In the past decade or two, the television landscape has changed dramatically. Not least of which is the now insane volume of choices that a viewer has on what to watch. Network television, endless cable options, and a ton of streaming services makes it difficult to keep up with what’s available. Even still, there’s a certain stigma for made-for-television movies. Lower production values, stricter censoring, and pesky commercial breaks means that horror movies made for television can get a bad rap.
The height of made-for-television movies began in the ‘60s throughout the ‘80s, created as an incentive for movie audiences to stay home and watch television instead. Promoted heavily as an equivalent to first run theatrical releases, these movies were made with slightly higher budgets than standard television series, and featured sometime major stars as well. Thanks in part to Dan Curtis, creator of popular gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, who proved horror could have a major audience in television, horror quickly became a mainstay of made-for-television events.
Even with lower budgets and programming limitations, some of the best horror emerged from the small screen. Because one of the best aspects of horror is its ability to manipulate tension and suspense to a nerve-fraying degree. These 10 made-for-TV films not only changed the perception on television movies, but they terrified their viewers in the safety of their own homes:
Trilogy of Terror (1975)
Directed by Dan Curtis, and starring Karen Black, this anthology horror film is based on short stories by Richard Matheson. It was the film that Black felt lead to her being typecast in horror, and it’s easy to understand why. Playing the lead in all three segments, each a different character, Black played a femme fatale, an unhinged woman with split personalities, and most memorably, a woman who finds independence from her overbearing mother thanks to the help of a pint-sized aboriginal warrior. That Zuni fetish doll, with its razor-sharp teeth and little spear, is the stuff of nightmares. Admittedly, it’s often tough to recall the first two segments, but the strength of “Amelia,” and her fight for her life against one of the scariest dolls in movie history keeps this one forever at the forefront of made-for-television movie memory.
When Michael Calls (1972)
Initially airing on ABC on February 1972, this horror thriller boasts one recognizable star name; a young Michael Douglas as Craig. Based on a novel by John Farris, the story revolves around Helen Connelly, a woman whose nephew, Michael, died 15 years ago. While in the middle of a separation from her husband, she begins receiving phone calls from her dead nephew. The ghastly voice of the young boy is enhanced by the atmosphere of the old empty house in which Helen lives. She even begins seeing ghostly silhouettes of a young boy in the fog. It’s a spooky atmosphere with an intriguing mystery that makes this one stand out. The movie does fall into predictable territory toward the end, but the creepy phones calls that haunt Helen becoming haunting for the viewer too.
Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)
Directed by Frank De Felitta, who penned the novels Audrey Rose and The Entity, Dark Night of the Scarecrow was initially intended to be an independent film by screenwriter J.D. Feigelson. Instead, it was snatched up by CBS for television, airing in 1981. Yet, not much of the original screenplay changed, which is somewhat surprising given the dark subject matter. Horror mainstay Larry Drake played Bubba, a mentally challenged man that befriended a young girl, Marylee. Some of the townspeople were unnerved by their friendship, and when Marylee is found unconscious at the doctor’s office, some of those townspeople think the worst of Bubba and enact vigilante justice. Only, poor Bubba was innocent. A mysterious and super creepy scarecrow enacts vengeance upon those that murdered Bubba. It’s so good that you’ll forget it was made for television.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)
This quintessential television film terrified viewers with its little goblin monsters that terrorized poor Sally Farnum (Kim Darby). Directed by John Newland and first airing on ABC on October 10, 1973, not even the 2010 theatrical remake can hold a candle to this cult classic. It helped that this version of Sally was widely sympathetic; her rocky marriage to her husband created a lot of dramatic tension. When Sally begins to hear the whispering of her name and seeing things when she’s supposed to be home alone, her husband thinks she’s going crazy. Both Sally and the viewer know she’s not. It’s not even that the design of the goblins is so scary, but it’s cinematographer Andrew Jackson’s use of lighting and dark shadows that give such a haunting atmosphere. The eerie whispers amongst the pitch-black shadows is enough to make you want to sleep with the lights on.
