Before streaming platforms. Before there was the SyFy Channel. And before there was the straight-to-video market. Once upon a time there was the made-for-television movie. These were simple times when movie stars and television stars were two different things. Today, SyFy Channel movies are synonymous with ultra low-budgets and cheesy fare. But in the 1970s and 1980s, the made-for-television movie was an event. Each of the ‘Big Three’ networks had a ‘Movie of the Week’. While they were lower budget, generic, and starred television actors or fading movie stars, they weren’t’ always bad movies. At least not intentionally bad. And horror thrived on the small-screen in those days. So if your parents were out and your babysitter was nice, you may have snuck downstairs past your bedtime and watched one of these movies.
Crowhaven Farm (1970)
Crowhaven Farm’s story could probably describe about a half dozen or so made-for-television movies from the 70s. Characters inherit an old house or farm. Soon afterwards the characters experience strange things or visions of Satanic shenanigan’s. After all, the early 70s was only slightly removed from Rosemary’s Baby and the Manson Family murders. But Crowhaven Farm’s generic plot doesn’t get in the way of some actual creepiness. Veteran actors John Carradine (House of Frankenstein) and Hope Lange are on hand to class things up as well.
Originally broadcast as part of CBS’ Tuesday Night Movies, Gargoyles was a regular on Sunday afternoon television schedules. Though it wouldn’t hold up today, the movie’s story of an anthropologist and his daughter discovering a nest of gargoyles in the New Mexico desert was a big deal at the time. In fact, Gargoyles featured some of Stan Winston’s earliest work, which actually earned an Emmy for makeup effects. Odds are Gargoyles will be more likely to inspire laughs than scares for modern audiences, but it’s still worth a look for nostalgia’s sake.
Home for the Holidays (1972)
This forgotten made-for-television thriller actually has some early slasher vibes. Just don’t expect much actual slashing. But Home for the Holidays has that Agatha Christie, ‘And then there were none‘ narrative. Four women return to their family home to spend Christmas with their ill father. No sooner than they’ve arrived and the old man warns them that their stepmother is trying to kill him. Cue a killer wearing a raincoat and carrying a pitchfork. One by one this mysterious figure stalks and kills the sisters. Aside from some proto-slasher vibes, there isn’t much here to recommend expect a surprisingly good cast that includes Sally Field and the late Jessica Walter.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)
If the title of this 1973 made-for-television movie sounds familiar, it should. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark premiered on ABC as one of their Wednesday night movies. Once again, a family inherits an old Victorian mansion where the wife discovers small goblins sealed off inside the fireplace. Terrible things ensue after she inadvertently releases them. By today’s standards, the creature effects are poor and the pacing slow, but Guillermo del Toro was impressed enough to produce a bigger budget 2010 remake. Fans of that strange campy 70s Midnight Movie vibe may enjoy this one.
Satan’s School for Girls (1973)
Here’s yet another Satanic-themed made-for-television movie courtesy of longtime TV producer Aaron Spelling. Following her sister’s suicide, Elizabeth enrolls in the same private school to learn the truth. What she finds are mysterious signs of the occult and Satanic worship. As compared to some of the other movies on this list, Satan’s School for Girls has some pretty decent production values. But it’s also an extremely cheesy movie with something of a groan-inducing finale. Still you’ll find not one, but two, future cast members of Spelling’s popular series, Charlie’s Angels.
Bad Ronald (1974)
Another socially awkward teen, more social rejection, and a terrible accident. After Ronald accidentally kills his younger sister, his protective mother creates a secret room in their large house for Ronald to hide and live in until everything blows over. But when Ronald’s mother suddenly dies, a new family moves into the house unaware that a delusional Ronald is living inside the walls. The execution is cheap and stilted, but the concept has found its way into subsequent movies (The Pact, Aftermath). There’s certainly enough weirdness here for lovers of bad movies. Film buffs will also get to point out familiar faces in Dabney Coleman and Kim Hunter.
Trilogy of Terror (1975)
Like Satan’s School for Girls, Trilogy of Terror has actually built up a bit of a cult following. Originally an ABC Movie of the Night, Trilogy of Terror was a horror anthology that saw Karen Black (Burnt Offerings, House of 1000 Corpses) play multiple roles in three segments. Each of the segments was based on Richard Matheson short stories. Today, the first segment, Julie, would go over like a lead balloon in the #MeToo era. But the strength of its final segment, Amelia, and a certain wooden fetish doll was enough to give a lot of viewers nightmares.
The Spell (1977)
An NBC Big Event Movie of the Week, The Spell shamelessly rips off Brian De Palma’s Carrie. Awkward high school student Rita can’t catch a break at school or at home. Both her classmates and younger sister relentlessly tease her. And her father nags at Rita about her weight. But when strange accidents strike her tormenters, Rita’s mother believes that her daughter may have a supernatural affliction. To be fair, The Spell deviates somewhat from Carrie’s narrative and does sneak in a bit of a surprise twist. And who doesn’t enjoy a good thriller about social outcasts taking revenge? Pay close attention and you’ll catch a young Helen Hunt (I See You) in a small role.
The Dark Secret of Harvest Home
Another unwitting couple, another new home nestled in a community with a dark secret. Despite its generic premise – it was adapted from a Tom Tryon’s novel, Harvest Home – this two-part miniseries is actually one of the better movies on this list. The Dark Secret of Harvest Home boasts some decent production values, creepy Pagan rituals, and a strong cast. In addition to the legendary Bette Davis, Rosanna Arquette (Pulp Fiction), Rene Auberjonois (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), Michael Durrell (V), and even a young Tracey Gold (Growing Pains).
Salem’s Lot (1979)
Salem’s Lot isn’t just a great made-for-television movie; it’s a good movie, period. One of the earliest adaptations of Stephen King’s work, Never does this two-part miniseries feel like it’s three-hour runtime And there’s so many iconic images alongside an excellent balance of jumps and suspense. Of course, Hooper’s adaptation differs from King’s novel in several important respects. But there’s a clear affection in the movie for not only the source material, but horror in general. Ultimately, Salem’s Lot maintains the best of King’s novel while standing on its own as an ode to classic horror.
Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)
Arguably, Dark Night of the Scarecrow has two of the most unsettling images of all the movies listed here. Some bigoted small-town men hunt down and kill Bubba, a developmentally disabled man, wrongfully accused of killing a little girl. While they escape courtroom justice, a ghostly scarecrow – the same scarecrow Bubba had tried to hide in – starts turning up. Soon each of the men fall victims to a tragic accident. Is Bubba still alive? Or has his ghost returned for justice from beyond the grave? Ultimately, Dark Night of the Scarecrow doesn’t so much overcome its made-for-television roots as it does embrace them. Modern audiences may be put off by the movie’s pacing and absence of gore. But it’s still an atmospheric thriller that absolutely chills.
Don’t Go to Sleep (1982)
Beef up the budget a bit and pick up the pacing and Don’t Go To Sleep would hold up quite well. As it stands, this early 80s made-for-television thriller has plenty of decent scares and a twisted story. Following the death of their daughter and sibling, a family moves to a new home in the hopes of moving forward. But when Mary starts seeing her sister’s ghost under the bed ,the family experiences one fatal accident after another. It’s an ‘all in the family’ supernatural revenge movie headlined by excellent performances from Dennis Weaver (Duel) and Valerie Harper. If there’s a movie on this list that deserves a remake, Don’t Go to Sleep is a perfect candidate.