Made for T.V. : Horror Classics
As the made-for-television movie became a fact of network programming in the late 1960s, producers began looking at all genres of film stories, with a preference for drama and westerns seen during the initial season entries that allowed the made-for-TV movie to become more commonplace after 1966. By the 1968-69 season the horror story began a resurgence thanks to the theatrical success of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), the William Castle-Roman Polanski collaboration that represented the restrained but no less terrifying approach to making a horror film, and on the other hand, George A. Romero’s (then) shockingly violent Night of the Living Dead (1968) whose gore quotient somehow resonated with audiences.
Horror stories and tales of terror, which rode high on episodic television in the early-to-mid ’60s with The Twilight Zone, One Step Beyond and The Outer Limits (with its “monster of the week” approach overshadowing the series’ overall quality) gave way to oaters, spy dramas, police procedurals and sitcoms as the decade progressed.
After flirting with traditional gothic horror with Thriller (1960-62), NBC left the chiller genre to The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, whose approach Thriller had anticipated with a mixture of crime and horror yarns, many of the latter taken from classic short stories of the pulp magazine period that ended in the ’50s. Both Thriller and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour came from Universal, whose reputation for launching the two distinct golden ages of horror movies in the 1930s and ’40s (with a successful branch into science fiction during the ’50s) was unquestioned.
In fact, Hitchcock’s Shamley Productions, which made the TV series, sanctioned the making of a pilot film for a series about an occult investigator (Leslie Nielsen) at the turn of the 19th century trying to destroy the homicidal demon that has possessed a friend (Peter Mark Richman). Executive produced by Hitchcock associate Norman Lloyd and directed by Harvey Hart, Dark Intruder (1965) was ahead of its time by only a few years in its exploration of supernatural evil, prompting an unnerved NBC to nix a showing on the Hitchcock program or on any other network showcase.
Instead, the 59-minute film was sold to Universal, and as was its habit at the time, the studio moved Dark Intruder into theaters as the lower half of a double feature. By the early ’70s, the moody and frank approach to the unusual pioneered by Dark Intruder was seen regularly on episodic TV and in television movies, and the film, later considered a minor masterpiece of the form, found itself a staple of late-night showings on local stations.
Echoes of Dark Intruder could be heard in the movie that won pride of place as the first made-for-TV horror entry, ironically on NBC, when the network and Universal premiered Fear No Evil, directed by Paul Wendkos and written by Richard Alan Simmons, on March 3, 1969. Although designed as a pilot for a proposed series, Fear No Evil stands alone as an effective tale of possession and supernaturally evil doings in the Rosemary’s Baby mode investigated by a psychiatrist, Dr. David Sorell (Louis Jourdan).
Joined by his jovial associate Harry Snowden (Wilfrid Hyde-White), Sorell tries to save a woman (Lynda Day) whose fiance (Bradford Dillman), killed in a suspicious auto crash, beckons to her from an antique mirror. It all turns out to be the work of a satanic group of mainstream types who employed Dillman that Sorell, using his knowledge of the occult and arcane, manages to defeat.
Jourdan, who in the next decade would make an impressive Dracula in a British miniseries treatment of the Bram Stoker classic, was an appropriate choice for the role and NBC liked the numbers for the film so well it commissioned another adventure with Sorell and Snowden, Ritual of Evil (1970), although a series did not result from these films.
Instead, it would be another pilot that did yield to a series that launches our study of a dozen made-for-TV classics, listed in their order of release. While these choices are entirely mine, I am discussing a number of other films from the early to mid-’70s rating an honorable mention for lending distinction to the made-for-TV boom of the period.
