Back in the 1970s, made-for-TV horror movies were a genre unto themselves. The days before even the most basic of cable used to bring low-budget movies to the small screen every afternoon or as “Movies of the Week.” Many of these treasures are still highly watchable, memorable, and have even enjoyed big budget remakes. Today, when we think of made-for-TV horror movies, we think of films with titles like Sharknado, Lavalantula, Piranhaconda, or beasts like the Whalewolf, Mechashark, or Crocosaurus. We don’t want to say that those SyFy “classics” aren’t great for a weekend watch with friends. But there’s still much to be said for the days when made-for-TV horror was respected and admired—when it terrified viewers in a way Jersey Shore Shark Attack never could.
That’s why we’ve taken the time to compile a list of some of the best and most memorable made-for-TV horror movies of all time. For this list, we chose movies that aired as stand-alone films, or in two-parts. Anything longer than two-parts is not eligible for this list. Expect minor spoilers. But we won’t spoil anything huge in case you want to track down these titles yourself...which you totally should.
Here are the 15 Greatest Made-For-TV Horror Movies Of All Time.
15 The Langoliers
This film is at the beginning of our list for some tricky reasons. It’s got a loyal fan following and has since its premiere in 1995. Based on a Stephen King novella, Tom Holland’s (not the Tom Holland from the MCU) screenplay is as effective as any of his other well-known horror work. That includes stuff like Fright Night, Psycho 2, and the original Child’s Play. This two-part film boasts a pretty good cast, highlighted by a bizarrely understated performance by Bronson Pinchot. There’s also Frankie Faison, David Morse, Dean Stockwell, and a young Kate Maberly as the character that breaks your heart in two.
At the same time, The Langoliers relies on some truly horrible CGI effects that take all the scare out of what had been an effective suspense story up to that point. A bunch of airline passengers en route to Boston awake to find that most of the other passengers, stewards, and pilots are…missing. Weird, right? This movie has some great moments despite being likened to an extra-long Twilight Zone episode. If you like Stephen King and don’t mind bad CGI, give it a watch.
14 When Michael Calls
The 1970s are considered a golden age for made-for-TV horror. And why not? The “afternoon movie” was an American tradition in those days, with new features being funneled to TV audiences every week. Many of these were suspenseful dramatic films that appealed to “housewives,” which is what they used to call a stay-at-home-mom who hasn’t had any kids yet. A lot of these ‘70s low-budget masterpieces are surprisingly scary. Like this one. A woman is haunted by the death of her nephew, and begins getting phone calls supposedly from the dead boy. Is she hearing things? Is she losing her mind?
This gem of a film stars Elizabeth Ashley, who is mainly known for her work on Broadway. When Michael Calls also features Ben Gazzara, and Michael Douglas. Yes, THAT Michael Douglas. This is a fun whodunit that will keep you guessing until the end. The voice on the phone is definitely creepy enough to stay with you long after the mystery is solved. The movie is available in full on YouTube, for your viewing pleasure.
This 1976 classic is so well remembered and beloved that a lot of people forget that it was made for television. It definitely was, and in its day, it was a really big deal. It’s the story of a young teacher, a victim of horrific abuse, who develops as many as sixteen distinct personalities. Sybil is based on a novel by Flora Rheta Schreiber, and details “Sybil’s” (real name Shirley Mason 1923-1998) therapy as she comes to understand why she is missing time, wakes up to broken glass and messes she doesn’t remember making. It’s a heart-wrenching tale that may not even feel like a horror movie until the halfway point. Once you meet Mrs. Dorsett though, there’s enough terror to last the entire rest of the film.
Sybil stars Sally Field as the title character and Joanne Woodward as the therapist, Dr Cornelia Wilbur. Sybil’s short term boyfriend is played by Brad Davis, who was also the star of Midnight Express—a great ‘70s film. Sybil is available in its complete and unedited version on DVD.
12 The Haunted
It’s a little surprising that 1991’s The Haunted didn’t get a bigger and better reception than it did. Sally Kirkland and Jeffrey DeMunn move into a lovely new home with their kids. But wait, there are malevolent spirits and a legit demon who are none too pleased to find another family in their house. What do people in horror movies do when they realize they’re living in a house full of supernatural villains? Call Ed and Lorraine Warren, of course.
Horror fans, exorcists, and ghost hunters disagree strongly on the Warrens. Some believe they are legit masters of the supernatural and find them fascinating. Others think they are complete frauds who have caused lasting damage to some of the people they were supposedly helping. Whichever side you come down on, The Haunted is a surprisingly entertaining film with some very creepy moments. You can check it out on YouTube for free.
