Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Five Best Made-for-TV Horror Movies

What's Halloween without a post on classic fright films? This year, we are paying homage to the best horror films made specifically for television. And since this is a classic movie blog, all of our choices were broadcast no later than the 1980s. Hey, that's the classic era for made-for-TV movies anyway!

1. Gargoyles - A rare network TV-movie excursion into visual horror, Gargoyles opens with a prologue that explains the ancient creatures are the devil's offspring and are reborn every 600 years. They exist to “battle against man to gain dominion of the earth.” This theme closely parallels horror writer H.P. Lovecraft's mythos, in which creatures known as The Old Ones lurk in a parallel world, waiting to regain control of this world from mankind. Set in Mexico, Gargoyles is a lively, entertaining film with solid performances by Cornel Wilde, Bernie Casey (as the lead gargoyle), Scott Glenn, and Grayson Hall (Dark Shadows, The Night of the Iguana).

2. Dark Intruder - Some of you may quibble with this choice since it's more mystery than horror and was originally intended as a theatrical release. That said, there is a monster and it boasts some eerie scenes on the foggy streets of San Francisco (with no Karl Malden). Leslie Nielsen plays a wealthy "chronic dabbler" who investigates a series of ritualistic murders tied to a Sumerian god representing the essence of evil. To give away any more of the surprisingly complex (and, at times, again Lovecraftian) plot would spoil the fun. There are two other made-for-TV movies that also mix mystery and horror effectively: Spectre starring Robert Culp and The Norliss Tapes with Roy Thinnes.

3. The Night Stalker - Darren McGavin stars as Carl Kolchak, a pesky reporter who investigates a series of Las Vegas murders where the victims are drained of blood. Initially, Kolchak believes that the culprit imagines himself to be a vampire—but eventually the reporter comes to realize that the killer is a modern-day vampire. Versatile horror/fantasy author Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, Duel) co-wrote this fast-paced blend of chills and humor set in Las Vegas. Unlike traditional bloodsuckers, Matheson made his vampire (played by Barry Atwater) a contemporary villain with superhuman strength and the wiles to survive in modern society (e.g., he steals blood from a hospital). This is probably the most famous made-for-TV horror film. It was also a huge ratings hit and spawned a sequel (The Night Strangler) and a TV series.

4. Trilogy of Terror - A trio of Richard Matheson short stories formed the basis for this anthology film which starred the late Karen Black in all three segments. The first tales, "Julie" and "Millicent and Therese" are interesting, especially the latter which offers a nice twist ending. However, it's the third segment, "Amelia," that earned Trilogy of Terror its reputation as a creepy classic. Black plays Amelia, a single woman who has purchased a Zuni doll with razor-sharp teeth and a spear. The doll supposedly houses the spirit of a Zuni warrior known as "He Who Kills." When Amelia is alone in her apartment, the doll comes alive and attacks her. She apparently destroys it--but all is not what it seems. Black is excellent in all three segments, especially the final one. And if all three tales had been as good as "Amelia," this film would have occupied the #1 slot.

5. Satan's School for Girls - This admittedly cheesy 1973 flick about mysterious deaths at a girls' school has earned a minor cult reputation because of its cast and plot similarity to Dario Argento's later Suspiria. It also boasts some bona fide scares. Pamela Franklin stars as a teen investigating her sister's apparent suicide at the Salem Academy for Women (just that name doesn't bode well in a horror movie). You'd think the school would shut down after another suicide, but it doesn't--which provides time for Franklin's character to discover the secret room in the cellar! The cast includes future Charlie's Angels Kate Jackson and Cheryl Ladd, plus Jo Van Fleet, Roy Thinnes (again), and Lloyd Bochner. Interestingly, the same year, Pamela Franklin also starred in the theatrical film The Legend of Hell House.


  1. Excellent choices, esp. Gargoyles. I'd throw in that one about the scarecrow with Charles Durnibg, i forget the name of it. Jeez, whatya get these days, Sharknedo?

  2. What a perfect post for All Hallow's Eve! I especially enjoyed "Dark Intruder" and think most people would be quite surprised at how good Leslie Nielsen is. I notice the pairing of two choices with the wonderfully talented writing of Richard Matheson. I have not heard of "The Norliss Tapes" with Roy Thinnes and find that to be an intriguing choice. I really enjoyed "The Invaders" as we'll as his TV serial of "The Long, Hot Summer". It has been decades since I saw "Satan's School for Girls" but I suppose I should check it out again to see Thinnes's work there.

  3. Yay for THE NIGHT STALKER! I also remember being fond of CAST A DEADLY SPELL, starring Fred Ward. It would be great fun for Halloween.

  4. Great list. I think I'd have to find a spot somewhere for NIGHT GALLERY (1969) which like NIGHT STALKER led to a series.

  5. The only one of these I've seen is Night Stalker - and it does stand out as a memorable made-for-TV thriller. I'm pretty sure I saw the sequel and at least a few episode of the series.

    There's a movie I'd always thought was made for TV, but realized not long ago was actually a theatrical release - Ghost Story (1981) with Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. It may just be that when I first saw it on TV I mistakenly thought it was first-run. But it has a TV look about it, too.

  6. Good choices. Gargoyles was indeed creepy.