Five Surprisingly Awesome Made-for-TV Horror Movies

You’d be hard-pressed to find a horror fan who’s all about made-for-TV movies. Hell, made-for-TV films don’t have a great reputation in any genre, but when they’re horror flicks, they face an additional hurdle. Unless they’re intended for a streaming service (an option that wasn’t around for most of cinematic history), they have to go extremely light on the blood and guts many genre fans crave. They’re basically neutered, so it’s not hard to see why horror aficionados largely ignore this corner of the genre.

But as always, there are plenty of exceptions. Despite their poor reputation, made-for-TV horror movies aren’t all bad. In fact, some are legit genre classics, and if you’re on the prowl for those diamonds in the rough, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve compiled a list of five of my favorite made-for-TV horror films, so sit back, relax, and let’s add a few more titles to your to-watch list.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

A monster turning off the light

We’re going to start with the nearly forgotten 1973 classic Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. If you’re a longtime genre fan, you might remember the 2011 theatrical remake written and produced by Guillermo del Toro, but don’t waste your time with that version. It’s not very good, so the made-for-TV original is the one to watch.

The film follows a married couple who move into a new house, and soon after they arrive, the wife inadvertently uncages a group of small, goblin-like creatures imprisoned in a fireplace. Once free, these monsters begin to torment the poor woman, and when she tries to tell her husband about them, he just thinks she’s delusional.

As you might be able to guess from that brief plot synopsis, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark isn’t exactly Shakespeare. The writing and the performances were never going to win any Emmys, but that’s okay. What this movie lacks in narrative substance it more than makes up for in sheer creepiness.

Most notably, the creatures in this house can talk, and their eerie voices are the stuff of nightmares. Every time these monsters speak, they’re apt to send a small chill down your spine, and they have enough lines that these aural scares almost single-handedly carry the film. In fact, they make for some of the best audio horror in any movie, made-for-TV or not, so Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is more than deserving of a spot on this list.

Trilogy of Terror

A Zuni fetish doll

Next up, we have Trilogy of Terror, a 1975 made-for-TV horror anthology known primarily for the last of its three segments. To be fair, the first two stories aren’t bad. They’re decent enough to hold you over until the main course, but that’s pretty much the best anybody can say about them.

The final segment is the real star of this show, and let me tell you, it’s worth the price of admission alone. The story is called “Amelia,” and it’s about a woman who buys a Zuni fetish doll for her boyfriend. However, before she can give it to him, she accidentally frees the violent spirit trapped inside, allowing the doll to come alive and savagely attack her.

Now, since Trilogy of Terror was made for TV, none of its segments feature much gore, and “Amelia” is no exception. But don’t let that fool you. Seeing the tiny Zuni doll go berserk is still an absolute blast, so “Amelia” doesn’t need a ton of blood and guts. It’s insanely fun as is, and even though it’s only about a third of the film, it’s more than enough to make Trilogy of Terror one of the best made-for-TV horror movies of all time.

Salem’s Lot

Kurt Barlow, vampiric villain of Salem's Lot

By far the longest film on this list, Salem’s Lot is a three-hour vampire epic based on the Stephen King novel of the same name. It’s about a small town that becomes the target of a powerful vampire named Kurt Barlow, and when the bodies start piling up, a few of the residents band together to stop this creature before it’s too late.

In other words, Salem’s Lot is basically a modern riff on Dracula. It follows a tried-and-true formula we’ve seen numerous times before, and much like the book it’s based on, this movie executes that formula pretty effectively. For starters, in classic Stephen King style, it takes its time building up its characters before diving into the real meat of the story, and that pays off in spades. Horror is always more effective when you care about the people involved, and this film is a prime example of that cinematic axiom.

What’s more, Salem’s Lot was directed by the great Tobe Hooper, the man behind The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Poltergeist, so you know the scares are top-notch as well. Granted, since this film was made for TV rather than for theaters, Hooper couldn’t go all-out the way he might’ve wanted to, but he did a fine job of working around those constraints. Most notably, he imbued the movie with a palpable atmosphere of dread from beginning to end, and he made Kurt Barlow one of the most terrifying vampires ever seen on any screen, big or small.

That combination of great characters and great horror is rare in the made-for-TV world, so Salem’s Lot just might be the best entry on this list. But even if it’s not, it’s definitely a worthy adaptation of Stephen King’s classic novel, so this isn’t just a great made-for-TV horror film. It’s one of the best vampire movies of all time, making it a legit genre classic no matter how you slice it.

Dark Night of the Scarecrow

A man inside a scarecrow

If tiny goblins, possessed dolls, and undead bloodsuckers aren’t really your thing, you might want to give Dark Night of the Scarecrow a try. It’s a supernatural slasher about a vengeful ghost that goes after a group of bigoted vigilantes, and every time it’s about to claim a new victim, a mysterious scarecrow shows up in the vicinity.

Now, I’m sure some of you are wondering if a made-for-TV slasher is really worth your time. After all, if there’s one horror subgenre that needs violence and gore, it’s this one. So can a slasher really work with anything but a hard R rating? Despite the conventional wisdom, the answer is actually a resounding yes.

Consider M3GAN, for example. It’s one of the best slashers in recent memory, but it’s only PG-13. It gets by with barely any blood or guts, and Dark Night of the Scarecrow pulls off a similar feat. The film substitutes a creepy atmosphere for the violence and gore we typically associate with this subgenre, and it works brilliantly.

Whenever the ghost is about to go in for the kill, that atmosphere ramps up to 11, and it doesn’t let up until the spirit gets what it wants. In fact, Dark Night of the Scarecrow is so eerie it’ll make you forget all about the violent deaths we normally expect from slashers, so it more than earns its status as one of the best made-for-TV horror flicks of all time.


A man sitting down

Last but definitely not least, we have Ghostwatch, a British film that caused a furor when it aired in 1992. See, unlike the other entries on this list, Ghostwatch is a “live” mockumentary investigating a supposedly haunted house, and it even stars Michael Parkinson, a popular British journalist and TV personality at the time. That unique presentation led many viewers to believe they were watching real-life paranormal activity, and it genuinely frightened them.

Of course, nobody today thinks Ghostwatch is anything but a clever work of fiction, but the things that scared unsuspecting audiences 30 years ago still make for a fantastic viewing experience today. Most notably, the performances are all super realistic, so even though you know they’re just actors reading lines, they make it incredibly easy to suspend disbelief and become engrossed in the story.

Those believable characters also make the horror genuinely unnerving, so like Salem’s Lot, Ghostwatch is more than just a great made-for-TV horror movie. It’s a great film all around, so if you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend that you remedy that as soon as possible.

Written by JP Nunez

JP Nunez is a lifelong movie fan, and his favorite genres are horror, superheroes, and giant monsters. You can find him on Twitter @jpnunezhorror.

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