Unlike 1980s miniseries full of glamour and glitz or 1990s relationship-themed cable movies, 1970s TV movies were sleazy, scary, dopey or just plain weird. They were characterized by schlock, horror and the occasional tearjerker or social commentary. From Linda Blair as a juvenile delinquent in Born Innocent to devil-worshipping college students in Satan’s School for Girls, 1970s made-for-TV movies have earned a fond place in the hearts of movie nerds and baby boomers who still have nightmares about tiny, knife-wielding dolls.
The made-for-TV movie phenomenon began with the ABC Movie of the Week. This groundbreaking series debuted December 9, 1969 with the ESP/Cold War thriller Daughter of the Mind. The original series continued until 1976, with around 250 movies shown weekly at 8:30 before Monday Night Football. The other broadcast networks, CBS and NBC, soon followed with their own low-budget tales of suspense, runaways, devil worship and drug abuse.
And yet, for years, these surprisingly well-made gems were a distant memory in the minds of viewers. Now, many of the originals are showing up on DVD or VOD from Amazon.com and other legitimate sources. Here are five recommended films originally broadcast on ABC from 1970-1975 to get you started …
MAYBE I’LL COME HOME IN THE SPRING, (FEBRUARY 16, 1971): In a departure from her sweet roles as Gidget and Sister Bertrille, Sally Field stars as miniskirted runaway Denny Miller. She returns to her middle-class suburban home after spending some time in a commune with her ice cream truck-stealing hippie boyfriend (David Carradine). She’s not cut out for the hippie lifestyle, but life back home with her parents (Eleanor Parker and Jackie Cooper) and pill-popping sister Susie (Lane Bradbury) is no picnic, either. Denny and her sister endure the lecherous stares of her parents’ male friends when they are relegated to the role of cocktail waitresses at a party, trade drug stories (“Susie, was it really meth?”) and have many generation-gap arguments with their parents. A sibling rivalry ensues between Denny and Susie, with Susie following in her sister’s footsteps and running away at the end of the film. Linda Ronstadt provides vocals for several of the songs on the soundtrack.
DUEL, (NOVEMBER 13, 1971): In Stephen Spielberg’s first feature film, businessman David Mann (Dennis Weaver) battles a tanker-truck driver during a road trip on an unnamed West Coast highway. The truck driver becomes enraged after Mann passes him on the road, and a tense, non-verbal case of road rage continues for the rest of the film. When Mann stops at a diner to make sense of what’s happening, the camera lingers on the other customers, and we wonder if one of them could be the villainous driver. Spielberg ups the ante by putting Mann in increasingly dangerous situations until he takes drastic action. Screenplay by Richard Matheson, based on his short story.
CROWHAVEN FARM, (NOVEMBER 24, 1970): Witchcraft and devil-themed flicks dominated the made-for-TV movie playlist, even before the Exorcist craze of 1973-74. Crowhaven Farm starred the wholesome Hope Lange of Ghost and Mrs. Muir as Maggie Porter, a housewife who inherits a farmhouse with her husband (Paul Burke). Maggie has a premonition that she’s visited the house before, and she has nightmares about someone being buried underneath heavy stones. The house and the nearby woods are haunted by the ghost of a young girl. Maggie is lured to the woods, where she sees scenes of torture and witchcraft — or is she merely hallucinating? The strange happenings continue until Maggie’s failed attempt to escape. Instead of freedom, she discovers the true meaning behind her nightmares.
THE NIGHT STALKER, (JANUARY 11, 1972): Darren McGavin stars as hard-bitten Las Vegas newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak. While investigating a series of bizarre murders, he ties the cases back to a vampire who just might be a local millionaire — or vice-versa. Of course, his editor Vincenzo (Simon Oakland) thinks he’s nutty and the Sheriff (Claude Akins) buries the evidence. This movie was the prelude to the TV series of the same name.
BRIAN’S SONG, (NOVEMBER 30, 1971): Race relations, football and an unlikely friendship meld in this 1971 film based on I Am Third, the autobiography of Chicago Bears player Gale Sayers. Brian’s Song is one of the best sports-themed movies ever made — and certainly the saddest. During the Bears ill-fated run in the late 1960s, Sayers (Billy Dee Williams) roomed with fellow running back Brian Piccolo (James Caan). Piccolo is outgoing and white; Sayers was black and quiet. They become friends despite their differences, with Piccolo’s irreverent nature bringing Sayers “out of his shell.” After Piccolo is diagnosed with cancer, Sayers gives an emotional speech at an NFL awards ceremony, dedicating the award he’s just won to Piccolo and says: “I love Brian Piccolo, and I’d like all of you to love him, too. Tonight, when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him.” Williams and Caan are spot-on in their roles. A longer version of the film was later released in theaters.
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A second edition of in this Gimme Five series from Jade Blackmore will delve into ABC Movies of the Week starring Barbara Eden, Stockard Channing, Kim Hunter, Teresa Graves – and Karen Black, in arguably the most talked-about made for TV horror flick of the decade.