January 6, 2022

New Year's Reading: Television Fright Films of the 1970s

Now that the blog is entering its 12th year (!!), I thought it was high time to do something different. I double-checked the archives, and sure enough, I’ve not done any book reviews up until now.

We have a family tradition of giving each other books for Christmas, and with both my wife’s and my birthdays falling well within the holiday season, at the end of the year new books (new to us anyway) take up all the available coffee table space and shout at us telepathically to “read me first!”

Being a movie nut, most of the books I get as gifts are film-related. I also buy books throughout the year, and those tend to be film-related too. I do read other things, but I tend to get a lot of my recreational reading from the library, and a lot of that in ebook form. The physical books that I return to time and again are almost all about films and filmmaking.

Back in October of 2020, I reviewed one of my favorite made-for-TV horror movies, Vampire (1979; starring Richard Lynch, Jason Miller and E.G. Marshall) for Horror and Sons’ month-long celebration of Halloween TV movies and specials.

Broadcast ad for Steven Bochco's Vampire, 1979

This got me interested again in the classic TV movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and ever since I’ve been periodically checking YouTube for availability as I run across titles in my readings and research.

One particularly rich guidebook for this sort of nostalgic journey is something I picked up shortly before writing the Vampire review.

Book cover, Television Fright Films of the 1970s, David Deal, McFarland, 2007
Television Fright Films of the 1970s.
David Deal, McFarland & Co., 2007 (220 pp.)

If you’ve visited the site more than a few times, you may have noticed that I like to provide some production background on the film being reviewed if at all possible. A lot of that has come from the library of McFarland film books that I’ve collected over the years.

McFarland & Co., located in Jefferson, N.C., specializes in reference and scholarly works aimed at the academic and library markets. Founded in 1979, the publisher is particularly strong in the popular culture and performing arts areas.

The first McFarland title I bought for myself was Bill Warren’s classic 2 volume survey of American science fiction films of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, Keep Watching the Skies (originally published in 1982, and updated to one volume in 2010).

I read the immense thing cover to cover, and have been revisiting it regularly ever since. Warren’s love of the genre and the time period comes out in every entry, and even the stinkers get serious attention. In most cases, Warren includes detailed background on the production and key players and filmmakers -- a monumental effort considering all the research was done pre-internet.

Poster - Steven Spielberg's Duel, 1971
In the same vein as Warren’s ‘50s sci-fi bible, but more specialized and a bit less detailed in terms of each entry, is David Deal’s survey of TV “fright” films of the 70s. Back when I was in junior high and high school, I was a huge fan of the original ABC Movie of the Week and the imitators that proliferated in the ‘70s. Some of these made-for-TV movies, like Steven Spielberg’s timeless Duel (1971), have achieved cult status and keep being “discovered” by successive generations of fans. 

Decades later, I still fondly remember such TV horror-thrillers as The Brotherhood of the Bell (1970; with Glenn Ford), The Deadly Dream (1971; Lloyd Bridges), Haunts of the Very Rich (1972; Lloyd Bridges again), Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973; Kim Darby), and countless others.

Many of these movies have never seen a home video release, or are long out of print. Thankfully, loyal fans have kept the flickering video flames alive by uploading recordings to YouTube, so that if you can remember it, there’s a good chance you can reconnect with it (as long as you’re not expecting a pristine high-res copy).

With information about the movies, and many of the movies themselves, being instantly available via the internet, a print book about vintage made-for-TV movies might seem superfluous.

Deal’s book came out in 2007, a couple of years after YouTube was created, and long before the loving labors of fans made the streaming service into a mixed bag of nostalgic gray market video content. Even in the rarefied tech environment of the 2020s, with colossal user-curated databases like YouTube and IMDb, I think there’s still a case to be made for printed filmographies like Deal’s that bring together films of a specific subgenre and add some value into the mix.

It’s nice to be able to leisurely thumb through a slice of TV history, with periodic “oh yeah, I remember that one!” moments adding to the enjoyment. Deal puts things into context with a preface that provides a short history of the golden age of telefilm, starting with the debut of ABC’s Movie of the Week in the late ‘60s, and a few words about some of the more prominent producers and directors who made the 90 minute TV movie into a popular art form.

Screenshot, intro to the ABC Movie of the Week, circa early 1970s
The iconic intro to ABC's Movie of the Week.

As far as added value, the preface is bare bones, and I would have liked to have seen more on the influential behind-the-scenes people, their careers and what led to their participation in the emergence of the classic TV movie and its horror-suspense variants.

