This week we take a look at five more of the best made-for-TV horror films of the 1970s. Check out last week’s coverage (here) which featured our look at: Duel, Dying Room Only, Salem’s Lot, Trilogy of Terror, and Satan’s School for Girls.
First aired: November 21, 1972
Cast: Cornel Wilde, Bernie Casey
Running time: 74 minutes
While most of the best made-for-TV horror films of the 1970s came by way of the ABC network, one of the best would show up the generally considered stuffy CBS. Gargoyles featured an outstanding cast including Cornel Wilde, Scott Glenn, and Bernie Casey (Best known later from Revenge of the Nerds). But maybe the biggest star of the film wasn’t one that appeared on camera but rather future Makeup effects wizard Stan Winston who developed the makeup of the gargoyles.
Cornell Wilde plays an anthropologist who discovers an ancient and not-quite human skeleton at a roadside museum in the Southwest. He and his daughter Diana at first think the skeleton is just a fake in order to frighten tourists but it soon becomes evident that it is something much more sinister. The pair soon discovers that a race of real life gargoyles is living in a nearby cave and their existence could threaten all humans if their eggs hatch and grow to adulthood. The gargoyle leader (played by Bernie Casey) kidnaps Diana and takes her back to his lair. The town sheriff enlists the aid of a local motorcycle gang to fight the monsters and rescue Diana.
Ok so what it lacks in plot it more than makes up for in genuine horror. The Gargoyles attacks are savage to say the least and this wasn’t the kind of thing you saw on TV in the early 1970s. It all might have fallen apart without the incredible makeup of Stan Winston. With no CGI to rely he created some of the most terrifying monsters ever seen on the small screen. Casey was absolutely chilling as the Gargoyle leader, one of the few of his kind who could speak.
First aired: October 23, 1974
Cast: Scott Jacoby, Kim Hunter, Dabney Coleman
Running time: 74 minutes
Before Stephen King’s “Carrie” there was Bad Ronald, another film about a socially awkward teen who is teased and bullied by classmates. He accidentally kills a girl who taunts him and secretly buries her body. He tells his overprotective mother and she hides Ronald in a secret room in the house, telling police that he ran away. When his mother unexpectedly dies during surgery, Ronald is left alone in his room, with no knowledge of what happened to his mother.
Another family soon moves into the house with Dabney Coleman playing the father of three teenage daughters. The family begins to notice food missing in the house and strange noises as Ronald sneaks out of his room to steal food. By this time Ronald has become delusional thinking that he is a prince and the youngest daughter Babs is his princess. As his delusion grows, Ronald becomes more violent, locking Babs in the basement when her parents go out of town a d attacking one of the older daughter’s boyfriends. Middle Daughter Althea notices a peephole in the wall and looks through it, seeing Ronald’s eye. Ronald bursts through the fake wall and attacks her before he is caught by the police.
A great early take on a template that has been used countless times since then. Strong performances highlight the film, particularly Scott Jacoby as Ronald.
The Night Stalker
First aired: January 11, 1972
Cast: Darren McGavin, Simon Oakland, Carol Lynley
Running time: 74 minutes
We talked a bit about the Night Stalker two weeks ago when we focused on the TV show, but this is where it all started. Based on the then unpublished novel by Jeff Rice titled The Kolchak Papers, and adapted by legendary horror writer Richard Matheson, The Night Stalker also had the benefit of being produced by Dan Curtis who had created Dark Shadows. The Night Stalker garnered the highest ratings of any TV movie at that time and led to a sequel film “The Night Strangler” and then later the TV series.
Carl Kolchak (McGavin) is an investigative newspaper reporter who opens the film narrating the strange events into his ever-present tape recorder. He is on the trail of a maniac who has murdered several exotic dancers and prostitutes on the Las Vegas Strip. When it’s revealed that the victims had their blood drained. Kolchak believes the killer is a psychotic who thinks he’s a vampire.
