Melbourne, Australia has played host to a little genre festival called Monster Fest for some years now. Operated by local distributor Monster Pictures, it has traditionally tended primarily towards horror flicks, but this year was different. Canadian festival programmer and cinema savant Kier-La Janisse took over programming, turning it into a broad, surprisingly academic celebration of genre, all crammed into one long weekend.
The programme was as solid as you’d hope: festival-circuit favourites like Raw, The Greasy Strangler, and Free Fire brushed shoulders with more obscure titles and a host of retrospective screenings. But the best part of Janisse’s festival came in a collection of panel discussions and presentations. Audiences and visiting filmmakers alike attended talks on local film production; women genre directors; transmedia projects; and the career of visiting director Ted Kotcheff. All good stuff.
One of the most surprising and fascinating presentations came in the form of a book launch - namely that of Are You In The House Alone?: A TV Movie Compendium 1964-1999. Edited by TV movie expert, blogger, and podcaster Amanda Reyes, the book compiles essays on and reviews of made-for-TV movies, that most ephemeral avenue of filmmaking. Often considered “lesser” than theatrical films, TV movies nevertheless contributed a great deal to the collective pop-culture consciousness, only to be rewarded with exile to studio archives, home-recorded VHS tapes, or total obscurity.
Are You In The House Alone? seeks to shine a light on those forgotten films, in all their varying strangeness and quality. From the TV movie’s origins, wherein the networks simply decided it’d be more profitable to produce their own movies than to pay residuals, licensing, and censorship fees, to its modern-day resurgence on channels like HBO, there’s a lot to talk about, and Reyes’ book doesn’t disappoint.
Thanks to of the scorn often heaped upon TV movies, their significance and impact tends to be forgotten. TV movies were seen by everyone back in the day, giving them unprecedented influence over the social conversation. Targeting new, more diverse audiences, TV movies explored taboo topics like rape and domestic abuse, often changing public perception of such subjects. In The Burning Bed’s case, the screening provoked a massive wave of reports to abuse centres - even by abusers themselves, turning themselves in upon realising what they'd been doing. For filmmakers, TV movies offered a low-risk testing ground: directors like Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, and Wes Craven got early opportunities on TV, as did effects maven Stan Winston with Gargoyles. For actors, TV movies offered a chance to break out of typecasting, or in some older actors’ cases, simply to work again at all. And for audiences simply looking for entertainment, TV movies offered a wide range of stories, often in genres rarely found on television, like the occult, cryptozoology, and “ripped from the headlines” exploitation.
The “reviews” section that forms the bulk of the book is as eye-opening as it is frustrating. Covering hundreds of titles from the the book’s 35-year span of coverage, the section includes write-ups on everything from icons like Trilogy of Terror, Duel, The Day After, The Night Stalker, and the Star Wars Holiday Special, to more obscure titles in nearly every conceivable genre. It’s divided into eras, since each decade of made for television movies tended to differ from the decade prior. There’s even a whole section on Stephen King TV movies. Each film gets at least a page dedicated to it, with reviews by a host of film-writing luminaries. I’m now desperate to see many of these movies, but therein lies the rub - many of them are difficult or even impossible to find now, even with online networks devoted to distributing these rare treasures. Bollocks.
Reyes’ book launch concluded with a theatrical screening of Bad Ronald, a TV movie which proved highly influential and exhibits many of the medium’s best and most unique qualities. Concerning a teenager who maybe-accidentally commits a nasty murder, hides in his mother’s (Kim Hunter!) crawlspace at her behest, then continues to hide there after she dies and another family moves in, it’s a bizarre story that doesn’t need a huge budget to tell well. Surreal, psychological, and singular, Bad Ronald is the perfect encapsulation of all that made classic TV movies great. Check it out, if you can.
And also check out Are You In The House Alone?. According to Amazon, it launches in May 2017, which is quite a ways away from now. You can, however, pre-order it. Or come over to my house and read my copy along with me. We can read it in front of the TV. It’ll be great.