Network Television has always had something of a love-hate relationship with Horror and Science-Fiction programming. While some of the best episodic TV ever done has been in the genre realms, too often it has gone unappreciated by the very executives profiting from it. Relegated to undesirable time-slots, starved of financing, subjected to unfair editorial oversight, and then quickly axed when they failed to deliver up to expectations, those were, for many years, a few of the problems faced by genre series and their fans looking for a small-screen fix. Case in point: The original run of STAR TREK. Premiering on September 8th, 1966, NBC executives worked against the series from the beginning, shifting it’s time-slot several times, finally consigning it to a virtual death sentence of a slot—Friday nights at 10pm. Saved from cancellation following its second season by a now legendary letter-writing campaign launched by the show’s fans, it simply couldn’t generate sufficient ratings to prolong its life past the end of the third. The last first-run episode was broadcast June 3rd, 1969. In past years, that would have been the end of the story; in this case it was not, as we all well know.
Still, for all the dislike evinced by television executives for genre programming, it’s hard to deny the fact that it works, and, given the proper respect, works well. At no point in time was this more in evidence than in the late ‘60’s to mid 1970’s.
Though Science-Fiction, and to a lesser degree Horror, had been part of the Television blueprint since the earliest days, it really reached its peak starting in 1969 with the debut of Rod Serling’s NIGHT GALLERY. Similar to Serling’s acclaimed TWILIGHT ZONE, though with more emphasis on pure Horror than its predecessor, NIGHT GALLERY was consistently one of the most effective genre programs ever, with well-written, literate, imaginative scripts; great production values; and some of the best actors working in television at the time. Each week viewers were treated to three or four short vignettes, each introduced by Serling through the device of a painting, which served as a visual metaphor for the segment’s title.
The series ran through May of 1973, and while it wasn’t the groundbreaking series that TWILIGHT ZONE had been, it pleased its fans, myself included.
However, NIGHT GALLERY was far from the only genre program to hit the small screen during the first half of the decade. One of the better ones lasted only a season, (1972-73…) and went through a title change in mid-course, but GHOST STORY / CIRCLE OF FEAR left a lasting impression on this young Monsterkid. Superbly written, if not always as well-executed, it was, for it’s time, the most frightening program on television. It was certainly my favorite, until the premiere in September, 1974 of the greatest Horror series ever, KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER.
The brainchild of Jeff Rice, the pilot for the series was created by prolific producer-director Dan Curtis, adapted from Rice’s novel “The Kolchak Papers” by Richard Matheson, with John Llewellyn Moxey directing. It aired as an ABC-TV movie on January 11th, 1972, and became the highest rated television movie to that point, a position it held for some time. A sequel, THE NIGHT STRANGLER, followed a year later, and the series eighteen months after that.
Though it lasted an even shorter period of time than GHOST STORY / CIRCLE OF FEAR, the long-term impact of this series can’t be discounted. It not only transformed Darren McGavin from an average, though skillful, character actor, into a pop culture icon. It also inspired similar series that followed it, most notably THE X-FILES.
But the greatest contribution that Television made to the Horror genre during the first half of the ‘70’s was the large number of high-quality well-written Made-for-TV Movies that were produced in those years. Between 1969 and 1975, over eighty Sci-Fi and Horror Films were produced by the Big Three networks, including such gems as Curtis’ DRACULA (1973), HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS ~aka~ DEADLY DESIRES (1972), TRILOGY OF TERROR (1975), Spielberg’s DUEL (1971), and of course, the aforementioned THE NIGHT STALKER (1972). Many of these were broadcast on ABC, the network for horror when I was a child.
One of the better ones however, GARGOYLES, aired on November 21st, 1972 on CBS. This was one of my favorite movies as a child, with great-looking creatures, a very scary (well, to an eight-year old, at least…) plot, and an open ending that, a mere decade later, would’ve resulted in at least three sequels.
Another under-appreciated TV movie from this period is DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, an ABC Made-for-TV Movie first broadcast on October 10th, 1973. The plot was somewhat original, concerning a family who finds their ancestral home infested by small creatures who may be demons summoned by the wife’s late father. Starring Kim Darby and Jim Hutton, this better-than-average TV horror was recently remade (albeit somewhat loosely…) as INHABITED (2003), an altogether inferior effort. Though the original is not an easy movie to track down, the effort is worth it.
Tonight, when we are relaxing in our comfortable recliners, with a bowl of popcorn and a cold drink, and reach to pick up the remotes that can instantly bring us hundreds of channels of entertainment and information, it might do us some measure of good to ask ourselves if we’re really better off. If you’re anywhere near my age, or older, then you can remember a time when just three networks fought it out for our attention, and they did battle with high-quality, original programming, a phrase that’s become something of an oxymoron in the age of SURVIVOR and AMERICAN IDOL. We can remember a time when some of the best, most entertaining horror and science-fiction work being done was for the small-screen.
I for one think we’re lucky to have those memories, and can’t help feeling just a little sorry for those who don’t.