Based on a Richard Matheson short story, this ABC movie of the week film also marks the distinction for being the feature-length film directing debut of Steven Spielberg. Considered one of the greatest made-for-television movies of all time, and one that Spielberg felt qualified him to direct Jaws, it’s a simple premise that’s all style and tension. Dennis Weaver plays David Mann, a salesman caught up in the scariest case of road rage among the desolate canyon roads. Spielberg plays on the fear of the unknown, as did the source short story, and the viewer never gets to see the driver behind the menacing tanker truck that spends the entire film stalking David.
Salem’s Lot (1979)
After Warner Bros. acquired rights to Stephen King’s novel and sought to turn the source material into a feature film, none of the screenplays worked. In King’s words, “It was a mess.” Eventually, it was turned over to Warner Bros. Television and producer Richard Kobritz decided to try it as a television miniseries due to the length of the novel. After Kobritz caught a screening of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, he selected Tobe Hooper as director. Playing homage to Psycho and Nosferatu, Hooper opted for a much more pervading atmosphere that you couldn’t escape. Hooper’s take proved successful, garnering rave reviews and one that won over King himself. Ralphie Glick at the window remains an all-timer in terms of scariest movie scenes.
The first made for television adaptation of Stephen King’s work since Salem’s Lot, George A. Romero was initially signed on to direct the miniseries for ABC. When he left due to scheduling conflicts, Tommy Lee Wallace (Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Fright Night Part 2) was brought in to helm the two-part miniseries. Comparing it to the source novel, there’s a lot this adaptation gets wrong, and a lot it leaves out entirely due to time constraints. Those who grew up with this version usually agree that the ending is a mess thanks to the large spider. But what made this one so memorable and instilled a wave of coulrophobia for the viewers that grew up with this version is Tim Curry’s take on Pennywise the clown. Curry’s menacing snarl and chilling cackle made Pennywise scarier than most monsters on the big screen.
Sometimes it wasn’t the supernatural that instilled the most fear in audiences, but the confrontation of a terrifying reality. This docudrama that broadcast on BBC Two in September 1984 depicted the effects of nuclear war. As tensions between the US and the Soviet Union escalated, eventually leading to the dropping of a nuclear warhead and sending the town of Sheffield into panic then full-blown destruction. The fallout becomes terrifying, as looters get murderous, disease and radiation sickness spreads, and food grows scarce. Cannibalism, famine, disease, and the regression of civilization into a more barbaric period. It’s harrowing, bleak, and unflinching made even more so by its sense of realism. Threads isn’t horror by standard measures, but it’s horrific nonetheless.
The Woman in Black (1989)
Based on a novel by Susan Hill, this gothic ghost story was first broadcast on Christmas Eve in the UK in 1989. When a widow dies alone in a seaside town, young Arthur Kidd is sent to settle her sprawling estate. The movie spends its time instilling a slow sense of unease as Arthur makes his way to the town, encounters the relatively cold townspeople, and then attends the widow’s funeral. Once he gets to the house and begins to dig into the widow’s past, things start to get scary. A ghost story that’s simple as it is effective; The Woman in Black doesn’t bother with the bells and whistles of modern ghost stories, just pure oozing dread.
Originally airing on Halloween night in 1992, this horror mockumentary was presented as a live televised event. Involving BBC reporters investigating a house in Northolt, Greater London, where paranormal activity was believed to be causing trouble for a family, it caused viewers at home to believe the events were real. The BBC was inundated with phone calls of scared viewers, reportedly receiving an estimated 30,000 in a single hour during the airing. Written and created by Stephen Volk, Ghostwatch is based on the infamous Enfield Poltergeist. The documentary style was full of captivating energy, but what really made Ghostwatch so scary was its small attention to details; the ghost of Pipes could be spotted often lurking in the background of the frame, sending viewers into a bigger state of panic.