Thursday, October 31, 2019

20 of the Best Made For Television Horror/Thriller Films of the 70s and 80s

After constantly coming in well behind CBS and NBC in the ratings, the ABC Network gambled on a weekly anthology series of Made For Television productions in the hopes they could offer some legitimate competition to the two other major Networks. Initially designed as low budget pictures to fit a 90 minute time slot (sometimes a 2 hour slot), the Movie of the Week concept occasionally acted as a testing ground for potential television programs like STARSKY AND HUTCH and the first attempt at launching WONDER WOMAN as a series with Cathy Lee Crosby. Lasting six seasons between 1969 and 1975, some genuine classics (like DUEL and BRIAN'S SONG) were sprinkled among a slew of cult items. After the Movie of the Week finished its lengthy run, ABC continued to produce TV pictures as well as airing theatrical movies or even movies designed for theatrical release but made their world premieres on the small screen. The following list is a selection of some of the best Made For Television productions offered by 'The Big Three' between the years of 1970 through 1985. All films are accompanied by their original TV Guide premiere advertisement where applicable.


Debuted November 24th, 1970 as the ABC Movie of the Week from 8:30pm-10:00pm

TV Guide description: "Crowhaven Farm (1970), a Made For TV chiller about witches, death and reincarnation. The drama centers on Maggie Porter, new owner of the farm, who's being tormented by eerie dreams."

After the theatrical success of ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968), the subject of witchcraft and satanism was transferred to the television medium in the form of the Aaron Spelling produced chiller, CROWHAVEN FARM; a sinister tale of revenge and reincarnation that, due to its own unexpectedly huge success, inspired imitations of its own such as the ominous Made For TV two-parter THE DARK SECRET OF HARVEST HOME (1978). A benchmark of TV Movie Terror, the majority of the FARM and the surrounding rural community differs from ROSEMARY'S cityscape coven. Incidentally, the popularity, and also the safety net of the TV movie format gave Polanski's classic horror film a Made For TV sequel in 1976 with LOOK WHAT'S HAPPENED TO ROSEMARY'S BABY. CROWHAVEN FARM's cast is crammed full of familiar faces like John Carradine; and even the ultimate Tough Guy William Smith appears in the very last scene to deliver a vaguely menacing message following a twist ending key to why CROWHAVEN is so well remembered. FARM's competition was NBC's fascinating SciFi-Horror-Thriller, HAUSER'S MEMORY about a scientist working for the CIA injecting himself with the cerebrospinal fluid of a dead scientist to preserve his memories on military secrets; only insidious figures wish to have that information. It aired from 9pm-11pm and starred David McCallum, Susan Strasberg and Leslie Nielsen.

2. DUEL 1971

Debuted Saturday, November 13th, 1971 as the ABC Movie of the Weekend from 7:30pm-9:00pm

TV Guide description:"'Duel', a nightmare on a deserted highway. You're doing 55. You floor it to pass a gas truck and it's cler driving ahead. Not quite... minutes later the truck is back, a hulking mass of metal that looms up from behind, shoots around you a missile and cuts you off. The deadly game begins. Dennis Weaver plays the prey in the TV-movie, filmed on location in the rugged Soledad Canyon area of Southern California. The story, published last march in Playboy, was written by horror film veteran Richard Matheson after an encounter with a reckless truck driver. Directed by Steven Spielberg."

Early in his career, Steven Spielberg directed one of the most famous Made For Television thrillers ever produced. Essentially a cat and mouse plot between a guy in a red car and an unseen lunatic in a very big truck, Spielberg extracts the maximum amount of suspense from a simplistic premise. DUEL was so good, additional scenes were shot for overseas theatrical play. Slickly made and bordering on horror, DUEL never feels like a TV production. DUELing for network ratings opposite ABC was NBCs rerun of THE WAR WAGON (1967) starring John Wayne and Kirk Douglas. Popular TV actor Dennis Weaver delivers a nerve-jangling performance that, while initially coming off as unlikable, eventually wins over audience sympathy. Weaver starred in two other Tele-Terror productions, the STRAW DOGS inspired TERROR ON THE BEACH (1973) and the ghost revenge horror of DON'T GO TO SLEEP (1982). DUEL's popularity ensured many repeat airings over the course of the next two decades. Spielberg's career would quickly skyrocket after directing JAWS (1975); a directing gig he got because of his phenomenally taut work on this little suspenser shot in Southern California. At the time of its debut, DUEL was not previewed by critics.


Debuted January 11th, 1972 as the ABC Tuesday Movie of the Week from 7:30pm-9:00pm.

TV Guide description: "A modern monster story: Darren McGavin stars as a Las Vegas reporter on the trail of a maniac who thinks he's a vampire. This TV-movie was filmed on location."

THE NIGHT STALKER, a ghoulishly stylish horror movie, was at one time the highest rated film made for television. It beget a TV-movie sequel, THE NIGHT STRANGLER (1973), that debuted nearly a year to the day in January of the following year. Surprised and impressed by the ratings bonanzas of the two films, ABC bankrolled a TV series titled KOLCHAK, THE NIGHT STALKER (1974) which, unfortunately, survived for only a single season. The same fate awaited a 2005 reboot series. Dan Curtis, fresh off DARK SHADOWS (1966-1971) and two theatrical films based on that popular soap opera (1970s HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS and 1971s NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS), produced and John Llewellyn Moxey (CITY OF THE DEAD) directed. Dan Curtis would quickly become synonymous with small screen horror as well as its master.

