January 20, 2022

Revenge is a dish best served freezing cold: Winter Kill

Home video cover art - Winter Kill, 1974
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Winter Kill (TV movie; 1974)


Pros: Solid cast of familiar ‘70s character actors led by Andy Griffith as a no-nonsense small town policeman
Cons: Drags in places; Some of the action scenes fall flat

This post is part of the Odd or Even Blogathon, stylishly hosted by bloggers Rebecca at Taking Up Room and Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews. Participants were asked to come up with two possibilities for a movie or TV episode to review, one released on an odd year and one on an even year. A coin flip determined which one got the green light -- heads for the odd year and tails for even.

With Old Man Winter settling in, I selected two chilling TV movies full of ice, snow and … death: A Cold Night’s Death from 1973, featuring a bizarre mystery at a polar research station, and Winter Kill from 1974, about a rural police chief dealing with serial murders at a ski resort. I’m told the coin toss came up tails, so Winter Kill it is! (Who knows, maybe I’ll review A Cold Night’s Death sometime before winter is over.)

First, a bit of housekeeping. Winter Kill the TV movie should not be confused with Winter Kills, a 1979 thriller/black comedy about an impenetrable conspiracy surrounding the assassination of a John F. Kennedy-esque president. Winter Kills, starring Jeff Bridges and John Huston, has a modern Alice in Wonderland feel to it, and there are all kinds of strange backstories attached to the production, but that’s a story for another time.

Winter Kill stars Andy Griffith as Sam McNeill, the police chief of Eagle Lake, a mountain resort town. We’re not in Mayberry anymore, as the film wastes no time getting down to murderous business. In the middle of the night, a stealthy figure dressed in a bulky winter coat and ski mask and carrying a shotgun sneaks up to a luxurious cabin in the woods. The figure throws snowballs at a picture window until the sleeping woman inside is awakened. When the woman pauses momentarily at the window, she’s cut down by a shotgun blast. The killer spray paints “The First” into the snow outside the cabin and steals away.

The masked shotgun murderer in Winter Kill, 1974
Ski mask: $12.95. Insulated winter coat: $85.99. Shotgun: $749.99.
Revenge served cold: Priceless.

Even before the murder has been discovered, Sam’s day is off to a bad start when he discovers that the welcome sign just outside of town has been defaced, with the word “Death” spray painted over “Eagle” of Eagle Lake, and a “?” added to the end of the population number.

Once Sam is at the murder scene and examines the message in the snow painted in the same bright red as the sign, it’s apparent that he’s got a cold-blooded killer with a demented sense of humor on his hands.

Suspicion immediately falls on the murdered woman’s wealthy land developer husband, Bill Carter (Tim O’Connor). Sam discovers that Carter’s wife was having an affair with a ski instructor (Nick Nolte) and the husband knew about it. Even more suspiciously, Carter’s shotgun is missing and the only story he can come up with is that he threw it in the lake in frustration after a disappointing hunting trip.

The coup-de-grace comes when the ski instructor is shot while making a run down the slopes, and “The Second” is found painted in the snow nearby. Carter is just a little too convenient a suspect, and when a third murder occurs -- a pastor is gunned down in his own church -- it’s apparent that the new victim has no connection to the love triangle.

Sam McNeill (Andy Griffith) interviews a witness in Winter Kill, 1974
"Ha! You blinked first!"

From the get-go, the viewer is treated to clues to the killer's motive, as he/she is shown reading the diary of a young woman. Flashbacks progressively fill-in her sad story of falling in love with the ski instructor, getting pregnant, getting jilted and feeling that she was being mistreated by everyone around her.

Sam eventually figures out that the girl, Cynthia (Elayne Heilveil), is the connecting thread -- she was the daughter of the Carters’ maid, and had stayed with the couple for a year before mysteriously disappearing.

Now Sam must figure out why the people who interacted with Cynthia before she disappeared are being murdered. The investigation cuts too close to home when Sam finds out that his girlfriend Betty (Sheree North) was one of those people.

Despite the superficial similarities to The Andy Griffith Show -- the rural small town locale and colorful locals who all know one another -- Sam McNeill is no laid-back, avuncular Andy Taylor. He is all-business and not afraid to read the riot act to his bosses when they overstep.

Just a year before Jaws would portray civic leaders as greedy lunkheads willing to gamble with lives in order to protect the tourist trade, Winter Kill featured its own civics lesson. After the third person is killed, Sam is summoned to appear before the town council.

The anxious men are worried that the tourists will stop coming, and make it clear they’re losing faith in their police chief. The mayor informs Sam that “we hired you, and we can fire you,” and that they’ve decided to form a posse to hunt down the killer. Sam is having none of it:

“Whether any of you in this room believe it, I’m madder and more frustrated than all of you put together, but I’ll not run screaming down main street for you. And I’ll not allow any amateur policeman in this town to take the law into his own hands. And if any one of you tries it, I’ll squash you!”
Eugene Roche and Andy Griffith in Winter Kill, 1974
Sam reads the riot act to the mayor (Eugene Roche).

