The 13 Scariest Made for TV Horror Films

By Bill Burns

The 13 Scariest Made for TV Horror Films

The phenomenon of the Made for TV movie. In our new-fangled world of On-Demand, Hulu, Netflix, and the thousands of cable channels, it might seem unbelievable that there was ever a shortage of programming for network TV. And yet, in those prehistoric days of the 1970’s, the three big networks needed to compete with the increased violence and sex on display in the theaters. The allure of free movies that you couldn’t see in the theater but could be viewed in the privacy and comfort of your own home seemed like a desperate gimmick, but it produced an incredibly interesting and diverse number of films. Naturally, horror and the supernatural fit right into the melodramatic tone of these films, films that were watched by the whole family. Because of censorship restrictions, these TV films had to be more psychological, moody, atmospheric, and spooky. The smaller budgets and need for an almost weekly product insured a healthy amount of creativity and downright bizarre subjects and scenarios used for the premises of these films. How about a movie about a plane possessed by Celtic sacrificial stones starring William Shatner? Weird enough for you? You got to see movie stars before they were stars or formally famous actors and actresses totally slumming it to pay the bills. Some of the films acted as pilots for TV series. Some of these TV movies were even released theatrically in Europe with extra footage to pad out the length or to add some spice to get those cultured Europeans in the seats. The heyday of the TV movie lasted from 1969-1976, but Made for TV movies were still being made until the 90’s. Cable and the VCR killed the profitability for networks to keep churning out the goods. Though the old school TV movie is only a fond memory (many are available on YouTube), if you were a young horror fan in the 1970s-early 80’s you were probably psychologically scarred by a strange encounter with Made for TV horror films.
P.S.—Has anyone seen the Japanese Made for TV film based on H.P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow over Innsmouth? It is my holy grail.

13. A Ghost Story for Christmas (1971-1978, 2005)—Various (mostly Lawrence Gordon Clark)
The US certainly doesn’t have a stranglehold on the creepy Made for TV movie format. The BBC’s annual A Ghost Story for Christmas frightened British children on Christmas vacation from 1971 to 1978, and later brought back in 2005. Before the reign of Halloween, Christmas was the time of hauntings and spirits (as evidenced in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol) and the tradition of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve was revived by the BBC. Each year a different story would be adapted into a short film for the series. The first five were based on the stories of M. R. James (the greatest ghost story writer ever), with a Dickens adaptation and two original films rounding out the annual holiday sequence. Although all the films are unnerving, three in particular are deeply unsettling. James’s “A Warning to the Curious” concerns a ghostly guardian of an ancient crown foolishly disturbed by an amateur archeologist. “Lost Hearts” is the epitome of Jamesisan terror as bloodlust and savagery lurk behind the smiling face of a jolly avuncular figure looking to sacrifice his young cousin so he can live forever. His past victims try to warn the young boy, appearing as ghoulish revenants dancing to hurdy gurdy music although their hearts have been ripped out. Last, but certainly not least, is the original film Stigma, a Nigel Kneale-esque story of the removal of an ancient stone circle and the revenge of a witch who was ritually sacrificed there. What adds immeasurably to the eeriness of these films is their use of natural locations, specifically the desolate brooding coastlines and plains of England.

12. Jenifer (2005)—Dario Argento
OK, maybe I’m cheating a bit because this premiered on cable but c’mon: Argento, Jones, and Wrightson. Is that a combination made in the infernal depths or what? Made for the uber-cool Masters of Horror series, “Jenifer” is a short movie based on the horrifying black-and-white comic book story that originally appeared in the epochal magazine Creepy. Written by the ever witty Bruce Jones and drawn by the Czar of horror comic book artists Bernie Wrightson, “Jenifer” is a blood soaked tragedy concerning vulnerability, seduction, and destruction. A cop rescues a deformed woman from being murdered, which sets into motion a string of events that perpetuates a cycle of viciousness. This ironic tale of lust and brutality seems tailor made for the Mad Maestro, Dario Argento. Although “Jenifer” is not a return to the Technicolor insanity of his peak period, Argento lets the story tell itself, utilizing his more subtle mature style that horror fans seem to hate. And yet for this TV film, it works perfectly as the intensity of the violence, lust, and obsession slowly builds to a frenzy of sex and cannibalism, bodies violated and devoured because of the blindness of love. Carrie Fleming’s performance as the titular character is grotesque and sympathetic at the same time.

