Today, made-for-TV horror movies boil down to cheapo flicks on the SyFy network featuring has-been actors (if you’re lucky). But this was not always the case. The 1970s was the golden age of made-for-tv horrors. You had only three networks and a handful of UHF stations to choose from. They frequently featured well-known actors and up and coming directors and from a quality standpoint, they were as good as many theatrical films.
This week in From the Vault we begin a two-part look at some of the best made-for-TV films of the 1970s.
First aired: November 13, 1971
Cast: Dennis Weaver
Running time: 74 minutes
Duel is a perfect example of the kind of quality you had with TV horror films in the 1970s. This was Director Steven Spielberg’s first feature film and was based on a story by Richard Matheson. Dennis Weaver plays David Mann, a businessman traveling along a California desert highway. He passes a slow-moving semi-truck and thus begins a deadly game of cat and mouse. The trucker, apparently upset at being passed, begins to harass Mann, attempting to force him off the road and even into the path of an oncoming train. When Mann stops to use a pay phone to call the police, the truck roars at him. Mann leaps out of the way as the truck plows through the phone booth. While debuting on TV, a longer version of the film would be released theatrically. The thrilling chase scenes have inspired numerous directors since.
Dying Room Only
First Aired: September 18, 1973
Cast: Cloris Leachman, Ned Beatty, Ross Martin, Dabney Coleman
Running Time: 74 Minutes
Dying Room Only was another film based on a Richard Matheson story and featured a strong cast of veteran TV actors. Bob Mitchell (Dabney Coleman) and his wife Jean (Cloris Leachman) are driving through the Arizona desert on their way home to Los Angeles. The couple stop at a rundown diner to get a bite to eat. Jean gets up to go to the bathroom to freshen up and when she returns, Bob is nowhere to be found.
The cook Jim Cutler (Ross Martin) and single customer Tom (Ned Beatty), claim they have no idea where Jean’s husband went and our downright rude to her. Jean searches frantically for her husband as she gets no help at all from the local residents. Dying Room Only is a terrifically paced thriller whose template has been used countless times since. Cloris Leachman, known best for her comedic roles, gives a terrifc performance as the frenzied wife.
First Aired: November 17 & 24, 1979
Cast: David Soul, Lance Kerwin, James Mason
Running Time 184 minutes
Stephen King film adaptations have been hit and miss over the years but the adaptation of 1975 novel is one of the best. The film was split into two 90 minute parts. Writer Ben Mears (Soul) has returned to the town of Salem’s Lot, Maine, to write a book about the supposedly haunted old Marsten House. The house was recently purchased by Richard Straker and his unseen partner Mr. Barlow, who plan to turn it into an antique shop. One night a large crate is delivered to the Marsten House, and soon after, residents of Salem’s Lot begin to disappear.
It’s revealed that Barlow is an ancient vampire and is turning the townspeople into vampires, including young Danny Glick, best friends with Mark Petrie (Kerwin). Soon, only Ben Mears and Mark Petrie are left to try to destroy the vampires. The film had a budget of $4 million which was huge for the time for a made-for-TV film but it was well worth it. Salem’s lot is one of the most terrifying vampire films not only up to that time but also since.
Trilogy of Terror
First Aired: March 4, 1975
Cast: Karen Black
Running Time: 72 Minutes
Trilogy of terror featured three different stories, each of which starred Karen Black as the protagonist. Once again the film was based upon stories written by Richard Matheson and the film was Directed by Dan Curtis who had created the soap opera horror, Dark Shadows.
The stories are unrelated but became a cult classic based upon the third part of the trilogy titled “Amelia”. In it, Black (as Amelia) comes home to her apartment with a strange package. In it is a ghastly little doll with wide eyes and razor sharp teeth. A scroll that came with the doll claims that the doll contains the actual spirit of a Zuni hunter named "He Who Kills", and that the gold chain adorning the doll keeps the spirit trapped within.
As Amelia begins to prepare dinner the gold chain slips off from the doll, bringing the savage little creature to life. As she searches for the doll it attacks her, repeatedly stabbing her ankle. The terrified Amelia is no in a struggle for her life with the sadistic little Zuni warrior doll. So popular was this one segment that 20 years later it led to a sequel, once again featuring the Zuni warrior doll.
Satan’s School for Girls
First Aired: September 19, 1973
Cast: Pamela Franklin, Kate Jackson, Cheryl Ladd
Running Time: 78 Minutes
This film starred Pre-Charlie’s Angels beauties Kate Jackson and Cheryl Ladd. Pamela Franklin stars as Elizabeth Sayers, a young woman investigating the suicide of her sister Martha. She enrolls at the Salem Academy for Women under an assumed name to investigate her sister’s death. Elizabeth begins to notice several strange occurrences happening around the school including the suicide of yet another girl.
Elizabeth and another girl start investigating the school’s dungeon like cellar and discover that several of the other students and one of their professors are involved in a Satanic cult. What made Satan’s School for Girls so interesting is that it had a mostly female cast and that it dealt with Satanic themes. This was two months before the Exorcist was released and shocked the world and there weren’t many films dealing themes likes this in the early 1970s.
Tim Janson is a columnist and reviewer for Mania Entertainment. He writes Level Up, the weekly look at videogames and the horror dedicated column, Tuesday Terrors. Tim has written for Fangoria, Newsarama, City Slab Magazine, Twitch Film, and Cinefantastique. He is a member of the Horror Writers Association (HWA). Be sure to follow him on Facebook and Twitter.