1. NIGHT GALLERY (1969) -- It may have been the second made-for-television horror movie to be seen that year, but it remains one of the most memorable due to the strength of the writing by Rod Serling and the talents of its cast and crew. While Twilight Zone was sent to a greater glory by CBS in 1964, creator Serling did not abandon the horror and science fiction genre, penning a collection of novellas in 1967 entitled The Season to Be Wary from which he adapted two of the stories, “Eyes” and “The Escape Route,” and added an original, “Cemetery,” to make up the tales accompanying the paintings in the movie introduced by Serling in his private “night gallery.”
Of the three stories comprising the film, “Eyes” has attained the most discussion over the years not only for Joan Crawford’s star-power performance as a wealthy blind woman who buys the eyes of a loser (Tom Bosley) to experience only a few hours of sight, but also as Steven Spielberg’s debut as a Universal contract director.
“The Escape Route,” directed by Barry Shear, cast Richard Kiley as an unregenerate Nazi dodging Israeli agents in South America and finding peace only when viewing a painting of a man fishing. The tale was representative of Serling’s loftier aspirations for TV as a means of commentary on the human condition, while a twist ending brought the tale into the horror mode. “Cemetery,” helmed by Boris Sagal and with Roddy McDowall again cornering the market on playing wastrels, opened Night Gallery with a chilling gothic tale of retribution from beyond the grave.
‘Cemetery” was also to be more representative of Night Gallery’s run as a series on NBC from 1970 to 1973. Jack Laird, who produced Dark Intruder, performed similar duties on Night Gallery and was the target of much criticism from Serling, who aside from introducing the show and occasionally writing an entry, had no creative input on the program. “Cemetery” became the type of story Laird preferred to show on the series, which in its defense, dramatized stories from such genre greats as H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, Fritz Leiber and Clark Ashton Smith. The adaptation of Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model” remains an engagingly gruesome experience.
2. DUEL (1971) -- This may be on everyone’s top 10 list of made-for-TV films, but it’s undeniably a masterful piece of terror as a lone motorist (Dennis Weaver) in the desert wages battle with a unseen trucker who uses his rig to settle a score with the driver, who himself rushes toward madness in his efforts to vanquish the marauding 18-wheeler.
The film won nearly-instant acclaim and garnered a theatrical release on the strength of director Steven Spielberg’s later successes (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, etc.). But Duel also works because noted genre writer Richard Matheson, a veteran of The Twilight Zone and Roger Corman‘s Edgar Allan Poe films of the ’60s, adapted his script from his own short story, an example of the author’s ability to mine frightening situations from everyday life. “The horror could be in the Seven-Eleven store down the block, or just up the street,” Stephen King appreciatively told Marc Scott Zicree for his The Twilight Zone Companion of Matheson’s talent. “He was putting the horror in places I could relate to.”
Although still in his early 20s, Spielberg generates terror in a daytime setting that anyone traveling by car could understand, and using Weaver’s regular guy persona to great effect, he pushed audience involvement to the maximum. It is instructive to watch some of Spielberg’s blockbusters and then find the level of suspense and entertainment he achieved on an ABC “Movie of the Week” budget with Duel.
Interestingly, Arch Oboler, the radio dramatist (Lights Out) and occasional filmmaker (Five, 1951, The Twonky, 1953) who reportedly avoided television like the plague, did submit a story idea, “The Devil You Say,” to The Twilight Zone for its final season about travelers menaced by a gasoline rig driven by no less than Satan himself.
3. THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) -- Another obvious choice, but for good reasons. The Night Stalker, adapted by Richard Matheson from an unpublished novel (The Kolchak Papers) written in 1970 by Jeff Rice, struck a chord with audiences and was one of the highest-rated made-for TV films of the time when it premiered January 11, 1972, as an ABC Movie of the Week. Why? The film resurrected gothic horror in the form of a Central European vampire (Barry Atwater) who terrorizes glitzy Las Vegas -- and no one believes he’s an undead being.