11. The Devil’s Daughter (1973)— Jeannot Szwarc
Though all three major networks produced made for TV films, ABC was the elite standard for gonzo Saturday night horror. Case in point this demonic melodrama about an arranged marriage to Satan and the birth and maturation of his future wife, destined to be Miss Lucifer. Who knew that Satan needed to be set up on blind dates? The film really succeeds in equating upper class opulence, decadent ennui, and self-indulgent supernaturalism. Riding the occult chic wave and adding an unhealthy dose of Rosemary’s Baby, The Devil’s Daughter contains a rogue’s gallery of 70’s “stars”: Joseph Cotton, Shelly Winters, Abe Vigoda, and William Holden. Even Barnabas Collins himself, Jonathan Frid, makes an appearance. Expertly directed by the underrated Jeannot Szwarc (Jaws 2, Supergirl … maybe I’m not making a case for him by using these examples), this shocker mixes Satanism and Dr. Spock for the Love Generation.

10. Gargoyles (1972)—Bill L. Norton
Filmed on location in Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico, Gargoyles has an incredible air of authenticity to it, a verisimilitude that makes the viewer wonder if there really might be an unknown species of half human/half dragon living in the ancient caves of the Southwest. Father and daughter archeologists stumble upon the skeleton of a gargoyle and before they can get it to the Museum of Unnatural History, they are stalked by a group of the creatures looking to keep their existence a secret. Director Bill L. Norton (son of Made for TV horror legend William F. Norton) provides quite a few uncanny moments such as the attack on the roadside attraction that is exhibiting the skeleton, the voices of the gargoyles (kind of like a Dalek on Quaaludes) and the movement of the gargoyles themselves, a sort of half speed lumbering grace. The cast, including such 70’s stalwarts as Bernie Casey, Grayson Hall (the “always a vampire bridesmaid, never a vampire bride” Dr. Julia Hoffmann from Dark Shadows), and a young Scott Glenn, are great but the film would go down in cinematic history as the first make-up credit for Stan “the Wizard” Winston. I always wondered if Alan Hewetson and Maelo Cintron’s Skwald comic series The Human Gargoyles had an influence on or was influenced by this Made for TV film.

9. The Norliss Tapes (1973)—Dan Curtis
Directed by the god of 70’s TV horror Dan Curtis and written by William F. Nolan (no slouch himself with writing credits for Darkroom, The Turn of the Screw, Trilogy of Terror, and Burnt Offerings), The Norliss Tapes tried to mine the same fertile territory as the Kolchak movies and TV series. Reporter David Norliss has disappeared, leaving only the tapes of his investigation into voodoo and reanimated corpses. His publisher listens to the tapes and tries to piece together what happened to the missing reporter. The pilot for a TV series that never happened, the fact that Norliss is an absentee protagonist might have made a very interesting premise for a weekly thriller. Rather than pine for what could have been, we should just revel in the horrible riches of this film: blue skinned zombies with super strength, an Egyptian scarab ring that invokes the god Osiris, eternal life, a Corvette Stingray. The cast is amazing, including such cult actors as Roy Thinnes, Angie Dickinson, Claude Akins, and Vonetta McGee. Although not quite up to the gold standard of Kolchak, David Norliss could have made a compelling investigator into the supernatural. And just imagine a Kolchak/Norliss crossover!

