If I say "TV movie", what's the first thing you think of? If it's Anna Nicole or Liz And Dick or even Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?, we need to talk. See, TV movies used to be pretty cool. And not cool in a campy, "starring Tori Spelling" kind of way. They were legitimately weird genre efforts, and often fringe as all hell, except for the part where they aired on one of maybe seven available channels, ensuring ratings of which contemporary shows like Breaking Bad could only dream. This is not some "things were better back when" shit, but you can't deny it WAS kind of a fun moment in time when TV viewers were limited to a half-dozen viewing options and one of them was about a rapey, murdering teen who lived inside the walls of a family's new home. I'm just saying.
Birthed in the 1960s as a countermeasure against moviegoing audiences, the TV movie began as a more or less respectable endeavor, starring name actors and often featuring high enough production value that the films were sometimes released theatrically in foreign markets (e.g., Steven Spielberg's Duel). It was a valid proving ground where young directors crossed paths with fading stars (e.g., Steven Spielberg's Duel), and the results, while varied, made for some noteworthy content (e.g., Steven Spielberg's Duel).
The medium turned a corner in the '70s, however, and was soon trading in straight-up exploitation. And while the seeds for the current true crime/"television for women" model were planted here (A Case Of Rape, Sarah T - Portrait Of A Teen Alcoholic) the '70s TV movie carved a parallel path into nightmare territory. This was partly due to the often gonzo content, and partly due to said content being flung across the airwaves into the unprotected eyeballs of impressionable kids like myself. With no such thing as parental controls and no real rating system in place, films like Bad Ronald and Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark were burned into the minds of an entire generation. For about a decade, this unique subgenre flourished, offering everything from grimy murder to supernatural chills to a bonkers sequel to Rosemary's Baby. The films' individual merits are debatable, but they do represent a unique moment in film history, and there was something undeniably illicit and terrifying about seeing such disreputable content presented in such a direct, cheap, Eight Is Enough aesthetic.
Over the years the films were rerun infrequently enough that they began to take on mythic properties; they turned into things you talked about and recounted with friends, but actual sightings became increasingly rare. By the mid-to-late '80s, they all but vanished, gaining boogeyman levels of reputation. And though the home video boom (and a remake or two) has begun to unearth some of the more legendary titles, there are still dozens - some trash, some compelling oddities from well-known writers and directors - which are in danger of being lost to the ages.
And that's why I refer to Exhumed Films as a godsend. They're archivists, evangelists, heroes. And all next week, they're screening both well-known and obscure '70s TV movies in a week-long program called Tele-Terror Fest. Everything is in 16mm, lots of it is completely unavailable on home video, and it's all happening at PhilaMOCA (The Philadelphia Museum Of Contemporary Art), located in Philadelphia's Eraserhood. (Philly: Not just M. Night and Rocky!) $12 gets you a double feature; $50 gets you the whole shebang. Below is the event listing and calendar; tickets are available here.
WED OCTOBER 9, 8:00 PM:
DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK (1973)
"Can you see them, Sally... hiding in the shadows. They're alive, Sally. They want you to be one of them when the lights go out." After moving into an old mansion with her husband, a young woman begins to be threatened by small demonic creatures. John Newland -- creator and host of One Step Beyond, a contemporary supernatural television series to The Twilight Zone -- directed this spooky, beloved horror favorite that spawned a 2010 theatrical remake by Guillermo Del Toro, starring Katie Holmes and Guy Pearce.
THE CAT CREATURE (1973)
The theft of an Egyptian mummy and a gold amulet leads to people turning up dead from wounds apparently inflicted by a feline perpetrator! From cult director Curtis (Night Tide, Games) Harrington, starring Meredith Baxter (Family Ties), Stuart Whitman, Kent (Cat People) Smith, John Carradine and Peter Lorre Jr; teleplay by Robert (Psycho) Bloch.
THU OCTOBER 10, 8:00 PM:
BAD RONALD (1974)
"The Wilby place is haunted... by a ghost that isn't dead!" A painfully shy teenager accidentally kills one of his tormentors and his ill mother hides him from the police in a hidden room.... One of the most disturbing, unforgettable made- for-television movies ever made! Stars Scott Jacoby, Pippa Scott, Dabney Coleman, and Kim Hunter.
