Although television as we know it has been around since before World War II, it wouldn’t be until the 1960s that it’s evolution into a new technological God began. Sensing a threat to their religion, film studios began charging high fees for the privilege to broadcast their films. They figured the masses would stop worshiping at the church of Mickey Mouse if everyone already had an alter in their living rooms, so they stonewalled television execs who were then forced to come up with a cost effective alternative.
Rolling the dice on the belief that audiences would watch any film regardless of it’s so-called “theatrical pedigree” or budget (that and the fact that one can only watch so many re-runs of Mister Ed and Gomer Pyle before the soul screams to be put out of its misery like a show pony with arthritic hooves), NBC created the first weekly block of made for TV movies with the World Premiere Movie in 1966.
ABC, in a desperate bid for more eyes on the channel (they ran so far behind the competition, they consistently came in fourth in the ratings–and it was a three man race), took NBC’s World Premiere Movie idea and drastically reworked it. The idea was ambitious–they would shorten the time slot from two hours to 90 minutes, which eliminated ad space but gave them an extra 50,000 dollars to each films budget and granted them the liberty to produce more films.
And with that, ABC’s Movie of the Week was born. Between 1966-1975, the network produced over fifty titles and although the vast majority of them were cheap-looking, forgettable melodramas, the two anyone ever remembers are Duel and Brian’s Song. And for good reason. They were so good, that one eventually got a theatrical release and the other won every award conceivable.
They are unquestionably among the top tier of the “made for TV movies” genre but they weren’t the only good films to be produced specifically for television at the time. There’s actually a small cult following dedicated to the Movie of the Week horror films. Maybe it’s the unknown factor or perhaps it’s simply nostalgia but hardcore fanatics have a huge soft spot for films such as: Crowhaven Farm, The Night Stalker, Sweet, Sweet Rachel, When Michael Calls, Home for the Holidays, Satan’s School for Girls, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Scream, Pretty Peggy!, Killdozer!, Bad Ronald, and Trilogy of Terror.
Some were successful enough to spin off into television shows, while others got big budget remakes, but, with the exception of Trilogy of Terror, all have essentially faded into obscurity. Which is a shame considering most of them are, despite their budgetary limitations, really solid. Since a new film was released every week, the quality of the films would fluctuate significantly, with some being either entertaining or legitimately good to others being worse than a Guatemalan soap opera.
But there in lies the rub. No matter how great the good ones were, they would inevitably get lumped in with the garbage. Which I’m assuming is what happened to A Cold Night’s Death.
Predating John Carpenter’s The Thing by almost a decade, A Cold Night’s Death is similarly structured in that it all takes place in one location–an animal research laboratory isolated in an arctic wasteland–where the government is testing the effects of extreme temperature on chimpanzees meant for space travel.
The film opens on Dr. Vogel, a lone scientist who, by the looks of things, appears to be losing his fucking mind. He’s frantically radioing for help but due to the blizzard (and the fact that he’s rambling like a lunatic), no one can understand what he’s saying. After a long period of radio silence, the base sends a pilot and two researchers to investigate but by the time they get there, he had already frozen to death under mysterious circumstances days ago.
The researchers are played by Robert Culp, television mainstay and poor man’s Robert Redford, and western icon Eli Wallach. One thinks the death was caused by foul play, while the other chalks it up to extreme cabin fever and this character dynamic is the meat of the film. One is logically trying to piece together the mystery, even throwing out ghosts and/or governmental conspiracies into the mix and the other couldn’t care less and is getting increasingly more and more annoyed with the entire thing. Until he starts to wonder if his colleagues theories are correct and that this entire murder mystery is a set up for a much larger conspiracy that now involves him or if the facility is, in fact, haunted.
It’s essentially The Odd Couple stuck in The Three Days of the Conder but done in a single location like The Shining.
Culp and Wallach are fantastic as the increasingly paranoid pair. The film is fundamentally a two person play, which naturally could turn terrible rather quickly but since the actors have such a natural rapport, they’re on-screen chemistry keeps the film from ever feeling dull or slow.
In addition to the stellar work done by the two leads, the films greatest asset is it’s score. Done by Gil Mellé, the score is electronic but understated. It doesn’t draw attention to itself and It’s slow escalation generates an unreal amount of tension.
The film would be dread inducing with or without the score but consider it the sweetest cherry on an already delicious sundae. A sundae made of dread and chimps.
In summation, the ABC Movie of the Week was a gamble that paid off and then some. Not only did we get Spielberg and the Zuni Fetish Doll out of the deal but it gave us a wide assortment of films that covered every genre imaginable. They might not have all been great but the ones that were, made the entire thing worth it.
A Cold Night’s Death is definitely one of the best and most unjustly forgotten made for television movies and is long over due for physical media release. Microwave Massacre is on Blu-ray and this film isn’t even on DVD. I’m just sayin’.