This is not good ol’ Andy Taylor of Mayberry talking. The only thing missing is the mic drop as Sam leaves the men sitting in embarrassed silence.

Winter Kill, which was intended as a pilot for a TV series, was produced by Andy Griffith Enterprises in association with MGM Television. It’s interesting that Griffith chose to play an almost mirror image of Andy Taylor in a much darker universe. The part still fits him like an old shoe, but it also seems like an attempt to update the too-good-to-be-true Andy image of the ‘60s.

ABC, which broadcast Winter Kill, went ahead and developed it into a series in 1975, renaming Griffith’s character. But either the network executives or audiences balked at the "new" Andy Griffith, as Adams of Eagle Lake lasted only two episodes.

Although Nick Nolte had very little screen time in Winter Kill, he made a good enough impression that he was cast as one of Sam Adams’ deputies in the series. Just a couple of years later, Nolte vaulted into superstardom playing Tom Jordache in the Rich Man, Poor Man mini-series. Griffith would have to wait another decade before his big TV comeback with Matlock.

The murders in Winter Kill are done with a shotgun, which is loud and messy and more disgusting than scary as a way to kill someone. The movie tries to compensate by showing each murder in Peckinpah-style slow motion, but that just comes off as cheesy. However, Winter Kill generates some real suspense at the climax when Sam chases down one last red-herring, unwittingly leaving Betty a sitting duck for the real killer.

Sheree North in Winter Kill, 1974
Betty (Sheree North) has to fend for herself while her boyfriend is off on a wild goose chase.

The movie’s biggest strength is Andy Griffith’s sober portrayal of a man under extreme pressure, trying to catch a cold-blooded killer while simultaneously navigating local politics and calming the townspeople’s fears. And then there’s the fun in trying to guess, along with Sam, who among the colorful residents of Mayberry, er, Eagle Lake, is capable of gunning down friends and neighbors in such a brutal fashion.

The line-up of suspects amounts to a sort of who’s who of ‘70s character actors: Tim O’Connor as Bill Carter the land developer; Lawrence Pressman as a browbeaten lawyer; Eugene Roche as the fidgety mayor; and Charles Tyner as Charley the amiable mailman, among others. If you’ve watched any ‘70s TV, there are more familiar faces than you can point a shotgun at.

Winter Kill is a solid, well-acted mystery-thriller that takes its time with local color and characters while gradually building suspense. The wintry vistas of the shooting locations, Big Bear and Snow Valley in California, provide a beautiful backdrop. It may be a bit too slow for some tastes, but it’s not a bad winter’s stroll down memory lane.

Where to find it: Streaming | DVD

January 6, 2022

New Year's Reading: Television Fright Films of the 1970s

Now that the blog is entering its 12th year (!!), I thought it was high time to do something different. I double-checked the archives, and sure enough, I’ve not done any book reviews up until now.

We have a family tradition of giving each other books for Christmas, and with both my wife’s and my birthdays falling well within the holiday season, at the end of the year new books (new to us anyway) take up all the available coffee table space and shout at us telepathically to “read me first!”

Being a movie nut, most of the books I get as gifts are film-related. I also buy books throughout the year, and those tend to be film-related too. I do read other things, but I tend to get a lot of my recreational reading from the library, and a lot of that in ebook form. The physical books that I return to time and again are almost all about films and filmmaking.

Back in October of 2020, I reviewed one of my favorite made-for-TV horror movies, Vampire (1979; starring Richard Lynch, Jason Miller and E.G. Marshall) for Horror and Sons’ month-long celebration of Halloween TV movies and specials.

Broadcast ad for Steven Bochco's Vampire, 1979

This got me interested again in the classic TV movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and ever since I’ve been periodically checking YouTube for availability as I run across titles in my readings and research.

One particularly rich guidebook for this sort of nostalgic journey is something I picked up shortly before writing the Vampire review.

Book cover, Television Fright Films of the 1970s, David Deal, McFarland, 2007
Television Fright Films of the 1970s.
David Deal, McFarland & Co., 2007 (220 pp.)

If you’ve visited the site more than a few times, you may have noticed that I like to provide some production background on the film being reviewed if at all possible. A lot of that has come from the library of McFarland film books that I’ve collected over the years.

McFarland & Co., located in Jefferson, N.C., specializes in reference and scholarly works aimed at the academic and library markets. Founded in 1979, the publisher is particularly strong in the popular culture and performing arts areas.

The first McFarland title I bought for myself was Bill Warren’s classic 2 volume survey of American science fiction films of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, Keep Watching the Skies (originally published in 1982, and updated to one volume in 2010).

I read the immense thing cover to cover, and have been revisiting it regularly ever since. Warren’s love of the genre and the time period comes out in every entry, and even the stinkers get serious attention. In most cases, Warren includes detailed background on the production and key players and filmmakers -- a monumental effort considering all the research was done pre-internet.

Poster - Steven Spielberg's Duel, 1971
In the same vein as Warren’s ‘50s sci-fi bible, but more specialized and a bit less detailed in terms of each entry, is David Deal’s survey of TV “fright” films of the 70s. Back when I was in junior high and high school, I was a huge fan of the original ABC Movie of the Week and the imitators that proliferated in the ‘70s. Some of these made-for-TV movies, like Steven Spielberg’s timeless Duel (1971), have achieved cult status and keep being “discovered” by successive generations of fans. 

