TV movie

Wicked Wednesday: The House That Would Not Die (1970)

You know how that old saying goes: nothing brings lovers and family closer together better than an old-fashioned possession.

No? Not a saying? Well it should be.

The House That Would Not Die has all the hallmarks of horror TV movies from this era. The dramatic pauses, the use of storms for even more drama and kind-of-clunky writing. So basically everything I love. The fact that this story throws in ghosts, séances and possessions means that it was completely up my alley.

The excellent atmosphere reminded me on of my favourite made-for-TV movies: Home for the Holidays. Just with a touch less lightning. So it wasn’t totally surprising to learn that they were both directed by John Llewellyn Moxey (who also directed The City of the Dead).

At the heart of both of Moxey’s films are the women. Here glamorous Ruth and her niece Sara move into an old house after one of their elderly relatives die. They both immediately take to the home and all of its old-timey quirks. Sara instantly feels at home, knowing the house almost instantly.

The two women soon meet their dashing next-door neighbour, the professor Pat McDougal. At a party at his house, they meet his young student Stan. When the other guests meet the town’s new arrivals, they soon all agree to have a séance in the new home.

In the days before the party, Sara and Stan begin to spend more time together. They find an old painting of a man and bring it to the house. When they hang it up, Pat has a rather negative reaction, feeling suddenly ill.

Despite the growing instances of strange behaviour and dreams from nearly everyone, the group continue on with the seance. Only things don’t go very well. The painting falls from the wall and crashes into the fire.

Sara’s behaviour takes increasingly strange turns. She finds herself out of bed at night, crying for help. She begins to forget things when she behaves madly (including attacking our dear Ruth).

But it’s Stan who is the first to realise that Ruth is possessed. Not only is she possessed, so is Pat, who randomly becomes violent and aggressive. Stan drags in Ruth to help research the home, which is clearly linked to the possessions. The gang all band together to discover the truth.

They soon find out that the house was once home to a Revolutionary War General named Campbell. He supposedly went mad after his daughter left. The daughter, Amanda, is clearly the spirit inhabiting Sara.

With their little information, the group decide to have another séance. This time they’re given a clue when the cellar door is blown open by the winds. While Ruth and Stan do their digging in the cellar, they discover a walled-off room.

But before they can even get upstairs, creepy Pat stops them to tell them about the new information he and Sara learned: Amanda had eloped and run away from her father.

With this new information, all the pieces begin to fall into place. The four friends all must face the truth in the room on the other side of the wall.

*DRAMATIC PAUSE*

I loved this little horror-mystery. Certainly a positive note to end another Made-for-TV March on. Sure, it’s a little hokey. But it’s also sufficiently fun with a good story.

It doesn’t hold a candle to Home for the Holidays. It doesn’t have the same punch or thrill to really make it memorable in a year’s time. But with good performances and a fun plot, it’s difficult to argue against spending 70 minutes watching this.

Wicked Wednesday: Deadly Messages (1985)

Coming into the third week of made-for-TV March, things are beginning to feel a bit more…stressful than they were seven days ago. And certainly several degrees closer to a pandemic than we were in week one.

Hell, I’ll back on this in a year’s time and think, “Oh! The Corona months!”

Anyway. It’s been a tough/weird/strange/horrible time. With my trip home to America cancelled, I’m not house-bound like everyone else until this all blows over. Thankfully, it gives me plenty of nights in to watch more movies and maybe even create more content (never going to happen).

Sometimes sitting down to watch a movie for this blog can be a big of a drag. Sometimes I get stuck with a real dud. Usually this is when I force myself to watch anything for a very specific reason. Then I can’t stop, won’t stop watching it.

But since this was an especially stressful week, I decided to allow myself to sample many options until I wound something vaguely interesting. And I found a real winner this week with 1985’s Deadly Messages.

This supernatural-ish thriller aired on ABC, but honestly it’s pretty high quality. It could be that it was directed by the deft hands of Jack Bender, whose long filmography is impressive but most importantly Killing Mr Griffin.

Much of Deadly Messages‘ fun is in reveals and secrets. Laura is a young working woman with a good boy friend and a seemingly normal life. Until one night she returns home from a date to see her roommate, Cindy, get strangled through a window.

Laura becomes instant that her roommate’s death has something to do with the Ouija board they’d found in the closet. She finds her roommate’s notes and learns that Cindy ‘spoke’ to a man named David who was killed in their very apartment in 1978.

