Let me take you back a decade or so. When cable was still king and Netflix was just raising the mallet over the final nails in the coffin of the video store (RIP Blockbuster). Summer came crawling to an end and networks, yes networks; ABC, NBC, TNT, FOX, Nick and even Cartoon networks, honoured the sanctity of the Thursday-Saturday liberation by treating their viewers with some postmodern creature feature, haunted house, or psycho slasher. The TV Movie. Not some syndicated or licensed films but network exclusives. Movies that were never intended to hit the silver screen, some good-a lot bad, but new and interesting features that showed off the resources of the company. And then as the west wind of the latter 2010s came roaring in the dwindled and stopped.
I use the word stopped dramatically, there are still network exclusives, hell you can’t turn on anything on Netflix or Prime without a Production card that equates to “A Slobnobber Inc. exclusive,” but these aren’t the same. The majority, especially on Prime, are back ally releases for flicks the producers couldn’t license a distributor to secure a theatrical release. These are for all intense and purposes theatrical films not good enough or not marketable enough to take the stage. Please don’t hate me, I’m not knocking I do enjoy a large portion of them, I’m just saying that if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and is a CG rendering of a duck, and shot with motion capture cam, and utilizes a set designer, a camera crane, and the actors are expecting to be on the red carpet for DUCK: the motion picture then it a theatrical movie- I mean duck.
Let’s look at one of the more famous Cinderella stories, Duel. I know it’s weird to think of Spielberg as having a first but his first feature-length accessible film, broadcast on ABC Movie of the Week in November 1971, was based on the Matheson short story from Playboy (see, I told you I was just looking up the articles). Simple premise, a guy pisses off the wrong truck driver. There is no real motivation for the attack other than road rage, and you feel the desperation of Dennis Weaver who is being tormented for apparently no reason and is ultimately forced into doing something he probably never thought he’d do, sacrifice his car. Oh, and kill a guy. No spectacular effects, no real gore just the concept, and it anxiety-inducing.
This magic is seen time and time again, especially with the old dark house subgenre: Don’t be Afraid of the Dark, family moves into a new manor and the wife is tormented by faeries and is driven mad. The original ITV Woman in Black runs circles around that melancholic Harry Potter circle jerk of a movie. Slasher got their shot with Carpenter of all people one year off of Halloween with his NBC release of Someone is Watching me! Which is everything When a stranger calls wishes it was. I could go on with this list and throw out Trilogy of Terror and a slew of other titles but this article is not a list of my top ten Made-for-Tv horror movies, it’s an analysis of what makes them special and where they go.
Where did they go is the most straightforward question to answer. TV, at least in this era, is dead. HBO started it with The Sopranos and The Wire changing what serialized dramas could look like and in turn, AMC changed the landscape to look more cinematic some years ago with Mad Men and Breaking Bad, leaving the other major networks in the dust trying to replicate that while holding on to some network identity, I’d say the most successful in the mid to late 2000s to toe that line was the USA which balanced serious drama with sitcom-like situations a la Monk, Psych and whit Collar, focusing on characters based stories over plot based giving the best of both world but that was only for a brief period. When average TV began to rival film what need was there for a TV Movie? Then roll in the 2010s and cable itself fractioned into a legion of services many of which only have one or two programs we as consumers watch—ultimately killing the cord and their frustrating and at times inspirational limitation.
Now, “What makes a TV Movie so special?” In my opinion, it’s the false sense of security walking into the show. TV had a distinct style, you knew what you were watching had limitations; low budget, inexperienced actors, first-time directors, and strict rating boards. Cheapness to sum it up, and all that showed in the product. Try as they’d like, no one would mistake Law & Order for a movie like 8mm or Kiss-Kiss Bang-Bang. There are simply things that aren’t permissible on tv even with a TV-MA rating. With a studio film you have a much larger budget, effects can be as good as they need to be, and you can theoretically (fuck you MPAA) show whatever you want without regard to taste, necessity, or sensitivity. If you don’t mind and R or NC17 you can show as much gore, T&A, language and subversive ideas as you want, not so with a TV movie and that lack of a large studio forces creativity, necessity bread ingenuity. There lies the magic. Implied horror is far more disturbing. Not answering the question of why or how. Leaving the scene to an obscure picture and the only hint is the actor’s disgusted reaction. It relies on atmosphere, something that changes the air you breathe when you watch, making it thick and acrid while boosting your seat ten feet in the air and gives you only the edge to teeter on as climax draws ever closer, and gives you something that lingers after the credits roll.