CS Interview: Film Historian Amanda Reyes Talks Made-for-TV Horror
On October 13 at 12pm, the Miskatonic Institute will team with the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival to present film scholar and archivist Amanda Reyes in person for a class on the Made-for-TV horror film. ComingSoon.net had the chance to chat 1:1 with Reyes about TV horror and why vintage TV movies are making a comeback in popularity! Check out the interview below!
Although rarely held in high regard by critics, the made for television horror film remains an intriguing artifact of network programming. Any subgenre was up for grabs, and the output was disparate, vast, and surprisingly subversive, often producing a collective memory (or trauma, depending) shared by millions of viewers. This retrospective on the golden age of the telefilm and beyond will be hosted by Amanda Reyes, editor and co-author of the indispensable guide “Are You in the House Alone? A TV Movie Compendium: 1964-1999.”
ComingSoon.net: So what was the gateway drug into TV movies for you, both initially and if you had a period where you rediscovered it?
Amanda Reyes: So I grew up in the 70’s and I grew up in California for the first few years of my life. When I was about four, we had a local station there and they introduced me to “Gargoyles” and “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” around the time I was four. I could watch “Gargoyles” the whole way through, I loved it. I thought it was fascinating. I loved the monsters in it, but “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” terrified me and I couldn’t watch the whole film until I was an adult. I remember it coming on TV, and just from the opening with the black cat that comes in over the credits I was terrified. Through the years I saw portions of it on television, but never really the whole film until I was an adult. I went to New York in 2002 and my friend took me to Kim’s Video and I bought a bootleg of it and I watched it the whole way through. I was in my 30’s and I was like, “No, it’s so scary.” So it was one of those movies that haunted me through the years, just because of how it impacted me as a child. It was around that time I was starting to really get back into TV movies. I don’t really know what sparked it exactly, but I had a friend who had a zine called “Debaser,” and he told us we could write articles on anything we wanted. So, I decided that I would write about TV movies, because I hadn’t really seen anybody doing that at the time. This would’ve been around 2002 or so.
In LA, which is where I was living, there was something called “Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee.” For every regular movie you rent they have movies that were just taped off TV that you can borrow for free, because you can’t make money off of them because they’re essentially bootlegs. I would rent “The Hardy Boys” episode 2, season 1, or whatever, and I would ask for “Bad Ronald” or copies of “This House Possessed” or something. I started going back and watching the movies I remembered and then looking for the ones that I kind of remembered, but didn’t know the titles of. I started looking for ones that people had talked about that I hadn’t seen. I loved it. I loved that they were lost films. Most of them were really good. They’re underrated. It kickstarted something in me. So I started collecting as many as I could after that.
CS: It sounds like “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” was sort of the traumatic catalyst, and also became sort of your sort of gateway back into that era in rediscovering that part of your childhood?
Reyes: Well, I also forgot. You watch them and they sort of go into your mind somewhere. Later on someone will give you a title and you forgot you even saw it. So I grew up watching TV movies all the time, but I wasn’t thinking of them as TV movies. They were just movies I saw while I was hanging out. Going back it was amazing how many I had actually seen, and yet there’s still thousands I have yet to find. There’s just so many TV movies, you’re never going to see them all. That’s kind of what drives me, because I want to see them all, you know?
CS: There are certain ones, like you did a podcast about “The World Beyond,” which is a great creepy TV pilot. There was another one they had made prior to that, “The World of Darkness,” that’s completely unavailable anywhere.
Reyes: Yeah, I can’t find that one at all. I mean, I’ve seen the opening for it. I think somebody posted it on YouTube, but I’ve never been able to find the episode proper.
CS: It begs the question of how many lost mini masterpieces are there from the late 60’s, early 70’s that maybe weren’t preserved or videotaped or kinescoped? Or, heaven forbid, just got erased to make way for other stuff.
Reyes: Well, apparently, the ABC “Wide World of Mystery” series, which was the show that aired late at night that showed a lot of episodes of Brian Clemens’ “Thriller,” they did original productions and very few of them have survived. A guy made a list on Letterboxd, which is probably the most complete list I’ve seen of what ABC produced themselves. He’s looking for all of them, and most of them are just gone. He’s gone deep and all over the world to look for them. I don’t know if they’ve been taped over, but he went through the whole thing. It’s very complicated. Yeah, I’d say at least 80 percent of that catalogue, and that’s a number that I’m making up here, I don’t know, it’s a huge portion of this catalogue is gone, according to him.
