BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC PhilaMOCA continues to shine a light on some of the more obscure and fascinating corners of film with The Tele-Terror Fest, a five-day film festival of the TV movies of the 1970s. Presented by Exhumed Films and Cinedelphia, these 13 rare features represent some of the best-remembered thrillers of the telefilm genre, all shown from 16mm film prints. As TV gained strength as a medium, the networks began to produce their own exclusive feature length films. Among the first was a Technicolor musical version of The Pied Piper of Hamelin that was created by NBC for a Thanksgiving screening in 1957, but the genre didn’t really get rolling until the late 1960s.
ABC, the struggling third place network of the time, found early success with their weekly “ABC Movie of the Week” which ran from 1969 to 1976, but soon all the networks had gotten into the business. Some of the networks’ most-lauded programming of the time were issue-oriented telefilms like the 1974 civil rights story The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and That Certain Summer, a 1972 drama with Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen that marked the first time the networks dealt seriously with homosexuality. Yet the majority of the films seemed to tilt towards the delightfully lurid, pushing boundaries with horror and thrillers, often starring Hollywood actors whose box-office draw had dimmed and TV stars anxious to stretch their well-known personas in these widely-seen one-offs.
As a pre-teen horror fan who grew up in the 1970s, there is undeniably a sweet scent of nostalgia that these features. Few of these telefilms would be confused for their higher-budgeted theatrical brethren but the best of them knew how to pare their stories down to an intense psychological core, much like the efficient low-budget B-films that filled out double-bills twenty years before. Filled with familiar faces like Star Trek‘s Wlliam Shatner, Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas, series stars Dennis Weaver, Patti Duke, Susan Dey, Buddy Ebsen and more, these features supply an irresistible cinematic comfort food for those who love the clashing mosaic that is 1970s pop culture.
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Wednesday October 9th begins the festival with one of the classics of the genre, 1973’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, recently remade theatrically with Katie Holmes. Here it is True Grit’s Kim Darby who has moved back to her ancestral home. While uneasy with the stifling life of a childless housewife, she discovers shriveled little beings who literally want to drag her into the guts of the house itself. This feature is joined with 1973’s The Cat Creature, written by Psycho screenwriter Robert Bloch and directed by cult horror specialist Curtis Harrington (Who Slew Auntie Roo.). In this film, Family Ties’ Meredith Baxter runs afoul of a supernatural force unleashed by a stolen Egyptian amulet.
Thursday October 10th brings another of the best-known TV thrillers to the screen, 1974’s Bad Ronald. An accidental killing leads the title character’s mother (Kim Hunter, “Stella” of Streetcar Named Desire and Zira from The Planet of the Apes) to hide her son in a walled-up pantry, where he remains unknown until a new family moves in the house. (I have particularly fond memories of seeing Bad Ronald as a child and comparing notes with kids the next day at school. Everyone seemed to share a sympathy for the misfit title character, as well as being totally creeped out by the idea of someone living in the walls of their home.) It’s an especially good pairing with 1972’s Crawlspace, where older stars Theresa Wright and Arthur Kennedy hope to make a surrogate son out of an unhinged Manson-esque hippie they find cowering in their basement.
I’ll be on-hand to give a short intro to Friday the 11th’s program, a double-bill of films from the Philly-born director Paul Wendkos. Wendkos proved his ability to succeed with small budgets with his adaptation of pulp legend David Goodis’ novel The Burglar in 1957. He was soon after brought to Hollywood where he directed a handful of features (including the three films in the Gidget series) before settling in as one of the most dependable of TV film directors. Two excellent examples of his work will be shown here, first 1970’s The Brotherhood of the Bell shows Glenn Ford finding out that his Ivy League “Skull and Bones”-type organization is really an invisible group that rules over society in secret. The film’s paranoid depiction of an “old boys” network running the show still reverberates just as strongly today. Terror on the Beach from 1973 finds Dennis Weaver and his family (including Academy Award-winner Estelle Parsons and The Partridge Family‘s Susan Dey) harassed on a desert camping trip by some free-living hippies (lawless, mocking hippies frequently crop up in the anxious bubbling id of TV films.)
Saturday October 12th is a bill meant to appeal to Star Trek fans. First, Horror at 37,000 Feet from 1973: a demon has escaped the cargo hold of a plane to terrorize a group of all-star passengers including Captain Kirk himself, William Shatner playing a drunken ex-priest. Spectre is a groovy but failed attempt by Star Trek-creator Gene Roddenberry to erect a show about a psychic detective around I-Spy’s Robert Culp, with this rare U.K. theatrical cut adding some censor-free spice to an orgy scene.
Sunday October 13th wraps things up with a triple-bill. Dying Room Only boasts an intense script from sci-fi icon Richard Matheson (of Twilight Zone fame) and stars Cloris Leachman and Dabney Coleman as some city slickers who pull into the wrong desert diner. In a plot reminiscent of the Kurt Russell vehicle Breakdown, Leachman is left to solve the mystery after her husband suddenly vanishes during a vacation pit-stop. Mousey from 1974 finds Kirk Douglas stalking his estranged ex-wife played by Breathless‘ Jean Seberg and finally Stranger in Our House pairs director Wes Craven (just six years after Last House on the Left) with The Exorcist star Linda Blair as a teen cousin who moves in with the family and brings her witchcraft with her.
PhilaMOCA, 531 North 12th St., Philadelphia, PA. Wednesday through Saturday’s screenings start at 8pm with the Sunday triple-bill starting at 6pm. Admission nightly is $12, with a $50 all-festival pass available.