An additional small bone to pick with Deal is his definition of “fright” film. Deal admits that his definition of “fright” is pretty broad, and so along with the memorable horrors of the period like Salem’s Lot and The Night Stalker, there are a fair number of run-of-the-mill disaster movies involving doomed airliners, killer bees and several (!!) cable cars hanging by a thread.

But at least he has a sense of humor about it. “[T]here are also ‘ringers,’ films that entice viewers with scary titles such as Express to Terror and The Invasion of Carol Enders, yet contain very little to be scared of, except, perhaps, in the quality department.” [p. 3]

Deal also apologizes in advance that, while he tried to be as definitive as possible, some reader favorites may not have been included due to lack of availability. Almost all of my fondly remembered movies are covered, but considering the current supply available on YouTube, an expanded edition might be in order.

DVD box art - The Invasion of Carol Enders, 1973
The entries, arranged alphabetically by title, are well-written and lively (for the historically-minded, there is also an appendix of the titles arranged chronologically by broadcast date). The author has a knack for brief summaries that get to the essence of even the most convoluted plots without giving the game away. 

He typically singles out a principal actor to expand on with career highlights and a scorecard of their participation in other TV movies of the decade, so that by the end of the book you have a much better sense of who the go-to actors of the period were, how they got there, and where they went.

Directors and in some cases producers also get their due. Several names, some famous, some not so much, keep popping up, e.g., Dan Curtis (producer/director, The Night Stalker, The Norliss Tapes, Trilogy of Terror, etc.) and John Llewellyn Moxey (director, A Taste of Evil, The Night Stalker, The Strange and Deadly Occurrence, Conspiracy of Terror, etc.).

Deal is also cognizant of the importance of music scores in creating an atmosphere of suspense, and, atypically for a collection of this sort, constantly cites the contributions and backgrounds of composers.

While the author’s default stance is one of respect for the medium and the genre(s), he doesn’t mince words calling out the junk that was dead on arrival even in its day. As mentioned above, the attempt by TV producers to capitalize on the popularity of big budget disaster movies like the Airport series often turned into minor artistic disasters.

Typical of Deal’s clear-eyed assessments of these botched small-screen epics is this one on SST - Death Flight (1977), an Airport imitator that features mechanical problems, a midair explosion, and the release of a deadly strain of exotic flu -- all on the same unlucky flight!

“One disaster wasn’t enough for this fim, so the combination of mechanical and medical problems land SST - Death Flight in the category of double jeopardy (see Fer de Lance, Mayday at 40,000 Feet). Doubling the problems, however, does not double the entertainment value of this tired thriller. Adding insult to injury are the not-so-special effects, which are among the cheapest and most unconvincing of the era. In this case, director David Lowell Rich’s familiarity with airborne frights breeds boredom.” [p.167]

While black and white stills and illustrations are sprinkled liberally throughout, Television Fright Films is not a coffee-table book. The strengths are in its lively, accessible writing, background details, and inclusion of obscure titles that serve to put a crazy decade into even better context.

If you love these movies like I do, this will make a great after-the-holidays gift to yourself. It's still in print, available directly from the publisher (see the link above) and major online sellers.

4 comments:

  1. I can see that I'm now going to have to track down some of these movies.

    I have a few McFarland books on my shelves and yeah, they're usually very good.

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    1. I have a nice long YouTube queue going, and I'm steadily working my way through it. I've been a McFarland fan for a long time, and their books are the core of my go-to reference collection.

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  2. I admit, I didn't watch much of the made-for-tv 'movie of the week' product when I was young...but I recall at the time that there was still the idea that the 'Big Screen' films were better (more money, bigger stars...). But now it seems there's been a shift in that attitude, with so many 'major' movies done not only direct for tv or VOD (the big direct to video market that began in the 1990s) but also for the internet. Streaming services like Amazon and Tubi are making their own direct to streaming films, and it's become a big business, attracting big (or formerly big) movie stars. Some of these I've watched and the production quality can sometimes compare with theatrical films. A future book might look at technological/cultural shifts that has caused such a viewing change. Maybe the 1970s movies of the week were a kind of precursor?

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    1. Yes, the formerly bright, definitive lines of made-for-TV and made for theatrical release have become a jumble of simultaneous VOD & theatrical releases, primarily VOD with limited theatrical engagements for awards purposes, and other kinds of permutations. I suppose the original made-for-TV movies are the direct ancestors of things like The Tomorrow War (2021, w/ Chris Pratt), which was made for Amazon Prime VOD (interestingly, IMDb labels many older things as TV movies, but the new breed of direct to VOD has no such label). In my youth I was very interested in the movies of the week because so many of them were in my wheelhouse -- horror, sci-fi and suspense. I've always liked lower-budget movies that through necessity have to concentrate on simpler, more character-driven stories.

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