That 70’s Horror Show: TV Terrors From the Decade of Decadence – By William J. W

Say what you will about the music, the hair and the fashion (much of which has inexplicably returned — I’ll saw my legs off at the knees before I’ll wear flared anything), the 1970’s were an incredibly fertile era for cinema in general and the horror genre in specific. In fact, the years between 1968 and 1981 were perhaps the last time that the genre as a whole took itself seriously. I would go as far to say that those years were the last that horror was truly frightening. Both the big studios and the independents scored points with horrorphiles with films as diverse in content, theme and budget as The Exorcist, The Hills Have Eyes, The Shining and Phantasm. However, by the decade’s close two elements would arise that would send horror into a downward spiral that it is arguably just now pulling out of. In 1978, John Carpenter would unleash Halloween — the most brilliantly conceived suspense/horror film since Hitchcock’s Psycho for better or (mostly) worse kicking off the “slasher” era. Lesser filmmakers would latch on to Carpenter’s deceptively simple formula, amp up the gore quotient and usher in a full decade of insipid splatter flicks and, consequently, their innumerable and indistinguishable sequels. And perhaps most damaging to both the art and the commerce of horror movies, the majors (ever watchful of the bottom line) embraced the concept of blockbuster “event” films thanks to two guys named Spielberg and Lucas who married “B” movie plots to “A” level budgets and casts and thus forever changing the way movies are released, sold and promoted. Indie distributors along with financing dried up practically overnight directly resulting in the demise of thousands of small theaters and drive-ins where films like Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre made their reputations by word-of-mouth. Much the same thing would happen to genre literature with the rise of popular “name brand” authors (King, Rice, Koontz) who effectively decimated the midlist in the 1980’s.

At any rate, it was a great run while it lasted. The 1970’s truly were a second golden age for horror and that includes small screen as well. Having worked professionally in TV, I can and in no uncertain terms tell you that even at its best (and I’m speaking about the current state of the alleged art), it’s total crap. That quotation dubiously attributed to Dr. Hunter S. Thompson about the medium being a “shallow plastic trench where thieves prosper and good men die like dogs” is very generous and paints a pretty rosy picture of the reality of working in television on any level. The politics of the medium has killed great men including giants of sci-fi and horror like Rod Serling who spent an all too short lifetime railing against TV’s contempt for its audience and its wasted potential. Yet, I am a child of the 70’s and long have I suckled at the glass teat (thank you Harlan Ellison) ingesting every crumb the cathode ray cyclops threw my way. Like most everyone of my age and younger, I have a lifelong love/hate relationship with that damned glowing piece of furniture.

As a whole, the 1970’s were a great time for horror on TV. Late night and weekend programming had not yet been infected by “infomercials” or talk shows and on any given night or Saturday afternoon you could see anything from a Toho Godzilla movie to a classic Universal or Hammer Studios monster picture. However, TV horror in the 70’s wasn’t limited to Boris Karloff or Rodan on the “Late, Late Show.” In a medium that is so often garbage simply by virtue of its own lowest-common-denominator ethos, network television managed to crank out some of best, most frightening movies in horror history. Keep in mind all of the following films were made for network television movies-of-the-week or mini-series.

The Night Stalker (1972)

It’s impossible to talk about horror on TV in the 1970’s without mentioning the legendary director/producer Dan Curtis and it comes as no surprise that on a list of five great made-for-TV horror movies he would be responsible for at least two. In fact, a more than passable list of great TV terror pics could be comprised of nothing but Dan Curtis productions. Probably best known as the creator of Dark Shadows (1966-1971), the first ever gothic/vampire daytime soap, Curtis was responsible for a slew of TV horror entertainment throughout the decade including a brilliant and rarely seen adaptation of Dracula starring Jack Palance. Although Dark Shadows may have proven to be his most popular work, his most resonant was undoubtedly The Night Stalker. Scripted by veteran horror scribe Richard Matheson (author of I Am Legend — the most important horror novel of the modern era) from a story by Jeff Rice, this film is a vampire tale like no other. Set in Las Vegas, The Night Stalker is the story of Carl Kolchak (expertly portrayed by Darren McGavin known to post-Night Stalker fans as “The Old Man” or “Ralphie’s Dad” in A Christmas Story), a classically down-on-his-luck newspaper man looking for the story that will break him back into the big time. Following a series of bizarre blood-draining murders, Kolchak comes to a conclusion that even he is initially reluctant to believe: a vampire is loose in sin city. Met with opposition at every turn from his curmudgeonly editor, Vincenzo (Simon Oakland) to a disbelieving Chief of Police (Charles McGraw), Kolchak at last convinces the authorities, embarrassed by both their inability to catch the murderer and the fact that the wild-eyed reporter is right, and is promised exclusive rights to the story. In the end, it’s up to Kolchak to dispatch the vampire with the traditional tools of crucifix, hammer and stake.In the end, Kolchak’s exclusive is buried for fear of upsetting the populace and he is run out of town for his troubles. Dan Curtis followed up The Night Stalker with The Night Strangler (1973-also scripted by Matheson) which found the intrepid reporter in Seattle on the trail of a centuries old murderer. The success of the two Kolchak movies eventually resulted in a weekly series, the often great and occasionally downright silly Kolchak: The Night Stalker which ran from 1974 to 1975. Focusing on great acting and great storytelling, The Night Stalker, it’s sequel and its flawed tenure as a series, was a rare experiment in TV horror with a reluctant everyman hero who was always more interesting than his monstrous adversaries.

