Sunday, November 20, 2011
Winter Kill (1974)
Original Air Date: April 15th, 1974
There’s no doubt that Andy Griffith did his best to shun his good natured country boy persona by making some very interesting, and often quite dark, made for TV movies during the 70s (and of course A Face in the Crowd… I know a little bit about other movies sometimes too). He lent his performances as the bad guy some dark justice as audiences would see in both Pray for the Wildcats ("I'm a hippie with money!") and Savages (both released in 1974). In Winter Kill he returns to his more recognizable good guy shtick, but there’s not much of his signature joviality to be seen as he finds himself on the trail of a cold-blooded killer in a small, snowy mountain town.
Griffith is Sheriff Sam McNeil, an officer of the law who is caught off guard when a mysterious sniper starts picking of the locals. After each kill the menacing marauder leaves the number of the victim behind, painted in the snow or in some visible spot, and McNeil attempts to link all the victims together. In a voice over, the audience is given snippets of a diary belonging to a wide-eyed teenager named Cynthia (Elayne Heilveil). This device puts us one step ahead of the sheriff - and one step behind the killer. There is no shortage of suspects and Mayor Bickford (Eugene Roche) is hot on the heels of McNeil to catch the culprit so they can open their town to tourists without fear of losing business (It’s like Jaws on dry land with a sniper!) As the evidence begins to unfold, a serious of odd happenings also take place, and then there are a couple of twists galore! In short, my kind of flick.
Directed by ex-DGA president Jud Taylor who was a stalwart of the TV film (and served as president of his guild from 1981 – 1983), he also directed the stylish and creepy Shelly Winters TV horror flick Revenge. Winter Kill is no less stylish with its serene, snowy, small town settings which place a stark contrast on the cold blooded murders (no pun intended!). Shot mostly in Big Bear, the old school architecture of the snow town elite looks fantastic on Warner Archives DVD.
Winter Kill is an excellent film. The acting is fantastic, with lots of interesting and likable characters. Sheree North plays MacNeil’s main squeeze and the gorgeous John Calvin is his right hand man. The best performance might be Joyce Van Patten who always makes the snow just a little more icy with her bitch-perfect delivery. Lawrence Pressman, Tim O’Connor, Louise Latham, a young and studly Nick Nolte and of course, Roche, are all given some nice moments as MacNeil works his way through his population of suspects.
The opening murder scene is tense and frightening, and really sets the pace for this underrated thriller. There is a murder a little later that quickly turns into something far more devastating, in one of the slick twists.
The movie was intended to be a pilot for Griffith, and although it was not picked up, the actor repackaged it as a show called Adams of Eagle Lake, but only two episodes aired before it was replaced by The Rockford Files. He then managed to repackage this idea again (and again, it turns out!) with two more TV films. Girl in the Empty Grave and Deadly Game were both released in 1977, but no other series came of them. Grave was definitely a far more light-hearted version of Winter Kill, and if I remember correctly, a pretty fun film.
While looking up this movie I found an interesting article about how two such famous television faces – Andy Griffith and James Garner – could have such opposite results when they returned to television. This article poses the theory that Maverick and Garner aren’t that separate, while Griffith attempted to considerably alter his familiar television image, which turned off television audiences. Something to think about, eh?