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Good TV Movies (1990-95): Killer Thrillers

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Michael Taylor itcherThe early 90’s saw TV movies focus heavily on serial killers and the supernatural while skewering celebrity culture in films like ‘Lookwell’, ‘Citizen X’, and ‘When a Stranger Calls Back.’ ~ Michael Taylor

Dark Dramas, Left of Center Laughs

Television was changing at the dawn of the 90’s: David Lynch’s series ‘Twin Peaks’ changed the creative landscape, proving TV could be artistic, surreal and compete with cinema in terms of aesthetics.

This inspired other filmmakers working in the medium, resulting in an uptick in quality that has continued to this day.

Likewise, ABC television network’s adaptations from writer Stephen King (including ‘It’ and ‘The Stand’) won over literary-minded horror fans that appreciated the faithfulness to the source material.

Let’s look at some other notable examples of transcendent television filmmaking:


Wickedly Wonderful TV Movie Recommendations

‘Lookwell’ (E. W. Swackhamer, 1991)

“Perhaps if you watched a little bit more television you’d be better at your job.”

Before Conan O’Brien became the famous late night talk show host, he was a veteran comedy writer on series like ‘The Simpson’s’ and ‘Saturday Night Live.’

But his golden touch didn’t extend to ‘Lookwell’, a television pilot film co-written with collaborator Robert Smigel that failed to get picked up as a series (but has gained legendary status for being ahead of its time in its comic sensibility.)

Which is a shame. It’s a hilarious effort starring ‘Batman’s’ Adam West as a washed up action star with delusions of grandeur, claiming he’s capable of solving crimes after being honorarily deputized by the L.A. police force. 

‘Lookwell’s’ absurdist storyline poked gentle fun at West’s own Hollywood career misfires, and his performance is a stroke of comedic genius. While we were robbed of a full series, at least we have this TV movie to remind us of what could have been.

‘To Catch a Killer’ (Eric Till, 1992)

“Oh Mr. Policeman, don’t you know a clown can get away with murder?”

This gripping docudrama stars Brian Dennehy as John Wayne Gacy, one of the most notorious serial killers in American history.

Gacy hid his crimes for years, using his persona as a public servant and as a children’s clown entertainer to gain access to his young victims (disturbingly, he was referred to as the “killer clown”).

Dennehy expertly nails the dichotomy of a seemingly mild-mannered Midwesterner with an inner monster with queasy unease. His scenes in clown makeup are especially chilling.

‘Killer’ shows a slice of real-life horror, but within the decency standards of its era. This actually works in its favor, given a graphic account of Gacy’s grisly, inhumane acts might prove unpalatable for even hardened horror fans.

‘Body Bags’ (John Carpenter, 1993)

“Ah, body bags. You see, if it’s murder, suicide or a nasty accident, they put them in here.”

This Showtime horror anthology film featured three stories directed by John Carpenter (‘Halloween’) and Tobe Hooper (‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’).

Each entry has its own distinct flavor: ‘The Gas Station’ is a taut tell of an escaped murderer, while ‘Hair’ is a black comedy starring Stacey Keach as a balding businessman whose experimental hair transplant technique results in dire consequences.

Lastly, ‘Eye’ stars Mark Hamill as a recipient of an experimental eye transplant, whose life unravels as he develops psychopathic behavior inherited from his disturbed donor.

‘Body Bags’ is unapologetically campy, aided by Carpenter’s role as a pun-prone narrator, but there are some nice jolts of horror to be had. In that sense, it feels similar to HBO series, ‘Tales from the Crypt’ (‘Body Bags’ was also pitched as a series, but only picked up as a standalone film).

While it may not rank among Carpenter or Hooper’s finest theatrical features, it’s highly recommended for obsessive fans that missed it the first time around.

‘When a Stranger Calls Back’ (Fred Walton, 1993)

“Someone has been in my apartment and they’ve done things, little things, to let me know that he’s there.”

The sequel to the iconic 1979 slasher was a straight to cable affair, but it’s a worthy successor that’s ultimately more satisfying than its predecessor.

Julia (Jill Schoelen) is a college student who has been harassed by a stalker for years. Soon, she suspects he’s following her constantly and plotting her murder. In desperation, she turns to a college counselor for help.

Luckily, the counselor in question is Jill Johnson (Carol Kane), the heroine of the original ‘Stranger’, and helps Jill confront her evil intruder.

‘Stranger’ has moments of pure terror, a memorably disturbing killer, and a thrilling climax. It deserves more acclaim than its bargain bin reputation.

‘Citizen X’ (Chris Gerolmo, 1995)

“Do I look like a man of courage to you? I’ve always been interested in abnormal psychology. Which is a dangerous thing in the Soviet state.”

This compelling HBO film is a factual account of Russian serial killer, Andrei Chikatilo (Jeffrey DeMunn), who went on a massive killing spree of women and children in the 80s.

Hot on his trail is Lt. Viktor Burakov (Stephen Rea), but his superiors repeatedly thwart his pursuit, worried of a public relations nightmare that will diminish Russia in the eyes of the world community.

It’s up to Burakov, with the help of his superior (Donald Sutherland) and a criminal psychiatrist (Max von Sydow) to end Chikatilo’s reign of terror before more innocents are slaughtered.

‘Citizen X’ is a fascinating multi-layered film: one part procedural thriller, another part psychological character study, and a fascinating look at Russia’s deeply guarded political culture.


The Dawn of Television’s Second Golden Age

Television continued moving into darker, grittier terrain throughout the 1990s, thanks to shows like ‘The X-Files’ and ‘Homicide: Life on the Street.’

And by decade’s end, the line between cinema, TV movies and television series would be forever blurred thanks to 1999s ‘The Sopranos,’ which heralded “The Second Golden Age of Television”, where TV would finally equal cinema in regards to budgets, content, and prestige talent.

Well, that wraps up my list of Good TV movies from the years 1990 to 1995. Which ones would you add to the list? Be sure to tell me in the comments. I’ve included some honorable mentions below as well.

And for earlier good television movie recommendations, check out my list of Good TV Movies from 1970-1975, 1975-80, 1980-1985 and 1985-1990.

Honorable Mentions: ‘Twin Peaks’, ‘Wild Palms’, ‘It’, ‘The Stand’, ‘Golden Years’, ‘The Langoliers’, ‘The Tommyknockers’.

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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