8. Cigarette Burns (2005)—John Carpenter
Master of horror John Carpenter is no stranger to the Made for TV genre, with such TV films as Someone's Watching Me!, Elvis, and Body Bags under his belt. His first contribution to the Masters of Horror series, Cigarette Burns (his second was Pro-Life), is a cineaste’s dream and nightmare come true. In-debt theater owner Kirby (Walking Dead hunk Norman Reedus) is hired by a cinephile (the always debonair Udo Kier) to find the only existing print of a mysterious thirty-year old movie, La Fin Absolue du Monde (The Absolute End of the World). Rumor has it that the film was so transgressive and blasphemous that it caused a crazed homicidal riot during its premiere, after which all prints were supposedly destroyed. The search for this possibly apocryphal work of art brings disaster to not only the film’s viewers but all who drift into its horrific orbit. Carpenter’s metaphor of the theater as cathedral and film as gospel results in some of the most beautiful and most profane imagery to ever appear in one of his films. The fragments of La Fin Absolue du Monde that he teases the viewer with are enough evidence that if anyone ever created a film that could make angels weep and demons scream it would be John Carpenter.

7. Snowbeast (1977)—Herb Wallerstein
One of the best pop culture crazes of the 1970’s was Bigfoot. The ultimate misunderstood loner appeared on just about every 70’s TV show from In Search Of… to The Six Million Dollar Man to starring in his own show Bigfoot and Wild Boy (My childhood dream was for Starsky and Hutch to add Sasquatch as a partner). Our noble wood ape helped ease the pain of the oil crisis, whipping inflation, and the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The Made for TV movie think-tank could not let this phenomenon go un-dramatized and so Snowbeast was unleashed on a Yeti-obsessed public in 1977. The title character is an enraged Abominable Snowman preying on a ski resort in the Rocky Mountains (shot on location, hoping to mimic the authenticity of the infamous Ray Patterson footage). Ski-hunks and snow-bunnies are being slaughtered during the Winter Carnival, and it’s up to two of the manliest men in Made for TV history, Clint Walker and Bo Svenson, to stop the beast and get back to the lodge to sip cocoa and cognac in the hot tub. Competently directed by Herb Wallerstein (who earned his directing chops on I Dream of Jeannie, Star Trek, and The Brady Bunch) and written by Joseph Stefano, co-author of a little known chiller called Psycho, Snowbeast gives its Bigfoot craving audience plenty of furry action and black diamond thrills.

6. The Night Stalker/The Night Strangler (1972/73)— John Llewllyn Moxey/Dan Curtis
The highest rated ABC TV movie ever, The Night Stalker, spawned a second film, two TV series, and a diehard cult following that continues even now with comic books and novels. Based on a novel by Jeff Rice, reporter Carl Kolchak (played perfectly by Darren McGavin) tracks a serial killer in Las Vegas, who is revealed to be a vampire. Directed by John Llewllyn Moxey (responsible for Horror Hotel, one of the most atmospheric horror films ever), adapted by Richard Matheson (perhaps the best horror writer of the 1960’s) and produced by Dan Curtis, The Night Stalker contributed to the reinvention of the vampire that had started with the Count Yorga films. Janos Skorzeny is cold, calculating and refined, a thoroughly modern vampire with no traces of castles, villagers, and widow’s peaks to be seen. McGavin’s performance as Kolchak achieves that special balance of comedy and bravery, jaded but a believer, the perfect hero for the Watergate era. The success of The Night Stalker inspired a second TV movie The Night Strangler in 1973, and the sequel was just as scary as the original. This time, Kolchak searches for another killer of woman, but this killer is strangling his victims in order to attain an elixir that will keep his ghastly cycle of life extended. Again scripted by Matheson but this time directed by Curtis, The Night Strangler was also an audience grabber, which was going to lead to a third Kolchak film about UFO’s, androids, and replacing humans, but ABC decided to turn the Kolchak premise into a TV series. Kolchak: The Night Stalker (which makes Carl sound like he’s a vampire) wasn’t as popular as the films, and this underappreciated series only lasted one season. With this ignoble end, it would seem that Kolchak would be consigned to the obituaries, but a young Chris Carter was watching, and the concept of a paranormal investigator searching for the truth in the face of skepticism would inspire The X-Files.

