Classified: TV Movies
Classified is a regular column on genre by April Wolfe.
The Night Stalker, (John Llewellyn Moxey, 1972)
Streaming may be the new “theatrical experience,” but digital platforms’ fight against big movie production companies, the theater chains, and ardent advocates like Steven Spielberg, is a tale as old as television.
In the late 1960s, the studios saw CBS, NBC, and ABC as their direct competitors and gouged them for screening fees for films. ABC saw an opening to streamline operations and produce their own movies at a fraction of the cost, which birthed their famous Movie of the Week format in 1969. With cost removed as a concern, ABC turned their attention to material with the knowledge their audience would not be captive and could switch off the channel or wander into the kitchen for a sandwich. They had no fancy algorithms to predict viewers’ tastes, but they understood that the way to burn brightly on America’s screens was to produce riveting genre films that hit the ground running from minute one.
Despite the low budgets and often outrageous premises of these films, there exists a treasure trove of dark delights. Directors had free reign to experiment, and though the whole of a film may not have always coalesced, artistry from scene to scene connected enough—even an audience today would likely sit at attention, delighted by technique. ABC’s secret weapon of the time was a man named John Llewellyn Moxey, an Argentine WWII veteran who began his career as an editor, before totally reinventing genre film.
Moxey may not have been a household name, but he was an innovative risk taker in the TV-movie space, whose work influenced countless theatrical releases and television shows. His most famous contribution was The Night Stalker, starring the gruff character actor Darren McGavin as a hotshot journalist who, after being demoted to a Las Vegas beat reporter, discovers a vampire on the loose.
The script by celebrated I Am Legend author Richard Matheson sits somewhere between procedural and kooky vampire tale, but Moxey makes it work. Even otherwise throwaway scenes feel meticulously constructed and choreographed, like one transition scene in which a construction worker stands atop a dusty dirt hill, legs spread apart, hands on his hips, having just found a dead body drained of blood. Moxey frames the man in a medium shot. Sirens blare in the distance. As the camera travels down the man’s body, we see in the space between the man’s legs the caravan of police cars in the distance, speeding towards the scene—a single shot that illuminates space, character, and power in one fell swoop.
Moxey also directed Barbara Stanwyck and Roddy McDowell in the gas-lighting classic A Taste of Evil, Sally Field and Julie Harris in the histrionic Christmas horror Home for the Holidays, and Peter Graves and Kathleen Quinlan in sci-fi apocalypse film Where Have All the People Gone? Another Stanwyck starrer, The House That Would Not Die, was written by What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? writer Henry Farrell, and stands among the best of the haunted house movies of the week, along with Moxey’s The Strange and Deadly Occurrence. Truly, there isn’t a haunted house movie post-1970 that isn’t in some way touched by Moxey’s pioneering ambiance building and terror. That the director often worked with older actors who’d lost a bit of their star sheen wasn’t a coincidence. It was a calculated move by ABC to get name actors for cheap, which just happened to result in some achingly chilling and high-caliber performances.
Though all of his movies of the week rest at the top of the best-of lists, it is The Night Stalker—which earned the highest ratings of any TV movie ever at the time—and its sequel, The Night Strangler, that are Moxey’s calling cards and the films that have survived longest in pop culture; Chris Carter based the X-Files on these films and invited McGavin on as a guest star.
After ABC paved the way for genre television movies, CBS threw their hat in the ring. Horror-western Black Noon, directed by Bernard L. Kowalski (who would later make groundbreaking, effects-laden snake-horror film Sssssss), was one of their most popular entries and predated a similarly themed film, The Wicker Man, by two years. While The Wicker Man mines the folk horror of Herbridian islands, Black Noon plays in the dusty American pioneer traditions, featuring a country preacher who’s waylaid in a mysterious town when his wife suddenly falls ill. It’s a clever film that conceals its turns quite well, but it’s Kowalski’s direction—precise and with a dreamlike tenor—that sustains the misdirections.
In one iconic scene, the preacher’s wife stumbles into the darkness, where she sees children in strange Pagan costumes, chanting. Mist rises up around her. The children disappear, but their presence lingers—a scene reminiscent of classics like The Innocents and spooky Universal monster films like The Wolf Man, yet prescient in its prediction of the ways in which horror would embrace Paganism in the 1970s.
Movies of the week also produced monster fare of the sort that would, in a roundabout way, inspire Guillermo del Toro’s own creations. Effects master and founder of the Stan Winston School of Character Arts, the late Stan Winston began his career in TV movies, his first being Bill L. Norton’s Gargoyles, a deceptively cerebral, desert-set horror film from 1974. Though the story—about a skeptical anthropologist and his daughter who find themselves caught in a demon’s plot to conquer the world —can meander a bit, the makeup effects applied to actor Bernard Casey are jaw-droppingly detailed; it’s simply fascinating to watch Casey deliver his moody monologues in this ornate silicone layer. Winston won an Emmy for his makeup work on Gargoyles and went on to revolutionize effects on The Predator, Aliens, Jurassic Park, and Batman Returns, before teaching and working with Legacy Effects founder Shane Mahan, creature designer for The Shape of Water.
Other notable entries in the TV movie-of-the-week canon include the Ouija-themed Deadly Messages, the Cloris Leachman-starring paranoia thriller Dying Room Only, the perverted-psycho horror Bad Ronald, the coven folktale Crowhaven Farm, and, of course, the anthology horror film The Trilogy of Terror (based on Matheson stories), largely considered to be one of the scariest television movies of all time, and also responsible for solidifying Karen Black as a cult icon.
It’s not surprising that some streaming services are embracing genre just as television did years ago. Hulu’s partnered with Blumhouse for a movie of the month, called Into the Dark, and Netflix has teamed with del Toro for an anthology series called 10 After Midnight, while CBS All Access (the streaming arm of the network) jumped into business with Jordan Peele for a reboot of The Twilight Zone. It is surprising, however, that Steven Spielberg has so adamantly opposed the growing dominion of streaming. There are, of course, valid reasons to question a production company that also acts as its own distributor and exhibitor, but Spielberg also got his start on an ABC TV Movie of the Week called Duel when the networks were wading into the same waters. Coincidentally, the release of Spielberg’s Jaws in theaters in 1975 came at the same time that interest for movies of the week waned; the director brought audiences back to the theater with the same scrappy genre magic he’d honed in TV. The tides, however, can always turn.
April Wolfe is formerly lead critic for LA Weekly. She currently hosts the Switchblade Sisters podcast, and has written for the Village Voice, AV Club, the Washington Post, and The Wrap.