"A Cold Night's Death" is a product of the ABC "Movie of the Week" factory that turned out TV-films at the rate of one or two a week back in the 1970s. Few of those films were memorable, but this is one that stands out in the same way that "The Night Stalker" and "Brian's Song" are still remembered.
Set in an animal research laboratory isolated in an arctic wasteland, the film begins with a lone scientist, Dr. Vogel, who appears to be losing his mind, frantically radioing for help to a base that cannot hear him. When the base is out of contact with Vogel for several days, they send a pilot and two more researchers to investigate. They find Vogel dead under mysterious circumstances.
Once the pilot leaves, the two new researchers, Drs. Jones and Enari (Robert Culp and Eli Wallach) set about salvaging the animal research experiments. Though Enari is all too happy to think that Vogel simply went mad, the more open-minded Jones is bothered by parallels he sees between what happened to Vogel and the strange things which begin happening to them.
If these two men had the mutual respect of Fox Mulder and Dana Sculley, perhaps they could have figured out what was going on. Instead, they move further and further in opposite directions, with Jones convinced something else is at work in the station, and Enari growing increasingly paranoid that Jones has some sinister ulterior motive.
The plot being relatively thin, to tell more would ruin it. Thin or not, the story is milked for all it's worth. Moving at a slow, deliberate pace allows the film to build its suspense one step at a time until it reaches its bizarre conclusion.
Some of the most delicious movie endings have involved the surprise twist that literally doesn't appear until the absolutely final shot. You get one of those here, and it's a good one. Even if you can guess ahead of time who or what is behind it all, you'll still feel a shiver go up your spine when you see that final close-up.
One thing that really makes the film is Gil Mellé's score, which is highly reminiscent of "The Andromeda Strain" (made about the same time). It's electronic, low-keyed and creepy. Director Jerrold Freedman does a nice job making you feel the isolation of these two men who are, really, beyond hope of immediate rescue. In fact, the opening scene is wonderfully spooky. We simply see the research station from the outside in a screaming snowstorm...but we can also hear Vogel inside screaming in panic. Shooting the entire scene from the exterior emphasizes Vogel's aloneness against the malevolent power that is working against him. It's a real grabber. And as Enari and Jones, Wallach and Culp are what they always are: reliable, extremely watchable pros.
The off-camera surprise is that this movie is a Spelling-Goldberg production. Spelling and Goldberg have attained a well-deserved reputation for creating some of the worst (albeit most popular) crap on TV, and high-minded suspense movies with sci-fi/horror overtones are not their typical style. Still, give them a star for this one.
Incidentally, two notes of interest:
First, the movie begins with a narrative which I believe to be the voice of Vic Perrin, the Control Voice of the classic "The Outer Limits".
Also, as some have noted, this movie is sometimes aired under the alternate title "The Chill Factor". And, in fact, I recorded it off a local station a few years back under that title. Yet the title "The Chill Factor" doesn't appear in the film. In fact, NO title appears in the film. It runs through the producers, the cast, the writer and the director, but the film's title itself is missing. There IS a blank space in the opening credits where the title normally WOULD go, so it appears that somebody removed "A Cold Night's Death", and never inserted the new title! It is, to my knowledge, the only time something like that has ever happened in a movie.