Aside from Darren McGavin's infectious Carl Kolchak, who always seems to rub everyone the wrong way, the movie benefits from a ravenously energetic vampire villain played by Barry Atwater. An abundance of action and stunts elevate the film above the usual TV standards. THE NIGHT STALKER was released to theaters overseas and, in traditional fashion, was spared Judith Crist's critical wrath prior to its debut. Other than a 60 minute special on NBC titled SUFFER THE LITTLE CHILDREN about the effects of violence on the youngsters in war-ravaged Northern Ireland, THE NIGHT STALKER dominated prime time.


Debuted November 21st, 1972 as the CBS Tuesday Night Movie from 9:30pm-11:00pm

TV Guide description: "Special effects such as flying monsters steal the show in 'Gargoyles', a horror fantasy about half-man, half-reptile creatures planning to wipe out the human race. Cornel Wilde is the anthropologist out to stop them. This TV movie was filmed in Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico."

Thoroughly entertaining and showcasing impressive monster suits that belies its television production origins, GARGOYLES is fun stuff for the Drive-in crowd and still holds up today. Another plus is the aura of cross-country Americana with its roadside attractions that's all but extinct today. Future Oscar winning FX master Stan Winston did the monster makeups. Bernie Casey (HITMAN; DR. BLACK AND MR. HYDE) plays the leader of the cave-dwelling creatures. Giving GARGOYLES a run for its ratings was a repeat of the Made For Television Emmy winning drama BRIAN'S SONG (1971) from 8:30pm-10:00pm; while NBC countered with a repeat of 1961s award-winning WEST SIDE STORY from 8pm-11pm. As was often the case, GARGOYLES was unseen by critics prior to airing. Additionally, there was no advertisement for the picture's premiere.


Debuted January 30th, 1973 as the ABC Tuesday Movie of the Week from 8:30pm-10:00pm.

TV Guide description: "A Cold Night's Death, starring Robert Culp and Eli Wallach as scientists trapped in a snow-bound research station. Worse: they're under attack by some unknown force terrorizing them to the brink of insanity. The electronic background score was composed by Gil Melle who scored Andromeda Strain."

One of the most chillingly creepy films you're likely to see, television director Jerrold Freedman (1972s KANSAS CITY BOMBER) and writer Christopher Knopf (1957s 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH) utilized the budgetary limitations of network productions to their advantage with a single locale and a limited cast. The arctic isolation is frightening and the mesmerizing performances of Robert Culp and Eli Wallach hold your attention till the final, terrifying reveal. Competition for this Cold Night came in the form of BAFFLED, an occult-themed thriller on NBC starring Leonard Nimoy; and over on CBS was the crime drama BIRDS OF PREY starring David Janssen. As was often the case with most TV movies with creepy subject matter, A COLD NIGHT'S DEATH was unavailable for preview to critics; nor did TV Guide feature an advertisement for the film's debut. Like a lot of quality TV pictures, this one played theaters overseas. Ice-cold horror in the vein of Campbell's 'Who Goes There?', Freedman's blood-freezing slow burn is small-screen horror at its finest.


Debuted February 21st, 1973 as the NBC Wednesday Night Movie from 7:30pm-9:00pm

TV Guide description: "'The Norliss Tapes', a pilot for a possible series, stars Roy Thinnes a a writer investigating the supernatural. First up: the case of a walking dead man. Filmed in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Carmel, CA."

Dan Curtis's underrated spooker was his second TV Movie directing gig after THE NIGHT STRANGLER (1973), which debuted a little over a month earlier. Designed as a potential weekly series about the search for an occult investigator who left behind a box of tapes of his paranormal explorations, it never made it past the pilot stage; so what became of David Norliss remains a mystery. Had the film rivaled the wild success of THE NIGHT STALKER (1972), then likely we'd of gotten at least a seasons worth of the supernatural. ABC's 7:30pm competition was in a similar vein with AND NO ONE COULD SAVE HER (1973), about Lee Remick's search for her husband who boarded a plane for Ireland and never got off. Unlike ABC's offering, NBC's THE NORLISS TAPES was kept from critical nitpicking prior to its premiere.


Debuted October 10th, 1973 as the ABC Wednesday Night Movie from 8:30pm-10:00pm

TV Guide description: "Mysterious, demon-like creatures are the chilling forces in 'Don't Be Afraid of the Dark.' For some unknown reason, the evil urchins are trying to terrorize a woman to death. John Newland ('One Step Beyond') directed this 1973 TV movie."

One of the most famous TV Terror's, DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK wrangles some genuine, if minor, chills in its 74 minute running time. This was also the week Dan Curtis's DRACULA was to have debuted (more on that elsewhere in this article). Judith Crist showed anticipation for that one due to her love of Jack Palance but spared DARK, which was not available for review, any scathing remarks. Many who saw the film as kids upon its TV debut vividly remember the whispering little monsters scaring the hell out of them. Like some other titles on this list, DARK is one of those film's that stays with you. The forgettable 2010 remake from Guillermo Del Toro (a huge fan of the original) pales in comparison with its dull narrative and plodding pacing. The short-lived (only 4 episodes) cop drama, TENAFLY (1973-1974) starring James McEachin, had its debut pilot episode in the same time-slot. A big spooky mansion, hidden passageways, and minuscule, murderous monsters backed by a nicely eerie score by Billy Goldenberg (DUEL) make for a tasty Halloween treat for nostalgia lovers.


