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The mid to late 70s were a volatile period in America. The fallout from Vietnam and Watergate caused national cynicism, and a rise in violent crime and fears of Satanic cults created mass panic. Divorce rates were on the rise.
But it wasn’t all gloom and doom. There was a burgeoning optimism just around the bend, as seen in blockbuster films like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Superman: The Movie,’ offering much-needed escapism.
TV Movies of the era capitalized on all the aforementioned social issues, and stayed competitive with Hollywood with titles based on superheroes, sci-fi and the slasher horror genre.
These were typified by the success of film pilots including ‘The Incredible Hulk,’ ‘Battlestar Galactica,’ and Tobe Hooper’s classic adaptation of Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot.’
With that in mind: let’s explore some other good TV movies of the era that deserve wider praise.
We may not like to accept the fact that those in the story of Helter Skelter exist in our lives. Yet, they do…
America became deeply traumatized by the 1969 Manson Family murders, an act so barbaric it seemed to signal the end of the hippie “free love” movement, showing the darker side of “turn on, tune in, and drop out.”
This TV adaptation of the novel of the same name (by Curt Gentry and Vincent Bugliosi) documents the criminal trial of Charles Manson and his murderous clan.
Network censorship wouldn’t allow for gory reenactments, leaving it to the viewer’s imagination works in the films favor.
Actor Steve Railsback is utterly transfixing and terrifying as Manson, a sadistic Svengali with moments of vulnerability that show the man behind the monster.
Who’s the big mastermind? Who’s the screwball that put this idea in your head?
Today, Marvel Comics characters rule the multiplex, but in the 70s, their live-action adventures were confined to the small screen, most notably in CBS’ successful series, ‘The Incredible Hulk’.
Less revered (or known) is ‘Spider-Man’, the 1977 TV film featuring Peter Parker (Nicholas Hammond) fighting crime in New York City (that looked suspiciously like Los Angeles.)
Hammond played a likable web-slinger, even if he wasn’t as demonstrably nerdy as his comic book counterpart, and the series offered engaging children’s entertainment.
The film debuted to decent ratings, inspiring two other films, and a series of the same name. But it would be short-lived.
While its bargain budget visuals can’t hold a candle to Sam Raimi’s film series, it hits a nostalgic sweet spot for kids that grew up in the 70s.
It wasn’t Sam! It wasn’t Sam, but it looked so much like him. And then, oh, then when I touched him…
Deemed an embarrassment by the band and many of their fans, ‘Phantom of the Park’ is one of the weirdest movies of the 70s.
While the band members portray themselves at their hard-rocking best, there’s a twist: they all have superpowers! Their magic abilities are derived from their nicknames, (i.e. Gene Simmons, aka the “Demon” can breathe fire, possesses super strength and has an unearthly wail.)
Their ultimate test comes during their performance at a theme park, after which they must face off against a disturbed park engineer who designs evil cyborgs—four of which are the spitting image of the group themselves.
Soon, it’s a battle between KISS and their robot doppelgangers. Who will come out on top?
The premise for ‘Phantom’ is totally ridiculous, not helped by the band’s wooden performances and subpar visual effects.
But that’s also part of its clunky charm, making it a beloved cult oddity for more forgiving members of KISS’ fan base – and lovers of cheesy movies.
Gail, you’re at the hospital. Do you know why you’re here?
Adapted from Richard Peck’s novel of the same name, this engaging thriller revolves around Gail (Kathleen Beller), a teenager with dreams of becoming a photographer.
Her family moves from crime-ridden NYC to the safety of the suburbs. But that illusion is short-lived after Gail begins receiving a series of disturbing letters and phone calls.
Once she realizes she has a stalker with murderous intentions, she develops a plan to stop his reign of terror.
‘Alone’ is similar to many 70s slashers featuring a virginal teenager being pursued by a relentless killer, with parallels to ‘When a Stranger Calls’, even though the TV film arrived a year earlier.
I have strange fears…
‘Someone’s Watching Me’ was released hot on the heels of John Carpenter’s 1977 horror classic, ‘Halloween.’ But ‘Watching’ showcases the filmmaker’s strengths to more understated effect.
This suspense thriller stars Lauren Hutton as Leigh Michaels, a new tenant in an apartment whose previous renter committed suicide. Soon, Leigh begins receiving threatening phone calls and receiving strange gifts in the mail.
This all leads her to suspect her predecessor was murdered and to take steps to avoid becoming the killer’s next victim, leading to a tense game of cat and mouse.
‘Watching’ is often dubbed the “lost Carpenter film,” given it had no home video release for years (it was finally released on DVD in 2007). It’s a gripping little Hitchcockian thriller (perfect for a double feature with ‘Are You in the House Alone!’)
You’re something, son, that comes along once in a lifetime. The old Colonel is gonna make sure of that…
Our second John Carpenter film is something altogether different. It’s his sole attempt at a biopic, starring frequent collaborator Kurt Russell as “The King” himself.
The movie traces Presley’s life and career as only Carpenter could film it, full of vibrant compositions and a no-nonsense narrative that encompasses the highs and lows of the singer’s career in a streamlined manner.
Russell excels in this role, one that would shape his career as a leading man, with Shelley Winters making a fine turn as his domineering mother.
For a filmmaker associated with sci-fi and horror, it’s intriguing to see Carpenter work in a different milieu, showing a more versatile talent than he’s often given credit.
As the 70s came to an end, TV movies were still going strong. The rise of cable television saw the format emboldened with less censorship, which, in turn, inspired commercial broadcast networks to push their limits of standards and practices.
Likewise, television films would see bigger budgets and star power, attempting to compete with theatrical sci-fi and action blockbusters. And there would be no shortage of true crime stories and national fears to capitalize on as well.
So, stay tuned for more: I’ll be back with a future installment of TV movies from 1980-1985. And be sure to check out my list of Good TV Movies from 1970-1975.
In the meantime, what good TV movies would you add to this list? Be sure and tell me in the comments! I’ve also included some better-known TV movies in the honorable mentions below:
Honorable Mentions: ‘Salem’s Lot,’ ‘Sybil’, ‘The Boy in the Plastic Bubble’, ‘Whatever Happened to Rosemary’s Baby’, ‘Stranger in Our House’, ‘Battlestar Galactica-Saga of a New World’, ‘Dr. Strange,’ ‘The Lathe of Heaven’, and ‘Count Dracula’.