Friday, July 16, 2021

Scream for Deadly Terror!: 11 Great (OK, Pretty Good) Mystery/Suspense TV Films of the ’70s

By Jim Thomsen
Made-for-TV movies, to the extent that they’re recalled at all, are largely remembered as unmemorable relics of the 1970s, curios in a cultural trash compacter along with Count Chocula cereal, lawn darts, leisure suits, Space Food Sticks, and Love’s Baby Soft.

And, honestly? That’s where the majority of them belong. Most are so awful that it’s hard to justify watching dreck such as Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973) or Ski Lift to Death (1978) or Satan’s School for Girls (1973) even as camp, intentional or otherwise.

That’s not to be unexpected, given that by definition, these TV movies were made much like episodes for TV series were made—under extremely compressed schedules and budgets, only without the continuity of a series’ established creative community. A lot of top-talented people on both sides of the camera were brought in to make these films. But their assembly-line nature and their need to find the perfect balance between the prurient and the prudish sensibilities of the broadest possible boob-tube audience of that era made making films of quality a challenge, let alone making films that are worth revisiting a half-century later. Most were hopelessly dated by the first commercial break.

Yet every once in a while, a good director, a good script, and a good cast came together to make a masterpiece 77 minutes in length (most of these movies were shot for a 90-minute time slot less commercials).

These standouts premiered primarily between 1970 and 1975, which foremost aficionados of this genre consider the maligned genre’s golden age. Amidst all the dozens upon dozens of cringe-inducing war-between-the-gender comedies, Satanic-possession melodramas, high-altitude histrionics-fests, and gothic-drenched murder mysteries came the occasional movie centered on a crime that made good narrative sense.

Not only that, but they captured something of this fascinating socio-politically transitional period: old mansions and new feminism; stifling paternalism and singles bars; hatted old doctors making house calls and groovy young chicks in paisley scarves. They appeased the reactionary TV-viewer base by delivering conservative values while titillating with new and colorful styles, slang and sentiments. Sometime after 1975, the styles moved to center stage, thematically as well as cosmetically, and cause-of-the-week camp and all-star bloatfests seemed to swamp the tailored-for-TV movie genre and send it on a downward course from which it never recovered.

So, which teleflicks still deserve attention both for their production merits and for the stories they told about crime in their time? My 11 choices are based not only on my own viewing and enjoyment, but on the recommendations of the scholars of this funky little genre.

Here are my criteria:

1. No movie pilots for TV series that were subsequently made. It’s just too hard to judge those movies against the shows that followed. Admittedly, that rules out some good ones, like 1968’s Prescription: Murder, which eventually led to the beloved Columbo series. (Knowing the particular interests of this blog’s creator, I’m guessing he could make a better list of those than I could, and I challenge him to do so.)

2. No supernatural outcomes. Many TV movies of that time, following a groundswell of interest in the occult, used Satanic or paranormal elements in their murder mysteries. Some of these were the clever gaslighting schemes of human miscreants; others truly were terrifying tales of actual demonic possession. We’ll stick to the former in the interests of spotlighting crime.

Let me make one thing clear right now: Almost none of these 11 movies could stand up against the big-screen delights of that same epoch. I might put, say, The California Kid on a double bill with Dirty Larry, Crazy Mary, because they’re both outlaw-driver flicks from 1974 with Vic Morrow playing corrupt sheriffs, but I won’t pretend the former is anywhere as fine as the latter.

The appeal of these movies comes in enjoying the period, and the familiar faces that populate them, and also, to a certain extent, their ridiculously flat-and-yet-overheated dialogue and manufactured menace. But, graded on a generous curve, most of these are … well, not awful.

Click on the links below for plot summaries.

Duel (1971). The most obvious choice; the one that endures as a cult classic; the one that was so good, it was later released in theaters. You probably know the bullet points: Steven Spielberg’s first feature-length directing job. One of Richard Matheson’s best short stories. Dennis Weaver’s excellence as the Everyman tormented on a lonely stretch of California highway by an unseen nemesis in an 18-wheeler. And the man-versus-ambiguous-nemesis metaphor that captured something of America’s post-1960s sense of dislocation.

