9 Made-for-TV Horror Films That are Far Better Than They Should be
These nine films rise above their made-for-TV origins
Made-for-TV horror films aren’t typically seen as fine art or even as being particularly noteworthy by some fans. But there are at least a handful of instances where filmmakers have managed to overcome the budgetary constraints and censorship standards imposed on cinematic endeavors crafted for the boob tube. And with that in mind, I am looking back on nine made-for-TV films that exceeded expectations.
Don’t expect to see anything from Hulu, Netflix, or Prime on this list. There is some incredible output to be found from streaming services. But those projects often have a bigger budget behind them than titles made for broadcast.
With that said, I now present to you nine made-for-television horror films that are far better than they should have been.
I can only imagine how frightened I would have been if I’d stumbled upon this film in my formative years. It actually scared me, seeing it for the first time as an adult. The titular character is menacing but his overbearing mother might be even worse. Together, the pair serve as pure nightmare fuel. The idea of a family moving into a home with a murderous young man living inside the walls gives me the creeps just thinking about it. While not perfect, Bad Ronald is a great example of how to serve up the thrills and chills without a massive budget or the ability to depict a great deal of onscreen violence.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
The first time I watched Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, I remember being struck by just how, well, dark it is. Made-for-television fare often has a happy ending or a moral to the story that’s being told. But this flick has a pretty downbeat conclusion and I love that. Opting out of the ‘happily ever after’ trope was a bold move for a made-for-TV film. And that film is better for it. The way that no one believes Sally (Kim Darby) when she insists there are pint-sized creatures with malevolent intentions running around her home is chilling. The film effectively captures the sense of isolation she feels. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is atmospheric and likely to instill a sense of paranoia and dread in its audience that won’t let up until the final frame.
Slumber Party Massacre
I was pleasantly surprised by just how good Slumber Party Massacre (2021) is. The film manages to capture the spirit of the original while separating itself and existing as its own entity. The flick nods to the original and pokes some good-natured fun at it. But this reboot tells its own story that subverts expectations and sends the kind of fierce feminist message the original wanted to serve up. If this is the future of made-for-tv horror, I am here for it.
Someone’s Watching Me!
One of John Carpenter’s earliest efforts, Someone’s Watching Me! has the famed director’s fingerprints all over it. The tension is palpable. The film delivers a mounting sense of dread courtesy of an eerie score and effective camerawork. The notion that a woman is being pursued by a mysterious perpetrator in a time before stalking laws were commonplace lends an extra layer of helplessness to the nightmarish ordeal to which lead character Leigh (Lauren Hutton) is subjected. Carpenter thrives, in spite of the limitations imposed upon him by creating for the small screen.
Trilogy of Terror
Among the late Karen Black’s most memorable genre efforts is Trilogy of Terror. Black plays four different roles over the film’s three vignettes. Each segment spins a sinister tale designed to thrill and chill in equal measure. For most fans, the third vignette (with the killer Zuni Fetish Doll) is the standout effort in this televised anthology. And that point was made abundantly clear when the original doll prop sold for upwards of $200k at auction in 2019. The flick isn’t perfect, but considering it was made for the small screen on a modest budget, it gets a lot right. And it has certainly stood the test of time.
Dark Night of the Scarecrow
This tense and suspenseful tale of a malevolent scarecrow frightened audiences upon its initial broadcast forty years ago and continues to delight and frighten viewers discovering it for the first time via DVD or streaming. The flick features sincere performances from its leads and a series of relatively tame but still intense kill sequences. Dark Night of the Scarecrow avoids many of the made-for-television trappings and stands out as a picture that people will continue to revisit for years to come.
It is the rare instance of a made-for-TV film (technically a miniseries) that was so effective, people were outraged when the announcement of a remake surfaced. That kind of outrage is typically reserved for remake announcements regarding theatrical fare. But the way the film imprinted on fans is a testament to the power of Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise and the picture itself. Curry is likely responsible for more than a few cases of coulrophobia. The film remains a nostalgic favorite for an entire generation of viewers that likely saw the flick a bit younger than they should have.
An early Steven Spielberg, effort, Duel remains supremely terrifying a whopping fifty years after its inaugural airing. It’s surprising that a film as intensely taut as this was relegated to a broadcast television release. But it is, nonetheless, an exciting ride that keeps the viewer in a nonstop state of suspense as David (Dennis Weaver) is pursued by a maniac in a big rig. The film also serves as a cautionary tale to be courteous on the road… Or else.
Salem’s Lot has stood the test of time and continues to chill viewers to this day. The window sequence, in particular, remains terrifying and effective. Yes, the program was considered a miniseries at the time of release. But for today’s purposes, I think it fits the bill. Salem’s Lot is atmospheric, spooky, and managed to rise above its made-for-TV origins.