January 28, 2023

That '70s Sci-fi TV Movie #2: A Cold Night's Death

Now Playing:
A Cold Night's Death (TV movie, 1973)

Pros: Establishes a dark, moody atmosphere and nicely ratchets up the tension; the leads are absolutely believable as two men trying to hold onto their sanity
Cons: Occasional clumsy bits of dialog

This suspense-thriller starts off very much like an Outer Limits episode -- Mr. “Control Voice” voice himself, Vic Perrin, narrates (in voiceover) the recent history of a remote mountain research station as we see a helicopter delivering a new pair of scientists to the station in the middle of a snowstorm.

The facility, located at the permanently snowy peak of Tower Mountain, is being used to house chimpanzees and monkeys involved in space medicine research, testing the limits of primate endurance under extreme conditions. (My biggest beef with the movie is that you don’t need to locate your lab on top of a nearly inaccessible mountain to simulate extreme conditions for experimental purposes, but we’ll set that aside for now.)

Regular contact with the sole scientist running the lab, Dr. Vogel, has been lost, and in his last communication, the man seemed to be losing his mind, insisting that he had been talking with Alexander the Great and Napoleon.

The replacement team, Robert Jones (Robert Culp) and Frank Enari (Eli Wallach) find the facility in total chaos, equipment and papers scattered, the heat off, and the monkeys nearly frozen to death in their cages. Most horrific, they find Vogel completely frozen in a chair in the electronics room, a nearby window open to the elements.

Screenshot - A frozen scientist in A Cold Night's Death (1973)
The replacement team gets a chilly reception at the research station.

After restoring heat and order to the facility, Robert and Frank resume the experiments (apparently the show must go on). But soon, a series of incidents -- the monkeys screaming in the night, equipment mysteriously turned on, windows opened and the generator turned off by an unseen hand, food stores ripped apart and scattered across the kitchen -- cause the two scientists to turn on each other. Or is there someone or something else hiding out at the station?

A Cold Night’s Death is dark and chilling (no pun intended). After the departure of the helicopter pilot, the movie is all Culp’s and Wallach’s, and the two veteran actors do a superb job of gradually surrendering their characters to paranoia and suspicion.

There are some awkward moments. Twice in the 70 minute long movie, Frank talks at length about how he is a by-the-book type who just wants to keep his head down and do the work, while Robert is an intellectual dreamer who needs mysteries and challenges to stay engaged. Under the circumstances, it’s not necessary for the two men to have such wildly divergent personalities to begin suspecting one another, but the dialog hammers the point home.

Screenshot - Eli Wallach and Robert Culp in A Cold Night's Death (1973)
Frank and Robert wonder who's been monkeying around with their stuff.

It’s enough that the characters demonstrate their differences by their actions: Robert goes into detective mode, wondering why Vogel shut himself up in the only room that could be locked from the inside to freeze to death, while fussy Frank immerses himself in finishing the experiments, cooking the meals and pretending nothing out of the ordinary is happening (until, as things get really bad, he becomes convinced that Robert is off his rocker and staging everything).

While there are subtle clues dropped throughout, many viewers will probably still be surprised by Robert’s late epiphany regarding the locked electronics room and Vogel’s last, crazy communications with the outside world -- not to mention the surprise ending.

In his book Television Fright Films of the 1970s, David Deal praises A Cold Night’s Death, calling it “...one of the leanest telefrights of the era. It is essentially a two-man show and the bulk of the action takes place on a single set. Regardless, it is a crackerjack production boasting a tight script, good acting and a feel for psychological isolation.” He also relates that screenwriter Christopher Knopf earned an Edgar Award nomination from the Mystery Writers of America for his efforts. [McFarland, 2007, p. 18.; see also my review of the book on this site]

At this point in his career, Robert Culp was no stranger to TV sci-fi, having appeared in no fewer than 3 episodes of The Outer Limits series (including the Harlan Ellison-scripted fan favorite Demon with a Glass Hand). Later in the ‘70s he played an occult investigator in Spectre (1977), a Gene Roddenberry TV pilot that went nowhere but has since earned a minor cult reputation.

Screenshot - Robert Culp is half-frozen in A Cold Night's Death (1973)
Public Service Announcement: When shoveling snow, don't overdo it.