That is, except for ambitious newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin), who views capturing the creature as his ticket back to the big time, but who also becomes a believer in the supernatural, leading to disgrace, unemployment and an unexpected career as a monster hunter. Again, Matheson put traditional horror elements in a modern setting, creating an atmosphere that producer-director Dan Curtis utilized with relish. The enthusiasm showed in Janos Skorzeny (Atwater)‘s frequent encounters with the police, creating action sequences where supernatural powers bested mere bullets.
Curtis, of course, was the creator of the cult daytime drama Dark Shadows (1966-71) that employed ghosts, vampires, werewolves, demons and artificial beings to thrill its loyal audience. Curtis had just come off the disappointing returns on his second theatrical feature, Night of Dark Shadows (1971), when he and Matheson joined forces on The Night Stalker, leading to a successful collaboration on some of the classic made-for-TV horror productions of the period.
For McGavin, then one of the busiest actors around when it came to TV movies, Kolchak became his signature role (even after playing Mike Hammer in a 1950s series), mixing wry humor with stereotypical journalistic cynicism to make the character more appealing than the grasping opportunist he comes off as at times. Indeed, our sympathies are with him when, having done the gaming capital of the country a favor by personally dispatching Skorzeny, local officials run him out of town, fearing the negative impact of Kolchak’s story on the tourist trade. But this was not the last we saw of the rumpled, driven yet somehow lovable news hawk.
4. SOMETHING EVIL (1972) -- Ten days after The Night Stalker first aired, Darren McGavin starred in Something Evil, a “New CBS Friday Night Movies” offering that was Steven Spielberg’s next-to-last made-for-TV movie (the last being Savage, 1973, a pilot for a proposed series with former Mission Impossible co-stars Martin Landau and Barbara Bain). Spielberg was wooed away from Universal for this project, a tale of satanic possession plaguing McGavin, his wife (Sandy Dennis) and children (including Johnnie Whitaker of Family Affair).
It all comes to pass when the Worden family moves into an old Pennsylvania farmhouse that, in Robert Clouse’s screenplay, is occupied by demonic forces. While the story is familiar, it is interesting to compare it with The Exorcist (1973) and how a smaller scale approach works in the hands of a director looking to fulfill the early promise of Duel. Some critics found the atmosphere similar to the one Spielberg created for his production of Poltergeist (1982), as a family unit battles the unknown to keep its homestead.
A strong supporting cast including Jeff Corey and Ralph Bellamy helps the story along. The slight plotline may account for Something Evil being one of Spielberg’s lesser-known works, but when encountering it again, no matter how many variations you’ve seen one can’t help being drawn into the tale and leaving it with a shudder.
5, WHEN MICHAEL CALLS (1972) -- While it ultimately cheats on the supernatural element, this effective chiller shot in Canada for ABC builds a tremendous tension as a woman (Elizabeth Ashley) and her ex-husband (Ben Gazzara) try to get to the bottom of a series of unnerving phone calls appearing to be from Ashley’s nephew who died 15 years earlier. Their probe, aided by a psychiatrist (Michael Douglas) leads to some murders and increasing evidence something unnatural is plaguing the town.
Philip Leacock directed from an adaptation of a same-titled 1967 John Farris novel, creating a sense of increasing terror in a bucolic late autumn setting as a shadowy figure who may be the dead Michael comes closer to the family. Douglas, then making his own way as an actor in movies and TV, suppresses his usually confident persona to create a convincing study in mystery, which adds greatly to this unsung shocker.
6. MOON OF THE WOLF (1972) -- Further evidence, as H.P. Lovecraft once proposed, that horror is where you find it, in this case, the Louisiana bayous. Adapted from Leslie H. Whitten’s 1967 novel of the same title, Moon begins as a Southern situation tragedy as the local sheriff (David Janssen) investigates the slaying of a young woman impregnated by the town doctor (John Beradino).
But the manner in which she died -- supposedly torn to shreds by wild dogs -- prompts the lawman to think otherwise and confront the possibility that the killer is on the estate of a plantation owner (Bradford Dillman), who has come into contact with old Central European customs of a mysterious nature. Meanwhile, bayou dwellers begin speaking of the presence of a loup de garou, the French name for a werewolf.