But as Laura begins to investigate Cindy’s death, secrets about her own life begin to come to light. After using the Ouija board and fainting, her boyfried, Michael, takes her to see a neurologist. The doctor later confirms that Laura had electroshock therapy in the past. A treatment that was seemingly undoing itself.

Michael begins to look into Laura’s past and begins to learn himself that things don’t add up. Only, according to Laura, she couldn’t possibly be lying.

Deadly Messages was a very pleasant surprise. It’s twisty, turny and suitably dramatic. Half the journey is learning the (slightly) ridiculous reveals. But sometimes you just have to have a bit of cheese on your toast, right? This is a very well-acted film and despite the grainy YouTube quality, was pretty well shot.

There is a lot of exposition dialogue at the end, which makes things fizzle out instead of going out with a bang. Much of the real fun comes when Laura’s life begins to unravel. You know, as horrible as that sounds.

I’m hoping next week’s film is as much as a delight as this one. We all need a bit of cheer in these very cramped, isolated days.

Wicked Wednesday: The Haunted (1991)

We’ve been here before: family move into new house, all goes well minus a few ‘quirks’, something big happens and all the demons in the world are entering the world through a dimension door in suburban America.

The Haunted is one of the most run-of-the-mill haunted house fils I’ve ever seen. It’s based on the ‘true’ story of the Smurl family who lived in Pennsylvania in the 1980s.

Initially, I thought this was going to be great because of one key factor: Ed and Lorraine Warren were investigators in this case. The Warrens are a fascinating pair, being linked to some of the most key hauntings in the throughout their lives (proof: watch and of the Conjuring Universe films or some little film called Amityville Horror). But those cases have something that The Haunted doesn’t: distinction.

Janet and Jack are a sweet little couple sharing a house with Jack’s elderly parents. Their children are all girls, just an all-around fun bunch. And soon things begin to go awry. Electricity bills become expensive (WATCH OUT!), the older women of the house hear whispering, Janet begins to forget things.

But beyond that, there’s not really anything particularly interesting about the hauntings themselves. And to be fair, there really is only so much that a ghost (or demon) can do.

The family get their local priest involved, who is unable to do any exorcism for them. So they head to the Warrens, who apparently can’t do much either. The hauntings get worse and increasingly physical. Janet is eventually so distraught that she is driven to taking her story to the media.

It’s a shame that the Warrens and the media attention seem so much like an after thought in this film. Much of the TV movie spends time showing us the paranomal activity. And nearly thirty years on, it just doesn’t scare or even make you feel uneasy…minus that one scene where Jack is seemingly sexually assulted. Yikes.

I think it’s interesting to see the local reactions to the Smurl family. It certainly wasn’t very nice. And the family’s desperation is equally as watchable, but for some reason – it’s all overlooked.

Sally Kirkland is good in the role of Janet. This part got her nominated for a Golden Globe. But the material is so boring that her performance can hardly save it.

A good haunting film need one thing: suspense. And The Haunted really lacks any of it. Blame it on being made-for-TV, but watch any of the classic horror network movie and you’ll know it’s possible to thrill. It’s a shame that this wasn’t done better, but part of me things this: if the original material isn’t that differneciating to begin with, maybe it wasn’t worth the energy and budget to begin with.

Wicked Wednesday: The Night Dracula Saved the World (1979)

I caved into Halloween mania early this year. I say ‘early’ but really, Halloween season always begins on August 1st. But around the Brits I have to pretend to be sensible when really my whole house is decked out.

It’s been a super manic week, so watching something like The Night That Dracula Saved the World was exactly what I needed.

The made-for TV short film originally aired on ABC as The Halloween That Almost Wasn’t. It’s a much-more apt name than the VHS title, but a name will sell anything these days, right?

The story is a strange mash-up of everything you’d find at a cheesy Halloween party and a lesson about the origins of the holiday. Dracula has called a conference at his castle in Transylvania with all the other monsters. Before they arrive, he and Igor watch the news together, in which a newscaster claims that Dracula wants to end Halloween.

Dracula is offended (“Halloween is my national holiday!”), but he allows the conference to go forward anyway. When all of the guests arrive, they learn that Dracula called them together to warn them that they are no longer scary to children.

The other guests seem pretty offended, but the Witch reveals she simply doesn’t give a crap. She announces to the group that she quits, and will be refusing to fly across the moon on Halloween night – the action that sets off Halloween (apparently). She tells the others that she’s tired of the ugly girl jokes, and she really just wanted to be the leader of the monsters.

Dracula refuses, and the witch flies off to her home. Dracula and the other monsters follow her the next night, and break in believing she doesn’t have any magic.

