After actor/producer Andy Griffith left the series that bore his name, the 1960-1968 family favorite The Andy Griffith Show, he spent nearly two decades casting about for another project that curried equal favor with the public. Some of the failed pilots and short-lived series he made during these wilderness years, which extended until the 1986 launch of his geriatric-lawyer show Matlock, are interesting because they’re edgier than the kind of material one normally associates with Griffith. For instance, the 1974 telefilm Winter Kill, the first of three TV movies designed to launch a new series featuring Griffith as a small-town sheriff facing grislier problems than The Andy Griffith Show’s unflappable Andy Taylor ever encountered, is a suspense story about a serial killer. It’s startling to see good-ol’-boy Griffith tracking down a psycho who slips on a ski mask and prowls around a snow-covered resort town by night, blowing away victims with a shotgun and spray-painting the number of each murder near the crime scene. Mayberry, this ain’t.
Even aside from the novelty of seeing Griffith in a new context, Winter Kill is fairly effective, and with good reason: Screenwriter John Michael Hayes, whose career was winding down at this point, counted three Alfred Hitchcock classics, including the seminal Rear Window (1954), among his past credits, so he clearly learned a few things about generating tension from the Master of Suspense. Winter Kill unfurls in a straightforward fashion, with Sheriff Sam McNeill (Griffith) uncovering his neighbors’ tawdry secrets while he looks for connections between murder victims. This prompts flashbacks showcasing the sordid sex lives of various townies, and we also discover the pressures McNeil faces when he starts treating his constituents as suspects.
Although the specifics of the story are a bit on the generic side and the supporting cast is largely populated with workaday actors (exception: a young Nick Nolte shows up as a cocky ski instructor), Winter Kill manages to sustain interest from start to finish because Hayes and director Jud Taylor stay focused on the race to catch the killer. Furthermore, the murder scenes are memorable for their docudrama simplicity: Watching the masked killer methodically load his weapon and then trudge through snow toward his next victim preys upon the universal fear of something awful creeping out of the night. And who better to protect us than our beloved Sheriff Andy? If nothing else, Winter Kill is a reminder of Griffith’s versatility, something worth remembering on the sad event of his passing today at the age of 86. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)
Winter Kill: GROOVY