There's a research station on the White Mountain in California which is designed to find out how far astronauts' endurance can be tested, only they haven't been using people for the experiments, they have been using apes. There was only one scientist at the Tower Mountain station, but for some reason contact has been lost with him over the radio for five days now, and with winter weather causing the conditions to become perilous, his bosses are growing concerned. With that in mind, they send a couple of scientists, Robert Jones (Robert Culp) and Frank Enari (Eli Wallach) out by helicopter to see what has happened...
But when they get there, the place is as quiet as the grave in this well-remembered, horror-inflected television movie from the golden age of such efforts, the nineteen-seventies. As with many of those which are either strong memories or dimly recalled, A Cold Night's Death had one purpose, and that was to scare the viewer, so it was that a generation of kids of the day would have nightmares about the creepily claustrophobic atmosphere of encroaching paranoia generated by Christopher Knopf's amusing script and the way most of the action took place in one location. Oddly, that script looked forward to John Carpenter's The Thing remake, as there were comparisons to be made.
Carpenter's work was a cult classic of course, and superior to this low budget effort, but you could hazard a guess that the director might have caught this at some point before he crafted his work even if the original The Thing from Another World would have been his main inspiration, they were very much of a piece with one another. Naturally this is of a far lower profile, but having taken a simple idea - there's something at the station which is menacing the two scientists and they don't know what it is - and conjured up something of very reasonable quality for what was essentially a two hander television play, it was understandable it would arise in fond reminiscences.
A Cold Night's Death was certainly worthy of mention alongside other notables broadcast during its decade which put the wind up viewers, including Horror at 37,000 Feet, Duel, Bad Ronald, Killdozer, Panic at Lakewood Manor (OK, maybe that last one was a bit ropey) and so forth, and the acting from Culp and Wallach helped lift what could have been rather daft. They behaved as if they truly believed there was a presence in the station, as their tempers frayed, with Robert the macho man and Frank the more bookish boffin, though little wonder when they arrive at the location to find the test animals lying practically unconscious due to the cold and the previous scientist sitting alone in a room with the window stuck open, covered in frost and very dead.
You can almost feel the freezing temperatures, especially in the latter stages when Robert, out clearing the ever-building snow from the front door, is locked out and has to struggle to get back in to survive. Is it one of those two who are sabotaging the mission, perhaps without even realising it? Frank continues the experiments which provide a heavy hint to what is actually going on, something Robert works out when it's too late to do anything about it, and the final scene is among the most famous in seventies television horrors out of Hollywood, a punchline which is at the same time ridiculous and strangely satisfying. There's no real explanation for what has happened other than the balance of the scales tipping the other way after too long weighed down on one side, but it tapped into an increasing sense of environmentalism in the mood of the time, as well as confirming the worst fears of those who had been paying attention to a celebrated science fiction franchise around back then. Also worth watching for was Gil Melle's electronic score.