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Remembering Made-for-TV Terrors

Blogger Stacie Ponder’s horror columns will appear every Wednesday through April.

If you’ll excuse me for a moment, I’m about to get all, “You kids get off my lawn, oh my bursitis is flaring up” here. I realize that no one wants to hear about the “good old days” or how “Our old LaSalle ran great,” but I’m saying it anyway, because some things cannot be denied: Made-for-TV horror movies were better way back when.

Plenty of theatrically released genre films kept me awake late into the night, plagued by thoughts like, “Could Jason Voorhees climb up the side of my house and get in my window?” (Of course, it never occurred to me to ask why Jason would travel all the way to southeastern Connecticut just to come after me in the first place.) But some of my most enduring childhood scares came courtesy of those “mild” made-for-TV horrors. In the ’70s and early ’80s, you had to look no further than the “Movie of the Week” to get your fill of mind-warping frights. Here are but a few that really got the blood pumping — without showing it flowing:

Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)
Charles Durning and his good ol’ boy cronies mete out some country justice on Bubba (Larry Drake), a mentally-challenged man falsely accused of murder. Soon after the cornfield showdown, a scarecrow stalks Bubba’s executioners, delivering some… uh, scarecrow justice. Widely considered the mack daddy of straw dude horror flicks, Dark Night of the Scarecrow is still absolutely terrifying.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)
Sally and Alex (Kim Darby and Jim Hutton) inherit a big, spooky house from Sally’s grandmother — complete with the obligatory locked door and bricked-up fireplace. Sally’s curiosity eventually gets the better of her and she sets about unlocking and de-bricking, only to set free some seriously creepy, seriously evil pint-sized monsters in the process. Stupid, nosy Sally!

Home for the Holidays (1972)
One of my favorite made-for-TV thrillers, Home for the Holidays
is chock-a-block full of melodrama, thanks to cranky Walter Brennan and
a rain slicker-clad, pitchfork-wielding psycho killer who could rival
any big-screen slasher for scares. Featuring a young Sally Field,
Jessica Walter (soon after playing “ Misty ” for Clint Eastwood), and the venerable Julie Harris ( The Haunting ), Home for the Holidays will leave you feeling that maybe your own crazy family Christmas get-togethers aren’t so bad after all.

Scream, Pretty Peggy (1973)
Ah, the old lock-the-insane-sister-away-in-the-garage chestnut. If
you can think of a better method for dealing with the mentally
unstable, I’d sure like to hear it! Bette Davis channels a bit of (Whatever Happened To) Baby Jane Watson in her role as the insane sister’s bed-ridden mom.

The Norliss Tapes (1973)
of the made-for-TV horror flick, Dan Curtis produced and directed this program about an
intrepid reporter who runs afoul of vampires and other assorted
monster-types. David Norliss (Roy Thinnes) and Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) are two
memorable characters who would provide the basis for a few more
supernatural-investigatin’ characters, Mulder and Scully of The X-Files. Kolchak managed to land an eponymous series that ran for one season, while The Norliss Tapes is one of the few TV horror movies to see an official DVD release.

Salem’s Lot (1979)
This is a prime example of what can result when all the stars align
properly: Hit-and-miss director Tobe Hooper is decidedly on the upswing
here, writer Stephen King manages to maintain a great idea all the way
to the end, David Soul busts out some turtlenecks, James Mason is so
urbane you just want to smack him, and then… there’s Mr. Barlow. His bald, beady-eyed, and
blue visage was enough to send me cowering under my bedsheets. Salem’s Lot
also taught me to be wary of any friend who floats outside my
bedroom window and scratches at the glass late at night.

is that Zuni fetish doll ,
right? In the film’s final segment “Amelia” (based on the short story
“Prey” by Richard Matheson), the little bastard relentlessly
chases poor Karen Black around her apartment, wielding a spear and
approximately 457,862 teeth. It’s a vicious little tale that’s so
genuinely frightening that the first two segments are all but
forgotten, despite the fact that they’re impressive psychological
horror stories (also featuring Black at the top of her crazy game).

home video market and the advent of cable television helped bring about
the end of the network made-for-TV movie, as channels
began purchasing films to broadcast rather than producing them. Why should FearNet or Chiller fund original films when they can simply pull in viewers by showing I Know What You Did Last Summer ?

Regardless, with stricter ratings guidelines in place nowadays, it’s doubtful that something like Home for the Holidays
would be featured on prime time network television — and
you just know that little Zuni dude would have been computer-created if
Trilogy of Terror were made today. I suppose we’ll find out how far the networks are willing to go when Fear Itself
debuts this summer. Even so, a TV series is different than a “Movie of
the Week,” but hey — I’ll take original horror content where I can get

See? Once in a while old people are right: Made-for-TV horror movies were better way back when. Now get off my lawn!

A fan of horror movies and scary stuff, Stacie Ponder started her blog Final Girl so she’d have a platform from which she could tell everyone that, say, Friday the 13th, Part 2 rules.  She leads a glamorous life, walking on the razor’s edge of danger and intrigue.

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