A childless older couple discover a troubled teenager living in their basement crawlspace and adopt him as their own; trouble begins when they learn that their new "son" is wanted by the authorities. Stars Arthur Kennedy, Teresa Wright and Tom Happer; directed by John (Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark) Newland.
FRI OCTOBER 11, 8:00 PM:
THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE BELL (1970)
In this tense, stylish conspiracy thriller, the good life of a successful college professor is torn apart when a secret pact he made in his college days catches up with him. Stars Glenn Ford, Rosemary Forsyth, and Dean Jagger. Emmy-nominated for outstanding teleplay and direction.
TERROR ON THE BEACH (1973)
A family on a camping trip must learn to fight fire with fire when they're terrorized by a group of psychotic, dune-buggy-driving hippies. An effective exercise in survival terror that's part Duel and looks forward to such '70's shockers as The Hills Have Eyes. Stars Dennis Weaver, Susan Dey and Estelle Parsons.
SAT OCTOBER 12, 4:00 PM:
HORROR AT 37,000 FEET (1973)
In this campy slice of supernatural hokum, a flight from England is in for a very bumpy ride to say the least, when a demonic force takes exception to the transportation of recently excavated relics from a cursed abbey. Some of the passengers in mortal danger are: Roy (The Invaders) Thinnes, Buddy Ebsen, Chuck Connors, Paul Winfield, France Nuyen and William Shatner, as a disillusioned, alcoholic priest.
Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry serves up this wild pre-X-Files occult thriller starring Robert Culp, Gig Young, John Hurt and Majel Barrett. An eminent criminologist/occult aficionado enlists the help of a skeptical friend, when he accepts an assignment to investigate the mysterious happenings on the grounds of a British family estate. Creature effects by Stuart (Star Wars) Freeborn!
SAT OCTOBER 12, 8:00 PM:
WHERE HAVE ALL THE PEOPLE GONE (1974)
Here's a telefilm that's reminiscent of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend and presages Post-apocalyptical films like Night Of The Comet! A family returns from a trip in the Sierra mountains to discover a drastically de-populated earth. Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey (a director more closely associated with the tele-terror film than perhaps any other, due to the success of 1972's The Night Stalker), from a teleplay by Lewis John (Seconds) Carlino and Sandor (The Amityville Horror) Stern. Starring Peter Graves, Kathleen Quinlan and Verna Bloom.
LOOK WHAT’S HAPPENED TO ROSEMARY’S BABY (1976)
"Satan's child comes of age!" This weird, forgotten sequel to Ira Levin's/Roman Polanski’s horror classic focuses upon the conflicted adult son of Rosemary Woodhouse, as he attempts to resist his dark impulses and the influence of the evil cult grooming him to become the Anti-Christ. Stephen (A History Of Violence, Pontypool) Mchattie stars alongside Patty Duke, Ray Milland, Broderick Crawford, and Ruth Gordon reprising her role from the original film.
SUN OCTOBER 13, 6:00 PM:
DYING ROOM ONLY (1973)
Richard Matheson scripted this nerve-jangling suspenser about a woman who suspects foul play when her husband mysteriously vanishes from a roadside diner and the locals become extremely uncooperative. Starring Cloris Leachman, Ross Martin, Ned Beatty, Dana Elcar and Dabney Coleman.
Kirk Douglas -- as you've never seen him before! -- stars as an unhinged high school teacher who enacts desperate revenge on his ex-wife (Jean Seberg) for separating him from their son. A taut film co-starring John Vernon that was released theatrically in the UK.
STRANGER IN OUR HOUSE (1978)
The first foray into tele-terror for Wes Craven, after having directed such iconic '70's horror films as The Last House On The Left and The Hills Have Eyes! Linda Blair stars as a teenager whose life is turned upside down when her witchcraft-practicing cousin moves in and begins taking over the family home. Based on the book Summer of Fea
r, by Philadelphia-born bestselling novelist Lois (I Know What You Did Last Summer) Duncan. Co-starring Lee Purcell, Jeremy Slate and featuring an early appearance by Fran Drescher.