When I was a kid and there were only a few television stations, it was always a thrill when a made for TV horror movie or mini-series was announced. I was a horror junkie before I hit the age of ten. But there were many movies I was not allowed to go see at the drive-in.
So when a made for TV horror flick hit the airwaves, I was allowed to watch it without question. At this period in time, there were no television age ratings and very seldom would you see a viewer advisory.
But make no mistake: some of these TV terrors made me plead for a nightlight after viewing them. They may have been relatively clean of foul language, sexual situations and gore, but those have never been the ingredients required to make something frightening. These spooky television adaptations were scary as hell. Many left a deep impression and have become favorites of mine.
Here are my five top Made for TV Horror films:
5. Gargoyles: This was released in 1972. I was seven years old. The story: an anthropologist and his daughter who, while traveling through Arizona, stumble upon a settlement of evil gargoyles. Though the plot and writing were barely above mediocre standards, the award-winning effects provided by Stan Winston (his earliest professional effort, I believe) allowed this flick to rise above its cheesiness.
4. IT: Definitely Stephen King’s most terrifying creation, Pennywise the clown was brought to manic life by Tim Curry. This mini-series was aired in late 1990 and boasted a cast including the late John Ritter, Annette O’Toole and Richard Thomas. This was a highly enjoyable viewing experience, but even with the great Curry personifying IT, this adaptation felt like a diluted version of its source. Still, it provided enough chills to make my #4 spot.
3. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark: Kim Darby plays a housewife stalked by little demons living in the hellish bowels of her mansion. This 1973 TV gem was remade not long ago by Guillermo del Toro. And while I adore his work, his version isn’t even half as creepy as the source.
2. Salem‘s Lot: It was a coin toss between this one and the number one on my list. Tobe Hooper’s 1979 mini-series which was based on Stephen King’s bestseller was an event in my house. It was looked forward to as feverishly as the Oscars or Superbowl. My family was hooked on the work of Stephen King, and everyone talked about this one for weeks afterwards. The casting was fantastic and standouts were David Soul as Ben Mears, a writer returning to his childhood home to bury his fears and James Mason as Straker, the (somewhat) human harbinger of Barlow the vampire.
1. The Night Stalker: The year was 1972 and this made for TV movie introduced us to a protagonist that would influence horror creators and fans for decades. Played by character actor Darren McGavin, Carl Kolchak is a tackily dressed but tenacious investigative reporter in Las Vegas. Hot on the heels of a serial killer claiming young beautiful women on the strip, Carl discovers that the suspect, a 70 year-old Rumanian millionaire, may actually be a bloodthirsty creature of legend. A huge inspiration to the X-Files, Night Stalker would spawn a made for TV sequel and an often maligned and short-lived television series that is still more enjoyable than most modern horror fair. This is due to the dry wit, subtle genius of McGavin and Kolchak’s ability to embrace a situation (no matter how unlikely) when left with only the dark facts that can’t be dispelled. This is my favorite Dan Curtis production ever. The Night Stalker became ABC’s highest rated original TV movie, earning a 33.2 rating and 54 share.