Debuted November 30th, 1973 as the NBC Friday Night Movie from 9:00pm-11:00pm. Part 2 debuted the following night in the same time-slot.

TV Guide description:"Frankenstein--without a monster. This two-part adaptation has all of the Gothic trappings of Mary Shelley's novel, but the creature who comes off the doctor's table tonight is a handsome youth with an inquisitive mind. With an accent more on characterization than terror, the drama revolves around the 'father-son' rapport between Dr. Frankenstein and his creation, a relationship that takes a dark turn when the creature's body mysteriously begins to deteriorate. Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy wrote the literate script. John Geilgud, Margaret Leighton, and Ralph Richardson have brief roles in the work. Part 2 is telecast tomorrow night at this time."

TV Guide lavished quite a bit of praise for this epic, surprisingly gory production even though the finished film was not made available to resident stuffy critic, Judith Crist. A five page color article covering the novel and the new film was featured along with several photos from the movie. The usually condescending Crist had this to say: "And for something less contemporary, there's the first two-hour installment of a two-part Frankenstein: The True Story, so termed, we're told, because adapters Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy have returned to the Mary Shelley original that got lost along the Karloff-monster-movie way. Leonard Whiting is the doctor, Michael Sarrazin the 'creature' in this one. Another network tried some of the same in January, you may recall. It's not so much a matter of getting the real Frankenstein to stand up, it seems, as getting all the others to lie down."

The other Frankenstein picture she references was another two-parter that debuted Tuesday January 16th and concluded Wednesday the 17th. Simply titled FRANKENSTEIN, this was a shot on video production penned by Dan Curtis with the first part airing as the ABC Late Movie (ABC Wide World of Entertainment) from 11:30pm-1:00am, the same night as Curtis's THE NIGHT STRANGLER (1973) made its debut. Starring Robert Foxworth, Susan Strasberg and Bo Svenson as the Monster, is not as well remembered. THE TRUE STORY, which had the night to itself, is easily among the best adaptations of the classic novel of science gone awry.


Debuted December 11th, 1973 as the ABC Tuesday Night Movie from 7:30pm-9:00pm.

TV Guide description: "Murder and witchcraft make for eerie moments in 'The Cat Creature', about a series of mysterious deaths somehow linked to an ancient order of Egyptian priests. Veteran actor John Carradine appears in a cameo role as a skid-row hotel clerk."

One of the better cat-creature features, Curtis Harrington's curse-filled spooker finds Meredith Baxter (later the mother on FAMILY TIES [1982-1989]) embroiled in an ancient Egyptian curse involving mummies and vampiric creatures. Harrington also helmed QUEEN OF BLOOD (1966), THE KILLING KIND (1973), and RUBY (1977). THE CAT CREATURE was not previewed for critics. Three days earlier at 7:30pm on Saturday night, ABC debuted another feline fear flick titled MANEATER, about a madman setting two Bengal tigers loose on four vacationers; directed by Vince Edwards (BEN CASEY [1961-1966])! As for THE CAT CREATURE, the cast is a good one--including David Hedison, Keye Luke, and Special Guest Star, Stuart Whitman. TV Guide's notoriously picky critic Judith Crist said, "described as 'an old fashioned horror film' that might well be one since it's written by Robert Bloch, one of the best in the business--all the evil emanates from an ancient cat-shaped amulet." And old-fashioned is exactly how it feels--in the vein of a Universal Horror picture from their more escapist, if less classy, 1940s era. THE CAT CREATURE marked its territory unopposed that night. TV Guide offered no advertisement for the film's premiere.

10. DRACULA 1973

Debuted February 8th, 1974 as the CBS Friday Night Movie from 9:00pm-11:00pm.

TV Guide description (from official debut): "Jack Palance as 'Dracula', in this 1973 TV movie, Palance plays the vampire king as a slightly pathetic figure, a victim of twisted fate--but the actor still summons up the evil of the bloodthirsty Count."

Initially set to premiere Friday night October 12th, 1973, the film (unpreviewed for critics at the time) was postponed due to the announcement of Gerald Ford's nomination for Vice President. DRACULA rose from his small-screen respite four months later to take a bite out of the ratings on February 8th, 1974. Unlike the original, intended airdate, there was no advertisement for the film's official premiere. Palance isn't as over the top as you'd expect, and is unusually good in the role, imbuing his Dracula with animalistic, sinister, and even sympathetic qualities. He's comparable to Christopher Lee, bur more intense and with more dialog. Curtis's DRACULA is simply one of the best adaptations of Stoker's novel and among the most accomplished of television productions. Judith Crist must've gotten a gander at it during the delay because her summation is unusually kind considering her typical damnation of such films: "richly produced and elegantly cast, with Jack Palance excellent and somehow touching as the bloodthirsty Count." ABC had two other premieres critics never saw of the SciFi and Thriller variety with KILLDOZER on Saturday, February 2nd; and CRY PANIC on Wednesday, February 6th.


Debuted March 4th, 1975 as the ABC Tuesday Movie of the Week

TV Guide description: "Trilogy of Terror, a 1975 TV-movie, features Karen Black in a trio of horror stories. In the first, she plays a single woman stalked by a doll that comes to life; in the second, she portrays both a promiscuous beauty and her prim, plain sister; the third story follows a teacher who becomes involved sexually with one of her students... ABC plans to make an announcement warning that the movie may not be suitable for all members of the family."

