Barry Diller, hired by ABC in 1966, was promoted to vice president in charge of feature films and program development in 1969. In this position, he pioneered the concept of the made-for-television movie with the debut of The ABC Movie of the Week. These 90-minute films featured major stars and generally were made for higher budgets than standard series television programs of the same length, including the major dramatic anthology programs which they came to replace.
Jeffrey M. Anderson, a film critic with Combustible Celluloid, has said “few artifacts of popular culture invite more condescension than the made-for-television movie.”
I beg to differ, as the subjects presented were often a diverse blend of hot button issues, including racial intolerance, teenage pregnancy, prison rape, teenage runaways and prostitution, homosexuality, army deserters, etc. The movies were often discussed heatedly around the office water cooler the next day.
I proudly present the top 10 list of the most terrifying moments ever committed to the small screen:
10. When Michael Calls
Broadcast by ABC in 1972, this is the nasty little story of Helen Connelly who is receiving phone calls from a young man. The voice on the line claims to be her nephew Michael, who just happens to have died 15 years before. In these calls, he scolds acquaintances, who then die in suspicious accidents. And Helen starts thinking that she might be next to be scolded.
9. Count Dracula
Made by the BBC and then broadcast as part of Great Performances on PBS, this is the most faithful adaptation of Stoker’s novel. Featuring Louis Jourdan in the lead and Shakespearean actor Frank Finlay as Van Helsing, this is one electrifying and eerie tale. The scene where Dracula’s Three Brides make a late-night snack of an infant that the Count has brought home had to be cut out of the American broadcast version as simply too shocking.
8. Deadly Love
Made by Lifetime and only broadcast a few times, this juicy little tidbit of the dark side of romance features a homicide detective working to bring an unknown killer to justice. He meets a woman, falls in love, and slowly becomes suspicious that she is somehow involved in the murders and eventually comes to realize the real truth. The film does an excellent job of combining the chick flick, police procedural, and horror movie all into one interesting gem.
Made in 1985 and broadcast on the USA Network, it is the bone-chilling tale of a cryogenically preserved Miles Creighton. His storage tank malfunctions, and he is rushed to a hospital where the surgeons perform a new procedure on him not available before he was frozen. He then awakens, goes home with Mommy, and begins to act really badly. Besides being an evil corporate executive looking for every penny in profit from his deceased father’s corporation and acting like an unctious butthead, people that ran afoul of Miles start turning up dead.
This film is surprisingly played low-key for a Wes Craven production, and it is very effective, especially the scenes between Miles and his mother who refuses to see her son for what he is.
Debuted on ABC in 1990 and loosely based on Stephen King’s novel, It is a wicked little gem about the small Maine town of Derry. Children in Derry have the bad habit of turning up missing or dead in the most atrocious manner. Featuring Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown, chewing scenery like never before with those hideous mouth full of teeth, this mini-series gave a number of children, and a few adults, bad dreams for a long time.
It also taught us to never, ever stick your arm down into a sewer. No telling what the hell is down there!
5. The Dark Secret of Harvest Home
A mini-series from 1978, The Dark Secret of Harvest Home relates the story of a young couple and their daughter that moves to a remote New England town for the simple life. They get to meet the people of the town such as Widow Fortune (well played by Bette Davis), and they begin to notice there are some very strange things going on, such as pagan rites, in-bred neighbors, etc. The father is understandably concerned when he notices the people of the town’s strange fascination with his daughter.
The nasty and shocking ending to the film caused this viewer to see it as an extreme version of a female rights call to arms!
4. Trilogy of Terror
Broadcast by ABC in 1975, this film features three stories, all of which are based on Richard Matheson stories, with the lead female character played by Karen Black. The first two — Julie and Millicent and Therese — are unremarkable and pedestrian affairs. The final tale — Amelia — is the stuff of legends, and is about a young woman living alone in a high-rise apartment with a mother that frets over her safety. She returns home with a most interesting purchase: a Zuni hunting fetish with large shark-like teeth and razor-sharp hunting spear, which she sits down on the coffee table. A scroll accompanying the doll warns that it contains a spirit of destruction named “He Who Kills,” and a gold chain on the doll keeps the spirit bound and powerless. Laughing at the legend, she walks away, not noticing the chain has come loose. After which, literally, living hell breaks loose in the apartment when the Insane Muppet appropriates a large butcher knife and begins to chase, hack, slash, and tooth gnash the aforementioned Amelia around the apartment.
I know several people who can recount quite vivid nightmares from having seen this movie as a youngster. I work with a woman whose sister was so traumatized that, if she sees see a little person, she has a full blown anxiety attack!
3. The Night Stalker
Broadcast by ABC in 1972, this film is the story of investigative reporter Carl Kolchak who is chasing the story of a serial killer working in the sleazy Las Vegas Strip. Carl is looking especially down on his luck, wearing his pork-pie hat and seersucker suit and driving an old rusted blue 1968 Chevrolet Camaro Rallye Sport Convertible to investigate all the police action. He discovers that the killer is actually a modern day vampire named Janos Skorzeny.
The film was so successful that it spun off into a second film and then a short-lived series, which later was one of the inspirations for The X-Files.
Made by ABC in 1971 and directed by Stephen Spielberg, this is the tale of David Mann (played by Dennis Weaver as an everyday Joe) from California. He is traveling to a business appointment with a client. Passing a slow moving old tanker truck while going up a hill, he sets off a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with a psychotic truck driver. Known for the action sequences shot from the viewpoint of the tires and use of the empty desert highways, the film is still copied and studied by many film makers, one instance being the chase sequences in the film Jeepers Creepers.
Broadcast on Halloween in 1992, it purported to be a live on-air investigation by the BBC of a Northholt house where poltergeist phenomenon was happening. Viewers were treated to escalating phenomenon, such as ghostly voices recorded on tape, apparitions, various items flying about the rooms, and eventually possession of the hosts.
This one caused a real ruckus in Great Britain, leading to at least one documented suicide of a mentally disabled man and two reported cases of post-traumatic stress disorder.