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This fear of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll”, was spread by holy-rolling televangelists who preyed upon viewer’s monetary donations while hypocritically indulging in the same “sinful” behaviors they demonized.
And then there was the fear of nuclear apocalypse, which made all the above fears petty in comparison. The arms race between America and Russia threatened to end in total annihilation.
Television certainly fanned the flames for these anxieties with TV movies that covered the issues of the day, most often with shameless sensationalism, but occasionally with thoughtful commentary.
Other TV films offered escape from the troubles of the day, with dramatic tales existing merely to entertain, not terrify.
So, let’s look at some good TV movies on both ends of the spectrum that helped define the first half of the 80s.
If you’re not plantin’… why would you put up a scarecrow?
This rural horror tale stars Larry Drake as Bubba Ritter, a mentally challenged man who befriends a little girl in a small farming town.
But after she’s found injured and unconscious, a lynch mob (led by cruel postman, Charles Durning) accuses Bubba of assaulting her, and sets out for vengeance.
Despite disguising himself as a scarecrow on his family’s farm, he’s discovered and murdered. But after his attackers begin suffering cruel fates, one has to wonder if he’s returned from the grave?
Originally conceived as a theatrical feature, ‘Scarecrow’ is one of the creepier and brutal TV movies of the 80s… or any decade for that matter.
I have to push them until they get the point. I’m teaching these kids the most important lesson of their lives!
Bruce Davison plays high school history teacher, Bob Ross, frustrated by his students’ lack of interest in learning about the evils of Adolf Hitler.
To help engage them, he develops a social experiment dubbed, ‘The Wave’, a club with strict social rules that promises “a feeling you’re part of something that’s more important than yourself”.
Soon, things get out of hand, with members of ‘The Wave’ espousing neo-fascism and threatening those who don’t conform to their worldview.
Did Ross create a movement that’s grown out of his control, or is there an ulterior motive to his experiment?
‘The Wave’ offers thought-provoking social commentary, not unlike the real-life ‘Third-Wave” experiment that inspired the film.
If we are lucky, a chance to fight in the Tournament of Death. But that isn’t likely. Ming the Merciless will have other plans…
Not to be confused with the 1980 live-action adaptation, ‘Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All’ is a thrilling animated television movie chronicling the sci-fi hero’s adventures on planet Mongo.
The film, which used lovingly detailed rotoscoped animation, impressed NBC network execs enough to commission ‘The New Adventures of Flash Gordon,’ a cartoon series that ran from 1979-1982.
But in an odd network move, the series aired before the ‘Greatest Adventure’, resulting the a show missing an origin story, and being seen by very few, given that it aired after the series was cancelled.
The kid shouldn’t have been smoking in bed!
One of the most memorable TV horror films, ‘Sleep’ follows a family mourning the death of Jennifer, daughter to Phillip and Laura (Dennis Waver, Valerie Harper), and sister of siblings Mary and Kevin.
Hoping for a fresh start in their new country home, the family soon experience supernatural disturbances, and Mary begins to suspect her sister may exist in the spiritual realm.
This leads to the unsettling truth behind Jennifer’s mysterious death, which comes back to haunt her family – with dire repercussions.
Featuring a chilling zinger ending, ‘Don’t Go to Sleep’ gave plenty of kids nightmares in the 80s, and it still holds a sinister charm.
One of the players Robbie played with got carried away and killed him…
‘Mazes’ isn’t a great movie, but it’s definitely a so-bad-it’s-great movie. This misguided attempt at demonizing the role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons, stars Tom Hanks in one of his earliest roles.
He plays Robbie Wheeling, a college student who loses his grasp on reality after being consumed with the role-playing game, ‘Mazes and Monsters.’
His obsession leads to feverish hallucinations, with Robbie unable to determine reality from fantasy, and he soon goes missing in the bowels of New York City.
Can his friends discover his whereabouts before he harms himself or others?
A ridiculously far-fetched cautionary tale, ‘Mazes and Monsters’ is unintentionally hilarious, clearly conceived with an axe to grind against the role-playing game industry.
I wonder who was spared? I wonder if New York, Paris, Moscow… are just like Kansas City now?
The most notorious TV movie of all time, ‘The Day After’ epitomized American fears of a nuclear war. It was deemed so troubling that many parents forbade their children from watching its portrayal of a nuclear attack and its traumatic aftermath.
Taking place in the mid-west, we see the devastating effects of a post-apocalyptic America, where survivors slowly die from radiation poisoning, while the military fend off looters.
While the film is certainly dated, and suffers from low budget effects, there is still a sense of palpable dread, heartbreak, and resigned acceptance, anchored by nuanced performances by actors including Jason Robards and John Lithgow.
Even U.S. president Ronald Reagan was moved by the film, calling it: “very effective and left me greatly depressed… My own reaction was… having to do all we can to have a deterrent and to see there is never a nuclear war.”
Just a few years later, America and Russia entered Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), and the threat of nuclear attack subsided.
Looking back on the early 80s, it’s impossible not to find that decade’s fearful overreactions both hilarious and disturbing, showing the dangers imposed by mass panic and witch-hunts.
But the era was far from over, and fears of disease, drugs, serial killers, gangs and other calamities gripped the public consciousness, resulting in even more scandalously gripping TV movies, which I’ll cover in a future installment.
But now, I turn it over to you: what good TV movies from the 80s would you add to this list? Be sure and tell me in the comments. I’ve included some notable honorable mentions below as well.
Honorable Mentions: ‘The Executioner’s Song’, ‘Murder in Space,’ ‘Lathe of Heaven,’ ‘Overdrawn at the Memory Bank,’ and ‘V’.