13 Terrifying Made for TV Horror Films

TV movies sometimes get a bad rap: People complain about poor writing, low production values, and intrusive commercial breaks. However, most horror fans know that TV is the home of some of the greatest, scariest movies ever made. Since kids can usually sneak TV movies without their parents’ permission, it was TV movies that first scared the hell out of many young viewers, making them horror devotees for life. So we proudly present some of the scariest, and most fun, horror TV movies ever made.

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Salem's Lot (1979)

This classic miniseries, based on a novel by Stephen King and directed by Tobe Hooper, tells the tale of a small town whose residents fall victim to a powerful vampire. A sequence in which a young boy returns from the dead and floats outside his best friend’s window, waiting to claim him, terrorized an entire generation of children. The film’s gothic atmosphere and sense of slowly creeping dread still spook, and its head vampire remains one of the creepiest ever seen in a film.

Don't Go To Sleep (1982)

Here is one of the scariest, most depressing made for TV horror movies of all time. You have to admire its almost shocking nihilism. Valerie Harper and her family (including Ruth Gordon and Poltergeist’s Oliver Robbins) move into a big new house in order to recover from the death of Valerie’s oldest daughter, Jennifer. Before long, Jennifer begins to haunt her younger sister Mary, making her believe that all of the other family members must be punished for her death. Director Richard Lang expertly amps up the suspense, and cleverly works around network television’s restrictions against graphic violence: When one character falls off a roof to his death, he cuts to a smashed watermelon. We guarantee that you’ll never again feel safe cutting pizza.

Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)

For over a decade people in horror movie newsgroups constantly talked about this movie, but it was practically impossible to find on video—so be grateful that it’s easily available on DVD now! Villagers falsely accuse Bubba, a big, gentle, mentally disabled man, of murdering his best friend (a little girl). An angry mob hunts him down and kills him while he hides in a scarecrow costume. Years later, a hulking figure dressed as a scarecrow murders the executioners in creative ways. Tightly written and artfully directed, the film constantly keeps the audience questioning whether “the scarecrow” is Bubba’s ghost, or one of his many vengeful allies. One can easily see why the film continues to haunt so many

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)

A couple’s inherits a mansion inhabited by demon gnomes. They try to make the wife one of them, and kill all who get in their way. ABC originally showed Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark right after The Partridge Family, and many worshipers of David Cassidy and Susan Dey probably didn’t know what hit them. The film became so legendary that Guillermo del Toro produced a high budget remake in 2010. However, nothing can compare to the creepiness of the original’s nasal-voiced imps.

Bad Ronald (1974)

A dorky teenager murders his mocking neighbor. His overprotective mother barricades him in a secret back room of their Victorian house, hoping to hide him from the police. All goes well until mom dies, Ronald descends into a fantasy world behind the house’s walls, and a new family moves in while he’s still living there. Bad Ronald chillingly preys on that seemingly irrational feeling of being watched that most people have at one point or another. Ronald’s voyeurism becomes even more ominous when he falls in love with the new family’s daughter… You can just imagine.

Home For The Holidays (1972)

A powerhouse cast lends class to this sensational proto-slasher movie/soap opera. Four sisters are summoned home for Christmas by their father, who believes that his wife (The Haunting’s Julie Harris) plans to slowly poison him to death. Sally Field plays the doted upon baby who daddy loved most; Jessica Walter (Arrested Development) chews the scenery as a self-destructive drug addict, constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown; Eleanor Parker (The Sound of Music) is the embittered family care-taker; and Jill Haworth (Exodus) sweeps in as a famous actress who is far above all of the melodrama. After some great bitchy dialogue and a lot of thunder and lightning, the sisters get knocked off by a pitchfork wielding killer in a raincoat. Who will survive, and what will her therapy bills be?

Satan's School for Girls (1973)

Pamela Franklin goes undercover at a boarding school to investigate her sister’s mysterious suicide. Her sister’s friends, Kate Jackson and Cheryl Ladd (!), assist her on her mission. Satan’s School For Girls is like the greatest, scariest episode of Charlie’s Angels ever made (yes, it’s even scarier than the episode in which Shelley Hack joins forces with the ghost of a murdered heiress). Extra props go to Jo Ann Fleet as Mrs. Jessica Williams, the school’s headmistress. She acts like Mrs. Garrett after losing her marbles (in other words, she acts like Mrs. Garrett).

