Bad Ronald (1974)

This year’s Monster Fest in Australia put an unusual focus on one of my favorite horror themes: made-for-TV films and television shows. While a wealth of these were produced in the ‘70s — everything from Dark Shadows and Kolchak the Nightstalker to Bad Ronald and The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane — and some of these wonderful titles have found their way to DVD and Blu-ray releases, they’re largely still largely a neglected lot. Monster Fest is hoping to change that through a series of screenings, panels, and lectures known as Frequencies.

In addition to the book launch of Amanda Reyes’ edited collection, Are You in the House Alone? A TV Movie Compendum 1964-1999 (pre-order it here), which was accompanied by a panel including Kier-La Janisse, John Harrison, and our own Lee Gambin, as well as a screening of the absolutely insane 1974 film Bad Ronald, there were a number of events focused on TV terror. Jodi McAllister’s lecture, Deidre Hall is the Devil: Horror and Soap Opera, focused on the history of horror, the weird, and the Gothic in soap opera from Dark Shadows to Passions and beyond. Andrew Nette presented Low Grade Transmissions From Hell: Revisiting the Lost Australian Horror Anthology, The Evil Touch, an exploration of the forgotten Australian TV show made for a US market. Nette also introduced a screening of the show Homicide’s Satanic cult-themed episode “Witch Hunt” alongside film scholar Dean Brandum.

A few of these presenters — Dean Brandum, Jodi McAlister, and Andrew Nette — sat down with Diabolique to talk about their festival selections and some of their favorite TV horror.

The Evil Touch (1973)

Diabolique: Personally, I didn’t discover that there was a wealth of TV horror movies until later in my teens and a lot of these titles remained harder to find even than some very obscure films (though fortunately that’s changed in the last few years). What was your introduction to TV horror and did you have any early favorites?

Dean Brandum: Well, unfortunately I am in my late 40s so there was no way to be immune from TV horror movies! In the mid 1970s Australia only had three commercial networks which had all done deal with their US counterparts so we received the majority of US Made-for-TV product. From my basic memory it would seem that TV horror was ‘closer’ than cinematic horror. The aesthetic (often on video) and the production design had it one step removed from cinema horror (even on TV). Something such as Gargoyles (1972) had, with its costume sense and simple camera set-ups a feeling of a closer proximity than any feature horror flicks (which were often cut for TV) to real life. The likes of Something Evil (1972), A Cold Night’s Death (1973) and Satan’s Triangle (1975) were particular favourites. The latter especially was a water fountain moment for we kids at my school with numerous questions along the lines of “How creepy was it when the guy was floating on the door and it turned out he was impaled in the swordfish?” were asked. I must also add that a great number of British anthology series from this period including Armchair Thriller added to this memory back.

Jodi McAlister: My introduction to horror was definitely through soap opera. I was about twelve when the Days of Our Lives storyline about Marlena getting possessed aired (a storyline which pays very strong homage to The Exorcist), and I was utterly transfixed. However, this proved to be more a gateway into soap opera than horror: soap and I have had a lifelong romance, while horror and I kind of circle around each other, a little unsure of our relationship.

Andrew Nette: I think it was Kolchak the Night Stalker, which I remember catching glimpses of on TV in my very early teens. That show felt incredibly creepy at that age. I can remember being particularly gripped by the fact that no one ever believed Kolchak about the reality of whatever grisly horror mystery he was investigating and there was a definite sense of existential loneliness to his character which pervaded the show. I was also quite taken by the ambiance, a downbeat feeling I now associate with early seventies television generally. Having watched a few episodes of the show recently, it still delivers a fairly decent horror kick.

Other favourites were Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected, which was quite bent in what I can only describe as a very English way, and the made in Australian show, The Evil Touch. The Evil Touch totally bombed when it debuted on local television in the early-seventies but was often replayed on late nights up until the early nineties.

Homicide (1964-1977)

Diabolique: TV horror has a relatively big role at this year’s Monster Fest and is featured more prominently than in a lot of festivals, particularly genre festivals. What did you decide to program and why?

Dean Brandum: Initially we (Andrew Nette and myself) were asked to assist with the programming of TV episodic television that featured horror elements. When it came to the final cut we were able to smuggle in some purely Australian product from the late 1960s-early 19070s. We felt almost obligated to include some material that was local content and probably unknown to a contemporary audience. The Evil Touch was an anthology series that ran from 1973-1974 and featured a number of well-known American actors who flew out to Australia to film specific episodes (Leslie Nielsen, Vic Morrow, Mildred Natwick among many others) in order to garner US scheduling. When the possibility of screening an episode of this eventuated I emailed Sylvester Stallone’s management as who is credited as having written an episode under a pseudonym. He answered personally and was flattered to be asked about this early assignment. That certain Hollywood names of the time were willing to come to Australia makes this a watershed (and mostly forgotten) moment of Australian television. That many of the episodes were actually very good made us more determined to have it included.

Homicide was an extremely popular police procedural than ran from 1964-1977. For the most part it featured run of the mill murder solving but every once in awhile the detectives would investigate something quite loopy. Such was the case with episode #34 “Witch Hunt” (1965) that dealt with a Satanist cult doing their thing in a Melbourne underground enclave of the time. That the initial assault of a cult member takes place in the cozy inner suburb of Hawthorn added to the fn of a Monster Fest screening as the entire festival was held in that suburb.   

Jodi McAlister: I gave a lecture on horror tropes in soap opera – unsurprising, given the answers above! In my lecture, I tried to showcase moments that had strong homages to classic horror: the homages on Dark Shadows to Hammer Horror films, for instance; or the ridiculous pastiche mashup Passions did of It and Silence of the Lambs – and, of course, Marlena’s possession.

Andrew Nette: We looked at quite a bit of horror TV in the lead-up to the festival but my contribution ended up being two-fold. I did a talk and on The Evil Touch and showed what I think is one of its best episodes, “Kadaitcha Country.” Also, along with my friend Dean Brandum, I introduced a screening of an early episode of the Australian TV crime show, Homicide, called “Witch Hunt.”

I was keen to do something on The Evil Touch because of its local nature – it was made in Australia for the US market – and because it is one of the 1970s anthology horror TV shows that has been most forgotten. It is also pretty damn good, too, despite being so cheaply made. American television critic John Kenneth Muir is bang on the money when he describes its surreal, non-linear story telling style, zero location setting and grainy look give it, as having the feeling of “a low grade transmission straight from hell.”

“Witch Hunt” is the very first depiction of the occult on Australian TV and concerns an investigation into a near fatal assault of an old woman that draws the police detectives in the show into the world of witchcraft in Melbourne’s outer suburbs.

Dark Shadows (1966-1971)

Diabolique: A lot of these made-for-TV films (and genre shows) from the ‘70s and even ‘80s have a really special quality to them. Some of them are deeply weird (like Bad Ronald) or are creative or even quietly transgressive in a way that a lot of mainstream horror cinema was not. Why do you think this is? And why did the trend die out?

Jodi McAlister: I can’t speak in any detail about made-for-TV films, but a lot of the horror that’s used in soap opera is also really funny: see, for instance, the It/Silence of the Lambs incident on Passions, mentioned above. The over-the-top spectacularity undercuts the horror and preserves the soap opera as a kind of “safe space” for the viewer, but it also allows them room to work through some of the more horrifying implications of the story, which are often about women being menaced in the domestic space, within their family, or even within their own body.

Andrew Nette: I think a number of factors are involved. TV censorship, certainly in the seventies, was quite loose and the shows could get away with a lot without getting into too much trouble. This was partly the result of seepage of the counterculture and its more permissive attitudes into the mainstream. The mood generally was also darker and audiences were familiar with and accepting of violence on the screen due to the televised nature of the Vietnam War. I’d speculate this continued until well into the eighties when things started to be wound back in the face of the concerted moral counter attack that occurred after the election of the Thatcher Government in the UK and Reagan in the US.

Days of Our Lives (1965-)

Diabolique: Some forgotten TV horror has been given new life in recent years thanks to the home video market (the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas being a prime example), but is there anything in particular that you’d love to see rescued and restored?

Dean Brandum: Well, most certainly The Evil Touch which, although produced primarily for an Australian viewership was devised for an international audience due to its casting of American stars and the nondescript locations. If someone could track down the rights to this elusive beast we’d love to see it respectfully restored.

On the whole though I would love to see a number of the classic US telemovies of the 70s given legitimate digital reissues. Although a number of these scared me deeply it was not due to gore or any gratuitous violence. Instead the horror came from the atmosphere. In a sense they resembled the Val Lewton features of the 1940s that relied on style to create suspense. The Production Code kept Lewton’s films in line, the various directives of 70s television restricted what their telemovies could portray. As a result they relied on atmosphere and suspense. Forty-odd years on is still moment from these films that horrify more than the gore and mayhem that following films are permitted to allow. For people of a certain generation the 70s telemovie offers a plethora of repressed pleasures that filled the nightmares of many a trembling child.

Jodi McAlister: This is a question dear to every soap fan’s heart. Because of the transitory, cyclical nature of soap, so much is lost. I’d love to see some restored versions of classic soap plot lines – the iconic possession of Marlena would be a great one – but given the immense size of the archive I think it’s unlikely.

Andrew Nette: The Evil Touch. As things stand, your only options if you want to watch it, are to view some poor quality episodes available on Youtube or buy an incomplete bootleg of the series, also of poor quality, for sale on the Internet. I would love to see a high quality DVD release of this series with some decent extras. The question is, do decent copies of the episodes even exist?