But she’s a witch, so of course the lady has magic. She sends the others running in circles before locking herself safely in her room. Dracula tries to reason with her, offering to agree to her conditions: her face will be on the monster posters, she’ll have shared leadership of the monsters, and to go disco dancing every night.

Dracula agrees, but the Witch immediately redacts her agreement to fly over the moon. But when a pair of local children arrive, they tug at her heartstrings, reminding her of the true meaning behind Halloween: candy and costumes.

The Witch agrees to the children’s pleas and flies over the moon to mark the start of Halloween. Afterwards, the monsters all have a disco. And why? Because this short is clearly insane.

The Night Dracula Saved the World is a really cute piece of nostalgia. The costumes are a bit hokey, as if they were bought from a costume shop, but it’s all really sweet, weirdly. It’s apparently a holiday staple for a lot of kids who watched it on the original ABC run and later on the Disney Channel during the 80s and early 90s. And I can see why, the random-ass disco in the end might be my favourite thing I’ve ever seen in a Halloween movie.

This is the perfect little 25-minute movie to put anyone in the Halloween spirit. Watch it, disco, and keep on thinkin’.

Wicked Wednesday: Gargoyles (1972)

In the final week of Made-for-TV March, I wanted to watch something a little different. When I saw Gargoyles was a thing, I thought to myself, “Well. I’ve never watched a gargoyle movie for my blog.”

And there was probably a reason for that.

Gargoyles follows a father and daughter pair on their (supposed) trip to Mexico. I say supposed because there is nothing to lead to believe this is set in Mexico other than a brief exchange of dialogue in the first three minutes.

Doctor Mercer Boley is an archaeologist, primarily interested in demons and the like. His daughter, Diana, travels with him to a Desert Museum where they meet the quirky Uncle Willie. He claims to have artifacts and transcripts of exorcism rites that interest the doctor. Only when Uncle Willie takes the two out to his barn, that’s not what he shows them.

Instead they find a skeleton that looks like it’s been pieced together with various animals, plus the skull that looks like a very thick longhorn. The doctor begins to leave, thinking it a joke, but Uncle Willie convinces him to stay for an interview. Uncle Willie locks the barn door and he begins to tell the Boleys about how he found the skeleton.

Before long, though, they hear something on the roof of the barn. It begins to shake, and a fire starts. Uncle Willie dies in the event, but the Boleys escape with the unusual skull.

On their drive, they are attacked by a gargoyle. The beast nearly wrecks their car. The Boleys manage to get to a gas station for help, but the car is thorough damaged. They decide to stay at the nearby hotel for the night, where and eccentric manager keeps watch.

They return to the wreck the next day with the police. But when they arrive, they find that people are already there. Several men on dirt bikes quickly flee, some of them chased by a cop. After the men are all wrangled up, they admit that they were stealing from the ashes, but that they had nothing to do with what happened at the shed the night before.

Though Mercer knows that they didn’t have anything to do with it, he knows that it’s unlikely that the police will believe in tales of gargoyles. So he allows the men to be arrested for theft (and whatever it is that happened at the shed).

That night, Mercer wakes up in his hotel room to find it now contains several live gargoyles. They attack him, but they eventually flee. He does find the corpse of one, though, and decides it’s a good idea to take one to study!

Diana, having seen the gargoyles again, tries to convince the police to release the men. But neither the policeman or the men wrongly locked up believe her story. So she leaves them.

The following night, Mercer and Diana are attacked again when they return for the body. The two manage to escape and try to leave via their busted car, but it doesn’t start. The gargoyles flip the car, and take Diana away with them to their mountain refuge.

When Mercer awakes, he goes to the police station where the hotel manager is begging for help. The police and the locked up men all agree to call for back up while locating where the gargoyles took Diana.

While the men and the weird lady divvy up the work, poor Diana is stuck in a cave. The Head Gargoyle (dunno if he has a name) seems to have a bit of a crush on Diana. But he mostly speaks in long-winded prose about taking over the world from men. Not really Diana’s type, I assume. He claims he means her no harm, but she then sees the hatching of gargoyle’s eggs. You know, the ones that will grow up to destroy all of humanity.

During the search, the men find an empty truck of one of the bikers and the body of the hotel manager strung up a post – dead. They’re then attacked by the gargoyles leaving the cave. When Doc comes face-to-face with one of the gargoyles, the gargoyle says that the hacked gargoyles will need time to develop before they can wipe out men. Doc then says he isn’t sure humanity is ready to be wiped out, which is fair enough.

