When we think made-for-TV horror movies, these days, we tend to think of SyFy fare like Sharknado. With good reason too, as that’s the majority of what we’re getting. But horror in any medium can be great, and there have been some terrific horror films created for television over the years. In the 1970’s and 80’s they were immensely popular and helped launch some incredible careers.
In some ways, the TV movie has almost become a sort of lost art. The influence of them, though, can still be felt. Recent hits Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and The Woman in Black were both remakes of made-for-TV films. And just to be clear, I’m not bunching in miniseries as well. That’s a very similar but nonetheless different format. So you won’t be seeing Salem’s Lot, It or Storm of the Century on this list, as great as they are. That format is still going strong and is, if anything, redefining itself at the moment. Most miniseries we see now are essentially single season TV shows and not two or three two-hour segments.
TV movies on the other hand are more often than not the dumping ground for SyFy’s no-budget exploitation titles or the latest Asylum mockbuster. But these films will show you that just because something premieres on the small screen doesn’t mean it can’t be great.
Someone’s Watching Me
This is a rare, underground gem but one worth digging up. It’s essentially the lost John Carpenter movie. Even though the confines of TV don’t allow for Carpenter’s trademark wide frame, it’s still bears the director’s trademark strong, capable female protagonist as well as actors who have appeared in numerous Carpenter films like Charles Cyphers and Adrienne Barbeau. The plot is basically a ‘70’s update on Rear Window with a few added twists and turns.
Mick Garris has directed more Stephen King adaptations than anyone else and all of them have been for television. But I think Riding the Bullet is not only the best of his King movies, but the best of Garris’s films in general. It’s about a young man obsessed with death who encounters a few ghosts (both metaphorical and literal) as he hitchhikes his way to see his mother in the hospital.
John Carpenter’s Body Bags was originally going to be a TV horror series for Showtime. Only three episodes were shot before the network decided not to go ahead with it and were instead compiled into this anthology film. Carpenter directed two of the segments while Tobe Hooper directed the third. It’s one of the campiest entries in either director’s career but it’s a lot of fun. Carpenter also plays the Crypt Keeper inspired host.
The highest rated television film in history, The Day After is a 1983 feature about nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Instead of depicting the war, the action in instead set in Kansas and Missouri, focusing on the lives of people affected by the attacks. It was incredibly timely when it was released, playing to very real fears that nuclear holocaust could erupt at any moment. It’s more of a character drama than anything, but the horror is very real.
One of my personal favorite made-for-TV horror movies, Dark Night of the Scarecrow is an unsettling and underrated supernatural slasher. Larry Drake actually takes a bit of a break from his traditionally creepy roles to portray a genuinely sympathetic character in the form of the developmentally challenged Bubba who has a strong bond with a young girl as they are on the same intellectual level. When she is mauled and nearly killed by a dog, locals blame Bubba and promptly—and eagerly—lynch him. Now he’s returned in the form of a scarecrow to take vengeance? Or is it really him?
Based on the short story by Richard Matheson, Duel is a fast-paced TV horror flick that also marks the directorial debut of Steven Spielberg. It’s a very simple story about a man trying to outrun a very big and unrelenting truck. The scariest thing, to me, is that we never see the truck’s driver. There’s an excellent sense of mystery to it that proves Spielberg can be a master of horror when he wants to be.
Written by Richard Matheson, this excellent little vampire movie stars Darren McGavin as reporter Carl Kolchak, who is investigating murders that he believes can be attributed to a vampire. This film also spawned the spinoff TV series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker. It was followed by a sequel as well, titled The Night Strangler.
Also written by Richard Matheson—along with William F. Nolan—Trilogy of Terror stars Karen Black in three different anthology segments. The most famous of them is based on Matheson’s short story “Prey” and sees Black terrorized in her apartment by a Zuni fetish doll. This short was hugely influential, with it being cited as the inspiration for both the Child’s Play and Puppet Master series.