Duel (1971)

Steven Spielberg’s first feature film perfectly encapsulates the insanity of driving in Los Angeles. TV movie regular Dennis Weaver (also featured in Don’t Go To Sleep) plays your average Joe, oppressed by the spiritual emptiness of urban life and late for a business meeting. He passes a gigantic jalopy of a truck on the freeway, only to find the truck randomly and ruthlessly stalking him to the death. This exact same thing happens in the parking garage of the Westfield Mall in Century City all the time, except now Mercedes SUVs are the perpetrators.

When Michael Calls (1972)

Aren’t phone calls the worst? You never know what the person on the other end of the line wants. The stakes are so much lower with texts and e-mail. Regrettably for Helen, the protagonist of When Michael Calls, such disconnected forms of socialization weren’t options in 1972. So, instead, she must deal with spine tingling, vengeful phone calls from her nephew Michael, who allegedly died 15 years before. Michael, like so many unwanted phone callers, wants to gossip about various people in Helen’s life, who might or might not have been involved with his death. The subject of each of Michael’s calls then dies, and Helen naturally begins to fear that she’s next. Michael benefits from deliberately paced chills, gloomy small town atmosphere, and the scariest disembodied phone calls this side of Black Christmas (1976).

The Woman in Black (1989)

Like Don’t Be Afraid…, the British TV movie The Woman in Black inspired a pretty good high profile remake. It still can’t hold a candle to the unforgettable horror of the original. When a lonely old woman dies in a seaside town, a solicitor is sent to settle her estate. None of the townspeople will speak to him about the deceased, and nobody will acknowledge the seriously upsetting woman in black he keeps seeing lurking around. Finally, the solicitor ignores everybody’s warnings and goes to the old woman’s house, where he sees and hears things that made many turn off the TV and run in 1989.

It (1990)

TV movies in general lost some of their oomph in the ‘90s, but this Stephen King adaptation, like Salem’s Lot, traumatized a new generation of eager children. In the 1950s, several social outcasts in Derry, Maine team up against a wicked force that takes on the personage of an ominous clown (Tim Curry, in an iconic performance), and kills their friends and siblings. Decades later, the emotionally disturbed survivors return to the town to face their deepest fears again. The film, like King’s epic novel, portrays Pennywise the clown as the mere manifestation of the town’s many evil, very human forces. It presents one nightmarish scene after another.

The Haunted (1991)

Based on a case investigated by The Conjuring’s Ed and Lorraine Warren, this is one of the all time best haunted house movies, towering over many high budget theatrical features that came after it. The Smerles move into the duplex of their dreams, only to be haunted by demon shadows, a predatory succubus, quietly ever-present pilgrims, and drawers and appliances that go ballistic when they try to leave. The film won Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for its unusually stylish cinematography, and for its lead performance by Sally Kirkland. Kirkland’s believability makes the horrors seem all too real.

Above is a 1991 Entertainment Tonight segment on the movie HOSTED BY LEEZA GIBBONS. 

Dead Souls (2012)

Chiller's original movie Dead Souls is, in a way, a refreshing return to 1970s-style made for TV movies, in that it creates its chills with character development and unsettling atmosphere, rather than CGI and/or lame humor. At the same time, it features a disturbing opening sequence that never could have aired on a major network in previous decades. On his 18th birthday, Johnny Petrie learns that his religious fanatic mother actually adopted him, and that he has inherited an abandoned farm that belonged to his birth family. When he goes to claim his inheritance, he learns that his father slaughtered the rest of his kin when he was a baby, and that their murderous spirits want to finish the ritual. Horror legend Bill Moseley (House of 1,000 Corpses) turns in a typically charismatic performance as the town sheriff. Filmed in a real, very sinister farmhouse, Dead Souls looks and sounds great. It proves that, in this multimedia age, TV movies can still serve up something new, while also giving us that old feeling.

Any that we missed? Shout below in the comments. 

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