A fan favorite and a high point in the annals of TV terror, Karen Black (THE GREAT GATSBY; AIRPORT 1975) runs the whole show starring in three suspense/horror stories. Dan Curtis's 90 minute nail-biter has remained a cult favorite due solely to its third tale, 'Amelia'; wherein Karen Black is terrorized by a Zuni Fetish Doll accidentally brought to life. This third segment was so popular, it was released on VHS as a stand-alone short. The first two stories--one about a student who's hot for teacher and lives to regret it; and the second deals with sibling rivalry that ends in tragedy. The first two are psychological in nature while the third is full-bore horror. Competition that night was NBCs TV Movie premiere of THE LAST SURVIVORS starring Martin Sheen. TRILOGY OF TERROR was not made available for review prior to its airing. Curtis returned to the anthology format with 1977s DEAD OF NIGHT that mirrors TRILOGY's narrative flow in that the last story is a stand-out while the other two feel like filler. Curtis later directed a Made For Cable sequel, TRILOGY OF TERROR II (1996) starring Lysette Anthony in three tales of horror--one of which is a sequel to the famous killer doll story.


Debuted November 22nd, 1976 as the NBC Monday Night Movie from 9:00pm-11:00pm.

TV Guide description: "The Savage Bees, a 1976 TV-movie, deals with a swarm of killer bees hovering over New Orleans only days before Mardi Gras."

Arguably the best of the "Bee" movies, and produced to capitalize on the African Killer Bee craze, this 1976 TV movie benefits from some taut scenes of suspense and palpable horror that belies its low budget network origins. It isn't surprising then, that Bruce Geller's tele-film made its way to theaters overseas. Unpreviewed for critics prior to its premiere, a repeat airing the following year on April 27th, 1977 yielded some surprising praise from the usual sting of Judith Crist; noting the finale as "a smashing climax worth re-seeing." Two years later, these Bees were sequelized in Lee H. Katzin's TERROR OUT OF THE SKY (1978) wherein Dan Haggerty and other cast members confront a new breed of bee that ultimately traps them and a bunch of Boy Scouts on a bus. The sequel, however, was a Tuesday Night premiere produced for CBS. Geller was famous for creating the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1966-1973) series. He died in a plane crash along with another TV producer in 1978.


Debuted September 16th, 1977 as the ABC Friday Night Movie from 9:00pm-11:00pm.

TV Guide description: "A deadly metamorphosis is part of the 'Curse of the Black Widow', a 1977 TV-movie that recalls the horror flicks of the 50s."

While the identity and creepy-crawly nature of the title arachno-lady is kept under wraps till the last few minutes, TV Guide's advertisement isn't shy about revealing that you're getting a cop thriller cum monster movie. The low key comedy bits are a curious inclusion for the usual serious business Dan Curtis indulged in. Some unintentional humor surfaces when the giant spider roars like Rodan! Unavailable for critical review (or drubbing as was almost always the case), Crist had this to say: "CURSE takes a negative approach to spiders, with a woman undergoing a sort of Jekyll-Hyde transformation, we're told, and becoming 'uncontrollably drawn to luring men and trapping them in her web'." Two days earlier on Wednesday saw the CBS premiere of SPIDERMAN, a 90 minute television movie that went to series the following year for a season. At 9:00pm on NBC was the fourth season debut of THE ROCKFORD FILES wherein Jim Rockford investigating a mystery man who has assumed his identity. And at 9:30pm on CBS saw the 90 minute premiere of the LOGAN'S RUN television series starring Gregory Harrison and Heather Menzies. CURSE was the small screen horror king's last TV-movie terror till 1996s TRILOGY OF TERROR 2. CURSE had a surefire ratings bonanza as a lead-in with the 60 minute documentary, THE MAKING OF STAR WARS. Arachno-mania continued three months later in December when CBS assaulted viewers with TARANTULAS: THE DEADLY CARGO.


Debuted January 27th, 1978 as the ABC Friday Night Movie from 9:00pm-11:00pm.

TV Guide description: "Marine biologists pursue a mysterious creature that haunts 'The Bermuda Depths' in this eerie 1977 romantic drama."

Arguably the most esoteric movie ever made, DEPTHS has one of the most devoted fan followings of any movie regardless of the size of the screen it was made for. The second, and most intriguing, of three Rankin-Bass co-productions with Japan's Tsuburaya Production company (famous for the vast ULTRAMAN series'), with the first being 1977's THE LAST DINOSAUR and the third 1980's THE IVORY APE. Judith Crist had this to say: "The week's one theatrical newcomer, 'The Bermuda Depths', was made for theaters but never released therein and is unavailable for preview. The plot line offered me defies description or capsulizing. Suffice it to say that with a cast headed by Burl Ives, we are promised 'an adventure, a supernatural thriller, unearthly romance and a riddle' set in the Bermuda Triangle." When it aired again as the ABC Friday Night Movie on August 29th, 1980, Crist's critical summation upon viewing the film was her usual style of derision: "Equally worthless is 1978's 'The Bermuda Depths', a mix of fantasy, science fiction, satanism, incoherent plotting and bad acting through which Burl Ives wanders." Competing for viewership on the night of DEPTH's premiere was an episode of THE ROCKFORD FILES on NBC; and a pilot for a potential, if unscheduled, horror series titled THE WORLD BEYOND aired on CBS. Straight to television in America, other movies bypassed theaters in the US making their debuts on TV such as the 1979 Italian horror film THE GREAT ALLIGATOR directed by Sergio Martino.