11 The Night Stalker
To fully appreciate 1972’s The Night Stalker, you have to remember that while detectives were the kings of television, horror standards were not yet prone to showing up where they shouldn’t. (Dark Shadows notwithstanding). The Night Stalker, which has nothing to do with Satanic serial killer Richard Ramirez, was written by the great Richard Matheson and stars Darren McGavin, Barry Atwater, and Carol Lynley. McGavin (AKA the dad from A Christmas Story) went on to portray his character from the film, Carl Kolchak, in the Night Stalker TV series between 1974-75.
So what’s this movie about? Kolchak is a journalist working a story about a serial killer. As he investigates, though, it becomes increasingly obvious that the killer is a vampire—which creates a whole new set of problems. In its day, The Night Stalker got a 54 viewing share. That’s insanely high, even in the days when everybody only got five or so channels. Amazing! The good news is that this is yet another classic you can see in its entirety on YouTube.
10 Dark Night of the Scarecrow
Everybody has a few of those so-called B-list celebrities they like. People that have one or two iconic roles that they’re always remembered for. The protagonist of this film, for example, was also Durant in the fantastic Darkman movies. He’s perhaps best known as Benny from LA Law, or as the iconic Dr. Giggles. He’s Larry Drake, star of this wonderful 1981 made-for-TV horror classic, Dark Night of the Scarecrow.
The opening scenes of this film are channeling scenes from Frankenstein, shot-for-shot in places. That gives the film a familiar feel that adds to the small-town nostalgia inherent to the setting and supporting characters. This fine little flick also features Lane Smith (My Cousin Vinny) as a toadying redneck, and Charles Durning as a multiple murderer. You can also check out this thriller on YouTube. Beware though, because this movie can be infuriating to watch in parts. It’s not a flattering portrayal of small town life.
9 Crowhaven Farm
If you’re a horror fan of a certain age, you might remember seeing this film even if you don’t recognize the title. That’s because Crowhaven Farm contains some stirring imagery of early American covens and some of the things people did to weed out the witches when times got tough. Most notable are the scenes featuring “pressing”—placing a large wooden board (like a door) on top of a person, and piling on rocks or weights in an attempt to coerce a confession. If that’s not weird enough for you, this movie also features a barely teenage girl trying to steal the husband of a much older woman. If you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing this one, you can at the YouTubes.
Hope Lange plays Maggie Porter, a nice enough lady who isn’t sure if her trouble is her marriage, her new home, farm life, or her impending mental breakdown. This film is an excellent watch, and features a vaguely familiar cast also seen in Twlight Zone episodes and various daytime soaps.
8 How Awful about Allan
If there’s one ingredient that always promises a great, scary film, it’s Anthony Perkins. He’s not just an iconic and memorable Norman Bates. Perkins has played beautifully disturbed people in other acclaimed films like Pretty Poison, Fear Strikes Out, Edge of Sanity, and The Trial, among others. This 1970 TV horror film stars Perkins as Allan, a guy who has just been released from a mental institution. He started a fire that killed someone, and the details are a little unclear. Unclear. Get it? Oh wait, we haven’t mentioned yet that Allan is blind. Or is he?
An unreliable narrator is always a risky proposition in horror films. You need an ace performance to pull it off, and usually some tricky effects. With a tiny budget and short shooting schedule, How Awful about Allan really pulls together for a scary, suspenseful, and surprisingly effective horror flick. Anthony Perkins’s fine performance makes this film. And if you haven't caught it in its entirety, fear not! We've come prepared.
7 Citizen X
One could make a case that it’s cheating to include made-for-TV horror that was actually made by HBO. There’s probably a reason they say It’s not TV, it’s HBO. They have more money than most film studios that do TV movies. Still, this is a 1995 film, which means it came out before HBO was a household name for original programming. Citizen X tells the story of the hunt for Russian serial killer Andre Chikatillo—played here by Jeffrey DeMunn. Hunting him is the new forensics man, played by Stephen Rea (The Crying Game), and his boss, played by Donald Sutherland.
This is a gruesome and very well done film. Expect to see world-class performers giving subtle and gritty interpretations of real-life people as described by the book: The Killer Department. Also featured are Joss Ackland, Imelda Staunton (Delores Umbridge from the Harry Potter series), and Max Von Sydow. Citizen X is an HBO original, so you can check it out on their app and streaming services.
On this list of greatest made-for-TV movies of all time, three of our selections are two-part movies based on Stephen King books. One could probably argue that we have a bias. If we do, it’s a bias toward greatness. It is an incredible novel, spanning decades in the lives of the “Losers Club,” a group of kids from…you guessed it—Maine. The TV movie version boasts an outstanding cast that includes Richard Masur, John Ritter, Harry Anderson, Annette O’Toole, William B Davis, and of course—Tim Curry as Pennywise. Horror fans of the right age were scarred for life by this clown, in much the same way slightly older fans were scarred for life by Salem’s Lot.