5. Ghostwatch (1992)— Lesley Manning
The Made for TV equivalent of Orson Welles’s War of the World’s panic, Ghostwatch is a fake reality–television special broadcast on the BBC in 1992. Shown “live” on Halloween, British audiences believed that they were seeing an actual documentary of an investigation of a haunted house in London. It seems an extremely malicious poltergeist nicknamed Pipes (it has a tendency to knock on the house’s plumbing pipes) is terrifying a family, especially the children. Pipe’s motives become even more sinister when it is revealed that it is the spirit of a child killer. If that’s not bad enough, Pipes uses the broadcast to infect the BBC, taking control of the studio and projecting its malevolence across the country, culminating in the possession of real life talk show host Michael Parkinson. Written by Stephen Volk (who also scripted Ken Russell's film Gothic) and directed by Lesley Manning, Ghostwatch is uncannily authentic, using interviews and live footage in such a believable way that many viewers reported psychological effects from watching the film, including a suicide blamed on its powerful presentation. In particular, the fleeting subliminal glimpses of Pipes are especially disturbing, a disfigured, androgynous blurry figure wearing a cloak or robe. The fact that the filmmakers got one of the great English broadcasters and journalists Michael Parkinson to play along only increased the believability. Imagine if Tom Brokaw or Dan Rather appeared on the evening news and started shaking, eyes rolling back, and speaking with a demonic voice. You’d freak out too. The BBC banned Ghostwatch for a decade before they would agree to rebroadcast it.

4. Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)— Frank De Felitta
Why did it take so long for horror filmmakers to seize on the scary potentials of the scarecrow as a monster? Dark Night of the Scarecrow mines the fertile environment of the bigoted Southern community to tell a tale of prejudice, injustice, and supernatural revenge. Gentile giant Bubba (Larry Drake channeling Lenny from Of Mice and Men) is wrongly accused of attacking a little girl and the town bullies form a vigilante posse focusing exclusively on the poor half-wit. In their fervor to exact punishment, the lynch mob kills Bubba (disguised as a scarecrow to evade their fury) and is later acquitted for murder. Soon a wraithlike scarecrow appears, taking a ghostly vengeance on the exonerated killers. This rural morality play seeps with atmosphere and menace, as the golden fields play silent witness to the spectral scales of justice. The look of the film is striking, resembling what Days of Heaven would have looked like had it been shot by Dean Cundey. Directed by novelist Frank De Felitta (author of reincarnation thriller Audrey Rose), the figure of the scarecrow is absolutely frightening, the dark eye holes in the sack covered head seemingly staring into the murky recesses of the soul.

3. Crowhaven Farm (1970)— Walter Grauman
Inheriting a pre-revolutionary war homestead in New England may sound like the bee’s knees, but when it happens to be the witch-infested Crowhaven Farm, you’d better think twice about signing the deed (in blood). Ben and Maggie Porter move to the eponymous property in order to strengthen a shaky marriage but are soon confronted with the dread of the past manifesting itself in the resurgence of an ancient coven of witches. It seems that martial problems are not just a modern concern as the history of Crowhaven Farm involved joining in a witch’s sabbath and sending a spouse’s soul to Satan in order to effectively arrange a divorce. Kind of like Dark Shadows meets The Crucible, Crowhaven Farm incorporates witch trials, revenants, demonic pregnancies, and the repetition of ancestral evil on the current populace. Though filmed in California, director Walter Grauman conjures up a definite New England feel, as the farmhouse resembles what I imagine the cannibal’s house looks like in Lovecraft’s “The Picture in the House.” Featuring such B-Movie thespians as Hope Lange, John Carradine, and William Smith, the film casts an eerie spell over the viewer as we are confronted with characters with no hope accept to give in to the ensnaring influence of the past.