Debuted February 6, 1978 as the ABC Monday Night Movie from 9:00pm-11:00pm.

TV Guide description: "Supernatural happenings surround 'The Initiation of Sarah' in this 1978 TV-movie about a psychic coed (Kay Lenz) and an evil sorority housemother (Shelley Winters)."

It's cute Kay Lenz versus mega-bitch Morgan Fairchild in THE INITIATION OF SARAH, a curious mix of telekinetic powers and witchcraft. Shelley Winters is basically reprising her Ma Barker BLOODY MAMA (1970) role if she were a satanist. Unavailable for critic review, Judith Crist accurately summed it up as 'Carrie goes to college'. There's some mild titillation and a few cool shock moments that have made this INITIATION a minor cult item. Kay Lenz was fresh off the wild ratings success of RICH MAN, POOR MAN (1976), and its lengthier sequel RICH MAN, POOR MAN BOOK 2 (1976-1977). Director Robert Day directed Drive-in fare like the gooey FIRST MAN INTO SPACE (1958); one of Gordon Scott's best Tarzan's in TARZAN THE MAGNIFICENT (1960); and Hammer's respectable version of SHE (1965) starring Ursula Andress, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Other than the conclusion of 1976s MIDWAY (making its TV premiere and with unused footage to supplement two 2 hour time slots), SARAH was virtually competition-free. The film was remade in 2006 for the ABC Family channel.

16. SALEM'S LOT 1979

Debuted November 17th, 1979 as the CBS Saturday Night Movie from 9:00pm-11:00pm. Shown in two parts, the movie concluded the following Saturday in the same time-slot.

TV Guide description:"'Salem's Lot' spells terror in this 1979 TV adaptation of Stephen King's supernatural thriller set in a mall Maine community."

There's some genuine spookers on this list, but without question the scariest of them all is Tobe Hooper's SALEM'S LOT. Forty years after its original airing, the vampires of Salem's Lot remain the most terrifying ever put to screen... big or small--with their undead pallor, yellow eyes, and blood-stained teeth. Whether it's the floating vampire kid scratching at the window begging to be let in; Geoffrey Lewis slowly rocking back and forth in a rocking chair staring with his yellow eyes; or any scene with the feral Barlow, there's many a memorably bone-chilling moment in the tiny hamlet of SALEM'S LOT. Other than the LOVE BOAT on ABC and BJ AND THE BEAR on NBC, SALEM'S LOT was unopposed on the film front. The smash hit TV-film got its first repeat on May 23rd, 1981. Again airing on a Saturday night, it was bumped up to the 8 o'clock hour and edited down from its two part airings at 2 hours each to a single 3-hour slot. With 45 minutes shaved off, producer Richard Kobritz stated, "For me, it's the best version." TV Guide afforded SALEM'S LOT an entirely different ad for its first replay, making it seem more like a dark romance than the full-fledged horror it is. A trimmed down version with some additional, more intense scenes played American cable and was released on VHS tape and to theaters overseas. As good as the original TV version is, the international cut is scary as all hell, unnerving, and highly recommended.


Debuted October 24th, 1981 as the CBS Saturday Night Movie from 9:00pm-11:00pm.

TV Guide description: "In 'Dark Night of the Scarecrow', a 1981 TV-movie, four men face chilling retribution for the vigilante slaying of a retarded man."

A prime example of small screen horror that plays like a theatrical feature, novelist and screenwriter Frank De Felitta gave genre fans a Trick r' Treat favorite for Halloween back in 1981. Genuinely scary with a spooktacular score and death scenes, despite implied, that are quite gruesome for television, it's somewhat of a horror take on John Steinbeck's famous novella 'Of Mice and Men'. In fact, Larry Drake, the kindly retarded man blamed for a murder he didn't commit, played Lennie in a Broadway version of 'Of Mice and Men' in 1985. Judith Crist and her typewriter wrote: "Charles Durning, as the local postman, heads a quartet of vigilantes who shoot down the town's simpleton, who's wrongly suspected of killing a child. When justice fails to punish the baddies, mysterious 'accidents' take place. Who's responsible? Who knows? Who cares?" Competition from the other major Networks was a LOVE BOAT with passengers Joan Van Ark, Brian Kerwin, Christopher Norris, and Flip Wilson setting sail on ABC; while over on NBC was NASHVILLE PALACE, a country and comedy variety special series premiere hosted by Roy Clark and guests including Slim Pickens, Tanya Tucker and Jerry Reed. DARK NIGHT endures as a shining example of Television Terror. Like some of the other fear flicks on this list, SCARECROW is perfect Halloween viewing.

18. DON'T GO TO SLEEP 1982

Debuted December 10th, 1982 as the ABC Friday Night Movie from 9:00pm-11:00pm.

TV Guide description: "'Don't Go To Sleep', a 1982 TV-movie, casts Valerie Harper and Dennis Weaver as the parents of a disturbed girl who believes she's being visited by a sister who died in a violent auto accident."

