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10 Best Made-For-TV Movies Of The 70s And 80s

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People often associate made-for-TV films with inferior quality, subpar acting, and cheapness. Unfortunately, a lot of the time, this perception turns out to be justified. However, that’s what makes discovering an example of the form that breaks this mold such a rewarding experience.

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In the 1970s and 80s, plenty of these rewarding made-for-TV films can be found. Directors like John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg took a swing at the form in these years, and TV special dramas altogether saw heightened visibility due to increased marketing competition across networks. This was fruitful for well-executed creativity.

10/10 Someone’s Watching Me Was The Prototype For HalloweenLauren Hutton in a scene from Someone's Watching Me!

John Carpenter made two films for television in the late 1970s, the first of which was seen as a sort of precursor to his all-time classic Halloween. Thought Someone’s Watching Me! had its television debut weeks after HalloweenCarpenter had been hired for the film, about a woman stalked by a social outcast, by NBC in 1976.

Lauren Hutton is solid in the film as the stalked television director Leigh Michaels, and the rest of the cast is fair enough for this kind of film. However, the film’s strength lies in Carpenter’s ability to make the most out of a limited budget, which can also be found throughout his early directorial production.

9/10 Elvis Saw Kurt Russell Channel An IconKurt Russell as Elvis Presley in Elvis

Kurt Russell felt an attachment to Elvis Presley because of his time spent with the rock & roll legend on It Happened at the World’s Fair as a pre-teen. The opportunity to play the role of Presley in John Carpenter’s Elvis was a huge career move for him, and he did it proper justice.

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The film makes excellent use of cinematography and set designs, and its extravagant costumes pop with all the flare of the great Presley. At 168 minutes, this ABC production may feel a tad overlong, and Carpenter himself was unhappy with the lack of editing ability he was given, but it’s still well worth a watch.

8/10 Roe Vs. Wade Captured A Moment Of Political ProgressHolly Hunter and Amy Madigan in a promotional still for Roe vs.  wade

In these days of backtracking on women’s rights, Roe vs. wade is a more timely watch than it’s been since its television debut on NBC in 1989. For director Gregory Hoblit, the film meant yet another Primetime Emmy Award, having gotten others, most notably for the police procedural Hill Street Blues.

What makes the film work so well is its capturing old romantic American ideal: that one person can change the course of history. Holly Hunter steals the show as the pregnant Ellen Russell, who represents women’s oppression at the hands of the pro-life movement – ​​which has sadly been empowered again in 2022.

7/10 Small Sacrifices Brought Gripping True Crime To The Small ScreenRyan O'Neal and Farrah Fawcett in Small Sacrifices

Ann Rule’s true account of the murder conviction of Diane Downs was brought to television in 1989. Farrah Fawcett plays Downs, a performance for which she was nominated for an Emmy Award. The 159-minute ABC special was originally split into two parts.

Director David Greene does a good job of maintaining tension and intrigue throughout the film’s runtime while the actors play each part seamlessly. The best element of the film is its ability to play with the gray areas surrounding memory and recollection, delving deep into Downs’ mind.

6/10 The Facts Of Life Down Under Is An Underappreciated Change Of PaceCloris Leachman as Beverly Ann Stickle in The Facts of Life Down Under

The Facts of Life exhibited an incredible ability to sustain its strengths deep into its run, and the 1987 TV film The Facts of Life Down Under perfectly showcases how it did this. NBC used the film to counteract the success of ABC’s America miniseries. Director Stuart Margolin was a TV film veteran, having previously made Suddenly, Loveand The Glitter Dome.

The exploits of Jo Polniaczek and Blair Warner carry this film, unsurprisingly, since that’s what generally carried the show for so long as well. The absence of a laugh track, the confusion around the identities of Jo and Blair’s love interests, and the beautiful Australian settings make this a worthwhile companion piece to the great series.

5/10 Salem’s Lot Is One Of The Best Stephen King AdaptationsReggie Nalder as Kurt Barlow in Salem's Lot

Stephen King adaptations have been all over pop culture for decades, but few are as good as Tobe Hooper’s made-for-TV version of Salem’s Lot from 1979. Hooper, whose Texas Chain Saw Massacre came five years prior, was the perfect director in retrospect to helm this 183-minute offering which debuted on CBS.

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The evocative atmosphere of this film is absolutely spellbinding, and the decision to make the vampire Kurt Barlow nonvocal makes the character far more effective in the context of the film. The mood, the performances, James Mason’s in particular, and the story of lost innocence and corrupting influence make for a well-spent three-hour experience.

4/10 The Executioner’s Song Does Justice To Norman Mailer’s True Crime NovelGary Gilmore (Tommy Lee Jones) and his lawyer in The Executioner's Song

Norman Mailer won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Executioner’s Song, and he provided the screenplay for this 1982 TV film adaptation directed by Lawrence Schiller and distributed by NBC. This story of the life of Gary Gilmore, who pushed for his own execution, laid the foundation for Tommy Lee Jones to win an Emmy Award for his performance.

This is a film that deals with a subject that isn’t easy to swallow, but it’s also captivating. Jones is incredible as Gilmore, and Rosanna Arquette as Nicole Baker, who forms an unsteady bond as two lost souls trying to find something solid for themselves, while Gilmore tries to get beyond his misfortunes.

3/10 Dark Night Of The Scarecrow Is A Great Piece Of Moody HorrorShot of the Scarecrow from Dark Night of the Scarecrow

Plenty of bad made-for-TV horror films have been made over the last several decades. In contrast, CBS’ Dark Night of the Scarecrow from 1981 is one of the absolute best. Frank De Felitta’s film deals with the murder of a man with an intellectual disability at the hands of a mob of townsfolk.

Few horror films of this era handle the crafting of mood and atmosphere as well as this one. It also manages its expectations exceptionally well. It never becomes clear whether a supernatural force is taking revenge or if the guilt and shame of the characters get them killed. The audience is constantly left adrift, trying to discover any answers to this dark, unsettling conundrum.

2/10 That Certain Summer Was A Huge Step Forward For Television FilmsHal Holbrook, Scott Jacoby, and Martin Sheen in That Certain Summer

Lamont Johnson’s Emmy-nominated That Certain Summer from 1972 is remembered as one of the first sympathetic depictions of gay characters on television. The film, which debuted on ABC, sports great performances from Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen and an excellent script.

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The 73-minute film moves at a remarkable pace while it contends with the process of making Doug Salter’s (Hal Holbrook) son understand his romantic situation. This is ultimately a heartwarming experience because of how promising the film tries to be about homosexual acceptance in society.

1/10 Duel Is One Of Steven Spielberg’s Best FilmsPeterbilt 281 tanker truck from Duel

Arguably no director is more synonymous with American cinema in the 1970s than Steven Spielberg, and his 1971 effort Duel, originally aired on ABC, is one of his absolute best films. Although nowhere near as well-known as most other films he’s made, the film maintains a strong cult following among lovers of low-budget shockers.

The mysteriousness surrounding the film’s antagonist leads to its effectiveness. The audience is never presented with the identity of this truck driver, and the suspense the deranged driver carries in his mad pursuit of David Mann (Dennis Weaver) makes this film well worth seeing. One of Spielberg’s greatest managements of pacing.

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