2. Salem’s Lot (1979)—Tobe Hooper
The dream team of Stephen King and Tobe Hooper came together for this superlative adaptation of King’ s novel. Salem's Lot aired over two nights in 1979 and terrified viewers young and old (particularly kids allowed to stay up and watch it) Starring David Soul (Hutch!) and one of the greatest actors in the English speaking world, James Mason, the plot concerns a writer returning to his home town to face some inner demons and discovers that vampirism is infecting the citizens of Salem’s Lot. There are so many horrific set pieces, scenes, and images that it’s hard to keep track: the Marsten House, Straker killing Ralphie Glick as an offering to his vampire master, Danny Glick popping out of his coffin, Barlow’s slaughter of Mark Petrie’s parents and the local priest, and the iconic sequence where Danny floats outside Mark’s window asking him to open the latch. Hooper proves how versatile a director he is by completely changing his usual approach, moving away from his frentic Chainsaw style and appropriating a more deliberate Jacques Tourneur/Val Lewton pace. The film builds slowly and methodically so when the moments of unexpected violence explode on the screen it is truly terrifying. Reggie Nalder, as the Nosferatu-like Barlow, is a hissing feral verminous creature far away from King’s more humanistic vampire in the original novel. The soundtrack by Harry Sukman (who also scored John Carpenter’s Made for TV movie Someone is Watching Me!) helps to build on the latent menace festering at the heart of a small town. Salem Lot was recut losing some scenes and gaining new ones for its theatrical release in Europe, but it is the original two part adaptation that fully expresses all the modern Gothic fright of King’s masterwork.

1. Don’t be Afraid of the Dark (1973)— John Newland
Because of their need to appeal to the whole family, Made for TV Movies often had female protagonists as both victims and perpetrators. Domestic issues were used as expressions of horror so that everyone, from adults to children, could identify with the exaggerated threats to relationships, identity, and the family unit. As horror is a safety valve allowing social anxieties and fears to be revealed and dealt with in an acceptable way, issues of gender equality, repression, and dominance played out in many late 60’s/early 70’s horror films. Rosemary’s Baby acted as a touchstone for exploring feminist concerns in the horror film, and Don’t be Afraid of the Dark takes those themes of victimization and subjugation and pushes them into even more disquieting areas. The film focuses on Sally Farnham, a housewife (but not a mother) seemingly confined in a new home that she feels uncomfortable in with nothing to do. In trying to exert her authority over this domestic scenario, she unwittingly unleashes a group of miniature creatures from within a sealed fireplace that she had been warned to stay away from. The creatures want to control her, possess her, and take her down into the dark hole from which they emerged (Freud would have a field day with this movie). Of course, nobody believes Sally’s accounts of being harassed, attacked, and psychologically tortured by the creatures. In the end, the masculine monsters trap her in the house permanently, where she will be wife and mother to them forever. This film has such an air of creepy oppression hanging over it that it is almost a relief when Sally is finally completely engulfed. The creatures are hideous little nuisances with a propensity to whisper in an unnerving way. Just hiss “Saa—lly, Saa-lly” to any horror fan that grew up in the 70’s and watch them shudder involuntarily. Kim Darby gives a haunting performance as the female protagonist, and John Newland creates a suffocating atmosphere of dread and sorrow. Do I even have to say that the theatrical remake released in 2011 is a total waste of time?

Honorable Mention:
Trilogy of Terror
A Cold Night's Death
The House That Would Not Die
Satan's School for Girls
Don’t Go to Sleep
The Werewolf of Woodstock
The Day After
Helter Skelter
Number 13
The Stone Tape
Schalken the Painter

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Rob Caprilozzi
CEO / Owner at Horror News Network

Rob Caprilozzi created Comic Monsters in 2004 and eventually expanded the site in 2009 to Horror News Network. Born out his love for all aspects of horror, Rob still remains hardcore comic fan. You can keep up with him on Twitter @RobCaprilozzi.


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