Friday, January 6, 2017

Past Misdeeds: A Cold Night's Death (1973)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

Dr. Vogel, at the behest of "the space program" the lone scientist manning a behavioural science station on top of a mountain somewhere in the arctic parts of the US (I suppose), hasn't been heard from for four weeks. One would think his employers would be a little faster reacting to loss of contact with him, especially when one keeps in mind that his last radio messages were hinting at a psychological breakdown, but I digress. Anyway, said employers haven't seen the pre-credit sequence that makes it quite clear that something is absolutely not right up there.

Finally, two new scientists, Robert Jones (Robert Culp) and Frank Enari (Eli Wallach) are flown to the station to find out what happened to Vogel and to replace him in his exciting work torturing helpless monkeys for science. They find the station in a state of disorder (but not disrepair), and Vogel dead, sitting frozen before a tape recorder in front of an open window. Vogel's corpse gets loaded into the helicopter our protagonists arrived in, and they begin to settle in.

It's too bad they don't listen to the last tape Vogel recorded at once, or they would have a fine explanation for what happened to Vogel made by himself. But very conveniently, they don't, and so someone or something has the opportunity to erase the tapes, although our not very bright scientists will at first think Vogel just didn't record anything. Which doesn't make any sense, but hey.

The corpse and the empty tapes are just the first mysterious things that begin to disturb the (of course methodically and characterwise diametrically opposite) scientists. Windows are opened at night, someone turns off the station's generator - one might begin to think there's someone else in the station, or a supernatural agency at work.

It doesn't take long at all until Jones and Enari begin to distrust one another and the question arises who is experimenting on whom here, and to what end?

I'm not as enamoured of US TV movies of the 70s as most of my American peers seem to be. For my tastes as someone who hasn't seen a single one of these movies when he was a child, many of them - certainly among them 1973's much-lauded Don't Be Afraid of the Dark - suffer from Boring Competence Syndrome and so don't really manage to excite me to reactions more emotional than a shrug. Of course, I'm also not very interested in the rich white people problems those films often love to deal with, so take that with as many grains of salt as you think applicable.

There are of course exceptions like Gargoyles or Killdozer which do manage to excite me, and A Cold Night's Death can now stand proudly among them. I'm sure ABC will be proud.

It's not that the film's script is anything near flawless. As more moments than just those I joked about in the plot synopsis or the very silly explanation for the mysterious happenings at the station demonstrate, the film's basic plot doesn't withstand close scrutiny very well. These plot holes, however, just don't seem to be all that important while on is watching a movie that isn't as much about showing off its clever plot as it is about evoking a mood of isolation and growing tension and letting its actors do the rest.

And the actors are putting a lot of effort in. I'm not always a fan of Robert Culp's performances. Too often he doesn't seem to know how and where to apply his decided talent for scenery-chewing and (oh, the pun, it hurts!) bites off more than he can or should chew. In this particular case, possibly held in check by the controlled yet intense performance by his acting partner Eli Wallach of whom I don't expect anything less, Culp is doing very fine work indeed with his intuitive genius scientist.

Being as effective as A Cold Night's Death at evoking mood is not what I'd have expected from a film made by a TV workhorse like director Jerrold Freedman, but he effortlessly and often elegantly transforms some very basic sets into a very cold haunted house through lighting and the sometimes gliding, sometimes lingering, always inventive photography of Leonard J. South.

One can't talk about the film, or rather the oppressiveness and tension of its mood, without also mentioning the movie's sound design. You can give David Lynch's much later Twin Peaks the main credit for bringing a consciousness of the importance of proper sound design into the US TV landscape, Twin Peaks however wasn't the first TV production to put thought and emphasis into this surprisingly often ignored aspect of the art of filmmaking. Case in point are this film's simple, yet excellent sound effects, especially the eerie howling of the wind and the unnerving screaming of the monkeys. It doesn't sound like much when you just read about it; hearing it is quite a different thing, especially accompanied by Gil Melle's bizarre yet appropriate (and so avantgarde sounding it wouldn't be out of place as a product of the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop) synthesizer score that further emphasizes the irreality of the situation.

Add to all these things A Cold Night's Death does right that it pushes a lot of buttons belonging to my personal narrative kinks, as films and books taking place in cold, isolated places where people are plagued by mysterious forces usually do, even when they not hold the promise of the Blackwoodian supernatural in the end, and you will probably be able to imagine how much I liked this one.

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