A home video favorite for years (produced by the now-defunct Filmways), Moon builds to a tense climax as the title creature emerges from the shadows. The pro cast including Barbara Rush, Royal Dano, Claudia McNeil and Geoffrey Lewis under Daniel Petrie’s direction create convincing portraits of rural personalities without resorting to stereotypes, and location shooting gives the production a feel for bayou life. Whitten’s source novel actually set the story in the late 1930s in Mississippi, but the sea change to then contemporary times works quite well.
7. GARGOYLES (1972) -- Perhaps one of the most bizarre horror entries to unreel on the tube, this Tomorrow Entertainment production for CBS asserts that gargoyles are not just winged stone demons found on Notre Dame Cathedral, but are real and migratory, becoming in Steven and Elinor Karpf’s screenplay the American Southwest desert equivalent of the Abominable Snowman.
Their secret is discovered by an anthropologist (Cornel Wilde) and his daughter (Jennifer Salt) who unearth the skeleton of the creature that gave birth to the race of gargoyles. Their lives are promptly put in peril when they find the bones and the creature’s descendants (whose spokesman is an effectively unsettling Bernie Casey in heavy makeup) want them back. With the help of a motorcycle gang led by Scott Glenn, our heroes manage to scatter the gargoyles, but for how long is anybody’s guess.
Playing on fear and fascination with such mythical beings, Gargoyles benefits greatly from a moody atmosphere crafted by director B.W.L. Norton and effective performances, including one by former Dark Shadows star Grayson Hall. The makeup, costuming and slow motion flight of the gargoyles are not soon forgotten, even four decades after the film’s initial showing.
8. THE NIGHT STRANGLER (1973) -- In search of vindication and a job, intrepid Carl Kolchak returned in The Night Strangler, in which Richard Matheson and Dan Curtis rehashed The Night Stalker’s plot elements but set the story among the eerie remnants of “underground” Seattle, a portion of the city once heavily damaged by fire and built over with new streets and structures.
Kolchak arrives in time for a mysterious killer (Richard Anderson), who’s periodically terrorized the populace, start a new rampage in search of body fluids that have kept him unnaturally alive (shades of The Man in the Half-Moon Street) for more than a century. Kolchak then launches another one-man crusade that infuriates everyone in sight, including his long-suffering editor Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland, reprising his role from The Night Stalker).
Despite the similarities with the first film, The Night Strangler is still fun, prompting McGavin to purchase the rights to the Kolchak character and produce in partnership with Universal Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which graced ABC’s schedule for 20 episodes in 1974-75 before cancellation, leading to future status as a cult favorite and Chris Carter’s inspiration for The X-Files (1993-2002). ABC’s apparent lack of faith in the original Night Stalker series lingered into 2005, however, when a revival featuring a new-age Kolchak (Stuart Townsend) was axed after only seven episodes.
9. THE NORLISS TAPES (1973) -- Dan Curtis, working with one of Richard Matheson’s writing contemporaries, William F. Nolan, produced and directed this Night Stalker variation about an investigative journalist (Roy Thinnes) whose routine assignment propels him into a world of demons and the possessed.
Thinnes’ only connection to Kolchak is the use of a tape recorder (hence the title) to leave their fantastic tales for potential believers to consider the facts of their investigations. Otherwise, the character lacks Kolchak’s impish nature and it affects the whole production, which is entirely serious.
Yet the approach works, allowing Curtis to make The Norliss Tapes an effectively creepy exercise in horror. With a supporting cast featuring Angie Dickinson and Claude Akins, the film is absorbing, despite its obvious parentage. That David Norliss has apparently gone into hiding, as indicated by the recordings he leaves behind, to escape the hellish creatures he has opposed adds another chill to the proceedings, masking the fact the film is a pilot for a series that didn’t materialize.
9. FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY (1973) -- The year was book ended by two productions for television of the classic Mary Shelley novel. The first was a two-part Dan Curtis version for ABC’s late night “Wide World of Mystery” in mid-January (in fact, the first part aired a few hours after the premiere of The Night Strangler) starring Robert Foxworth as the scientist and Bo Svenson as his creation.
The second, Frankenstein: The True Story, from Universal, was also premiered over two nights (Nov. 30 and Dec. 1) by NBC and remains one of the best adaptations ever of the workl that first appeared in 1818, if only for the time and care expended on telling a fairly faithful version of the famous story.
The literate script by Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy moved the action from the novel’s Swiss setting to England of the 19th century, where curious Victor Frankenstein (Leonard Whiting), arriving at medical college in his quest to become a surgeon, falls under the influence of egocentric Henry Clerval (David McCallum) who believes he can create life from the dead. Their eventual collaboration produces a handsome artificial Creature (Michael Sarrazin), but Clerval dies before he can inform Frankenstein that a flaw in the process is causing their creation to deteriorate both physically and mentally.
Jack Smight helmed a lush production that benefits from the casting of James Mason as Clerval’s wily rival Polidori, while Jane Seymour is fascinating as the woman Frankenstein whips up to mollify the Creature, whom the script makes a beautiful specimen whose worsening condition mirrors the downfall of his creator and leads to the novel’s tense climax in the Arctic.
Still very much worth a look.
10. THE CAT CREATURE (1973) -- This Douglas S. Cramer production for ABC may not be terribly scary but is terrific fun thanks to the script by horror veteran Robert Bloch and Curtis Harrington‘s direction. It’s a 1940s Universal Mummy movie transposed to the ’70s as an evil representation of the Egyptian cat god Bast wreaks havoc and litters Los Angeles with bodies in a quest to recover a stolen amulet.
While played straight by leads Meredith Baxter, David Hedison and Stuart Whitman, Bloch indulged his penchant for mining humor from minor characters, including a flophouse resident (John Carradine) and an Egyptologist (John Abbott) who assures an impressed Hedison at one point that he’s “never been east of Pasadena.”
The elements came together smoothly for The Cat Creature, but a later Bloch-Harrington collaboration for Cramer, The Dead Don’t Die (1975), with George Hamilton encountering zombies in Depression-era Chicago, boasts an impressively gloomy atmosphere but sorely lacks Bloch’s leavening comic touches.
11. DRACULA (1974) -- Dan Curtis created the first sympathetic vampire in Barnabas Collins of Dark Shadows, and used the same approach in this involving version of the Stoker classic. While Jack Palance is a scary-looking Prince of Darkness, he is not a boogeyman either, and the strength of his performance lingers in the mind long after a viewing.
Richard Matheson’s script briefly touches on Dracula’s lost love from centuries ago, and it forms a motivation for his pursuit of Mina Murray (Penelope Horner) who reminds him of the woman he once adored upon his arrival in England from Transylvania -- where he’s also imprisoned Mina’s fiance (Murray Brown), a plot point James V. Hart explored more fully in his screenplay for Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992).
Of necessity, Curtis’ Dracula compresses much of the action from Stoker’s rambling 1897 work, but delivers the goods when, reminiscent of Janos Skorzeny’s tossing people around like dolls in The Night Stalker, Dracula lays waste to the staff of a hotel where Mina’s been hidden. Originally to have aired in October 1973, this Dracula was pre-empted by CBS for breaking news on Watergate and debuted the following February.
12. TRILOGY OF TERROR (1975) -- Admittedly this list is weighted heavily toward the work of Dan Curtis, but only because he left such an indelible mark on the made-for-TV thrills of the period before moving on to the epic demands of The Winds of War (1983) and War and Remembrance (1989). This last of his horror efforts for the ABC Movie of the Week won immediate acclaim for not only taking the portmanteau approach in offering three short stories for the price of one film, but also the tour-de-force acting job by Karen Black in all three of Trilogy of Terror’s stories.