Mercer eventually is led to Diana, who is being seduced (or something) by Head Gargoyle. Diana is dragged away before Mercer can get her. But the remainder of the search party go in to the cave fighting. One of the bikers even manages to set fire to the eggs before he is pulled down by some of the gargoyles.

With much of the future of the gargoyles destroyed, Head Gargoyle swears to start over again. He takes one of his lady gargoyles and sets off into the night, leaving Mercer and Diana to watch.

And if that doesn’t tell you this movie is weird, it is. This is a very strange movie. The first half is actually pretty good, but as soon as the gargoyles take Diana away, things quickly go down hill. But the cast is pretty great. I would have loved more of Grayson Hall (of Dark Shadows fame), who plays the crazy hotel woman.

Much of Gargoyles is strangely shot. For one, all the gargoyles seem to move like they’re in fast forward. Also, they read really fast (apparently). The monsters in general were pretty poorly developed. Or maybe I just couldn’t understand any of the Holy Wars mumbo-jumbo.

Ultimately, though, I just don’t think gargoyles are my thing.

Director Bill Norton went on to direct several episodes for popular television shows like Buffy, Angel and Roswell. As well as a whole slew of TV-movies. Gargoyles was one of his first pieces of work, and I’d be willing to check more of his stuff out. This, for one, was certainly interesting if anything.

Wicked Wednesday: The Night Stalker (1972)

If there is a MVP of made-for-TV horror movies, it’s probably The Night Stalker. It spawned a sequel, a TV series, and even a remake of said TV series several decades later.

And it’s shockingly basic for something so beloved. Carl Kolchak is a sensationalist, nearly ethic-less journalist in Las Vegas. His desire to get the story has led him to being fired from multiple papers throughout the country.

A series of murders perks Kolchak’s interest because of one thing: each corpse is found nearly devoid of all blood. Kolchak seeks the help of one of his “spies”, a young doctor working at the hospital. He calls Kolchak one night, telling him that their blood bank was robbed of its blood supply.

At a meeting at the court house, the coroner tells the table of important men that each of the young female victims were found with human saliva mixed in with the blood at the throat wounds. Kolchak shares his theory that perhaps the killer thinks he’s a vampire. While the sheriff and every suited man in the room becomes upset, the coroner says it isn’t too far-fetched that a man would have the psychosis to believe that.

Kolchak is told not to run any stories on the killings, but he does anyway. When he writes something about the fourth victim, his editor refuses to publish it. He tells Kolchak that publishing something about a wannabe-vampire will only bring the people of Las Vegas to hysterics.

But his girlfriend (and potential woman-of-the-night), Gail, encourages him to continue digging. She lets him look at one of her books on vampires.

Later, a man is caught stealing blood from the hospital again. He has the strength to throw the nurses and doctors off him to try to stop him. He’s chased out of the hospital by the police, but they are unable to catch him. Even when they shoot at him at close range.

The police, though, are able to identify the man. At a press conference, the man is identified as Janos Skorzeny, a Romanian immigrant who has been linked to multiple murders in different countries, making him an international fugitive.

And the manhunt begins. Skorzeny is cornered one night, but easily fends off the police. Despite being nearly 70, he’s a man of great strength. Even when the police see him get shot, he still gets up and runs away unharmed.

Kolchak becomes increasingly insistent that Skorzeny is a literal vampire. But he becomes aware the no one will wants to listen to him, seemingly for the protection of the people of the city.

He tells the mayor and the authorities that the police officers should carry crosses with them and a stake and hammer, just in case they get into trouble while pursuing Kolchak. They reluctantly agree, but only if Kolchak lets Skorzeny live to see trial.

But he completely breaks his promise once one of his sources gives him Skorzeny’s address. He breaks into the house and finds a woman strapped to a bed. Just as he tries to free her, the vampire returns home. He goes to hide, but Skorzeny finds him. But he holds off the vampire by holding out a cross and revealing the sunlight.

He manages to weaken Skorzeny, and pounds a stake into his heart. Just as the vampire dies, the police arrive to witness Kolchak murdering their suspect.

Kolchak, being the fool he is, gleefully writes up his story to have it published. His editor claims it will be published in full. But Kolchak is told he has been arrested for the murder of Skorzeny. They threaten to use the warrant if Kolchak doesn’t leave town and pretend nothing has happened.

Kolchak, later through his tape recordings, says that Kolchak and all of his victims were cremated. Which is strange. And that when a vampire takes the blood of another person, they too will become a vampire.

It’s easy to see why The Night Stalker is so well-liked. Darren McGavin plays the irritating, smarmy journalist well. Somehow cocky but charismatic.

