Before the advent of the digital age in media, made-for-television movies were event TV. They were a smart way to get family and friends to stay home and gather around the television. The ’60s through the early ’90s marked a boom of horror on the small screen, offering memorable -and some forgotten- gems that proved terror didn’t have to have a big Hollywood budget to be effective.
Even with lower budgets and programming limitations, some of the best horror emerged from the small screen. A lack of gore, nudity, and graphic violence won’t hinder a good scare, after all. What’s more, the format would allow filmmakers and storytellers to push the envelope in absolutely gonzo ways to compensate. Meaning that the made-for-TV movie could be downright frightening, but it could also be pure insanity.
These eleven made-for-TV movies run the gamut in horror. Some elicit chills, and some go off the rails into eccentricity. From ghosts to creatures to killers, there’s something for everyone. Best of all, you can stream them now and recreate that event TV nostalgia.
Invitation to Hell – Tubi
Months before Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street released in theaters, his bizarre made-for-TV sci-fi horror movie aired on ABC. Engineer Matt Winslow (Robert Urich) moves with his wife, Patricia (Joanna Cassidy), and children, Chrissy (Soleil Moon Frye) and Robert (Barret Oliver), to a new suburban community. He’s a workaholic so consumed by his job project in creating a thermal space suit that he doesn’t notice that something is quite off about the idyllic community and country club director Jessica Jones (Susan Lucci). The more Jessica woos his family, the stranger things get. Up until the bonkers final act, in which Matt descends into Hell, it’s a mostly standard horror movie with Lucci going full camp as the villainess. Though, that finale in Hell is out there. Invitation to Hell also earned a Primetime Emmy nomination, so 1984 belonged to Craven.
Satan’s School for Girls – Tubi, Prime Video
Following the suicide of her sister, Elizabeth (Pamela Franklin) enrolls in her sister’s school to find out what happened. Her investigation finds her in the crosshairs of a Satanic cult. Director David Lowell Rich built an extensive career directing made-for-TV movies, including The Horror at 37,000 Feet. While this 1973 movie might be dated in many aspects, Rich knew how to create atmosphere, and there are a few genuinely creepy moments. Producer Aaron Spelling (Charlie’s Angels, Melrose Place) produced the made-for-TV remake in 2000, too.
Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell – Tubi
Richard Crenna stars as Mike Barry, the patriarch of a family that just lost their beloved pup. They decide to get a new one, unaware that it’s been bred and used in a Satanic ritual that renders it possessed by evil. That’s right. This cute puppy is a minion of Satan, and it’s looking to wreak demonic mayhem. It’s up to dad to save the day. Luckily, that dad is played by Richard Crenna. While it has a silly title and the low budget shows some seams, Devil Dog offers up some Satanic fun and a few spooky moments. Assault on Precinct 13 and The Car’s Kim Richards also stars as Mike Barry’s daughter.
Trilogy of Terror – Prime Video
Directed by Dan Curtis and starring Karen Black, this anthology horror film is based on short stories by Richard Matheson. It was the film that Black felt led to her being typecast in horror, and it’s easy to understand why. Playing the lead in all three segments, each a different character, Black played a femme fatale, an unhinged woman with split personalities, and most memorably, a woman who finds independence from her overbearing mother thanks to the help of a pint-sized aboriginal warrior. That Zuni fetish doll, with its razor-sharp teeth and little spear, is the stuff of nightmares. Admittedly, the first two segments tend to be forgettable. Still, the strength of “Amelia,” and her fight for her life against one of the scariest dolls in movie history, keep this one forever at the forefront of made-for-television movie memory.
How Awful About Allan – Prime Video
A TV horror movie starring Anthony Perkins doesn’t need much else to pique your curiosity. Perkins stars as the eponymous Allan, a tormented man who has psychosomatic blindness after his father died in a fire he unwittingly caused. Once released from his stay at a mental facility, he moves in with his sister. She’s also taken in a stranger. When Allan begins hearing strange voices and whispers, he’s unsure whether someone is out to get him or if he’s suffered a mental relapse. The Haunting’s Julie Harris stars as his sister, Katherine. This pick is for fans of slow burn psychological horror. It’s much more interested in creating ambiguous atmosphere than scares. Once again, though, Perkins fully commits.