Richard Matheson took the multi-story tack with Trilogy of Terror (in collaboration with William F. Nolan, who co-authored with George Clayton Johnson the science fiction novel and epic film Logan’s Run, 1976) by converting some of his own stories into a memorable exercise in suspense and shock, much like the British company Amicus’ anthology films derived from the stories of Robert Bloch (Torture Garden, 1967, The House That Dripped Blood, 1971, Asylum, 1972).
Black runs the gamut of characterizations to stellar effect in each tale. “Millicent and Therese” has her playing twin roles as sisters radically different as day and night, while in “Julia” she’s a plain-Jane teacher who deals decisively with a student’s blackmail attempt. But the most memorable is the last, “Amelia,” in which Black plays a woman who comes into possession of a tribal doll whose dire mojo makes her its slave. The final shot of Amelia, under the doll’s influence and stamping the floor with a knife she fully intends to use on her domineering mother, is not easily forgotten.
Such is my list of the top dozen made-for-TV chillers of the time. They were not, of course, the only movies designed for the tube seen during that period, and many rate honorable mention for various reasons, such as Fear No Evil and its sequel, Ritual of Evil.
Those films explored the supernatural, but others dug into the terrors of the psyche, such as Henry Farrell’s How Awful About Allan (1970), in which Anthony Perkins and Julie Harris, as brother and sister, try to figure out who’s trying to drive the mentally fragile title chatacter (Perkins) insane. Sweet, Sweet Rachel (1971), with Stefanie Powers as an imperiled heiress and Alex Dreier as the psychic investigator trying to save her from an unseen enemy, was the pilot for the short-lived 1972 series The Sixth Sense, with Gary Collins taking over the occult sleuth’s role.
There was even a minor trend of mixing the weird with western themes, as Black Noon, The Devil and Miss Sarah (both 1971) and The Hanged Man (1974) demonstrated with ideas Clint Eastwood explored at the same time in his gothic theatrical oater High Plains Drifter (1973).
Counterbalancing the devil worship plots of The Devil’s Daughter (1972) and Satan’s School for Girls (1973) were such true chillers as Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973), a John Newland (One Step Beyond) directed tale playing on fears that your house may harbor something gruesome, while Bad Ronald (1974) struck a chord with audiences in telling its tale of a teen murderer (Scott Jacoby) hiding in the walls of a newly-occupied house. Scream of the Wolf (1974) in which a celebrated hunter (Clint Walker) may have more than human powers was another noteworthy Dan Curtis-Richard Matheson collaborations.
As seen, the classics were not ignored, and it was perhaps inevitable that Universal produced a version of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1972), which despite a complete lack of atmosphere presented a spirited performance by Stewart Granger as Sherlock Holmes, who may have been too old for the part but was no less effective as the master detective investigating a family curse. This and two other films shown closely together by ABC (A Very Missing Person with Eve Arden as Stuart Palmer’s Hildegard Withers, and Robert Conrad in The Adventures of Nick Carter) were pilots for a proposed revolving sleuth program in the fashion of NBC’s mystery wheel (Columbo, McMillan and Wife, McCloud, etc.).
Horror films continued to be a staple of made-for-TV showcases, although the emphasis moved from the fictional to true life in The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975) with Elizabeth Montgomery as the celebrated Victorian-era ax murderer of Fall River, Massachusetts, or played off the lingering popularity of The Exorcist in two pilot films, The Possessed and Good Against Evil (both 1977).
There even had to be a Look What Happened to Rosemary’s Baby (1976) and Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell (1978), but the decade’s output ended on a quality note with The Dark Secret of Harvest Home (1978), a well-received adaptation of former actor Thomas Tryon’s bestselling 1973 chiller Harvest Home with Bette Davis prominently featured in the cast.