Many people look down upon made for television horror, and who came blame them? Unless it’s aired on a premium channel, very little is allowed past the censors. Budgets are another limitation. With no blood and gore and a movie that must be made on the cheap, filmmakers must rely on suspense, mystery, atmosphere, and story. In the right hands, the end result is an excellent entry in the genre that leaves a lasting impression. I still remember that scene in Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot that sees the new made vampire child hovering outside of the hospital window. Excluding mini-series, some of the most memorable and haunting made for television movies are:
1. Bad Ronald (1974)
Nerdy sixteen year old Ronald accidentally knocks down the sister of his bully, and panics when she hits her head hard. He decides the best course of action is to bury her in a shallow grave and then runs home to tell his mommy. Mom, equally strange, devises a plan to keep Ronald out of jail: wall off part of the house and have him live within those walls. But when mom suddenly dies, Ronald is left alone in secret. Enter a new family; complete with three beautiful daughters, all none the wiser that Ronald lurks behind their walls. Ronald spies on the new family through holes in the wall and quickly fixates on daughter Babs. The psychosexual undercurrent of Ronald’s fantasies of Babs layers in well with the mysterious events that plague the family: strange noises in the house, missing food in the fridge, and the creepy art Ronald creates. Bad Ronald may be one of the strangest and most quirky movies ever made for television.
2. When Michael Calls (1972)
Also known as Shattered Silence, this ABC Movie of the Week is set on Halloween day, where Helen is plagued with phone calls from her nephew Michael…who died fifteen years prior. Michael calls to complain of Helen’s acquaintances, who mysteriously wind up dead soon after. As Helen begins questioning her sanity, she also must wonder if she’s the next victim. The voice behind Michael perhaps was meant to sound boyish, but sounds so strange and fake that it works in the movie’s favor. With no gore, the movie relies on mystery and spooky atmosphere. Also look for a young Michael Douglas playing the brother of Helen’s ex-husband.
3. Cast a Deadly Spell (1991)
HBO produced this little seen gem that blends horror with noir. Set in 1948 Los Angeles, hard-boiled detective H.P. Lovecraft is hired to recover an ancient book called the Necronomicon. As if that’s not tongue-in-cheek enough, this version of Los Angeles features all creatures of the night and nearly everyone practices magic. Monsters rising from oatmeal, gargoyles, vampire prostitutes, and cops interrogating howling werewolves are only some of the supernatural denizens. The true to the era dialogue only further enhances the already detailed world building. Julianne Moore stands out as the dame in one of her earliest roles. Overall an oddball genre bender that’s just a lot of fun.
4. Gargoyles (1972)
The film opens with exposition on gargoyles being descended from Lucifer himself. Ominous tone right off the bat? Check. Immediate gargoyle on human attacks starting right after first commercial break? Check. Amazing monster make-up by Ellis Burman Jr. and legend Stan Winston? Double check. Keeping the gargoyles mostly hidden early on against an isolated desert backdrop gives an affective chilling tone. But when the audience does get an eye full of the creatures, it invokes nostalgic monster mash fun. Sadly, as effective as this film is, it’s not one that ages well. Exhibit A: the robotic Gargoyle voices that sound strangely like speaking through an electric fan.
5. Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)
In a southern farming town, the unusual friendship between young Marylee and grown adult Bubba (played by genre favorite Larry Drake), a gentle mentally handicapped man, is the source of scrutiny by some of the townsfolk. Those same townsfolk murder an innocent Bubba when they falsely assume he’s murdered Marylee. When they’re set free due to lack of evidence, a creepy scarecrow systematically stalks and disposes of those men. This made for TV slasher uses suggestion and mystery in lieu of gore, making for an unsettling viewing. Sometimes not seeing is much more powerful. The pedophiliac undertone is particularly unnerving.
6. Duel (1971)
Steven Spielberg’s second feature length directorial job based on a Richard Matheson short story that sees motorist David Mann unleashing a personal hell upon himself when attempting to pass a slow moving diesel truck on the highway. The diesel’s wrathful driver spends the rest of the running time pursuing and tormenting Mann. Spielberg, on a limited TV budget, keeps things simple. There’s little in the way of dialogue and just large expanse of car chases on a long, open desert highway. Spielberg proves his emerging talent by keeping everything fresh and suspenseful with clever camera compositions so the stripped down story never feels stale. The driver of the diesel is never seen, adding a sense of realistic terror. The timeless plot still holds relevance today.
7. Don’t Go to Sleep (1982)
This story sees a family moving out to the countryside after the death of oldest daughter Jennifer. Just after settling in, youngest daughter Mary hears the voice of her dead sister from underneath her bed. Then Jennifer’s ghost begins appearing to Mary, with revenge against her family in mind. From there things just take a turn for the disturbed as the family suffers one deadly mishap after another. Unlike many other supernatural tales focused on the youngest daughter (I’m looking at you, Poltergeist), Don’t Go to Sleep does not leave all of its family members fully intact and alive at the end. In fact, it has a rather dark ending and a final scare guaranteed to make you jump.
8. Trilogy of Terror (1975)
Prior to Karen Black’s emergence as a Scream Queen, she plays the lead in each section of this anthology based on Richard Matheson short stories. While the first two segments, “Julie” and “Millicent and Therese” are mildly entertaining, let’s be honest. The real reason this film is so revered and noteworthy at all is for final segment, “Amelia.” Yes. You already know where I’m going with this. That damned Zuni hunting fetish doll. The story in which a young woman is stalked and hunted in her own apartment by the creepiest little warrior doll with a spear is pure nightmare fuel. Even when it’s not on screen you can always hear it scampering in the background. The conclusion of this segment is still chill inducing.
9. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)
The forgettable 2011 theatrical remake doesn’t hold a candle to this original televised feature, in which married couple Jim and Sally Farnham move into an old mansion that Sally inherited from her grandmother. Sally makes the mistake of opening a blocked chimney in her grandfather’s study, releasing demonic imps from within. While Jim is off advancing his career, Sally is left in isolation to fight off the tiny terrors lurking in the dark shadows of the dim lit mansion. The short running time is filled with terror and tension rather than answers; no time is given explaining the purpose behind the creatures’ existence. Excellent performances, creepy creatures, a menacing setting, and a memorable ending compensate for some of the plot holes.
10. Ghostwatch (1992)
Initially broadcast on BBC on Halloween night, this mockumentary follows TV presenters and their camera crew as they enter into the “most haunted house in Britain” to spend the night. They find more than they bargained for. All the while a TV host back at the studio relays the history of the house to the audience and interviews experts of the paranormal. Similar to Orson Welle’s War of the Worlds, audiences were convinced the events were not only real, but were airing in real-time. The perceived authenticity frightened viewers, which was only further compounded by the fact that the presenters were actual TV presenters playing themselves. When the truth came out, audiences became so enraged for being duped that BBC put a moratorium on the film that lasted a decade.
What made for television movie made a lasting impression on you?