Like so many of the creepy supernatural thrillers that were made for television in the ’70s, A Cold Night’s Death is roughly equivalent to an extended Twilight Zone episode in that it’s all about the elaborate setup for a freaky twist ending. Two inherent problems: 1) If the audience guesses the twist prematurely, it’s slow going from that point forward, and 2) There’s nowhere for the story to go once the business of setting up the premise has been completed. Sure enough, A Cold Night’s Death lags quite badly in the middle, even though it’s only 74 minutes long. Happily, the combination of an intelligent script, dense visual atmospherics, solid acting, and a weird electronic score compensate for the enervated narrative. Nothing in this picture is jump-out-of-your-skin scary, but A Cold Night’s Death is enjoyably eerie from start to finish. Frank (Eli Wallach) and Robert (Robert Culp) are researchers tasked with operating a laboratory installation that’s positioned atop a mountain. The brutal elevation? 14,000 feet. They’re rushed to the location ahead of schedule by helicopter, because ground-level administrators lose contact with the lab’s previous occupant. Upon arrival, Frank and Robert discover that their predecessor froze to death, leaving windows open so the various primates in laboratory cages nearly died from exposure, as well. Therefore, in addition to performing normal research, the scientists must solve the mystery of why their predecessor died.
A Cold Night’s Death takes the slow-but-steady approach to suspense. The film’s palette is carefully controlled, mostly blues and grays to complement the massive show drifts outside the laboratory, and lots of scenes take place at night, with just one character awake and prowling through empty halls while trying to identify the sources of peculiar sounds. Culp and Wallach personify extremes effectively—Culp plays a deeply curious man open to the possibilities of the unexplained, whereas Wallach sketches a fellow who is rational to a fault. This, of course, leads to tension as the situation worsens, but it’s to the filmmakers’ credit that they don’t follow the obvious path of putting these two characters at each other’s throats on a regular basis. Instead, the scientists duel intellectually until circumstances force a confrontation. Through it all, the bleeps and chirps and twangs of Gil Melle’s otherworldly electronic score jangle the viewer’s nerves appropriately. And if the twist ending is so far-fetched as to be a little bit goofy, well, that’s an occupational hazard for storytellers operating in the realm that Rod Serling charted.
A Cold Night’s Death: FUNKY