Trilogy of Terror (1975)

This 1975 anthology film was a re-teaming of sorts of producer Dan Curtis with Night Stalker script writer Richard Matheson. Featuring three Matheson stories adapted for TV by famed genre author William F. Nolan, Trilogy starred Karen Black (Mother Firefly in Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses) in each segment. The first two segments are good, competent and comparatively forgettable chillers with Black displaying some truly superb acting. Most reviews and nearly ever fan discussion of Trilogy of Terror gloss over the first to segments and frankly, I’m not going to break that precedent here. So, I’ll jump right into segment three, “Amelia” based on Matheson’s short story “Prey” and one of TV’s all-time most indelible frightening and nightmare inspiring moments. Black as the Amelia of the segment’s title has purchased a most unusual gift for her anthropologist boyfriend’s birthday — a genuine Zuni hunting fetish doll. The doll itself is a grotesque approximation of a tribal hunter complete with huge shark like teeth and a tiny, sharpened spear. These, however, aren’t the doll’s only accessories; packaged with the little ugly bastard is a scroll with a cryptic message reading “he who kills. . . he is a deadly hunter” and around its body is a gold chain which, according to legend, will keep the spirit of the Zuni warrior trapped within from making the doll come to life. Amelia, upset after a call from her clinging, antagonistic mother slams the doll against the coffee table not noticing that the chain has come loose and fallen off. She draws a bath, puts a steak in the oven for dinner and returns to the living room to find the doll missing. The rest of the segment is a surreal, nightmarish fight for survival as Amelia is hunted in her own apartment by the tiny Zuni warrior. After a protracted battle in which the doll sinks its teeth into her neck, Amelia is at last able cast the doll into her oven (along with her still cooking dinner) where it goes up in flames. Believing she’s safe, Amelia opens the oven and screams. We hear Amelia on the phone again, apologizing to her mother and inviting her over for their “night together.” The final, haunting shot is of Amelia crouched on the floor repeatedly jabbing a butcher knife into the floor. Her eyes are demonic and her teeth have taken on the pointed, razor-sharp appearance of the doll. She waits.

Curtis is to be commended for treating this audacious material with as much restraint as he does (still, it’s pretty wild). In lesser hands, a killer doll would be silly (see Child’s Play or any of the Puppet Master movies), but Curtis pulls it off with style by keeping shots of the doll to a minimum and using some extremely clever editing. After repeated viewing, I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the most frightening things about the “Amelia” episode of Trilogy of Terror is saying about mother/child relationships. The Freudian implications of “Amelia” with the possessive mother (Amelia cancels her boyfriend’s birthday date for her) and the grotesque-yet-childlike aspects of the Zuni doll (in his excellent non-fiction survey of the genre, Danse Macabre, Stephen King described the doll as “fetus-like” in the scenes in which it’s smoldering in the oven) are literally headache inducing. Unfortunately, “he who kills” would return in 1996 in a less convincing, computer generated form in the wholly unnecessary Trilogy of Terror II.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)