Eli Wallach of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly fame (1966) spent the ‘70s appearing in a succession of smaller films and TV movies and series, with occasional stopovers in Italy to do westerns and suspense thrillers. One of his oddest roles was as “the man in oil” in the David Carradine martial arts fantasy-adventure Circle of Iron (1978).

Where to find it: A watchable copy can be streamed here.

January 21, 2023

That '70s Sci-fi TV Movie, Part One: The Love War

Home video cover art - The Love War (TV movie, 1970)
Now Playing:
The Love War (TV movie, 1970)

Pros: The two leads give it their all despite a weak script and cut-rate production values
Cons: Like I said, weak script and cut-rate production values

Back in November of last year, Barry at Cinematic Catharsis accepted a challenge from a fellow blogger to write about his five favorite movies from 1978. At the end of that post, he issued new challenges to several bloggers, including yours truly. Picking up the baton, I decided to go with my top five underrated/overlooked ‘70s sci-fi TV movies.

At first I intended to just devote a single post to the five, but of course, being congenitally verbose (and a little masochistic), I found myself regurgitating paragraphs and paragraphs on the first movie, so I decided to turn the single post into a five-part series. I’ll pass on the challenge to a new set of bloggers in part five, but until then, on with the show!

This Aaron Spelling-produced TV movie is as bare bones as they come, even for an era known for its low-budget TV productions. Lloyd Bridges plays an alien operative from the planet Argon who has traveled to earth along with two colleagues to fight a team from a rival planet for control of the planet. All the aliens have assumed human appearances and identities, and we eventually learn that the contest is strictly regulated by an interplanetary “War Arbitration Control” board - each side gets three representatives, and the team with the last man/alien standing wins. However, as we also soon learn, that doesn’t preclude one side or the other from cheating.

The movie starts out with Bridges tracking down a rival alien at the Los Angeles train station. For the mission, he’s outfitted with an energy gun that looks like a wand candle lighter, a communicator that is nothing more than a translucent plastic stick, a tracking device that looks like a small pill box with red and white flashing lights, and weird wrap around glasses that he uses to see his rivals in their real form (shades of They Live!) Again, it doesn’t get any more basic than that, and probably cost Spelling all of $20 to outfit the whole cast.

Screenshot - Lloyd Bridges wearing alien-detector glasses in The Love War (TV movie, 1970)
The clerk at Sunglass Hut assured Kyle that this was the latest style.

The biggest effect is quickly trotted out. Bridges somehow manages to blast the enemy operative without attracting any attention, and then attaches a small detonator to the body, which within seconds causes it to glow green, then disintegrate in a ball of orange fire.

But that’s only the preliminaries. For some obscure reason, the final battle is to take place in a small California town south of Fresno (!). Bridges must get there pronto, but has missed the only train of the day, so he takes the bus… (Okay, he travels light years to fight in a battle for the earth, and he has to take the bus to get to his appointment? Really?) Enter Angie Dickinson/Sandy, who provides the love interest in The Love War. She hops on the bus enroute to Fresno, plops down in the seat next to Bridges, and (apologies in advance) chats him up like a call girl at an aluminum siding salesmen's convention.

Not used to interacting with earth women, Bridges (who introduces himself as Kyle) is very awkward at first, but then quickly warms up to the beautiful woman who has such an avid interest in him. Subsequent developments require an entire suspension bridge of disbelief on the part of the viewer.

Bridges allows Sandy to follow him to an old hotel at his destination, where he sedates her and reveals his true form and mission as she struggles to stay awake. Apparently the stakes are ultra-high: If the Argons win, they will invite humanity to join their interplanetary federation; if the other side wins, they will eliminate human beings and take over the planet. Enamored with Sandy to the point of imbecility, Bridges takes her with him to the final battle over the objections of his Argon teammate (Daniel J. Travanti of Hill Street Blues fame).

Screenshot - Angie Dickinson and Lloyd Bridges in The Love War (TV movie, 1970)
Kyle takes a break with Sandy before trying to save humanity from complete annihilation.

The Love War goes into action movie mode with shoot-outs, car chases and even a Wild West-style showdown in a ghost town. Along the way, Sandy remains an enigma -- will she be a help or hindrance in the battle for the earth? (Also, if Kyle somehow wins, will he be called to account for being a love-struck idiot who needlessly endangered the supremely important mission?)

The best thing going for The Love War is that Bridges and Dickinson keep absolutely straight faces throughout, even as they’re throwing off lines like “I haven’t felt this way in 150 years” or “I’ve never felt so alive -- kiss me Kyle!”