David Deal, in his book Television Fright Films of the 1970s, says: “Duel is a riveting expression of Kafkaesque horror. The vast loneliness of the desert, the deadly seriousness of the situation, and the inability to muster any help combine to make a deep and fearful impression. Richard Matheson’s simple story gives Spielberg the chance to concentrate on the mechanics of suspense; the ebb and flow of events is masterfully handled.” He adds: “The film still holds up beautifully today.” I can’t agree more.

(Available on Prime Video and DVD.)

When Michael Calls (1972). The top-line retro appeal of this New England-set gothic chiller is the debut of Michael Douglas, but there’s much more going for it. Star Ben Gazzara is one of those actors you enjoy in anything, and here his lightfooted heavyweight presence gives this story of gaslighting from beyond the grave its center of gravity. It’s also a perfect curio of its time: lots of supernatural suggestions, smoking, spectral stalkings, and aggressive turtleneck sweaters.

Says Kevin Hilton in Are You in the House Alone?: A TV Movie Compendium: “When Michael Calls just about ticks all the boxes one would realistically hope for given its small-screen trappings, and for the most part, has aged remarkably well.” Adds David Deal: “Director Philip Leacock keeps the action focused in this small-town, small-circle mystery, and the irony of the ending, which won’t be revealed here, exposes the fine line between sanity and madness.”

(Available on YouTube—at least for the here and now—or on DVD for a higher-quality viewing experience.)

Deliver Us from Evil (1973). Clearly inspired by the D.B. Cooper hijacking legend, this film briskly balances deadly twists with deeper meditations on situational ethics and tribal dynamics. It challenges viewers to ask themselves: If you stumble upon a lone criminal and hundreds of thousands of dollars in the deep woods, what would you do? Would you lead that conversation, or would you drift along behind the dominant personalities in your group?

Part of this scenario’s appeal can be found in its isolation; aside from the hijacker, there are just six people in the cast—six men on a back-country camping trip through Oregon’s Mount Hood National Forest—and each character occupies his particular spot along the strength spectrum. There’s the trip’s guide, Jim Davis (later to portray Jock Ewing on Dallas), but the group’s true leader is man’s-man George Kennedy. Trailing behind them are Bradford Dillman, Jack Weston, and Charles Aidman, fine actors all, and Jan-Michael Vincent in a solid role that hints broadly at his coming—if short-lived—stardom. Directed by Boris Sagal (father of Katey).

(Available on DVD only.)

The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975). If your primary association with Elizabeth Montgomery is as Samantha on Bewitched, all I can say is, “Bewitch this, bitches!” One great thing about teleflicks was their utility as outlets for TV stars looking to stretch or subvert their established images, and few did that with more determination than this American sweetheart. Montgomery is chilled perfection in this re-imagining of the real-life 1892 murders of Borden’s parents in Fall River, Massachusets. Her portrayal of the accused murderess alternates believably between sociopathic cool, convincing naiveté, and childlike petulance.

Says David Deal: “The Legend of Lizzie Borden is a classic telefilm. And for good reason. The impeccable production has a sense of the eerie about it, as if the filmmakers fell under the spell of the frightening and folkloric story they were telling.” Co-starring Ed Flanders (St. Elsewhere), Katherine Helmond (Soap), and Fionnula Flanagan, this film’s quality was also assured by the helmsmanship of Paul Wendkos, one of the era’s best directors of dark foreboding fare.

(Available on YouTube and DVD.)

Savages (1974). Montgomery wasn’t the only TV-series star who used small-screen movies to stretch out her skills. Her male analogue was Andy Griffith. In this unbearably taut two-hander between a young hunting guide and his obsessed, over-entitled client in an unforgiving stretch of high desert, Griffith is the polar opposite of folksy Andy Taylor: a grinning, sadistic killer content to mix ice-cold martinis in the shade while his prey slowly dies of thirst in shattering sunlight.