At the urging of his then girlfriend Gail (Lynley) Kolchak begins to look into vampire mythology and begins to suspect that the killer isn’t just a nutcase, but an actual vampire. Kolchak eventually destroys the vampire Janos Skorzeny, but the events are covered up by the police and Kolchak loses his job.
What can you say about the Night Stalker? It gave us one of the great TV characters of all-time and one of the most chilling TV films ever. Hopefully the planned big screen remake lives up to the high level of quality the TV film gave us.
Don’t be Afraid of the Dark
First aired: October 10, 1973
Cast: Kim Darby, Jim Hutton
Running time: 74 minutes
Here is yet another one of the fantastic entries in ABC’s Movie of the Week. Sally (Darby) and her husband Alex (Hutton) inherit an old mansion from Sally's grandmother. Shortly after moving in, she discovers a bricked-up fireplace in the basement den, and asks the estate's handyman about it. He tells her that Sally's grandmother had him seal it up after her grandfather died and that it is better to leave it the way it is. Sally opens a small side door on the fireplace and seems to hear voices whispering “We Want you!”
Sally begins to experiences more strange events…whispering, objects moving or falling which her husband passes off as her nerves. She spies a tiny, goblin-like creature but it quickly disappears. Later while showering the creatures turn out the lights to attack her but quickly flee when she turns on the lights again. She discovers that the creatures are some kind of ancient evil fairies that want to make her one of them. The terrifying ending comes with the creatures dragging Sally into the fireplace as she desperately tries to fight herself free.
The film was remade in 2011 in a big screen version written and produced by Guillermo del Toro who played up more of the dark fantasy background loosely based upon the works of Welsh writer Arthur Machen.
Frankenstein: The True Story
First aired: November 1973
Cast: Michael Sarrazin, Jane Seymour, James Mason, David McCallum
Running time: 182 minutes
While this was another ABC film this was not a movie of the week. This was shown in two 90 minute parts late in the evening after the 11PM news because of its more mature subject matter. Up until this film the only Frankenstein I knew was the one from the Universal horror films and The Munsters. You know, big guy, flat head, bolts in the neck. I had no idea who Mary Shelley was. This film was based (loosely) on Shelley’s novel. Leonard Whiting is Victor Frankenstein who, along with Dr. Henry Clerval (McCallum), digs up the bodies of several peasants who died in a mining accident and stitch together the perfect man. Clerval discovers that the boy parts will soon begin to rot but he dies before he can tell Frankenstein.
The result of the experiment is the handsome creature (played by Sarrazin) who becomes somewhat of a celebrity in London. When the creature begins to degenerate and rot, he is so distraught that he tries to kill himself first by stabbing himself repeatedly in the chest with a shard of glass and then by jumping off a cliff. But the creature survives and the evil Dr. Polidori uses his existence to blackmail Frankenstein into creating another creature, this one a beautiful female named Prima. Polidori sets a building on fire attempting to destroy it and leaves with Prima.
Later, at an elaborate ball, the proud Polidori shows off Prima to his society friends. She becomes a hit, dancing a ballet and impressing the guests. Just then, the badly burned monster bursts into the ballroom, he approaches Prima and tears off her head, dropping it at the feet of a shocked Polidori. Later, the creature and Victor flee on a ship towards the North Pole, but not before the creature kills Polidori.
It’s no wonder that the film was shown at a later time period. This was probably the first decapitation scene that this young horror fan had ever seen and it scared the crap out of me. Couple that with the creature’s attempts at suicide, severed limbs, and effective makeup done by Hammer Studio’s Roy Ashton, Frankenstein: The True story was the goriest of all the made-for-TV films we’ve looked at. Add to that a brilliant cast featuring James Mason (North by Northwest, Julius Caesar), McCallum (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), Sarrazin (They Shoot Horses Don’t They?), and Seymour (Live and Let Die, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman) and you had one of the most impressive casts ever seen in a TV film.