I remember as a teenager being intrigued with The Love War when it first aired, and somehow the “magician’s act” of the bodies disappearing in a puff of flame and smoke made a particular impression on me. (And yes, I was old enough to be impressed by Angie as well!) I also recall thinking the idea of pitting small teams of soldiers against each other to decide the fate of a planet, versus fighting a war that would get a lot of people killed was a cool one (especially living at the height of the Vietnam war).

Seeing it 50+ years later, it’s hard not to smirk at the hackneyed premise (even for its time; see below), the bare bones production, the clunky dialog, the logic lapses, and the indifferently staged action scenes. Still, there’s something endearing about these old TV movies that, due to limited budgets, had to be more about ideas and characters than effects, even if they ultimately fell flat.

Screenshot - The showdown scene in The Love War (TV movie, 1970)
The final showdown at the Not-OK Corral.

Lloyd Bridges would go on to appear in a number of notable sci-fi, fantasy and suspense TV movies during the decade, including The Deadly Dream (1971), Haunts of the Very Rich (1972), and The Force of Evil (1977), among others. Angie Dickinson appeared in The Resurrection of Zachary Wheeler (1971), the short-lived supernatural anthology series Circle of Fear (1972), and the Dan Curtis TV movie/pilot The Norliss Tapes (1972), before reaching the zenith of her fame as the star of Police Woman (1974-78).

Where to find it: An okay streaming copy can be found here.

A short, select list of ‘60s & ‘70s sci-fi TV dealing with hand-picked combatants squaring off in battles to the death:

The Outer Limits, “Fun and Games” (1964). For amusement purposes, an all-powerful alien pits two earth people against two creatures from another galaxy in a deathmatch to determine whose planet will be destroyed and whose will be saved.

Screenshot - An alien combatant in "Fun and Games," The Outer Limits (1964)
A deadly boomerang is part of the fun and games in this Outer Limits episode.

Star Trek, “Arena” (1967). The advanced space civilization the Metrons intercede in a clash between the Enterprise and a Gorn ship, dispatching the two captains to a deserted planet to settle their differences in hand-to-claw combat.

Screenshot - Captain Kirk and the Gorn struggle in "Arena," Star Trek, 1967
Kirk and the Gorn captain rehearse for Dancing with the Stars.

The Challenge (TV movie, 1970). To avoid an all-out war over a crashed nuclear-powered satellite, the U.S. and an unnamed Asian country send one commando each to a deserted Pacific island to battle it out to the death. Directed by George McCowan (credited as “Alan Smithee”) who also directed The Love War.

January 16, 2023

Announcing the 'Favorite Stars in B Movies' Blogathon

A huge, heartfelt "Thank You!" to everyone who participated in and promoted this first-ever blogathon hosted by Films From Beyond! Check out these great posts covering a wide range of stars and B movies:

Somewhere on this blog I’ve mentioned it before: Roger Corman, the man many call the “King of the B’s,” claims he never made a B movie in his life. To his way of thinking, the B movie is specific to a certain time and place, an artifact of the Golden Age of Hollywood’s studio system, when low-budget quickies were made to fill out double-bills with bigger “A” pictures.

Corman preferred the term “exploitation picture” for his body of work, as he was spectacularly successful over the decades exploiting the latest pop culture trends and tabloid news to lure audiences to films that were high in trashy appeal and low in cost.

Here at Films From Beyond we’re not nearly as scrupulous as the King of Exploitation Flicks about the B label, preferring Wikipedia’s more expansive definition of a B movie as “a low-budget commercial motion picture that is not an arthouse film.”

So with that out of the way, it’s time to announce Films From Beyond’s first ever blogathon, "Favorite Stars in B Movies" (selected by popular demand via a Twitter poll I ran back in early December!)

Whatever else you choose to call them -- exploitation flicks, drive-in fodder, low-budget quickies -- B movies have nurtured many major stars’ careers, either on the upswing, where they provided a way to perfect the craft and gain recognition, or on the downswing, where they were a harbor for actors who wanted (or needed) to keep working, but whose A-list marketability was past its expiration date.

If you’re still reading this (or better yet, thinking of joining the blogathon!), you can probably come up with lots of examples, from pre-superstar Jack Nicholson as a masochistic dental patient in Roger Corman’s 3-day quickie The Little Shop of Horrors, to Barbara Stanwyck perfecting her screaming skills for William Castle in The Night Walker, to Dana Andrews, star of ‘40s classics such as Laura and The Best Years of Our Lives, thawing out cryogenically frozen Nazis in The Frozen Dead twenty years later.

