A while back we received a “Name That Trauma!” of a television movie that took place in the arctic and featured monkeys. That movie turned out to be 1973’s A COLD NIGHT’S DEATH (A.K.A. CHILL FACTOR). Well if there is one thing I like better than a snowy setting it is monkeys, so of course I had to track this baby down! Directed by NIGHT GALLERY alum JERROLD FREEDMON, and starring none other than ROBERT CULP (SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT 3: BETTER WATCH OUT!) and ELI WALLACH (THE SENTINEL), A COLD NIGHT’S DEATH is one made-for-television movie that literally delivers the chills.
The action takes place at an isolated research laboratory in Antarctica and involves pretty much only the two leads mentioned (unless you count those cute monkeys). CULP and WALLACH have come to replace the last scientist who worked at the outpost who apparently went mad and killed himself by leaving a window open and slowly freezing to death. The more time our inquisitive friends spend in the outpost, the more paranoid and suspicious they become, both of their surroundings and of each other. Something is definitely amiss and each night brings them closer to the truth behind what really happened to their predecessor.
It’s a privilege to watch the events unfold slowly but surely while the director takes time to really get into the heads of our opposing leads. You might be tempted to choose a side between these two men who have widely divergent approaches to rationalizing the ongoing occurrences, but it’s nearly impossible to do so. Both actors deliver straightforward, admirable performances and it’s difficult to understand why this movie is not far better known for that reason alone.
The bleak snowbound atmosphere and palpable anxiety between the two characters will be familiar to anyone who has seen JOHN CARPENTER’s THE THING, but here the action is almost exclusively psychological and there’s nothing and nobody around to break the formidable tension. It’s really astonishing how much is done with so little here, just two men slowly unraveling a mystery, but thanks to the sincerity of its leads and the director’s deft hand at blanketing everything in dense atmosphere, this film leaves you with a sense of dread that is pretty hard to scrape off your snowshoes.
Although we mentioned the film’s shocking reveal and startling final moment in that previous “Name That Trauma” post, I won’t do it again here, but even if you are already privy to COLD NIGHT‘s final twist, the film holds up strongly as a thriller regardless. CULP, who at one point is locked outside the station in the freezing snow wandering about like a zombie with icicles hanging from his face presents an image of a man who has somehow transformed into a monster in a monster-less film.
The real enemy here, ultimately, is the human mind and its sometimes soulless search for more knowledge. Ironically, we come to find that the research on the monkeys inhabiting the ice station involved recording their responses while encountering fear, but by film’s end it is our two scientists and the audience itself who might have more experience in that field. This is a quiet, subtle venture and the severity of the isolation shown will get to you eventually whether you resist it or not. I can’t think of many films television or otherwise that so convincingly portrays the tightening noose of cabin fever or takes such cunning advantage of mankind’s natural fear of the unseen.