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The TV Gothic: When Horror Came Home

Thomas Lalli Foster
Darren McGavin in Kolchak: The Night Stalker

Fetish dolls, freak outs, and feminism (really scary) all played their roles in '70s TV horror.

The watchword for horror is the '70s, an acknowledged influence for current lights such as James Wan. The remake of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark -- originally a 1973 ABC Movie of the Week) -- is one indication that US television is essential to this horror era. Availability's an issue (unless noted, the following films aren't on DVD or authorized streaming, and DVD availability refers to US releases only), but perhaps there's justice in finding weird tales in the shadows beneath media platforms. Horror was a major genre '70s-era US TV made lots of horror; I'll overlook some good ones. I won't include most remakes, which seem negligible except for the above-named Katie Holmes film.

The spotty DVD availability of these series and TV movies could be linked to horror’s failure with continuing characters, as with the short-lived Kolchak: The Night Stalker. The Darren McGavin series is a horror-comedy, a rarely attempted genre that nonetheless wasn't uncommon in '70s: see, as per example, Phantom of the Paradise (1974) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).

The Kolchak saga began with two popular TV movies (both on DVD), and boasts oddly impressive progeny even aside from its cult following: Sopranos creator David Chase was a staff writer, and Kolchak was one inspiration for both Chris Carter (indeed, 2005's reboot Night Stalker was too much like The X-Files to be worth it) and Eric Kripke, whose Supernatural is the longest-running fantastic series in US television history; then again, horror and sci-fi have a mutual attraction to creative troublemakers. Kolchak isn't to my taste, but if you're curious, the best-regarded series episodes are "The Spanish Moss Murders" and "Horror in the Heights" (on DVD and streaming on Amazon). Other series, such as The Sixth Sense (1972), tried in vain to capitalize on an ESP craze, and the short-run Cliff Hangers! (1979) updated movie adventure-serials, as Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) would later do to greater profit and success. Cliff Hangers! did earn a place on TV Guide's all-time cancelled-too-soon list (3 June 2013), with the episode that riffed on Dracula the best remembered.

While scary series with continuing characters wilted and died, horror found a TV perch in one-shot narratives. The early '70s were a time of experimentation with format: as with ABC's smarmy Love, American Style, segments of NBC's Night Gallery could be any length up to around 50 minutes (which wreaked havoc with the show’s syndication run). Meanwhile, the still-new made-for-TV movie format caught fire, with some hourly series running up to 90 minutes (that didn't last). Many of these horror TV movies were considered series pilots, but given their track record, the sincerity of network interest seems debatable.

Whether anthology segments or TV movies, one-shots had at least one advantage over most US television: the story didn't have to end back where it started. One-shots were a natural for horror, partly because the industry had been burned by content controversies. Although the guiltiest parties were action series (The Untouchables, The Wild Wild West), horror all but disappeared from the small-screen in the mid-'60s. Even as the evening news became horrible, prime time was packed with sitcoms, spoofs, and spy craze-inspired series.

At the beginning of the '70s, however, Hollywood TV took advantage of the low profile of one-shots: few viewers would bother protest a one-and-done, 80-minute potboiler, or an especially dark anthology entry; the fantastic genres were considered beneath notice by many. Parenting was adjusting to TV -- kids were assumed in bed after the 8 to 9 pm "family hour" -- and with crime rates rising, it was a time of cocooning by the TV. Horror one-shots provided variety and flexibility in programming, and many were set in residential areas similar to those of the viewers; the better to frighten them.

Of course, there was no way to televise the gory violence of films such as Night of the Living Dead. Instead, TV looked to more refined classics: The Uninvited, I Walked With a Zombie, Diabolique, and teaspoons of Psycho and Rosemary's Baby. Indeed, Diabolique was remade with Tuesday Weld and Joan Hackett, as 1974's Reflections of Murder. Television busily remade the classic monsters, offering at least two versions each of Frankenstein, Dracula, and Jekyll and Hyde. These various remakes were well-regarded, but are outside the scope of this article, and atypical in that most TV movies were either non-supernatural, or concerned ghosts, demons, or witchcraft. In 1968, however, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with Jack Palance, provided an early credit for the late producer Dan Curtis, a central figure in TV horror: he'd already created the daytime gothic-soap Dark Shadows (1966-71 and on DVD, as are the 1991 and 2012 versions).

Most '70s TV horror films were melodramas, but nonetheless striking in their evocation of a national time of sackcloth and ashes. After the battles of the '60s, viewers were clearly done with the utopian dialectic (network TV produced relatively few sci-fi TV movies); instead, we craved the romantic, mystical, and personal. Even the era's seminal news event (Watergate) held mysteries: the identity of "Deep Throat", or the missing 18 minutes on Nixon's Oval Office tapes. Viewers instinctively sentenced themselves to a decade of purgatory, before finally exorcising the ghosts and demons with films such as Poltergeist (1982), Ghostbusters (1984), Back to the Future (1985), Beetlejuice, and Die Hard (both 1988).

The TV movies of the '70s confound expectations. Certainly, many have camp aspects, and their power to frighten, inevitably, has diminished. (Best bets for scares: Duel, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, and Tobe Hooper's Salem's Lot (all on DVD) and, if you can find them, Trilogy of Terror and A Cold Night’s Death.) Several remain overshadowed by their titles: Satan’s School for Girls (1973), Look What's Happened to Rosemary’s Baby (1976), and Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell (1978); those three are on disc, with Devil Dog growling on Blu-ray and streaming. On the other hand, TV movies were long victims of bias. A common insult for a disappointing theatrical film was "it's like a TV movie"; now, the claustrophobic focus on performance and genre conventions plays as a style of its own. Consistently, the strength of these offerings is atmosphere, assisted by the bickering characters, out-of-the-way Western locations, vintage color-film photography, and somehow even the credits, which are almost always yellow, the color of fear. (If you're old enough to have seen them first-run, these movies are blessedly free of the earnest moral negotiations of series television.)

While the critical consensus is still in process, one of the boldest stamps of quality for this era was a script by Richard Matheson. Matheson died in 2013, but his legacy lives on: he wrote 16 episodes of The Twilight Zone, and his novels include The Shrinking Man, Hell House, and I Am Legend, all of which have been made into either theatrical or television movies. Matheson's other TV movies include Duel (an early peak for Steven Spielberg), Dying Room Only, and The Stranger Within (all three are Southwest gothics), and his collaboration with Dan Curtis produced both Kolchak TV movies, and the anthology films Trilogy of Terror (1975) and Dead of Night (1977). Fortunately, all five are on DVD, although Trilogy of Terror is out-of-print and pricey.

Matheson also created the anthology series Ghost Story (1972-73), which morphed to Circle of Fear midway through its lone season (I'll use the latter title, partly because that version has killer opening credits). Like Night Gallery, Circle of Fear was both significantly underrated and seemingly cursed: Night Gallery (pilot movie 1969, series 1970-73) was plagued by infighting, and notoriously butchered for syndication (sometimes yoked to the inferior gimmick series The Sixth Sense), and Circle of Fear had a fatally slow start under both titles (his "A New House" is good, but awfully slow for a pilot).

Circle of Fear (finally out on DVD-R) can be simplistic on the story level, but it's powerfully atmospheric, and more cinematic than almost anything else discussed here, given its European horror (Hammer's Jimmy Sangster contributed to five scripts) and the Val Lewton cycle influences. In addition to several episodes mentioned below, I'd recommend "House of Evil", with Melvyn Douglas and Jodie Foster, written by Robert Bloch.

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