Arguably one of the most intense Made For Television pictures, Aaron Spelling produced this TV clone of POLTERGEIST (1982) that haunted theaters a few months earlier. Richard Lang's small-screen tale of ghostly vengeance and psychological horror is unsettling enough that it likely would've done very well if it had been released to theaters domestically; great cast, too. SLEEP's competition was an episode of the CBS Network firebrand DALLAS (1978-1991); and an episode of KNIGHT RIDER (1982-1986) in its first season on NBC. If you're a fan of the Clint classics EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE (1978) and ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN (1980), you'll find Ruth Gordon acting in basically the same capacity just minus all the foul language. A prolific director of TV programs and TV movies, Lang also directed the gory theatrical western, THE MOUNTAIN MEN (1980) starring Charlton Heston. As for SLEEP, it didn't cause Judith Crist to lose any of hers as it was unavailable for preview.

19. I, DESIRE 1982

Debuted November 15th, 1982 as the ABC Monday Night Movie from 9:00pm-11:00pm.

TV Guide description: "A female vampire posing as a prostitute stalks modern-day Hollywood in 'I, Desire'. Stalking her: an increasingly obsessed coroners aid (David Naughton), who's attacked by the fiend, but can't get anyone to believe him. A 1982 TV-movie."

This underrated vampire thriller has a lot to recommend it; not the least of which is direction by John Llewellyn Moxey of THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) fame and the thickly atmospheric B/W spooker CITY OF THE DEAD (1960). In some ways, I, DESIRE is an inverted version of THE NIGHT STALKER, swapping out a male vampire for a female one. The major difference between the two is Skorzeny, pouncing on his victims, never spoke any dialog aside from animalistic hisses and growls while the sexy vamp of DESIRE growled like a panther, but manipulated men into baring their necks for her stiff nightcaps. Don Peake's (THE HILLS HAVE EYES; THE PREY) forbidding score is music to your ears; and the villainous, vampiric performance of Barbara Stock makes one wonder why she didn't do more sexy horror roles. David Naughton had previously been a singin' and dancin' spokesperson for Dr. Pepper; and later got the gig as the star of MAKIN' IT, a 1979 disco sitcom that was anything but Solid Gold. The catchy theme song was a hit, though. Movies came in the form of the Disney scavenger hunt cult comedy favorite MIDNIGHT MADNESS (1980); the teen sex comedy HOT DOG: THE MOVIE (1981); and horror-comedy classic AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981). DESIRE's competition was Brian De Palma's DRESSED TO KILL (1980), making its network television premiere on NBC at 9pm. Occasionally popping up on cable TV, it's unfortunate this tense bloodsucker hasn't been resurrected on DVD or Blu-ray.


Debuted November 1st, 1985 as the ABC Friday Night Movie from 9:00pm-11:00pm.

TV Guide description: "Teenagers in a New England town inadvertently invoke a centuries-old witch's curse in 'The Midnight Hour' in this Halloween comedy-thriller. Production design by Charles Hughes (Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' video. A 1985 TV-movie."

With the success of Michael Jackson's iconic THRILLER (1983) mini-movie and video, and the box office hit THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985) putting a fresh spin on zombie lore, THE MIDNIGHT HOUR blends the two for a surprisingly entertaining, if awfully silly two hours of Halloween entertainment. Like RETURN, there's even a midget zombie. The accidental mass zombie "uprising" is a nod to the 1972 favorite CHILDREN SHOULDN'T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS. Jack Bender's colorful comedic creeper is likely the only Made For TV horror movie that's built entirely around the holiday. There's some great makeup courtesy of Oscar winning makeup man Steve LaPorte and Emmy winning Rick Stratton. The cast is full of old pros and young performers--some of whom went on to great things like Peter DeLuise (5 seasons of 21 JUMP STREET) and LeVar Burton (7 seasons of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION). And it's all backed by a fabulously frightful, Halloween-centric soundtrack served up by everybody's favorite raspy-voiced DJ, the epochal Wolfman Jack, daddy. Vampires, zombies and werewolves are the life of the party that begins at THE MIDNIGHT HOUR.


Friday, October 25, 2019

William Marshall: The Dark Knight of Horror

"Blacula is the only vampire I am aware of who is not enjoying his drinks."--William Marshall, Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine #103, December 1973

Famous the world over for his performance as Prince Mamuwalde, the regal African dignitary doomed to a bloodsucking eternity as BLACULA (1972) and summoned once more in its sequel SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM (1973), William Horace Marshall is recognized as one of the finest actors of stage and screen. Born in Gary, Indiana on August 19th, 1924, Mr. Marshall possessed an incredible, unmistakably commanding basso cantante voice that served him well in a distinguished career as a stage actor; but, unfortunately, left him vastly underrated on the Big Screen.

A few decades prior to donning the fangs and cape of Prince Mamuwalde, William Marshall displayed a determination for something other than an ordinary life. Attending Gary College during the day, and working in a steel mill at night, he enlisted into the military where he served in the Intelligence Reconnaissance Division of the Infantry in Georgia. One of his many passions was artistry; so after a medical discharge from the military, he enrolled in the Art Students League. Theater studies came soon after with enrollment at The Actors Studio and studied under the tutelage of Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse, both in New York City.

In 1944 at 19 years of age he got his first role in a Broadway show called 'Carmen Jones'. It was at this point Mr. Marshall discovered his knack for singing. The burgeoning actor was now juggling his artistic studies, working a factory job, and strengthening his singing voice in musicals making $45 a week. Prestige and greater accomplishments were just around the corner for the enterprising young artist.

One crucial role came in a stage production of 'Peter Pan' wherein Marshall was cast to play the Black Pirate; although he preferred essaying Captain Hook instead, a part to be played by none other than Boris Karloff. Desiring the Hook role, Marshall requested to be Karloff's understudy. Given the opportunity due to Karloff's agreement, Marshall did indeed get to stand-in for the famed FRANKENSTEIN (1931) actor as Captain Hook for two performances. Both men became good friends with Karloff helping Marshall during these initial theater days.