CS: Unfortunately, there’s no Martin Scorsese out there championing the restoration and preservation of these “trash” TV movies. But they’re great and they are a part of our collective memories and culture and they do deserve to be resurrected. What is interesting is -and I don’t know if your book was a catalyst- but in the last couple years you have started to see a lot TV movie titles from that era starting to come up on Blu-ray. You’ve actually been doing audio commentaries on a few of them, like “The Spell” and John Carpenter’s “Someone’s Watching Me!”
Reyes: I have. I do think, though, it’s kind of the nature of the beast, because I was talking to somebody at Warner Archives and they started releasing TV movies about 10 years ago. They said they saw something was going to happen with TV movies. People who can look forward into the world of physical media and home video understand cinephilia better than other people. With everything becoming so available, there’s still all these movies that haven’t really been looked at. Some of them never even have the home release, so they’re lost. They saw that there was going to be a turn in interest, because when you supposedly everything available to you, what’s left? These TV movies were reaching into something that was going to allow physical media to keep going and was going to be interesting to people who loved to collect things and who wanted to see everything. I’d love to think my book was a catalyst, but I really think it just came out at the right time because there was already a shift in interest in TV movies before it even came out. I got lucky.
CS: I write a weekly Blu-ray column, and I can tell you the Blu-ray market that’s still thriving is targeted at the connoisseurs, the collectors. They are the older audience that actually remembers these movies and wants to revisit them, or the younger audience like me that wants to experience them for the first time, because lord knows we don’t need another edition of “Evil Dead.”
Reyes: Right. So true, yeah. With so many movies that aren’t available, it’s amazing how much gets repurposed. I understand there’s a lot of licensing issues, especially with TV movies. A lot are co-owned between the network and the studio, so it’s difficult to know who has the rights for home video release. Sometimes there was no home video release clause, because in the 70’s nobody even anticipated that. So there might be re-run contracts, but home video becomes a murky market for certain companies.
CS: There’s famous ones like “The Burning Bed”. That would be considered a Lifetime type movie now, but that movie was seen by tens of millions of people.
Reyes: Oh my god, so many people. And changed lives and changed our ideas about spousal abuse. And “A Case of Rape” was a movie that came out in ’73, with Elizabeth Montgomery, and that changed our whole dialogue about how we treat sexual abuse victims. There’s a lot of groundbreaking TV movies like that.
CS: There’s a couple I wanted to ask you about specifically, just because they’re really interesting to me. One you actually talked about in-depth on your podcast, which is “The Norliss Tapes.” It’s interesting because it is like a bizarro world version of “Kolchak.”
Reyes: Yeah, for sure, yeah.
CS: And also, it was intended as a pilot. In terms of evaluating it as a viable pilot, the whole premise of the show is a found footage kind of a thing where he’s left behind these tapes and he’s describing these supernatural incidents that he was involved in. At the very end, where the guy puts in the second tape, I was like, “What if this show lasted six seasons?” Would it have been like, “Tape 157?”
Reyes: Yeah, it’s great. It’s so good. I think it had such potential and it just didn’t catch on. William F. Nolan wrote a prequel to it as well, but I’ve never seen a copy of it. I read about it in Jeff Thompson’s book on Dan Curtis.
CS: It was unproduced, right?
Reyes: Yeah, but I think it exists. I think it was written fully, but I’m not positive of that. But I really, I like “The Night Stalker.” It’s really fun and it’s hard to deny that Darren McGavin is the most charismatic person that ever walked this planet. I understand why “The Norliss Tapes” didn’t work in that respect, because as much as I love Roy Thinnes, he was so sober in that that I could see where maybe that was a problem. I even hate saying that, though, because I prefer “The Norliss Tapes” over all others. It was such a great premise. The fact that it ends on a cliffhanger is kind of beautiful, because you get to always think about what could’ve been. Your mind can keep going with it. Had it gone to series, it would’ve probably gone somewhere maybe you wouldn’t have wanted it to. Maybe it’s perfect the way it is.
CS: Yeah, I think it works perfectly as a one-off. As huge a “Kolchak” fan as I am, the way they did decide to serialize it I think it was better off as a one-off as well, because the second movie is literally a carbon copy of the first one, in a different setting.
Reyes: I know. I love the “The Night Strangler.” I love it. I’m going to wear my heart on my sleeve. I like it more. I don’t know if it’s because I really like the characters, but I love it.