As a reviewer and critic of horror movies, I can truly say that my love of the genre goes far back into my childhood. As a little kid, I was rarely frightened by horror films; I was mostly fascinated by them. They were fun. However, this lost gem which originally aired on ABC in 1973 (I probably saw it on the late show sometime between ‘77 and ‘81) may very well have fucked me up for life. And, I’m apparently not alone in my feelings for this genuinely scary and truly mean-spirited little movie. I’ve spoken to horror fans who rate this flick above even The Exorcist on the fright scale. Again, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, directed by One Step Beyond creator John Newland, was made for TV and aired in prime time on network TV. The story is classic horror material. A young couple, Sally and Alex Farnham (Kim Darby and Jim Hutton), inherit a gothic mansion from Sally’s recently deceased grandmother. Within that mansion is a room that has been sealed for years. Hellbent on refurbishing the mystery room, Sally discovers a sealed fireplace. Despite warnings from the resident handyman (William Demerest) to leave it alone, Sally cracks it open with a sledge hammer unleashing three wizened, demonic, gnome-like creatures that wreak havoc on both the house and her psyche. The little creatures are effectively creepy grabbing Sally from behind the draperies, throwing ashtrays and incessantly whispering “ . . . Sally . . . Join us.” Other chilling highlights include the tiny demons using a coathanger to turn of the lights while Sally’s in the shower and a downbeat ending (uncharacteristic of TV movies) in which the minuscule, prune faced monsters finally do get her. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is very rare on video with copies going on auction sites for upwards of one-hundred dollars although it is sometimes available from bootleg dealers at sc-fi and horror conventions. Rumors persist that it may get a DVD release in the near future and that it may be remade for the big screen. Scary stuff.

Duel (1971)

Shot by a twenty-four year old Steven Spielberg in just sixteen days, Duel is in many ways a proto-Jaws. The story, pared down to its core is simply man versus beast. Just substitute a rusty forty ton truck for a great white shark. Based on his short story of the same name, Richard Matheson (probably responsible for more great horror television than any other writer and having a resume stretching back to Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone) wrote a tight, virtually dialogue free screenplay that in the hands of a young Spielberg became a claustrophobic, suspense filled exploration of a “civilized” man’s regression to pure animalistic survival instinct in the face of a seemingly unstoppable predator. 70’s television icon Dennis Weaver is Mann, a nondescript businessman caught in a nightmare of what would someday be classified as “road rage” after he is cut off on a California desert highway by a mysterious truck. What follows is a long, tense chase through the desert as Mann drives for his very life. Much of the horror of Duel lies in Mann’s mounting fear and paranoia combined with his forced “de-evolution” as he is pursued by the mechanical menace. Adding to the sense of the truck being a “force of nature” is that the driver’s face is never shown nor is his motive, other than anger, revealed. Spielberg masterfully uses a variety of lenses and angles to intensify the sense of danger which is further punctuated by Weaver’s realistically paranoid (but never over-the-top) performance. Duel is probably scarier now in the social climate of the 21st century than it was in the 1970’s when such roadside violence far less widespread. As a made-for-TV film , Duel is so well-crafted that it was slightly expanded and released theatrically in Europe in 1973.

Salem’s Lot (1979)

George A. Romero was originally approached to direct a theatrical film version of Stephen King’s popular 1975 vampire novel, Salem’s Lot in 1979 but, when the backers feared the project would be lost in a glut of upcoming vampire movies (John Badham’s Dracula starring Frank Langella was in production as well as Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu remake) they decided the material would be more suited to the format of a TV miniseries. Fearing TV’s inherent limitations and not wanting to compromise his vision in any way, the creator of Night of the Living Dead chose not to pursue the project. With Romero out, Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper was brought in to helm the project. Salem’s Lot the miniseries aired on CBS television over two nights in November of 1979 to tremendous ratings and audience response and marked a peak in Hooper’s creativity that he has yet to surpass. Although King purists may whine about some of the liberties that the TV adaptation takes with the book, especially the changes made to lead vampire Barlowe (Reggie Nalder), Salem’s Lot is an essentially faithful take on it’s source material and remains the best King TV mini-series to date. Hooper takes advantage of the longer mini-series format allowing the tension to build along with character development over the nearly three hour running time balancing several subplots that fold themselves into the main story if not seamlessly, at least satisfactorily. Memorable scares abound including the disturbing image of a vampire child floating outside his friend’s bedroom window and Barlowe’s shocking first appearance in Mark Petrie’s (Lance Kerwin) house. On the whole the cast is good, but the performances are made somewhat unbalanced by the presence of James Mason as Barlowe’s henchman R.T. Straker who is so delightfully evil that many of the other actors (especially David Soul as lead Ben Mears) seem to be straining to keep up with him. Salem’s Lot’s strongest point is its atmosphere which perfectly captures the tone of King’s novel with the ominous presence of the Marsten house (itself more of character than a location) permeating the film with a palpable sense of evil and underlying decay.