Ask anyone who was a kid in the 70s, and they’ll recount being scared by horror movies on television. What’s interesting is that the scariest of these movies were actually MADE FOR television.
What they couldn’t offer in outright gore or nudity, they made up in spookiness and strangeness: atmospheric and psychological horror.
Of course these movies are quieter and smaller than today’s big budget features. But because they are down-to-earth and realistic, these made-for-TV films offered some of the most memorably twisted characters and eerie images in modern horror history.
ABC commissioned the bulk of these TV movies, but all three networks got in on the action. If you count thrillers or disaster pictures, up to 150 horrors were produced. At least 20-30 were supernatural horror. Most were eventually released on VHS in the 1990s, but many still await DVD release today.
After the jump, I’ll list six famous staples of 70s TV horror to watch first. Then I’ll list six obscurities with a more subtle appeal. I comment further in my Claws & Saucers guidebook, but I hope you’ll enjoy the brief comments here.
THE NIGHT STALKER (1972)
From legendary producer-director Dan Curtis (DARK SHADOWS) and legendary writer Richard Matheson (INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN) comes this weird, exciting, and surprisingly funny horror-mystery about a sarcastic but reluctant reporter (Darren McGavin in his greatest role) on the trail of a vampire in Las Vegas (yes, Vegas in the 70s, can you dig?). It is the most praised TV horror film of the 70s, and deservedly so.
The 1973 sequel, THE NIGHT STRANGLER, is also great, though it’s best to know nothing about it before you see it. A half-decent KOLCHAK TV series followed (1974-75).
It’s more fantasy than horror, and the atmosphere is very strange. You almost root for these intelligent and articulate gargoyles as they plot to destroy mankind. They think they must get us before we get them. Maybe they’re right? Dressing up actors in gargoyle suits was risky… it could easily look ridiculous… but here the risk paid off. GARGOYLES has been rising in popularity for many years. Bonus: lovely Jennifer Salt wears halter tops for the entire film.
DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK (1973)
This eerie and unnerving haunted house tale works like a slow crescendo. A young couple inherits an old farmhouse, which – wouldn’t you know it – has strange goblin-like creatures hiding in the basement. I would have preferred stop-motion, but I still enjoyed the actors in goblin makeup, shot with camera tricks to look tiny. Why are these goblins so interested in the heroine? Watch it, and you’ll see. Parents, keep your kids away from this one.
TRILOGY OF TERROR (1975)
Like all anthology films, TRILOGY suffers from the flaw of inconsistency… the stories are not equally exciting. But the third story – with a living Zuni fetish doll that attacks a helpless housewife – is so amazing that you don’t care. Karen Black stars in each story. Dan Curtis directed and Richard Matheson scripted.
DEAD OF NIGHT (1977)
Here’s the follow-up to TRILOGY OF TERROR. The first story, featuring Ed Begley Jr. restoring a 1930s roadster, is sweet rather than scary. The last story, a “Monkey’s Paw” variant, is pretty disturbing. Nothing matches TRILOGY’s fetish doll highlights, but this movie is actually more consistent as a whole. It’s Curtis and Matheson once again.
SALEM’S LOT (1979)
Still the greatest of all Stephen King adaptations made for television, the SALEM’S LOT miniseries is dominated by a mesmerizingly evil James Mason. Perhaps it’s Mason’s greatest performance. The atmosphere is grim and cold, as a multitude of characters gets drawn to the mysterious house. George Romero was slated to direct, but Tobe Hooper took over. A floating adolescent vampire is very scary. David Soul (Hutch!) plays the hero.
Now for the more obscure entries…
This underrated killer-machine picture resembles ALIEN in that a bunch of average working Joes find themselves attacked by a relentless destructive extraterrestrial menace. It’s got a little of Spielberg’s DUEL as well. Some of the victims act irrationally, like the guy who tries to hide in a hollow pipe even though the killer bulldozer is heading right for it. But this just adds some welcome camp.
BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1974)
Dan Curtis directs and Jack Palance stars in this faithful yet creative re-telling of the classic Dracula story. Palance makes Dracula frustrated, even desperate, yet powerful and evil at the core. Unlike most Dracula re-tellings, the men get more attention than the women, and Arthur Holmwood actually becomes co-hero. The big budget allowed for some terrific Victorian locations and sets.
BAD RONALD (1974)
Hard to find but worth the search. A sweet family moves into an old Victorian house… not realizing that an insane teenager named Ronald is living in a secret room behind their cupboard. What will happen when Ronald decides that he is a prince and the family’s youngest daughter is his princess? It’s more mystery than horror, but it has a horror atmosphere. I find it overrated, suffering from an anticlimax and some missed opportunities. But Ronald himself is both fascinating and sympathetic.
THE DEAD DON’T DIE (1975)
While not wholly successful, this homage to 1930s “poverty row” classics has the greatest cast of any movie on this list: Ray Milland, George Hamilton, Joan Blondell, Reggie Nalder, Ralph Meeker, and Linda Cristal all have prominent roles. Set in 1930s Chicago, the story sets our hero against a shadowy zombie master creating zombies whose victims later become zombies themselves. Light on action but heavy on atmosphere.
THE INITIATION OF SARAH (1978)
Here’s a CARRIE imitator featuring future 80s sex symbol Morgan Fairchild as a spoiled sorority sister who torments our lower-class heroine, Sarah. It’s a fair bet that the spoiled sister will meet her comeuppance as a victim of Sarah’s psychic powers. Bonus: Shelley Winters leads a Black Mass!
DEVIL DOG: THE HOUND OF HELL (1978)
The title might remind you of the tasty Drake’s cake, but the movie is both serious and successful. It’s similar to THE OMEN, but with a puppy dog rather than a baby boy. Will the dog destroy this sweet suburban family? Or will the father (Richard Crenna from the Rambo films) save the day? The movie is light on action and has weak special effects, but it’s pretty fun to watch the puppy grow in size – and in evil – through the story.