CS: That underground city below Seattle is such a great setting. In terms of the series itself, it started to wear a little bit thin. How is Simon Oakland surprised that there’s a mummy? There was just a Bigfoot last week.
Reyes: (laughs) Well, it’s true. I mean, think about “The X-Files.” It kind of got caught up in that same sort of thing. Their standalones were great, but the story arc got so confused. Maybe not everybody feels this way, but when you talk to people about “The X-Files” so many people are always talking about the standalone episodes than the story arc episodes.
CS: Another movie I love is “The Horror at 37,000 Feet.” The cast is so great. It’s just like one heavy hitter after another. Even the smaller parts are these classic stars, and William Shatner just owning the priest who’s lost his faith cliché. The premise is so insane, that there’s a druid ghost in an Abbey in the cargo hold on this intercontinental flight. Just seeing the way those international flights looked in the 70’s and the fact that there’s only eight passengers, which is like a dream of mine.
Reyes: Yeah, I love that movie because it’s bonkers. It’s really fun. It’s exactly what you say it is. It’s got all these great faces that you recognize. Roy Thinnes again, a god among men. It’s one of those movies that I watched as a kid, actually. I don’t want to be spoilery, but at the end, it’s got that really shocking ending. As a little kid I didn’t know how to wrap my brain around what happened. It really messed with my head for a long time and I never got over it. It’s just one of those movies that really stuck with me. But now, when I watch it, I think it’s just really enjoyable. And I think that TNT should get some credit for keeping it in our conscience because they used to show it on “100 Percent Weird.”
CS: I got to talk to William Shatner earlier this year, and he was very cool, but when I brought up that or “The Devil’s Rain,” he was just like, “Oh, you know, I had three kids. I had to keep a roof over their head.”
Reyes: Oh come on! I did find the ratings for “Horror at 37,000 Feet.” It was in the top five. It came in at number five for the 1972/73 season, for the entire season. It had a 26.2/41 rating, which means that 26.2 million homes with televisions were watching the night it aired, which is 41 percent of the television viewing audience, which is very close to half of America.
CS: Wow. So that means half of America was scarred by that movie.
Reyes: Yeah, it’s hard to believe, right? It’s amazing to think about, that so many millions of people were sitting around watching stuff like “Horror at 37,000 Feet,” and that wasn’t even the highest rated horror movie that season, it was “The Victim,” the Elizabeth Montgomery movie.
CS: I’ve seen that one too, it’s great.
Reyes: Yeah, which is fantastic. That one actually came in at number three of that season. So that’s how prevalent it was back then. “The Devil’s Daughter” is number 15. So there’s just a lot, “Night Strangler,” top 20. So it’s just really amazing, the reach that these films had.
CS: And it is something that is completely lost to this generation, the idea that a TV show could have a truly pervasive cultural influence. That a show could come on, and then the next day you could be in school and every kid in your class would have seen the same show, because there were only three networks. The audience is so fractured now. Even something that seems like a cultural phenomenon like “Stranger Things” I’m sure is not viewed by even close to the number that something like “The Victim” or “Horror at 37,000 Feet” was.
Reyes: Yeah, for sure. It’s also another thing that’s really interesting in terms of binge watching. So when you’re talking about “The Night Strangler” and “The Night Stalker,” those were meant to be seen a year apart, right? So when people saw “The Night Strangler,” they might not have remembered “The Night Stalker” well enough to remember how much of a carbon copy it was. Somebody watching the two back-to-back might be disappointed in “The Night Strangler,” But I would say, “We didn’t binge watch back then. That just wasn’t a thing.” So “Charlie’s Angels” was a show that I still love deeply, but I watch three episodes in a row, tops, because they’re basically the same episode. They’re great. I love them, but it’s a very formula, they weren’t made to be binge watched. With the generation now, binge watching’s really in and that’s great, because you can watch “Stranger Things” all in one-go, right? But if you were to sit them down and show them a really good show from the 70’s, like I mean, a really good show like “The Streets of San Francisco,” they would probably be put off by it because it’s meant to air once a week and not back to back. It’s hard to get young people sometimes to understand that.
CS: Yeah, the emphasis now is much more on long arc and serialization and less on formula. Back in the 70’s and even in the 80’s, the emphasis was more on creating characters that you loved to just spend time with.
Reyes: Right, absolutely.
To listen to Amanda Reyes’ podcast, The Made-For-TV Mayhem Show, CLICK HERE!