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Good TV Movies (1970-75): Trash & Treasure

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Michael Taylor itcherOft derided as inferior to cinema, 70’s made-for-TV-movies had a unique charm nonetheless: sometimes cheesy, sometimes creepy and all things in-between. Let’s explore some notable good TV movies including ‘The Night Stalker,’ ‘The UFO Incident’ and ‘Gargoyles.’ ~ Michael Taylor

Cheap Thrills…

The television of the 1970’s was a far cry from the feature-film budgets of today’s premium cable shows like ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘True Detective.’ TV Movies of the era overcame meager budgets and content restrictions with salaciously implied material to draw ratings.

Whether created as one-offs or pilots for prospective series, small-screen cinema wavered strongly in quality.

Convenient topics included hot-button ratings grabbers of the day: satanism, UFO encounters, true crime, and superheroes, all offered in their luridly cheap glory.

It particularly excelled in family-friendly horror films – I know I spent many evenings glued to the tube, awaiting some wholesome jolts of terror!

One of the first directors to imbue the TV movie format with feature-worthy thrills was Stephen Spielberg. His 1971 cat and mouse thriller ‘Duel,’ launched his career while elevating the medium in the process.

The 1973 thriller ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’ achieved such cult status that Guillermo del Toro produced a remake in 2010.

And while TV movies are more hit than miss, there are many so endearingly horrible they have a charm all their own.

So, let’s look at some TV movies that transcended the medium, and a few over-the-top oddities that still cast a nostalgic charm.


Charming TV Movie Recommendations

‘Gargoyles’ (Bill L. Norton, 1972)

Gargoyles are a scientific fact. And they’re no more dangerous than a high school drop-out on a motorcycle…

In this delightfully campy romp, an anthropologist and his daughter stumble across a monstrous skeleton, unwittingly unleashing a horde of demons. While the first half of the movie is genuinely suspenseful, it goes off the rails in the conclusion, but in a wildly entertaining fashion.

Also of note are the creature designs – fairly effective on a low-budget production – designed by Stan Winston, who would go on to achieve fame in films like ‘The Terminator’ and ‘Jurassic Park.’

‘The Night Strangler’ (Dan Curtis, 1973)

I’m willing to buy the idea that these two series of murders might somehow be connected. I’m even willing to buy that they might have been committed by the same man…

Preceded by ‘The Night Stalker,’ ‘The Night Strangler’ is second film featuring the adventures of Kolchak (Darren McGavin), an intrepid reporter on the prowl for cases of the paranormal and supernatural.

Written by famed horror novelist, Richard Matheson (‘I Am Legend’), it concerns the murders of several exotic dancers, all found drained of blood. Kolchak’s sleuthing uncovers a serial killer with seeming immortality.

But once the reporter discovers the secret to the villain’s eternal youth, it’s a race against time to end his reign of terror.

Full of jump scares and gallows humor, ‘The Night Strangler’ is a cult classic for discerning horror geeks.

The success of ‘The Night Strangler’ would land the Kolchak character his own series, only to be cancelled within a year. But its cult status later influenced ‘The X-Files’, and modern television horror in general.

‘Bad Ronald’ (Buzz Kulik, 1974)

Atranta isn’t fantasy, it’s real!… You’ll see…

In this quiet yet affecting thriller, Ronald (Scott Jacoby) is a young introverted boy who accidentally kills one of his classmates. Panicking, he buries the body and confesses the crime to his mother (Kim Hunter).

Fearing the police will think Ronald acted in cold blood, his mother places him in a hidden room until things blow over.

Ronald retreats into a fantasy world, which becomes even more immersive after his mother passes away. But things get even more complicated when a new family buys the home.

Ronald is forced to sneak about and remain undetected. But soon, his voyeuristic nature threatens to expose his secret once and for all.

The disturbing nature of ‘Bad Ronald’ is offset by its afterschool special production, making him more sympathetic than villainous.

And it’s that unusual mix of wholesome and disturbing that’s elevated its cult appeal.

‘The UFO Incident’ (Richard A. Colla, 1975)

Three years before ‘Star Wars’, James Earl Jones starred in a very different film about extraterrestrials. ‘The UFO Incident’ told the story of Barney and Betty Hill, a real life couple that claimed aliens abducted them.

Shown through a series of flashbacks, the Hill’s explain their ordeal under psychiatric evaluation and hypnosis.

The film was one of the first to depict “grey aliens”, creatures with bulbous skulls and large orbs who have become synonymous with alien abduction tales.

And while their claims are certainly outlandish, the film’s documentarian-style quality treats their story with a matter-of-factness that allows for a creepy and involving tale that freaked me out as a kid!

‘Trilogy of Terror’ (Dan Curtis, 1975)

Operator, get me the police! I DON’T KNOW where I’m located, just get me the police, there’s a…

‘The Night Strangler’ creative team of Curtis and Matheson reunited for this effective horror anthology, which stars scream queen Karen Black, playing three different characters in a trio of dark vignettes.

‘Julie’ is a tale of a student’s dangerous infatuation with his teacher (Black), and ‘Millicent and Therese’ is a story of twin sisters (both played by Black) battling a dark family secret.

But it’s the third and final installment ‘Amelia’ that’s the most infamous, where Black must battle with a seemingly unkillable Zuni Fetish Doll. Full of jump scares and a killer twist, it’s simply unforgettable.

Part terrifying and part black comedy, ‘Trilogy of Terror’ is a high watermark for small-screen horror, leading to many nightmares in the 70’s, and inspiring a new generation of horror filmmakers.


We Interrupt This Program…

As the 70’s progressed, viewers demanded a bit more spectacle, thanks to big screen hits like ‘Jaws’ and ‘Star Wars’, along with the rise of slasher horror films.

And the emergence of cable television offered the first run theatrical films with no censorship (or commercials), along with more provocative television shows and original films.

This would affect network television movies as well, with networks scrambling to remain competitive. Check back soon when I’ll examine that transition with good TV movies from 1975-1980.

In the meantime, I turn it over to you dear readers: what good 70’s television movies would you include on this list?

Be sure to tell me in the comments. I’ve included several honorable mentions below:

‘Duel’, ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’, ‘The Night Stalker’, ‘The Winter Kill’, ‘Wonder Woman’, ‘Deadly Tower’, ‘Born Innocent’, ‘Satan’s School for Girls’ and ‘Bryan’s Song’.

My name is Michael Taylor and I′m your go-to source for finding the best in Alternative rock in all its various genres, such as Goth, Grunge, Post-punk, Shoegaze, Britpop and Electronica, with some metal thrown in for good measure. Film-wise, I′m all about sci-fi and horror, comic book movies, and cult classics. I love checking out all the best concerts and film events in my hometown of Austin, TX. I′ve written for sites such as Cracked, and I cover all my various pop culture obsessions on my site
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