In his early 20s, the 6'5" Marshall was chosen to play God in the 1951 revival of 'The Green Pastures', a critically lauded 1930 play with an all-black cast. That same year, the actor would move on to the next stage of his illustrious career.

While Mr. Marshall never completely left the stage, he soon ventured into big screen features; and at 28 years old, he made his screen debut in 1952s LYDIA BAILEY (see above) where he played King Dick, a leader in the Haitian war against Napoleon. The 1954 Biblical drama DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS (see insert) followed, in which Marshall shared the screen with Victor Mature as the gladiator Glycon; and onto essaying a Mau Mau leader in SOMETHING OF VALUE (1957), starring Sidney Poitier and Rock Hudson.

These early excursions in film eventually led to even more stage work, and much of it outside of the USA. Marshall toured the globe for the performing arts in European countries like England, Ireland, France, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands.

He returned to America in late 1963, embarking on a healthy diet of television and movie appearances. One of the most stoic, best-remembered of his TV portrayals was on the season five episode of BONANZA, 'Enter Thomas Bowers'. Here Marshall played the real life 19th century opera singer of the same name. This episode gave the actor a chance to sing opera; so those who weren't familiar with his stage work got a glimpse of it on the small screen in addition to the commanding sound of his pipes. Debuting in April of 1964, this episode had great significance since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law a few months later in July.

Marshall appeared in other series' like RAWHIDE (another part where his singing voice is heard) and STAR TREK; the latter of which he played Dr Daystrom (see above), a genius who designs a computer modeled on his brain, to control the running of spaceships. Titled 'The Ultimate Computer', this episode from the second season is among the most popular. Other TV programs he guest starred on were BEN CASEY (1961-1966); TARZAN (1966-1968); THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968); THE WILD, WILD, WEST (1965-1969; see insert); MANNIX (1967-1975); and THE JEFFERSONS (1975-1985).

If you grew up in the 1980s, you'll likely remember Marshall as the King of Cartoons (see above) from 1987-1989 on the Saturday morning children's television show PEE-WEE'S PLAYHOUSE, a job he accepted on behalf of his grandchildren.

One of Marshall's best roles was a small one; but no less integral to his career playing as the Massachusetts attorney general Edward W. Brooke in THE BOSTON STRANGLER (1968) wherein he shared the screen with Henry Fonda (see insert).

But out of all the reverential stage appearances, and eye-opening early film roles, William Marshall will remain synonymous with the horror genre--three films in particular, beginning with 1972s BLACULA; its 1973 sequel, SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM; and ABBY (1974), a black version of THE EXORCIST (1973). All made on low budgets, but frequently high on ideas; especially the two vampire productions since Marshall commands the audience attention from start to finish.

In old magazine articles of the time, the esteemed actor revealed he was a huge fan of the genre; stating THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933) frightened him the most as a child. Had there been a version of H.G. Wells's classic novel in the 70s, Marshall no doubt would have brought a great deal of pathos and madness to the role as Claude Rains had impressed upon him as a child.

The first time I became aware of BLACULA was within the pages of the Crestwood House Monster Series (see insert); these elementary school library books I would rent out over and over again in the early 1980s. I'd read them on the bus going to school; going home from school; and at home when I should've been doing homework. There were more than a dozen of them covering monsters both foreign and domestic like Frankenstein, The Blob and Godzilla. The Dracula book showed me there was more to Stoker's cinematic offspring than Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee in regards to American made vampires. Other than Robert Quarry's eerie visage as Count Yorga, the one that stood out to me was the unusually feral appearance of William Marshall's Prince Mamuwalde. As small boy, I would see many monster movies on Shock Theater and scour the TV Guide for any others I could find--hoping I could stay awake long enough to see them considering they were almost always on in the early morning hours. Anyway, I'd never seen anything like the makeup that Marshall sported in the photos I saw from his movie. It would be approximately a decade later in the early 90s before I got to see BLACULA for the first time, and I was not disappointed.

The story surrounding how Mamuwalde became a vampire was unique; as was the character itself and his fate. Some portions of the plot followed the classical undead canon, but otherwise, this was a predominantly original creation. Produced on a budget of $500,000 at the height of the 70s Black Action boom, Mr. Marshall didn't consider BLACULA (1972) in the same category. Initially, Marshall was appalled at the idea after being approached about playing the part by the film's producer, Joseph T. Naar; the title didn't exactly strike him as a serious endeavor. However, the idea of playing Stoker's famous character from a black perspective eventually won the actor over. Moreover, he and the other actors adjusted their lines to their specifications on both movies.

Studios do not promote movies the way they used to do. Nowadays it's just a poster; but back then, you'd have lobby cards and B/W stills adorning the theater lobby and a poster outside the auditorium beckoning patrons to open their wallets. Gimmicks outside the usual poster publicity were still huge in the 1970s and AIP were experts in these tricks of the trade. 

To promote BLACULA, AIP's publicity department offered patrons Vampire Protection Kits (see insert); the contents being a small envelope of bay leaves nestled within a bag bearing Blacula artwork. Other means of exploitation that likely didn't see much use was setting up a dentist chair in a corner of the theater lobby with a guy posing with a drill ready to de-fang some vampires. Another being a small garden fence with a sign stating that all anti-vampire weapons be excluded from the auditorium as per Blacula's request!