As we know, It is getting a big budget reboot this year. So far, the new clown looks sufficiently terrifying, but can anyone really surpass the cinematic splendor that is Tim Curry? We can’t see how. Still, many fans are cautiously optimistic that the new version of this monster-filled tale will be scary and memorable. In the meantime, this movie isn’t going anywhere.
5 The Legend of Lizzie Borden
Elizabeth Montgomery was best known as Samantha Stevens, the main character and delightful wife of “Der-Wood” on Bewitched. A few years after her TV show ended, Ms. Montgomery turned to made-for-TV movies, including this 1975 sensationalist classic. Here she plays the title character, Lizzie Borden, who took an axe and…well, you know what she did. The supporting cast of this docu-drama is equally memorable, including Fritz Weaver as Andrew Borden, Fionnula Flanagan as Bridget Sullivan, and a surprisingly serious Katherine Helmond as Lizzie’s sister, Emma.
Fun fact: It turns out that Elizabeth Montgomery (who never actually went by “Lizzie”) is Lizzie Borden’s sixth cousin, once removed. If you know a thing or two about the real-life story that inspired the film, you know that there’s a great deal they don’t know about the case. Most people feel quite certain that Lizzie was the murderer, despite her being acquitted at trial. This movie agrees. We'll let you judge for yourself.
Not everyone knows that Steven Speilberg got his start on the small screen. Back in the day, that was the most common way for any director to get a foot in the door. Duel is another movie that fans forget was made for television, especially since it was so good that it enjoyed a theatrical release later on. Written by Richard Matheson and starring Dennis Weaver (current president of the Screen Actors Guild) as the hapless protagonist, 1971’s Duel is a scary and memorable film.
What’s it about? A truck. A big, scary, constantly following you truck. The tone and pacing of Duel may remind you of the ‘80s classic, The Hitcher. But obviously, this one came first. One of the most frightening aspects of this film is that you never see the driver of the truck. You never really know why he’s doing what he’s doing, which kind of makes him a precursor to the faceless slasher villains we’d meet later in the decade. A few different uploaders have posted foreign language versions of Duel online, but if you want to see it in English, you’ll have to shell out a few bucks.
3 Salem’s Lot
There are two made-for-TV movie adaptations of this Stephen King novel, one from 1979 and another from 2005. Both have lots to love, but the one that makes our list is the original, which was directed by Tobe Hooper a few years after he changed the face of horror with Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The cast is ‘70s gold, and includes David Soul (TV’s Hutch), Lance Kerwin, Bonnie Bedelia (who you may know better as the wife of Die Hard protagonist John McClane), George Dzundza, Fred Willard, and the great James Mason.
Simply put, it’s a small town drama with vampires. These vamps are more like zombies than typical vampires, though. The Glick brothers in particular are terrifying, floating around and scratching at windows to gain entry for the blood-sucking and turning that eventually permeates the town. Some fans say this film doesn’t hold up well, but we think it’s a modern classic. The remake does a few things better than the original, then cheapens it with showy and sensationalized special effects. The original ‘Salem’s Lot is well worth checking out.
2 Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
This endearing mixture of haunted house tale and monster movie is a memorable one. In fact, it got a big budget studio makeover produced by Guillermo Del Toro. The one that makes our list is the original, from 1973. It stars Kim Darby as a married woman who inherits a house with a secret, hidden door that’s been cemented shut. Odd, right? Like anyone who finds themselves in this position, Sally (Darby) investigates despite being warned not to. As the movie continues, we realize that Sally is either going insane or in mortal danger from creatures living underneath the house.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a very scary film, with whispering tiny monsters that sneak around causing deadly mischief. And of course, as soon as you tell someone else about them, they’re nowhere to be found. The remake features Guy Pierce and Katie Holmes, and is definitely deserving of a viewing—though it’s not nearly as effective as the original.
1 Trilogy of Terror
Remember acclaimed ‘70s actress Karen Black? If you’re under 30, you probably don’t. She played a stewardess who landed a plane safely in one of those airport disaster movies. Our #1 made-for-TV horror movie was written especially for her by Richard Matheson and William F Nolan. As the title suggests, there are three separate stories here. One, a college professor being blackmailed by a rapey student. Two, a tale of sisters in fierce competition with each other.
But the third segment? That’s the one that stays with you. Because that’s the story with the Zuni fetish doll that made this movie memorable enough to stay in our minds for decades. It also brought us one of the most amazing and sought-after horror collectibles in the history of the genre. Just try to find a Zuni fetish replica doll for under $100. It can’t be done. What is possible, though, is watching this terrifying classic on YouTube.
Did we forget your favorite made-for-TV horror movie? Tell us about it in the comments. It’s the only way we’ll learn.
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