Even though The Night Stalker came before the TV show, it felt like I was watching the sequel to something. This was a pretty standard vampire story without much in the way character development. Maybe that’s asking too much of a made-for-TV movie. But I’d at least be tempted to watch the TV show (which apparently was a big inspiration to X-Files Creator Chris Carter).

This one was probably lost on me, but considering how well-loved it is, I suggest anyone interested give The Night Stalker a try.

Wicked Wednesday: Scream, Pretty Peggy (1973)

One of the things about horror films that is simultaneously amazing and painful to watch is golden-era Hollywood icons “lowering” themselves to the genre.

Case and point: Bette Davis. While originally known for her great dramatic roles, her later career was marked with much more horror/thrillers such as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? But the last decades of her life had her in over a dozen TV movies.

One of them is the 1973 thriller Scream, Pretty Peggy, which originally aired on ABC.

Scream, Pretty Peggy follows young art student, Peggy (go figure). Desperate for a job, she takes work as a house keeper for the wealthy Elliott family. When she arrives at the house, she’s turned away by the elderly Mrs Elliott (Davis), but her son Jeffrey stops her and invites the student in.

Bright, perky Peggy gets herself the job, and even manages to earn herself more money in the negotiations. Charmed by the weird girl, Jeffrey allows her to even bother him while he work on his sculptures. But she has one rule: stay away from the rooms above the garage.

During her first day, Peggy sees a photograph of a young woman, who Mrs Elliott explains is her daughter Jennifer. She claims that Jennifer is in Europe.

Each night she heads back home from work, Peggy notices that she’s being followed by a car. She eventually confronts the man, who says he is Thornton, father of the last girl who worked for the Elliotts. He explains that he hasn’t heard from his daughter, but Peggy is unable to help him. When he arrives at the Elliotts’ house, they claim to know nothing either.

Peggy eventually moves in with the Elliotts with Mrs Elliott injures her leg. Her first night in the house she awakes to the sound of a banging door and spots that the garage door is open. When she goes to investigate, she sees a figure in a white gown go up to the rooms above the garage.

When she confronts Jeffrey about it, he admits that Jennifer is not in Europe, but living above the garage. She’s insane, but the family couldn’t bare to lock her up. Peggy then becomes determined to make friends with Jennifer, despite being warned away by both Jeffrey and Mrs Elliott. Mrs Elliott continuously warns Peggy away, but the girl (increasingly enamored with Jeffrey) refuses.

Peggy finds an item with Thornton’s name on it, and decides to try and contact him. The place where he’s staying inform her that he hasn’t been seen in a couple days. And upon investigating, Peggy sees the man’s car locked away in the garage.

Knowing that something is not right, Peggy tries to hunt down Jeffrey. While in Jeffrey’s studio, she’s attacked by the figure in the white dress. Peggy manages to escape and finds Mrs Elliott in her room. She tells the woman what has happened, saying that it was Jennifer. But Mrs Elliott only tells Peggy, “It’s all your fault.”

Jeffrey is finally found, and Peggy tells him about Jennifer’s attack. He goes up to Jennifer’s rooms above the garage to confront his sister. Peggy and Mrs Elliott watch from outside.

Jeffrey emerges and informs them that he has killed Jennifer. She tried to attack him, and she fell on her own knife. When Peggy tries to call the police, she’s ordered not to.

Frustrated and confused, Peggy goes to Jeffrey’s studio and tries to talk to him. Only Jeffrey isn’t there – it’s Jennifer. Or rather, ‘Jennifer’ in Jeffrey’s mind (basically Jeff wearing some shit make-up). ‘Jennifer’ tries to attack Peggy, but is shot by Mrs Elliott.

Mrs Elliott neatly wraps up the story, telling Peggy that Jeffrey killed Jennifer when she tried to leave for Europe to get married. He hid her body in one of his sculptures, and ‘Jennifer’ began to take over his mind. Each time he was with a woman, the Jennifer part of his brain became jealous and violent.

So basically, don’t killer your sister.

While the ending is an exposition dump, it doesn’t detract too much from the movie overall. Scream, Pretty Peggy is a great film, TV movie or no. Honestly, Davis is such a scene-stealer. Completely magnetic with even the most mundane lines thrown at her.

While the twist is by no means original, it’s still fun. And Scream, Pretty Peggy have some great, subtle spooky moments that I loved. Peggy is quite an unusual character for a horror film. She’s resilient and bouncy, and a touch obnoxious (but I liked her anyway). I say give this piece a go. If anything, it’s just a joy to see Davis on screen.