Article by Anthony Cowin
I owe a lot to the 1970s. It was the decade of my childhood. It was a time when most of my cultural and political views were embryonic but growing fast. It was also the decade that scared the hell out of me.
You see the 1970s was a golden age for television and horror didn’t miss out on the ride. Some of my most cherished genre films are from the TVM trend of the mid-seventies. Television Movies, or TVMs, were films made by the big American networks for prime time viewing. They were often sentimental stories, murder mysteries or inspirational biopics of people I’d never heard of as a kid, or since to be honest.
But every now and then something darker would crawl out of our small screens. A great example of this is Spielberg’s debut feature film, ‘Duel’. This Richard Matheson penned story started life as an ABC Movie of the Week, but the viewing figures were so successful that it earned a theatrical release. My sharpest memory of ‘Duel’ isn’t the terrifying car chase, the backed out pursuit car, or looking over to see my mum’s fingernails dug deep into the sofa cushions. It’s the fact everybody talked about it the following day in school, even the teachers.
The success of ‘Duel’ ensured more of these darker thrillers would be commissioned throughout the 1970s. I thank Spielberg and Matheson for that. Without the success of ‘Duel’ the nightmares that sparked my own imagination after watching ‘Let’s Scare Jessica to Death’ would have been replaced with dreams populated by ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’, or ‘Starsky and Hutch’. Thanks to ‘Crowhaven Farm’ I would have been feeding the animals when my mum dragged me along to buy our vegetables from the local farm, rather than sitting in the car dreaming up terrifying tales about what horrors happened there at night.
So while I loved the classic Hammer, RKO and Universal showings on the BBC, there was something special about TVMs. They didn’t have the usual monsters from mythology and legend. TVMs looked at horror from a different angle, probably called thinking outside the box these days. In ‘Sweet, Sweet Rachel’ for example we followed the story of a murderer who killed by ESP. In the truly terrifying ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’, we were introduced to a new species of creature that felt borne from our own dark subconscious. I’ve moved into three houses in my adult life where they had sealed up fireplaces. When time came for me to move again those fire were still boarded up thanks to ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’.
While the claustrophobic ‘Dying Room Only’ cast the shadow of ‘Duel’ back across our living rooms, on a recent viewing it also made me realise something more sinister. This was the type of film my big brothers and sisters went to see at the Odeon of a weekend. These were the kind of films whose posters terrified and teased me from billboards through the film of condensation of bus windows. Because I was a long way from being old enough to see them, or even being old enough to buy my own fake ID to sneak in. All of a sudden the type of horror they showed at the cinema was in the cathode rays and darkness of my own living room.
The list seems almost endless. While I recall TVMs like ‘The Night Stalker’, the brilliant ‘Satan’s School for Girls’ or the truly exciting ‘Killdozer’, I always seem to stumble across one I’ve never seen before. Like, ‘The Screaming Woman’, an adaptation of Ray Bradbury radio play. Such was the output during those years. Not all had the quality of Bette Davis in ‘Scream, Pretty Peggy’, but most are true classics. Well to me at least and they have moulded my tastes in visual and written horror, not to mention the fiction I also write.
Yes Specsavers may have mixed up my prescription and given me rose tinted lenses. But even now when I catch a TVM on some obscure satellite channel, or buy a DVD online I’m immediately transported back to a time when horror on television was as common place as reality shows are now.
Because it wasn’t just feature length films that we could watch from the stairwell while our parents thought we were safely tucked up in bed. We had serials and anthology shows too. The Americans followed on the great tradition of ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ and ‘The Twilight Zone’ with fresh shows that decade. However the 1970s also gave us our very own, homemade brand of television horror. Do you remember a shadow resting on an armchair, or Pauline Quirke sending tins of beans flying across a supermarket using telepathy? Well stay tuned, programming continues after the break.
Next time…. ‘From Beasts to Bedlam’.