Top 10 Made for TV Horror Movies

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) 

Bad Ronald

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) 

When Michael Calls

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) 

Cast A Deadly Spell

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) 

Gargoyles

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) 

Dark Night Of the Scarecrow

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) 

Duel

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) 

Don't Go to Sleep

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) 

Trilogy of Terror

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) 

Dont Be Afraid of the Dark

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) 

Ghostwatch

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?

24 thoughts on “Top 10 Made for TV Horror Movies

  1. There are a number of Stephen King made for television movies that could easily monopolize this list – IT comes to the top for me. (Then again, are you not counting mini-series?)
    In more recent years – While the Children Sleep was a rather good horror movie – more suspense/thriller type but well done.
    Some of the horror greats have had tv movies made but I think they fall more into mini-series than straight out movie.

    1. I absolutely agree; Stephen King could have dominated the list. But I felt everyone was already familiar with his work and wanted to shine the spotlight elsewhere.

      I’ll have to check out While the Children Sleep, thanks!

      1. Dean Kootz had a few made for tv movies as well that were good.
        Was The Initiation a made for tv movie? I may have the name wrong but it was late 80’s/early 90’s – satanic sorority house or something like that. I remember really liking it.

  2. I absolutely love love love Trilogy of Terror, and the even more awesome Karen Black, God love her. I snarked about that one myself: http://tinyurl.com/mg6j68d. I also quite love Duel, and Spielberg put some Duel Easter Eggs in 1941, which is probably the only reason to watch that thing!

  3. Another good (bad??) TV movie comes straight from the time of the non-existant Satanic Ritual Abuse panic: Bay Coven (1987). You have Woody Harrelson, Time Matheson, Barbara Billingsley, and Jeff Conaway. Hilarious!

    1. Yeah, it left me with a certain nervous-tic when I have to share the road with a semi. Can’t help it – barely remember the movie and yet it scarred me for life.

  4. I’ve been hanging on to my DVR copy of Mia Kirshner’s “They Come Back” for years now… it’s quite a sombre and slow-moving ghost story, but it’s well acted, and has a great pay-off at the end.
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0932557/

    As a child, they showed us something called “Dark Towers” at school, which was part of an educational BBC series teaching kids how to read and write, but the actual haunted castle story that played between the spelling stuff was spooky as hell, and gave me bed-wetting nightmares! Haven’t seen it since then tho, so I’ve no idea what I was so afraid of…
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0140734/

  5. I really like your list. I have written reviews for my own blog on three of the ten television movies you listed. I have seen most of the others on the list; the two that I haven’t seen, I am going to try to find on-line to watch. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Cheers for the list. I can’t believe I haven’t heard of Cast A Deadly Spell – sounds amazing, and what a cast. I love a bit of Clancy Brown action. I still need to give the original Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark a try, but the remake was so bad it quite put me off.

  7. I recently saw “Bad Ronald”. Another one that I recommend – although it’s not exactly a horror movie – is “The Legend of Lizzie Borden”, starring Elizabeth Montgomery as the woman suspected of axing her parents to death. The movie portrays Borden as a tragic, sympathetic figure. A fun fact is that Elizabeth Montgomery was distantly related to Lizzie Borden.

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