William Crain's movie, spearheaded by William Marshall's sublime portrayal, was popular enough to garner a sequel. Scripted as 'Blacula 2', the title eventually changed to SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM. This time Mamuwalde is pitted against Pam Grier's black magic in probably the first and only time a vampire is resurrected and wishes to be put back to rest again. Bob Kelljan, director of the box office smash COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970) and its flashier sequel THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA (1971), directs Mamuwalde's second in the same style as those two hit films.

That same year in 1973, William Marshall was inducted into the Count Dracula Society to join the ranks of Christopher Lee, Robert Quarry, Barry Atwater and others. If you've ever read Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, you've likely ran across an ad or a mention of The Count Dracula Society. The organization called BLACULA "The most horrifying film of the decade." Founded in 1962 by Dr. Donald A. Reed, the organization promoted itself as "dedicated to the serious study of horror films and Gothic literature." In 1975, they began televising their events from the KTLA television studios in Los Angeles, California. Reed also founded the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films in 1972; a non-profit organization recognizing notable works in their respective genres. The Academy issued their equivalent of a Best Picture award to BLACULA (1972) that same year in 1972.

According to William Marshall, his favorite film role was his first, LYDIA BAILEY (1952); with BLACULA right behind it--given it was the first time he was the main lead. However, the actor felt his work in the sequel surpassed what he'd done in the previous picture. "The tasks and demands were greater. But in the sequel he has no one to love and nobody loves him", the actor said in a Famous Monsters interview in 1973.

Ballyhoo for the sequel was more varied in some cases; with ideas like having a man dressed up as Blacula walking around shopping areas handing out flyers; wooden coffins with signs reading 'Home Sweet Home', 'Do Not Disturb!', etc. Other ideas were radio show screaming contests offering free tickets to those with the best shrieking skills; a voodoo fire-pit display; and a voodoo protection kit that was just the bay leaves gag without the colorfully illustrated bag offered during BLACULAs distribution the year prior.

Instead of BLACULA 3, American International Pictures produced ABBY (1974), an exorcism movie in lieu of the wild box office success of THE EXORCIST (1973). Since Marshall had lectured on all aspects of African culture and its folklore he saw this as an opportunity to explore the subject onscreen. Playing Bishop Garnet Williams, an archaeologist on a Nigerian excavation, his party accidentally unleashes an evil spirit that takes over the body of Abby, played by Carol Speed. Unlike his two lead vampire pictures, Marshall was relegated to a supporting role, large as it were. He still manages to steer attention away from anyone else when he's on the screen.

Theater exploitation for ABBY included a bizarre hypnotism exhibition using a professional hypnotist and willing audience participants that probably never took off; screenings for ministers and church groups prior to release that likely never took place; demon makeup contests; and an African art display in some corner of the theater lobby. 

A big hit for AIP that caught the attention of Warner's legal department, it unfortunately didn't lead to more leading roles for William Marshall; although at the time, the company was intent on creating more scripts with him in mind, but nothing else materialized. What a shame an updated version of THE INVISIBLE MAN didn't see the light considering the actor was so fond of the 1933 classic. That sort of picture was going by the wayside and AIP was soon to make a failed attempt at becoming a major studio. As for William Marshall, it's also tragic the African Prince of the Undead didn't rise from the grave just once more.

Marshall did continue to work in film and even some television movies (and as a voice actor), but nothing of a celluloid nature he could sink his teeth into like the three horror pictures he did for AIP. The Shakespearean actor would return to the medium he loved--the stage--obtaining the opportunity to achieve some of his greatest successes as well as realize a dream of playing one of history's most important men.

Mr. Marshall played abolitionist and advisor to Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass on the stage for the first time in 1974. Afterward, he toured the country portraying Douglass as a one-man show titled 'Enter Frederick Douglass'. In 1983, his impassioned performance as Douglass was televised on PBS in February of that year. One of the highlights was Marshall's oration of Douglass's 4th of July speech on the meaning of Independence Day for blacks in pre-emancipation times. The revered actor had hoped to see a motion picture made about the former slave and confidant of the President that freed them in his lifetime. Marshall would've been ideal to play the Republican Douglass since he bore a remarkable resemblance to the man.

The same year he played Douglass, Marshall would win an Emmy in 1974 for his one-man show 'As Adam Early In The Morning', built around the works of playwrights and poets like William Shakespeare and Walt Whitman among others.

His portrayal of Shakespeare's 'Othello' is considered by some as the greatest interpretation ever performed. Marshall acted in the play a multitude of times on stage including a jazz musical version and even one in record form. Another grand interpretation by the actor was in a 1991 video of the play, which had Jenny Agutter (AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON [1981]) as Desdemona.

During his twilight years, the actor's few film credits offered little substance. Of these, only his skit as a pirate captain in the 'Video Pirates' segment of AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON (1987) allowed the man to have some fun with a limited part. He passed away on June 11th, 2003, aged 78, succumbing to complications from Alzheimer's and diabetes.

With a varied career lasting some five decades, William Marshall may not have achieved superstardom on the big screen, but he certainly lived a life full of adventure, rich with history and magnificent versatility rarely afforded those of greater fame but possessing lesser talents. Eternally famous for playing Blacula in two horror films, William Horace Marshall will continue to rise from the grave so long as there are fans eager to resurrect the screen's Dark Knight of Horror.

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