For decades, television stepped lightly into horror. Theatrical movies were severely edited for overly violent content, leaving horror flicks much tamer when aired on the small screen. TV, while dabbling in horror on classic 1950’s and 1960’s shows like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits or One Step Beyond, didn’t mature into more shocking TV movie fare – or telefilm – until the 1970’s.
Though 70’s TV movies weren’t exclusively horror, there were some great ones. Here’s six memorable Halloween friendly flicks, which are truly groundbreaking.
If you don’t think the theme is so groundbreaking – Dennis Weaver playing a terrified driver being chased by a huge truck – that master movie maker Steven Spielberg directed it from legendary writer Richard Matheson’s (The Twilight Zone) short story, makes a case for the film’s landmark status. It’s in fact the first feature film for the now veteran film director and producer of dozens of blockbuster movies. Spielberg so values this movie, he still watches it as a sort of film refresher course.
The Night Stalker (1972)
Darren McGavin played Carl Kolchak, the colorful reporter who seemed to stumble into the most bizarre and frightening of situations. At the time, it earned the highest rating of any TV movie in history, and led to a sequel The Night Strangler, which led to a TV series. It influenced Chris Carter to create his X-Files TV show, and was remade by ABC in 2005 to a lackluster reception.
The Norliss Tapes (1973)
Dan Curtis produced this eerie TV pilot for a series which was never produced. Despite the nature of it being formulated as a first adventure for a TV show, the movie stands wonderfully on its own. Co-stars Angie Dickinson (Police Woman) and Roy Thinnes (The Invaders) have great chemistry as a distraught widow and supernatural detective respectively. Thinnes is David Norliss, a paranormal scholar, yet he’s also a skeptic. He’s like a Columbo or Sherlock Holmes sleuthing the supernatural, and represents a more serious version of Carl Kolchak/Night Stalker – another Dan Curtis horror vehicle. There’s oodles of creepy atmosphere, spooky locations, lighting, and an effective music score which makes one yearn for a TV show which never materialized.
Satan’s School For Girls (1973)
Roy Thinnes plays the bad guy in this one, and despite the lurid, even laughable title, the movie delivers real chills, thrills and just plain fun. Kate Jackson and Cheryl Ladd would go on to become Aaron Spelling’s Charlie’s Angels, but here they’re playing Satan’s students. Lead Actress Pamela Franklin (The Legend Of Hell House) plays a distraught sister of a girl who’s just committed suicide – or did she? Franklin goes under cover, snooping at the prestigious girl’s school her sister attended. It’s a broadly played movie, yet it works on many levels. The acting is solid, the writing never too outlandish, and as the end credits roll we’re satisfied horror fans.
Trilogy Of Terror (1975)
Here’s yet another Dan Curtis production, and arguably his most shocking. This time Curtis also directs. The tales deliver chills to even the most jaded horror hound. The stories were penned by Richard Matheson (I Am Legend) and William F. Nolan (Logan’s Run), and all star Oscar nominee Karen Black. Black’s on record saying it was a mixed blessing, since it effectively stereotyped her for later roles. Nevertheless, the fiery performances can’t be missed by her fans, nor true horror fans. The last tale, entitled Amelia, is a definitive classic. It’s influenced big film franchises like Child’s Play and Puppet Masters. Set in the claustrophobic confines of a luxury high rise, it introduces us to Amelia, a troubled gal with an overbearing, even predatory mother. When the little antique Zuni Fetish Doll she buys for her boyfriend comes to life to hunt her, predator and prey mix it up for one of the most jarring television moments ever. Re imagined – with another Zuni Fetish Doll fight – in 1996, but the original is superior. It’s such a cult classic, you can buy a full scale replica, complete with spear and gold chain.
Salem’s Lot (1979)
Stephen King became master of the macabre in the 1970’s with books like Carrie, The Shining and Salem’s Lot. When director Tobe Hooper took King’s novel about vampires overrunning a small town in Maine, he created a landmark TV chiller. Everything from An Interview With A Vampire, the Twilight flicks, The Lost Boys, to Let Me In, owes a bit of debt to this finely crafted spook fest. Starring David Soul and a delightfully wicked James Mason, Salem’s Lot took vampires to another level on television and cinema itself. Hooper’s TV mini-series was so powerful, it was released theatrically in Europe. In 2004, it was remade with Rob Lowe in the David Soul role of Ben Mears.
Dark Night Of The Scarecrow
With a tagline of: There IS other justice in this world besides the law, this TV chiller will have you diving into the cornfield. Starring Charles Durning and Larry Drake, it acts as effective morality play in the spirit of Pumpkinhead or Carrie. Writer J.D. Feigelson’s aim was to produce an indy feature, but the film was bought by CBS and aired a week before Halloween. I was lucky to catch the debut back then, and after the shock wore off – though it never really did – I couldn’t wait to tell all those poor souls who hadn’t watched what grim fun they’d missed out on. It’s now available on DVD.