Composite - William Shatner, Ida Lupino, Ernest Borgnine and John Travolta in The Devil's Rain (1975)
The Devil's Rain (1975) featured a coven of stars on the upswing, on the downswing & treading water: From left: William Shatner, Ida Lupino, Ernest Borgnine, and John Travolta

Discerning film fans all have their favorite examples (you know who you are). So here’s an opportunity to celebrate your favorite instance (or instances) of a big star in a small film.

What’s it called again? Favorite Stars in B Movies
Where is it? Right here at filmsfrombeyond.com
When? Friday, March 31 - Sunday, April 2, 2023
How do I get in on the fun? Send your proposed blog post (or podcast, video, etc.) to me at brschuck66@yahoo.com, or via Twitter, @brschuck66, or use the comments on this page.

The Guidelines:

  1. Submissions can be about individual low-budget or B movies featuring former or future stars, or about an actor’s/actress’ career arc from Bs to stardom (or vice versa). Heck, if you want to talk about an actor who never really made it out of B’s, but had an interesting career in smaller films, you know what -- I’ll accept it!
  2. For the sake of variety, let’s avoid duplicate posts of individual films. So, if someone’s already called dibs on Ray Milland in The Thing with Two Heads, you could still cover X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes or Frogs or Panic in the Year Zero! However, if you’re doing a career arc, you can certainly mention a film in context even if someone else is doing it as their main focus. Another caveat: let’s also try to avoid duplicate posts on a particular actor’s/actress’ career.
  3. For me, the heyday of the B movie, exploitation picture and/or drive-in flick was roughly from the 1930s through the 1980s (which coincidentally, is the timeframe most favored on this blog). That’s a good focus for this blogathon, but then again, I’m open-minded -- if a different era appeals to you and fits more or less into the theme, go for it!
  4. Also, to keep things simple, let’s focus on commercial theatrical movies, and save TV movies and episodes for another day.
  5. To save your place in the blogathon, send me your name, blog/vlog/podcast name, and actor/actress and film (or just actor name in the case of a career arc post) via the contact methods listed above. (Also include your Twitter handle, if you have one, for promotional purposes.)
  6. This announcement page will be updated regularly with participants. I will publish a separate page with all the contributions and links and keep it updated through the blogathon’s three-day run, March 31- April 2. Send me the link(s) to your finished contribution(s) on or around the dates. Please, new, original posts only.
  7. That’s it! I hope you’re inspired to participate!

And now, who’s doing what:

Films From Beyond the Time Barrier: Jack Nicholson in The Cry Baby Killer (1958)

Cinematic Catharsis: The career of Michael Ripper 

Realweegiemidget Reviews: Ian Ogilvy in The Sorcerers (1967)

Make Mine Film Noir: Gene Kelly in Black Hand (1950) and/or Christmas Holiday (1944)

The Stop Button: Michael Landon in I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957)

A Shroud of Thoughts: Rory Calhoun in Motel Hell (1980)

Whimsically Classic: Lucille Ball as "Queen of the Bs"

The Last Drive In: The career of John Carradine

By Rich Watson: Sylvester Stallone in Death Race 2000 (1975)

Poppity Talks Classic Film: Rock Hudson in Pretty Maids all in a Row (1971)

Krell Laboratories: Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor in The Narrow Margin (1952)

Taking Up Room: Courteney Cox in Masters of the Universe (1987)

Grand Old Movies: Joan Crawford in Trog (1970)

Silver Screenings: John Garfield in They Made Me a Criminal (1939)

tales from the freakboy zone: Rock Hudson in Embryo (1976)

Mike's Movie Room: Alan Ladd in 13 West Street (1962)

Horror And Sons: Neville Brand, David Caruso, Martin Landau, Ralph Meeker and Jack Palance in Without Warning (1980)

In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood: Olivia de Havilland in Lady in a Cage (1964)

18 Cinema Lane: Vincent Price in The Raven (1963)

Maniacs & Monsters: Andrew: Roy Scheider in Night Game (1989); Michael: Joseph Cotten in Island of the Fishmen (1979)

If you plan to join or simply want to help promote the blogathon, grab one of these banners for your site: