TV movies flourished on US TV in the 1970s and were essentially studio B-movies. They shared with the B tradition the following qualities:
1. They were shot quickly and cheaply and were about the length of programmers of yore, in the 75-minute range for a 90-minute timeslot.
2. They groomed up-and-coming stars (some of whom never really came up) as well as fading marquee names (e.g. Bette Davis in MADAME SIN and THE DARK SECRET OF HARVEST HOME, Susan Hayward in SAY GOODBYE, MAGGIE COLE).
3. Similarly, they were directed by a mix of upcoming directors (e.g. Steven Spielberg, John Badham) and theatrical veterans (e.g. Curtis Harrington), and often by TV specialists (e.g. Boris Sagal).
4. They were mostly genre films--thrillers, horror, comedy. There was even one program called "The ABC Suspense Movie," although I'm not sure I can prove this.
5. Since they were made more or less below official critical radar, they could either seem like programmatic filler or be surprisingly trim, effective, low-budget art. I'm not saying this era produced a Val Lewton of the Movie of the Week, though maybe someone could take a stab at nominating such a person. Aaron Spelling?
Such movies routinely had original scores, although at this time in my pre-adolescent life, I don't remember paying attention to them. In fact I'm only haunted by one particular piece of music from the genre, the title song from a late 70s entry even I found dull, THE LAST DINOSAUR. The belting voice sounded like Shirley Bassey and was actually Nancy Wilson.
Another thing about this era of TV movies is that American TV consisted basically of three channels: CBS, NBC, ABC. PBS was around but doesn't really count for this purpose. Large cities had extra local channels, usually in the UHF (Ultra High Frequency) range above Channel 13, but most of America didn't have those extra channels. Where I lived, there was only a Spanish UHF station that we couldn't tune in properly.
What this means is that every American child of this era has pretty much the same pool of memories, because we tended to be drawn to the same things and there wasn't much to watch. Virtually everyone of a certain age recalls the Zuni doll attacking Karen Black in director Dan Curtis and writer Richard Matheson's TRILOGY OF TERROR (music, of course, by Bob Cobert of DARK SHADOWS). Even if they don't remember the title or any details, their eyes will light up if you start to describe it, because just about everyone near an American TV saw it.
There are many movies I'd like to have seen but never did, such as BROTHERHOOD OF THE BELL (scored by Jerry Goldsmith!) and Harrington's THE CAT CREATURE (Gale Sondergaard! John Carradine! Keye Luke! Robert Bloch! Leonard Rosenman!).
Some I tracked down years later in reruns or on VHS, such as Buzz Kulik's BAD RONALD with Scott Jacoby (scored by Fred Karlin) or Harrington's HOW AWFUL ABOUT ALLAN with Tony Perkins and Julie Harris (script by Henry Farrell, score by Laurence Rosenthal).
Sometimes a movie didn't quite live up to my hopes or memories. What would I now think of John Llewellyn Moxey's A STRANGE AND DEADLY OCCURENCE with Robert Stack and Vera Miles? Maybe I wouldn't be as disappointed as I think. I remember realizing how very cheap DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK looked, but the strength of its compact little premise manages to be unnerving anyway as Kim Darby heads for the type of perfectly consistent ending they got away with in the 70s. That was directed by John (ONE STEP BEYOND) Newland, with a score by Billy Goldenberg, who was all over the place then.
A very few items are on DVD, such as the excellent serial-killer comedy THE GIRL MOST LIKELY TO with Stockard Channing and Edward Asner, co-scripted by Joan Rivers.
Sometime in the 80s I tracked down Badham's marvelous ISN'T IT SHOCKING (score by David Shire--isn't that shocking?), a wonderfully dark mystery with Alan Alda, Louise Lasser and Ruth Gordon. This was evidently a pilot for a series that never happened (also shocking), and this was another function of TV movies. THE LOVE BOAT and FANTASY ISLAND are examples of series that began with movie pilots that were often considerably different. Mr. Roarke was quite a satanic figure in the original FANTASY ISLAND movie, and the guests learned valuable lessons without having much enjoyed their trip.
Ricardo Montalban also was the genial host of a clutch of vacationers in HAUNTS OF THE VERY RICH, another film I enjoyed very much at the tender age of 8. Director: the prolific Paul Wendkos. Score: Dominic Frontiere. And what would I think of that one now?
It starred Cloris Leachman. There were certain stars of the TV movie, and she was one. She was in two excellent suspensers, DYING ROOM ONLY (writer Richard Matheson, director Philip Leacock, composer Charles Fox) and DEATH SENTENCE (director E.W. Swackhamer, writer John Neufeld, composer Rosenthal). I recall these as nerve-rattling, especially when you had to wait through the commercials. Neufeld, by the way, was a novelist whose LISA BRIGHT AND DARK became a big Hallmark Hall of Fame production at this time.
Famous, highly-rated TV movies include Spielberg's DUEL (later expanded for a theatrical release) and SOMETHING EVIL with Darren McGavin and Sandy Dennis. Hmm, IMDB tells me that latter is scored by the Russian-born Wladimir Selinsky. Who he?
McGavin also headlined the ratings-sweeper THE NIGHT STALKER (Moxey, Matheson, Cobert) and THE NIGHT STRANGLER (Curtis, Matheson, Cobert), the pilots for KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER.
There are others I liked a great deal but they don't seem to have a high reputation, such as Harrington's THE DEAD DON'T DIE (by Robert Bloch). This was scored by one Robert Prince, a busy TV guy whose work included GARGOYLES, Gordon Hessler's SCREAM PRETTY PEGGY and A CRY IN THE WILDERNESS, and Moxey's aforementioned OCCURRENCE and WHERE HAVE ALL THE PEOPLE GONE. Now that's another I've never forgotten since childhood, something about most people on Earth being turned to powder for some meteorological reason.
I wasn't really supposed to watch THE SCREAMING WOMAN with Olivia de Havilland when it was first shown, but I sneaked into the room for those X-ray shots of the skeletal woman smiling underground--brrr! This was scripted by Merwin Gerard from Ray Bradbury's story, directed by Jack Smight, and scored by John Williams!
I have vague memories of Anthony Harvey's THE DISAPPEARANCE OF AIMEE with Faye Dunaway and Bette Davis. This is the story of 30s evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, and it shouldn't be confused (although I always do) with THE HOUSE THAT WOULD NOT DIE, a ghost story based on a novel called "Ammie Come Home." Moxey, Farrell, Rosenthal, and star Barbara Stanwyck--wow, I'd love to see that again too.
Aimee Semple, Aimee Semple. Yes, there was another trend in the development of the TV movie: the true story. It was a harbinger of things to come, what I think of as the 80s decline into CLICHED PHRASE HERE: THE JOE BLOW STORY. This happened gradually, sometimes with very good two-parters that tended to win awards, such as HELTER SKELTER (which had the advantage of being in the "true crime" genre). Such films had begun to appear, such as DEATH SCREAM, scripted by Stirling Silliphant based on the Kitty Genovese case. (This had a score by Gil Melle, another name all over TV movies of the era.)
TV movies began to swell from their trim 90 minutes into serious, two-hour "television events", which was essentially the solidification of the disease-of-the-week genre (first seen, perhaps, in Kulik's BRIAN'S SONG, scored by Michel Legrand), and which eventually led to what we think of as the heart-tugging, tear-stained, empowering Lifetime movie that espouses some type of redeeming social message.
There had been occasionally serious TV movies, such as the controversial landmark THAT CERTAIN SUMMER (written and produced by COLUMBO's Richard Levinson and William Link), but these had been the exception. Nobody ever thought of TRILOGY OF TERROR in terms of redeeming social message, even though you could find one if you read cultural tea leaves. Today, something like DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK fairly cries out its claustrophobia of the patronized housewife, but back then, most people just thought it was spooky.
TV movies basically don't exist on the regular network schedules anymore, not even as the shrunken "special mini-series events" which is all that became of the real multi-part mini-series. It's kind of too bad, isn't it?