The 1970s were the age of the TV movie.
The American networks brought a remarkable number of interesting horror and science fiction films to the air for more than a decade, with a little help from producers like Dan Curtis, writers like Richard Matheson, and even the young Steven Spielberg behind the camera.
Of course, excellent films like Duel, The Night Stalker, and Prototype were the exception rather than the rule. The secret was that the networks produced so many TV movies in so many different genres that it should come as little surprise that a few of them turned out quite well.
However, as Dan Curtis has pointed out, they had a simple and remarkably uncomplicated process for making a pitch for one of these films – and they only needed the approval of a few individuals, rather than a big committee. This is a recipe for encouraging innovation and unique stories. And it worked.
Well, at least some of the time.
A Cold Night’s Death was one of the better of these efforts. Robert Culp and Eli Wallach (two of the best actors doing television at the time) play scientists who are sent to a snowbound mountain research station to find out why its crew stopped sending out reports. They find the station ransacked and the last team dead in ways that don’t make much sense. A storm sets in, trapping them there as they try to discover what happened and somehow continue the station’s primate research.
But strange things start happening, things remarkably like what happened to the last team….
What is perhaps the most remarkable part of this solid little film is its overwhelming and oppressive sense of cold – and yet they filmed the exteriors outdoors in seventy degree weather in California. It builds a slow, decidedly eerie atmosphere, as the two scientists find themselves increasingly suspicious of each other and the signs that something else may be there with them become harder to ignore. Perhaps the final twist is somewhat obvious – and yet the final closeup still comes as a shock.
However, I have no idea how Aaron Spelling, the master of inexplicably popular trash, managed to make such an eerie, little SF horror film.
That may be more than anyone can explain.