Decades later, I still fondly remember such TV horror-thrillers as The Brotherhood of the Bell (1970; with Glenn Ford), The Deadly Dream (1971; Lloyd Bridges), Haunts of the Very Rich (1972; Lloyd Bridges again), Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973; Kim Darby), and countless others.

Many of these movies have never seen a home video release, or are long out of print. Thankfully, loyal fans have kept the flickering video flames alive by uploading recordings to YouTube, so that if you can remember it, there’s a good chance you can reconnect with it (as long as you’re not expecting a pristine high-res copy).

With information about the movies, and many of the movies themselves, being instantly available via the internet, a print book about vintage made-for-TV movies might seem superfluous.

Deal’s book came out in 2007, a couple of years after YouTube was created, and long before the loving labors of fans made the streaming service into a mixed bag of nostalgic gray market video content. Even in the rarefied tech environment of the 2020s, with colossal user-curated databases like YouTube and IMDb, I think there’s still a case to be made for printed filmographies like Deal’s that bring together films of a specific subgenre and add some value into the mix.

It’s nice to be able to leisurely thumb through a slice of TV history, with periodic “oh yeah, I remember that one!” moments adding to the enjoyment. Deal puts things into context with a preface that provides a short history of the golden age of telefilm, starting with the debut of ABC’s Movie of the Week in the late ‘60s, and a few words about some of the more prominent producers and directors who made the 90 minute TV movie into a popular art form.

Screenshot, intro to the ABC Movie of the Week, circa early 1970s
The iconic intro to ABC's Movie of the Week.

As far as added value, the preface is bare bones, and I would have liked to have seen more on the influential behind-the-scenes people, their careers and what led to their participation in the emergence of the classic TV movie and its horror-suspense variants.

An additional small bone to pick with Deal is his definition of “fright” film. Deal admits that his definition of “fright” is pretty broad, and so along with the memorable horrors of the period like Salem’s Lot and The Night Stalker, there are a fair number of run-of-the-mill disaster movies involving doomed airliners, killer bees and several (!!) cable cars hanging by a thread.

But at least he has a sense of humor about it. “[T]here are also ‘ringers,’ films that entice viewers with scary titles such as Express to Terror and The Invasion of Carol Enders, yet contain very little to be scared of, except, perhaps, in the quality department.” [p. 3]

Deal also apologizes in advance that, while he tried to be as definitive as possible, some reader favorites may not have been included due to lack of availability. Almost all of my fondly remembered movies are covered, but considering the current supply available on YouTube, an expanded edition might be in order.

DVD box art - The Invasion of Carol Enders, 1973
The entries, arranged alphabetically by title, are well-written and lively (for the historically-minded, there is also an appendix of the titles arranged chronologically by broadcast date). The author has a knack for brief summaries that get to the essence of even the most convoluted plots without giving the game away. 

He typically singles out a principal actor to expand on with career highlights and a scorecard of their participation in other TV movies of the decade, so that by the end of the book you have a much better sense of who the go-to actors of the period were, how they got there, and where they went.

Directors and in some cases producers also get their due. Several names, some famous, some not so much, keep popping up, e.g., Dan Curtis (producer/director, The Night Stalker, The Norliss Tapes, Trilogy of Terror, etc.) and John Llewellyn Moxey (director, A Taste of Evil, The Night Stalker, The Strange and Deadly Occurrence, Conspiracy of Terror, etc.).

Deal is also cognizant of the importance of music scores in creating an atmosphere of suspense, and, atypically for a collection of this sort, constantly cites the contributions and backgrounds of composers.

While the author’s default stance is one of respect for the medium and the genre(s), he doesn’t mince words calling out the junk that was dead on arrival even in its day. As mentioned above, the attempt by TV producers to capitalize on the popularity of big budget disaster movies like the Airport series often turned into minor artistic disasters.

Typical of Deal’s clear-eyed assessments of these botched small-screen epics is this one on SST - Death Flight (1977), an Airport imitator that features mechanical problems, a midair explosion, and the release of a deadly strain of exotic flu -- all on the same unlucky flight!

“One disaster wasn’t enough for this fim, so the combination of mechanical and medical problems land SST - Death Flight in the category of double jeopardy (see Fer de Lance, Mayday at 40,000 Feet). Doubling the problems, however, does not double the entertainment value of this tired thriller. Adding insult to injury are the not-so-special effects, which are among the cheapest and most unconvincing of the era. In this case, director David Lowell Rich’s familiarity with airborne frights breeds boredom.” [p.167]

While black and white stills and illustrations are sprinkled liberally throughout, Television Fright Films is not a coffee-table book. The strengths are in its lively, accessible writing, background details, and inclusion of obscure titles that serve to put a crazy decade into even better context.

If you love these movies like I do, this will make a great after-the-holidays gift to yourself. It's still in print, available directly from the publisher (see the link above) and major online sellers.