Like many of the best TV movies, Savages has the advantage of superior source material: Robb White’s beloved young-adult novel, Deathwatch (1973). But this is Andy Griffith’s showcase, and it’s clear in every scene that he’s having the time of his life being the bad guy. (OK, as much such fun as he has in another TV movie, 1974’s Pray for the Wildcats, wherein he plays a macho bully who goads Robert Reed and William Shatner into participating in a punishing motorcycle journey through Baja California. At one point, Griffith cheerfully bellows: “I’m a hippie with money!”)

(Available on YouTube and DVD.)

Reflections of Murder (1974). I’m partial to this one because it was filmed close to my western Washington home, but between the settings, the stars and the spookiness with a splash of camp, it’s still a superior example of the genre. This spin on 1955’s Diabolique takes place at a boys’ boarding school, where hateful headmaster Sam Waterston’s desire to shut down and sell the property apparently alienates not just his wife (Joan Hackett) but his mistress (Tuesday Weld). However, getting away with his murder proves tougher than those two think. (To wit, how do you make a body disappear for a while but not forever?) Of course, all is not as it seems, and even preteen prepster Lance Kerwin, of James at 15 fame, figures out as much.

On top of that outstanding cast is some equally remarkable behind-the-camera talent. The director was John Badham, who went on to fame a few years later with Saturday Night Fever; and the writer was Carol Sobieski, later Oscar-nominated for her adaptation of Fried Green Tomatoes. Small wonder that David Deal, among others, loved it: “It is one of the finest telefilms—fright or otherwise—of the 1970s.”

(Available on DVD and YouTube.)

Home for the Holidays (1972). OK, this one is all about the camp, as a great cast stuffs extra ham into a gothic potboiler of family secrets and female rage. Four sisters—including Eleanor Parker, aka the Baroness from The Sound of Music; Jessica Walter, aka Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development; and college-aged Sally Field—gather at their family manse for a dark and stormy weekend with their dying father and his second wife, who was once accused of murdering her first husband. Invective is hurled, tears are spilled, and murder is done (most notably by pitchfork). In the end, two sisters are left, one innocent and one deranged, and things culminate with a delicious knife-wielding chase through mud and rain and hilly darkness.

While not a great movie, Home for the Holidays has foreboding atmosphere to spare, and it’s tremendous fun of a low sort to watch these highly talented performers out-emote one another en route to their highly performative ends. Michael Karol, author of The ABC Movie of the Week Companion, says: “It’s a real treat to watch the actresses sink their teeth into this tasty whodunnit. There’s sibling rivalry, madness, drugs, sex, and murder; what more could one ask for in a gothic thriller?”

(Available on YouTube.)

Dying Room Only (1973). Just like you knew the jam was going to be good when it was called Smuckers, so you knew that a movie was going to be good when Richard Matheson’s name was attached to it. He will always first be associated with the small-screen legends Duel, The Night Stalker, and Trilogy of Terror, and the big-screener I Am Legend, as well as his many Twilight Zone episodes. But this TV movie is a prime example of Matheson’s knack for isolating a handful of characters and cranking up the heat on them to deliciously unbearable temperatures.

This time, it’s a Southwest diner and neighboring motel, and pulling in are bickering couple Dabney Coleman and Cloris Leachman. Cloris goes off to the ladies’, and when she returns, Dabney’s gone but their car’s still there. Surly grillman Ross Martin and grinning Ned Beatty deny all knowledge. Things get deliciously gaslighty from there, and Leachman—fresh off an Academy Award triumph for 1971’s The Last Picture Show—is irresistible as the innocent who slowly dawns to the depth of the depravity at work in this desert hell. Says David Deal: “Cloris Leachman shines as Jean, who holds herself together as she comes up against barriers that would make a weaker person simply give up. It’s good to see strong female characters overcome adversity, a central theme of television movies from the era.”

(Available on DVD only.)