Dead of Night (1977) – Shudder, Prime Video, Tubi
Like Trilogy of Terror, this horror anthology was also helmed by Dan Curtis and scripted by horror author Richard Matheson. It also features three tales of terror; one involving time travel, the second a vampire, and the last a story about a mother that wishes her dead child back to life. The latter of which was updated and reused in Trilogy of Terror II. When it comes to TV horror, it doesn’t get much more reliable than when Curtis is involved, and he knows how to arrange an anthology. Like Trilogy of Terror, he saves the best segment for last. “Bobby” is some creepy stuff.
The Spell – Prime Video
If the ’70s taught us anything, it’s that bullies are best dealt with through telekinesis. Poor 15-year-old Rita is frequently bullied by her schoolmates for being overweight. She discovers she has telekinetic powers and begins to seek vengeance. The Spell aired on NBC in 1977, drawing inevitable comparisons to Carrie, though writer Brian Taggert attempted to develop the project for theatrical release before Brian De Palma’s movie released. Despite the similarities, there are key differences. The biggest of which is that Rita’s mother isn’t a monster like Margaret White. Look for young Helen Hunt playing Rita’s sister.
Summer of Fear – Prime Video
Also known as Stranger in Our House, this is Wes Craven’s more recognizable television movie. That’s probably because it’s based on a novel by famous author Lois Duncan, and stars Linda Blair. Lee Purcell also stars as Julia, a teen taken in by her aunt and uncle after her parents’ death. Her cousin Rachel (Blair) is initially excited to have a girl her age around but quickly becomes suspicious after a string of accidents and unlucky coincidences. Rachel soon discovers Julia might be an evil witch. Evil teen witches make for a fun, somewhat campy movie. There’s no real suspense or scares, but the wacky series of events more than compensates. Also, look for an early performance by Fran Drescher.
When a Stranger Calls Back – Prime Video
One of the earliest examples of a sequel far superior to its predecessor, this under-seen cable movie delivers severe tension starting with one of horror’s best openings of all time. If you haven’t seen the original film, that’s okay; this stands on its own just fine and fills in the necessary blanks. Jill Schoelen (The Stepfather, Cutting Class) stars as this outing’s babysitter, the target of an unseen stranger when left to care for two sleeping kids. While the first film delivered the iconic, “The calls are coming from inside the house” trope, this sequel goes to surprising and unnerving places. Airing on Showtime in 1993, When a Stranger Calls Back offers up one of the most eccentric killers of the decade. And that’s saying a lot.
The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane – Prime Video
On Halloween, teen Rynn Jacobs (Jodie Foster) celebrates her thirteenth birthday alone in her father Lester’s house. It’s clear to everyone that aside from Rynn’s frequent solitude, the 13-year-old is also harboring a dark secret. The landlord and her son, Frank Hallet (Martin Sheen), are determined to find out what it is. Despite the PG rating, this small screen flick is rather mature and provocative. His sexual advances render a psychological cat and mouse chase between the adult Frank and young Rynn all the creepier. A pedophiliac villain would be warped enough, but Rynn has some disturbing skeletons in her closet. That Foster and Sheen play the leads further elevates this unique movie into something memorable.
Gargoyles – Tubi
Dr. Mercer Boley (Cornel Wilde) and his daughter Diana (Jennifer Salt) are traveling in New Mexico for his work. They come upon a colony of actual living gargoyles, and they’re quite unfriendly. These aren’t the Gothic cathedral variety, but evil, demonic beings of folklore. It’s a creepy monster movie that doesn’t bother with any layered story, just monster-induced chaos. That’s okay! Legendary makeup artist Stan Winston handled the gargoyle makeup, earning him his very first feature film credit. Gargoyles won the 1973 Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Makeup. By today’s standards, Gargoyles may not terrify as effectively as it did when it aired on CBS in 1972, but it left an indelible traumatic mark on the generation that caught it on air.