I love horror. I love it to the point I'm willing to watch anything that even hints at the inclusion of horror elements or is designed to scare you. Sometimes this pays off and sometimes it fails in spectacular fashion.
With the rise in horror on television since the first gloriously creepy episode of American Gothic in the '90s to the current staples such as American Horror Story and The Walking Dead, it got me thinking about the movies for television category and how there used to be some wonderfully scary material on our TVs (though unfortunately, not so much lately).
This is a selection of my picks for the best horrors made for television.
7. Duel (1971)
Starring Dennis Weaver and nominated for a Golden Globe, Steven Spielberg’s early directorial film is a powerhouse cat-and-mouse thriller. A man is pursued relentlessly by a semi-trailer. That’s it. Is there a driver of the truck? Why does it pick him? Does it matter? This is edge-of-your-seat action and you cant help but put yourself in the driver's seat of this every man, played to sweaty perfection by Weaver, as he is ruthlessly and randomly hunted.
6. The Woman In Black (1989)
I have a friend who cringes and recoils when I bring up this film. She claims that this one scared her so much that she hasn’t watched a single horror since. High praise for a horror, let alone one made for television. Not to be confused with the remake starring Daniel Radcliffe, this one was made many years earlier and only got as far as the small screen. Nominated for four BAFTAS, it concerns itself with a young solicitor sent to a small town to settle the estate of a widow who recently died. Unperturbed by the townsfolk’s obvious fear of her home, he decides to investigate it for himself — horror awaits. Based on the novel by Susan Hill, this adaptation is chilling, spooky, and darkly sad.
5. When A Stranger Call Back (1993)
A sequel to the brilliantly terrifying 1979 classic, this made for TV movie returns with original cast members Carol Kane and Charles Durning. Again, a babysitter is menaced by a creep intent on killing/kidnapping the children in her charge. Years later, the same creep is stalking her again and this time no one believes her. As is true of the original, this movie starts strong, has a moderately saggy middle, and then ramps up the scares again for the ending. The killer in this film has a particular signature that I hadn’t seen used in a horror before. It's wildly effective and the opening sequence is butt-clenching tense. Great stuff which could’ve failed miserably considering it’s a sequel. Nowhere near the classic first film, but definitely worth seeking out.
4. Trilogy Of Terror (1975)
There are (as given away by the title) three stories here, and while the first two aren’t lacking in entertainment, its really the final tale you need to concern yourself with — it’s a doozy!
The first two stories are concerned with women, sex, and revenge. They are mildly sexist and a product of their time but are small fries leading to the feast.
The final story — "Amelia" — stars Karen Black as a successful businesswoman who unwittingly unleashes a small menacing tribal doll in her high-rise apartment and spends the evening battling him for her life. Sounds quite ridiculous but with the brilliant horror queen Karen Black bringing complete commitment to her role it is surprisingly effective. That final shot will stay with you long after the credits have scrawled across your screen.
3. Don’t Go To Sleep (1982)
I vividly remember watching this when I was a kid. I couldn’t remember its title but a Google search of a few key scenes and I finally got my answer. Don't Go To Sleep stars Valerie Harper and Dennis Weaver as parents grieving the recent loss of their daughter Jennifer. The mourning process is marred somewhat by the fact that their other daughter, Mary, is seeing visions of Jennifer who has a terrible secret to reveal — what is she trying to say? This ghosty tale is creepy and memorable. Convincing performances and some striking set pieces helped this one reach almost cult status among those of us who remember it. Once seen, not easily forgotten, especially with that truly eerie ending. Pity it's so hard to find.
2. Masters of Horror, John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns (2005)
An anthology series in which seasoned horror directors were given free reign to create an episode each. This was horror legend John Carpenter’s effort and it's pretty exceptional. This is the tale of Kirby Sweetman (Norman Reedus), a rare films dealer, who is enlisted by the shady Mr. Bellinger (the ever-intense Udo Kier) to locate the only existing copy of a film said to have caused a homicidal riot upon its first and only screening years earlier. As his search grows more and more fraught, the film winds itself around you like a barbed wire blanket — sharp with discomfort. This is nothing like Carpenter has made before — it's gloomy, disturbing, and filled with dark power. I’m surprised this made it to our television screens at all.
1. Salem's Lot (1979)
Stephen King is my favorite writer. I think the man is a genius and I have also greatly enjoyed a good deal of the films made from his books, though quite a few have not managed to mine the same depths of story as the novels (this is to be expected with such differing mediums). Salem's Lot is a great adaption — the story itself a slender tale of vampires infecting a small town and the people (a successful writer returning to his hometown, a young horror fan, and a priest) who battle them. As directed by Tobe Hooper of Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame, its clear you’re in the hands of someone who understands horror. It's remarkable what they managed to pack into something made for television, and in the '70s no less. The vampires themselves are not glittery posturing teens, but monstrous creations full of otherworldliness and malevolence.
At three hours long it's more of an investment than expected, but it satisfyingly hangs together as a masterful piece of entertainment with intelligent scripting, methodical direction, and nifty performances. And the scares? I suspect I will not forget that child’s hand scratching at the window for many more years; not to mention that rocking chair! A benchmark in television movie horror.
Please feel free to add your comments below. I'd love to hear especially about any hard to find, vaguely remembered TV movies that have scared you and why.