The cinema experience is becoming a laughably ironic phrase by the day, with studios and filmmakers pushing out release dates or delaying them indefinitely on a daily basis because of the current pandemic. Of course it’s just about money and return on investment, which there is nothing wrong with, but save us the sanctimonious babble about the ‘true way’ to experience your movie when it’s mostly tent-pole films being pushed down the line while smaller films are dumped on VOD. This is not an attack on cinemas, as I’m sure most of us can’t wait to return en masse once it is safe to do so; the point is, there is no correct way to enjoy a film whether it be IMAX, a cinema screen, your TV or even phone. For many of us, our favourite films were released before our time, so our initial watching experience was via television.
Made-for-television has become a redundant term in today’s current landscape with streaming services, VOD, and cable network’s producing high volumes of movie content so readily available. Services like Netflix and HBO love to use the term ‘exclusive’ to market their films or series as a sort of quality stamp ending the stigma attached to made-for-television films. This model allows for stronger in-house return on investment, more consumer choice, and exclusive contracts with directors and actors/actresses.
Television films or Made-for-TV movies were established as a method for television networks to compete with the film industry and encourage viewers to stay at home. This eliminated the need to pay licensing fees to film studios to broadcast films during prime time slots and also allowed the networks to negotiate their own advertising and sponsorship deals for their own films. The made-for-television model was particularly popular from the 60s through to the 80s as an alternative to first run theatrical releases. Due to stricter content rating guidelines, these TV movies were severely restricted when it came to gore, nudity, and cussing. Despite these limitations, many filmmakers tackled the horror genre with an emphasis on scares, atmosphere, and in a lot of cases pretty balls-to-walls out-there ideas. Despite sporting lower budgets, there is an abundance of terrifying made-for-TV horror films over the decades, so we’ve compiled a list of 10 classics worth giving a look.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)
Researching this film gave me a false sense of security as the few pics and clips of the little green goblin creatures looked hokey and outdated. Sitting down and seeing the film in its entirety has led me to constantly check the dark corners of my house. The thoughts of hearing whispers as I dose off to sleep sends shivers up my spine even now. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a shining example of the haunted house subgenre done incredibly effectively through suspense and paranoia. The film escalates and escalates to one of the creepiest endings in any horror film I’ve seen.
The Haunted (1991 film)
The Haunted is essentially a Conjuring tale 2 decades before the hit film released. This is because they share the same real-life characters, The Warrens. The couple were actual life paranormal investigators who claimed to have encountered and even exorcised many hauntings or demonic encounters. Similar to The Conjuring films, The Haunted is an adaptation of one of their cases of a house haunted by demons. For a made-for-TV film, The Haunted pushes the envelope on what could pass the strict censors at the time. One lead characters, a male surprisingly, is raped by the entity in his home. The film is pretty chilling and definitely has a few cards up its sleeve for even fans of the latest Conjuring series.
Before Spielberg became the Hollywood legend he’s known for today, his first escapade into film was a made-for-TV film called Duel. The plot was fairly straightforward; David Mann, a salesman on a cross county business trip, finds himself driving for his life when a rusty old tanker truck pursues him with murderous intent. Duel is an amazing cat-and-mouse chase filled with plenty of horror and suspense. The truck driver is kept obscured throughout building on the fear of the unknown and Mann is driven to near insanity by the pressure and sheer randomness of his predicament. Duel is the film that got Spielberg noticed by the industry and is considered one of the best made-for-TV movies of all time.
Body Bags (1993)
Anthology horror films are my jam. Unfortunately, quality ones are a dime a dozen but Body Bags, the brainchild of horror legend’s John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper is a wonderful collection of 3 macabre tales. Greenlit by Showtime Networks as a competitor to HBO’s Tales From the Crypt, the network decided not to pursue it further despite the ensemble of horror talent attached. Each story is fascinating in its own way and the anthology features cameos from the likes of Carpenter and Hooper themselves as well as Wes Craven and Sam Raimi. Despite good reviews, it’s odd to see how this film didn’t turn into its own horror series. Thankfully, it was made because it stands out as one of the best horror TV films ever.
Perhaps the most terrifying entry on this list and not necessarily because of horror tropes, Threads is a British TV film about the fallout of nuclear war. Before even the bombs drop, the panic and decay of humanity is terrifying to witness as people go to their base instincts and soldiers forced to commit heinous acts for the last veneer of order. The story follows a family who survive the initial blast but are utterly decimated in the coming months as the last semblance of society collapses and the effects of a nuclear winter take effect in grotesque fashion. Never has a post apocalyptic film been so scary simply because it relies on fact and reality. You might need to take a shower after watching this one.
The Woman in Black (1989)
While I find the 2013 remake starring Daniel Radcliffe severely underrated, the original The Woman in Black made for ITV is a far superior adaptation. Victorian horror at its finest, the film is the type of ghost story that seeps into the land and manifests in horror that has come before. A particularly tragic story, The Woman in Black is long and drawn out to effectively let every scene breath and get under your skin. While the few jumps are near enough to stop the heart, the ghostly figure is most effective in the background, an ever present figure to remind the town of the tragedy that has befallen it.
How Awful About Allan (1970)
With many new critically acclaimed horror films exploring the theme of trauma and mental health, How Awful About Allan feels like a film truly ahead of its time. Starring Anthony Perkins, famed for Hitchcock’s Psycho, the actor is criminally underrated in this role that far goes beyond Norman Bates’ friendly but sinister demeanor. How Awful About Allan is a psychological horror with a flawed antagonist that may or may not be the cause of the surrounding downfall. For such a convoluted film, which I do not wish to spoil, it plays out in such an engaging and exciting fashion.
The Night Stalker (1972 film)
Do you ever love when a particular genre is turned on its head by introducing horror? The Night Stalker begins as a detective story that soon ascends into myth and fiction when the serial killer is revealed as a creature of the night, a vampire. Mixing serial killer traits with folklore is an effective mix as reporter Carl Kolchak finds himself on the heels of a vicious vampire feeding on prostitutes from the Las Vegas Strip. Another fantastic cat-and-mouse game, Kolchak must not only avoid this deadly creature but also the authorities looking to cover it up with a more believable explanation. Dripping in tension and atmosphere, this is a must watch for horror affectionados.
Similar to the hysteria of Orson Welles’ broadcast of the War of the Worlds, Ghostwatch was a mockumentary shot in live footage style which scared the beejesus out of many Brits watching on Halloween night 1992. Framed as the live coverage of a haunting in a London household, the broadcast was so effectively creepy it generated 1,000,000 calls to the BBC call in line. Shot in a deliberately creepy manner, most of the horror is caught in the background as spectres and spirits are seen out of focus and without the attention of the presenters. Ghostwatch is a wonderful experimental TV movie made by the BBC worth seeking out.
Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)
While this list has been in no particular order, the origination for it started with an earlier review I did for the supernatural horror film, Scarecrows. Many who enjoyed it highly recommended this film, and it’s easy to see why. Dark Night of the Scarecrow is a thrilling film that has so many more layers than expected. To give a synopsis would be unjust, as the film has plenty of twists and turns with its own social commentary that needs to be witnessed firsthand. Playing on the themes of paranoia, bigotry, revenge and retribution, Dark Night of the Scarecrow is not only the best made for TV horror film but one of the finest horror films I’ve seen.