A scientist named Vogel who is station at the Summit Research Station atop snowy Tower Mountain, mysteriously goes radio quiet after communicating erratically. Specifically, his final transmission involves the claim that he is in communication with Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Augustus Caesar, and other historical leaders.
Two other scientists, Robert Jones (Robert Culp) and Frank Enari (Eli Wallach) are assigned to investigate Vogel’s silence, and continue with his research, which involves subjecting chimpanzees to extreme environmental stress.
The mission is the work of NASA, which wants to understand how different environmental stresses may impact astronauts on long-term space voyages.
Once they research the station with their helicopter pilot, Robert and Frank discover Vogel locked in the base’s electronics room… and frozen to death. His corpse is is taken away by the helicopter pilot for investigation back home.
The laboratory, meanwhile, has been ransacked, or overturned.
Robert and Frank acquaint themselves with the facility and clean it up. They also acquaint themselves with the apes -- Aggie, Gengi, Allie, and Geronimo -- and resume experiments on them. Before long, however, strange events begin to occur. Windows are left open at night, freezing the pipes, for instance.
Suspicion grows between Frank and Robert, as if some force is pitting them against one another. When Robert gets locked out from the base, he fears he knows the answer. But Frank has grown violent, and pulls a gun on him…
“There’s nothing unnatural here. Or supernatural. There’s just you and me.”
A Cold Night’s Death (1973), a TV-movie that aired on ABC in the early 1970s, is a spare, contained and very effective horror piece. The film’s virtues involve the heightened senses of claustrophobia and isolation it carefully nurtures, and, not least of all, a creepy electronic score from Gil Melle that makes the action all the more unsettling.
After one watches the film, one may not feel totally satisfied as to the nature of the mystery on Tower Mountain, at the Summit Research Base, but in this case, the destination may not be quite as important as the journey is.
In this regard, director Jerrold Freedman provides many shots of darkened corridors or laboratories, anticipating John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), and on the soundtrack is the ever-present howl of an arctic wind. The film succeeds as an anxiety-provoking, slow-burn kind of horror film.
It’s true that some of the exterior sequences don’t hold up well today, with the snowstorms realized by (obvious) double exposures, but this limitation hardly matters. Instead, A Cold Night’s Death comes alive by settling down in that dark, creepy base, and buffeting the facility (and its inhabitants) with relentless wind and snow.
It’s clear that Robert and Frank can’t expect help, as they are far removed from civilization. And it is equally plain that they can’t go far from the base, without risking their lives. In one of the climactic moments, Robert finds himself locked outside the base, and realizes he will die within fifteen minutes, from exposure to the environment. Desperately, he seeks a way inside, and the tension ramps up.
This is also a story of two men who, dealing with isolation and claustrophobia, come to view each other suspiciously. Actually, they begin to view each other with sheer paranoia. Robert is convinced that some “unseen force” killed Vogel. Frank is convinced, however, that Robert is running an experiment on him, trying to get him to believe that theory. Robert is arrogant. Frank is defensive. It is a fatal chemistry they share.
Another reason that A Cold Night’s Death succeeds involves the fact that, for a good, long while, the audience can’t be certain who is right.
Is there an unseen force at work? Or did Vogel go crazy, with Robert and Frank following suit?
When the answer arrives, it is satisfactory, certainly, but my favorite part of a mystery is never the solution, but rather the set-up. Here, if you’ve seen the film, you’ll remember the answer: the chimps are experimenting on the scientists, much as the scientists have been experimenting on them.
If you think about it more deeply, the film truly involves circles within circles, or layers within layers. Scientists conduct experiments involving extreme conditions on the chimpanzees, unaware that because of their location and altitude (as well as the intelligence of the apes), they are similarly being subjected to a test involving extreme conditions. It’s an intriguing narrative circle, and the film’s final shots are actually, terrifying, because of the loop they close.
One scientist has killed another scientist, out of paranoia and fear. The survivor goes to the electronics room -- where Vogel died -- to contact help. Too late, he witnesses the door closing, and locking, trapping him inside, in a room exposed to the outdoors. Then, a face rises into the window pane of the door. It is an inhuman, or primate face.
Considering the movie’s setting, it’s appropriate to call the final punctuation of the film “chilling.” It definitely reflects Frank’s line that “there’s nothing unnatural here, or supernatural.” That much is true. However, his next comment is wrong: “There’s just you and me.”
Clearly, he didn’t factor in the chimpanzees, who all boast the names of brilliant leaders and tacticians. In this way, the story may be about human arrogance or vanity. Frank and Robert never even entertain the only other possible source of the strange events in the lab: the chimpanzees. In the final shot of the film, we see what a mistake this is, as man is led into a trap by the apes.
There isn’t a great deal of action or thrills in A Cold Night’s Death, and it has been termed “talky” and “ponderous” by genre scholars. And yet the finale is perfectly executed, and perfectly prepared for. It may feature what some deem a preposterous ending, but at least the ending isn’t a betrayal of anything the audience sees, or is told.
Watching A Cold Night’s Death, I must again reflect on how remarkable many of these 1970s horror TV-movies truly are. In terms of resources and budget, they have nearly nothing to offer. In terms of special effects, again, there’s nothing to see here.
But so many of these films, this one included, master a real sense of unease, and discomfort. There’s something subtly terrifying and disturbing about every moment this film. Even more than 40 years later, the sounds (thank you, Gil Melle...) and frozen sights of A Cold Night's Death will leave you mesmerized until the final revelation.