There was a time—a glorious time—where made-for-TV horror movies reigned supreme. That time was the 1970s. Every week, one or more of the major networks would release a horror movie with whatever star they had laying around and it proved highly successful. Audiences decided to stay inside and watch Karen Black get harassed by a Tiki doll or Valerie Harper deal with a crazy kid brandishing a pizza cutter (it’s a real film, look it up) instead of going to the theatres. It was a glorious time. Then the ’80s came ’round and fucked it all up. People wanted movies about archaeologists fighting Nazis and boats that were too small to fight sharks. Television horror died.
Therefore, lets honor a great time for horror and a great time for television with the Top 10 Greatest Television Horror Films.
(Note: I wanted some variety, so I excluded Stephen King adaptations, HBO films, and anthologies like Masters of Horror.)
10. The Appointment (1981)
This has one of the scariest movie moments, and I stand by that statement. If this film was released to theaters, maybe it would be talked about with the same reverence as The Omen or maybe the director would’ve made more than one film. Who knows but it deserved a better fate than obscurity. The film is about a father not being able to attend his daughters violin recital and the daughter doesn’t take the news well. It’s a slow burn. Like, it makes Ti West look like Michael Bay. It’s a deliberately paced thriller well worth your time.
09. Winter Kill (1974)
More of a thriller than an outright horror film, Winter Kill is about a sniper killing people in a small ski resort town and a sheriff tasked with stopping him before tourist season begins. Andy Griffith plays the sheriff (obviously) and he’s great, as always. So is a really young Nick Nolte who has a minor role as a ski instructor. The plot is like Jaws in the snow with a sniper rifle mixed with the Manson murders (the killer leaves behind the number of the victim in red paint at the scene) with a little bit of Zodiac (it’s a whodunit) thrown in for good measure. It’s a solid thriller.
08. Crowhaven Farm (1970)
By chance and good luck (and a ghost murder) Maggie Porter inherits a farm. She decides to move there with her husband to try and fix their marriage. Whilst there, Maggie suspects not all is right with Crowhaven Farm. The plot is thinner than prosciutto and has been told a million times before but Crowhaven Farm is very reminiscent in tone and style of the 1963 film The Haunting. The scares come from what you don’t see. The voices in the woods without faces, the laughter that turns to sinister cackling without warning. One of the pinnacles of horror television.
07. A Cold Night’s Death (1973)
Set in an animal research laboratory isolated in an arctic wasteland, the film begins with a lone scientist, Dr. Vogel, frantically radioing for help and after a week of no contact, two men are sent to investigate what happened while also taking over the research. They find Dr. Vogel frozen to death while still inside. One of the scientists (Eli Wallach) thinks he just went stir crazy and died but the other one (Robert Culp) thinks it could’ve been foul play. Their drastic take on the death of their colleague, coupled with that fact that, they two, could be going crazy from the isolation, creates a powder keg of tension. The slightest fight between the two could be disastrous. Let alone the fact that they may not be alone in that research facility…
Read my full review here.
06. Ghostwatch (1992)
Ghostwatch is the precursor to not only the Paranormal Activity films, but the entire found footage/documentary type horror film. Obviously Cannibal Holocaust predates it by a good 15 years, but I think Ghostwatch was, and still is, as influential. Ghostwatch is about a BBC team that are invited to ‘Britain’s most haunted house’ to investigate a malevolent presence terrorizing the family that live there, while a skeptical Michael Parkinson watches live from the studio. The entire film is made to look exactly like a news special. Down to reporters and anchormen playing themselves. It’s not only believable but does a great job of creating a new mythology in the form of ‘Pipes’ complete with origin story and everything. If this film was made today, ‘Pipes’ would get a series of films and probably even spin offs. A whole ‘Pipes’ universe. I wanna live in that universe.
05. The Night Stalker (1972)
I think many forget that the television show Kolchak: The Night Stalker was actually a spin-off of this television movie. Darren McGavin gives one of the all time great television performances as Carl Kolchak, a cynical, wisecracking reporter on the hunt for a vampire. The vampire is played by Barry Atwater and he’s incredible. Gone is the sexual allure and mystique of a Dracula and in its place, a feral creature who’s only purpose is to feed. It’s a great foil for an equally great character. Oh and check out the show too. The X-Files owes its entire existence to it.
04. Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)
One of the first made-for-TV horror films that didn’t have that “TV” feel to it. You know, that quality of filming or acting that you can’t really explain but you know it when you see it. Dark Night doesn’t have any of that. The performances are all exceptional across the board with Charles Durning and Larry Drake being stand outs and the directing (by Audrey Rose and The Entity author Frank DeFelitta) is incredibly effective. I don’t know the situation but it blows my mind that he wasn’t getting scripts left and right after this film because he only directed two other things. He should’ve had a bigger career and this film needs a bigger audience.
03. Duel (1971)
Before the pitchforks and torches come out for this not being #1, remember that this got a theatrical release in Europe. In fact, it was a big hit over there, so I didn’t feel like it should take the top spot considering it was in theaters. But that’s the only reason, because it is amazing. Weaver’s performance as a helpless man being tormented by an unseen individual driving a huge truck is perfectly unhinged. He’s frantic. He’s panicked. His sanity is literally unraveling on screen because he doesn’t know who his tormentor is or why he’s doing this. All he knows is that this man wants to kill him and there’s nothing he can do to stop him. Make more horror films, Spielberg. The genre misses you.
02. Trilogy of Terror (1975)
I have a strong affinity for horror anthology films. Whether there’s a connecting story to somehow bridge the segments together or if they just play one after the other, there’s something about the structure that really appeals to me. Trilogy of Terror is unique in that it has the same actress in every segment but playing a different role each time. The actress is Karen Black and she kills it in this film. The film kinda feels like a passion project for her considering she helped write parts of it and even came up with the iconic ending.
The first story is about a student blackmailing his teacher (Black) into basically being his slave and it turns out, he may not be in complete control of the situation. The second story involves two sisters one of which is trying to kill the other with voodoo. It’s not bad but obviously has a twist at the end. The third and final story is the iconic zuni fetish doll. It holds up remarkably well and was actually the inspiration for Child’s Play. All in all, the anthology, like most anthologies, is a mixed bag. The first two are okay, nothing special, but the last one is easily one of the best horror segments in any anthology. It’s incredible.
01. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)
This may be a controversial pick. It doesn’t have the thrills of Duel or the iconic monster of Trilogy of Terror, but I think Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark makes up for that with a sense of unnerving dread. You constantly feel like something is going to happen, something bad. It’s a haunted house film but instead of ghosts, it’s little demons that may or may not exist. Are there monsters in this house or is Kim Darby just slowly going insane? You have to watch it to find out but make sure you watch it with the lights on. Just in case. Oh and skip the remake. It’s not good.
What do you think of the top 10? Are there any made-for-TV horror films (besides the ones I excluded on purpose) that you think should have made the cut? Let me know down in the comments!