Winter Kill (1974). After all of these suspense and isolation stories, we should spotlight at least one good old reliable police procedural. Winter Kill gets my vote. What a strange time it must have been for Andy Griffith, trying hard to overcome his folksy-good-guy image while surely realizing on some level that a substantial part of the ’70s boob-tube audience would not accept him as anything but. So, on the heels of bad-guy turns in Savages and Pray for the Wildcats, Griffith put on his sheriff’s badge once again for this shivery tale of serial murder set in California’s High Sierra region. (This was shot as a pilot, but ABC-TV declined to pick it up as a regular series.)

Winter Kill is especially interesting for its take on the moral temperature of its time: plot points include a woman who can’t accept that her ski-bum boy toy (Nick Nolte in an early role) doesn’t love her merely because he deigns to have sex with her; and a man who fathered a child out of wedlock finds that he can’t handle the perceived stigma of acknowledging the girl. Also enjoyable is Sheree North, a frequent presence in TV movies, as Griffith’s cheerfully suffering girlfriend. (Not as good, but still worth seeing, is 1977’s The Girl in the Empty Grave, another Griffith-as-sheriff vehicle notable for early roles by later stars James Cromwell and Jonathan Banks.)

(Available on Prime Video and DVD.)

Nightmare in Badham County (1976). Most women-in-prison movies were made with a wink and a nudge, but this story was all about grim realism. Two young women are stopped on a flimsy pretext in a small Southern town by its corrupt sheriff; the next thing they know they are being brutalized on a prison farm by guards and inmates alike, with hopes of escape thwarted at virtually every turn. The movie is well-made, the story absorbing, and the cast absolutely first-rate: Deborah Raffin and Lynne Moody as the innocents; Chuck Connors as the sadistic sheriff; and also Robert Reed, Della Reese, and Tina Louise.

Deal captures Nightmare’s appeal: “Easily one of the most accomplished telefilms of the era, this is a difficult watch because of it. The exploitation elements common to the Women in Prison movie were downplayed in favor of a more realistic approach, focusing instead on what television does best: the character study.” Amanda Reyes makes clear in Are You in the House Alone? that she loves this picture, too, but sees it in a different light, noting that a revised theatrical release doubled down on its sex and nudity: “Nightmare has certainly transcended its more modest small-screen beginnings to become known as a fairly notorious B-grade sleazefest.”

(Available on DVD and YouTube.)

Night Terror (1977). What this Valerie Harper vehicle lacks in believability it more than makes up for in breathless fun. Harper is absolutely irresistible as an allegedly scatterbrained wife and mother, who is forced by family circumstances to drive alone from Phoenix to Denver, and who spends almost all of a night and the next morning being forced to outrun and outwit a psychotic killer. In the process she discovers her inner badass, and while the chases are mesmerizing, the best part of the film is a devastating retort she delivers to her infantilizing husband, who says: “Some of us just need a little looking after … you’re not exactly Gloria Steinem, you know.”

Thomas Scalzo writes in Are You in the House Alone?: “ While owing a clear debt to Duel and its enthralling tale of hunter versus hunted on the highway, Night Terror manages to set itself apart from Spielberg’s legendary film in several ways. By doing away with the questions as to why the protagonist is being chased, we’re allowed to focus all of our attention on how Harper might escape her ordeal. Second, the fact that our hero here is a woman, and arguably handles herself with more pluck and reserve than Dennis Weaver, speaks to the efforts to take the highway horror tale in a unique direction.” Deal agrees: “This lean little chase film turns out to be a gripping, tension-filled experience.”

(Available on DVD and YouTube.)

READ MORE:In 1970s America, Bizarre TV Movie Thrillers Were All the Rage,” by Keith Roysdon (CrimeReads).


Lee Goldberg said...

WINTER KILL and THE GIRL IN THE EMPTY GRAVE, as well as DEADLY GAME are "sequels" to the James Garner film THEY ONLY KILL THEIR MASTERS. Griffith would also play essentially the same role in ADAMS OF EAGLE LAKE, a series that lasted 2 episodes.

Jim Thomsen said...

I’ve heard there are episodes of ADAMS OF EAGLE LAKE in the can somewhere. Can’t imagine there’s much clamor for them, but I’d sure like to see them.

— Jim