, thinks Enari is deliberately refusing to admit that something strange is happening in the station... something that tried to trap him the way it trapped Vogel.

But with the passage of time, Jones (being the more speculative of the two) becomes less and less sure of himself, while Enari's impressions set like permafrost. Both men become convinced that even as they perform their experiments on the primates, something else is performing a similar stress test on them. Enari is convinced that Jones, bored and depressed by the mundanity of the work, is playing mind games with him. But Jones, for his part, suspects that there's something outside exploiting their weaknesses — something that does not wish to be observed.

So what is the explanation? If Jones is really responsible, then he is a very dangerously deranged man. But if Enari is wrong... then what's apparently trying to kill them, the way it may have killed Vogel? Who or what's leaving windows open, and locking doors, and even killing the animals? Could it be something supernatural?

Or, perhaps, is homo sapiens being stress-tested for space without his knowledge, even as he tries to shift the burden onto his primate relatives?

You'll have to watch the movie to find out for yourself...

A Cold Night's Death, in spite of a few moments that strain credulity — without spoiling too much, let me at least point out how long it takes the men to realize that a window is open in minus-20 degree weather — is still an extremely effective two-character drama. Wallach and Culp give intense performances as two men already strained to the breaking point by the effects of isolation, who then must deal with something a great deal worse. Like Kneale's Beasts, one of its unexpected strengths is its use of sound: Beasts used no incidental music at all, while A Cold Night's Death uses an unusual all-electronic score; Beasts frequently conveyed its horror almost completely through its use of sound (as in the famous rat episode, where no rats were ever seen), while A Cold Night's Death uses the constant howling of the wind outside to deepen the feeling of loneliness and impending doom.

Even the appearance of A Cold Night's Death is unusual. Most of the famous Movies of the Week actually looked like... well... like movies; but this entry, though I understand it really was shot on film, has much of the same realistic shot-on-video look that Beasts has.

Yet, for all its strengths, this is yet another movie that hasn't been brought out of the cold.

I'm not sure who owns the rights to A Cold Night's Death now, but whoever it may be, they're moving glacially slowly to put it on DVD. You can catch a poor copy on YouTube, but I don't recommend it: the camera work in the film is worthy of being appreciated in its own right — the nearly avant-garde introduction, for example... or, a little later on, the strategically laid-out dolly shot that delays the revelation of Vogel's frozen corpse until the last possible moment... Still, not even Robert Culp's death in March 2010 seems to have inspired anyone to prepare a decent video release. That's a real shame, because the summer of 2010 was an ideal time for it: I prepared for this review by watching the movie during the hottest month of the hottest year on record... and by the time it was half over, I felt a serious chill.

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