Arguably, the 1980s was perhaps the strongest decade for television horror series, at least in quantity if not quality. While every decade since the 1950s offered memorable and sometimes classic fear fare on the small screen, the eighties saw a large amount of horror series start up, helped in part by a renewed interest in the anthology format and, in the United States, a boom period for first-run syndicated series.
The United States saw its share of horror shows on network and cable stations along with the syndicated choices, and the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) and the British Independent Television (ITV) network offered their own brands of boob-tube terror in the United Kingdom. In this article, we will take a look at some of the fondly remembered, overlooked, and less popular television horror efforts of the 1980s.
Joseph Perry: Let’s take a look at American television first, starting with what I believe is the first horror anthology series of the then-new decade. James Coburn hosted the Night Gallery-like Darkroom, which aired for a total of 7 episodes on ABC from November 27, 1981 to January 15, 1982. He appeared in wrap-around segments where he introduced and then provided an epilogue for two to three stories in each episode. Though the series featured well-known talents such as Claude Akins, June Lockhart, Esther Rolle, and Billy Crystal along with future stars such as Helen Hunt, the stories themselves varied widely in quality. Overall, Darkroom offers enough shudders, surprises, and other fun reasons to make this series a should-see for small-screen horror aficionados.
Two of the better segments were Robert Bloch teleplays based on his own stories. “The Bogeyman Will Get You” stars Helen Hunt as a young lady who becomes intrigued by a mysterious friend of her father’s who returns for a visit to their town. Quinn Cummings plays her younger sister, who believes the man is a vampire.
“Catnip” is a wicked little entry in which no-goodnik small-time criminal Ronnie (Cyril O’Reilly) makes the mistake of trying to kill an old woman’s cat by planting a bomb on the cat door of her house. Some interesting sound design on the cat’s cries and visual effects representing its vision add extra oomph to this episode.
No official American home video release of Darkroom has been released, but several of the segments — sometimes in complete episodes, sometimes not — are, at press time, available on YouTube. Fans of voodoo, witchcraft, monsters, and similar macabre fare will have fun digging through this series.
Probably the most well-known American horror series that ran entirely during the 1980s (as opposed to shows that crossed decades, like Tales from the Crypt, which began its run in 1989 but had most of its episodes aired well into the 1990s) is the syndicated Tales from the Darkside. This much-loved anthology series was launched after Laurel Entertainment produced the classic omnibus horror film Creepshow (1982) and then decided to pursue a similar television series. It ran from October 1983 until July 1988.
Though many episodes are pure tales of science fiction or fantasy, and several have comic elements, the overall series definitely delves into different realms of horror. Lasting 4 seasons with a total of 90 episodes including the pilot — each running just under 30 minutes long — the series boasts perhaps the most well-known opening narration after those of the original The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits series. Many episodes were adapted from stories written by genre literature legends such as Stephen King, Frederik Pohl, Frederic Brown, Clive Barker, and Robert Bloch, to name but a few. The list of influential writers and directors involved, as well as noteworthy cast members, is far too long to be included here. But if teleplays by George Romero, direction by Tom Savini, and performances by Jessica Harper, Fritz Weaver, Debbie Harry, and William Hickey pique your interest, you’ll find a gold mine of talent awaiting you.
Like any horror anthology series, no matter the number of episodes, some are weaker than others, but Tales from the Darkside has more than its fair share of nail-biter installments. Two of the most popular horror episodes include “Baker’s Dozen,” about a voodoo baker(!) and the recipients of her cruel concoctions, and the Tom Savini-helmed “Halloween Candy,” which features a diabolical monster terrorizing a cranky old man. Again, there are more strong efforts than space here allows, but fond memories await those who haven’t watched the series in a while, and first-timer viewers have fun times ahead, indeed.
The complete Tales from the Darkside series has been released on DVD in Regions 1 and 2. A feature film, Tales from the Darkside: The Movie, was released in cinemas in 1990; it has also been released on DVD.
The 1985-1989 revival of The Twilight Zone (1985-1989) had a few horror luminaries involved, even if most of the episodes were not particularly scary and leaned more toward science fiction and fantasy tales. For example, Wes Craven directed 7 episodes, and “The Exorcist” director William Friedkin helmed the adaptation of horror author Robert R. McCammon’s “Nightcrawlers.”
One of the more horror-based segments is “Gramma,” with a teleplay by Harlan Ellison based on the Skeleton Crew short story of the same name by Stephen King, involving an 11-year-old boy left to take care of his grandmother. She may be dying on his watch, during which frightening events occur. References to H.P. Lovecraft and witchcraft abound, making this segment a fine starting point for horror aficionados to begin the series.
The novelty of a revived The Twilight Zone series wore off quickly and after two seasons with falling viewership on CBS, the series went to syndication for its final season. Image Entertainment has released all of the episodes on a Region 1 DVD set, and the series is also available on Region 2 and 4 DVDs, as well.
Fans of Jason Voorhees will find no tie-ins to him, other characters, nor story elements from the Friday the 13th film franchise in Friday the 13th: The TV Series, but the series nevertheless went on to enjoy a 3-season, 72-episode run in syndication beginning in October 1987 before abruptly being canceled in May 1990. Producer Frank Mancuso Jr., who also produced the film franchise from Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981) through Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989), gave the series its name to try and build an instant audience that other titles might have had a more difficult time doing.
Friday the 13th: The TV Series involves an antiques shop originally owned by Lewis Vendredi, who had entered into a pact with the Devil to sell cursed antiques in exchange for the usual favors of wealth, immortality, and special powers. Vendredi attempts to renege on the deal and is killed by the Devil, who also takes his soul. Vendredi’s niece, Micki Foster (Louise Robey), inherits the shop along with her cousin Ryan Dallion (John D. LeMay). After the pair unknowingly sells many cursed pieces, they are approached by occultist Jack Marshak (Chris Wiggins), an old friend of Vendredi, who enlists the cousins in a quest to track down the diabolical antiques.
Friday the 13th: The Series, usually shown in late-night time slots, was well known for pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable for violence and, in one episode, even sex on television at the time. Some fans of the film series balked at the idea of a Friday the 13th television show without Jason on board, but the show found an audience that stuck with it until its abrupt cancellation and many fans have a soft spot for the series. CBS Home Entertainment released all 3 seasons on DVD in 2008 and 2009.
A bit less fondly remembered by some is Freddy’s Nightmares: A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Series, which ran in syndication from October 1988 until March 1990 for a total of two seasons and 44 episodes. An anthology show that also pushed the boundaries of television censorship, the show featured Robert Englund as Freddy Kreuger, introducing and wrapping up each episode as well as providing bumper commentary, often with some puns or dark humor.
Although Freddy was not often directly involved in the weekly tales, the pilot episode dealt with his origin story. Directed by Tobe Hooper, the pilot sees Freddy benefitting from a mistrial on child-murdering charges against him because the police did not read him his Miranda rights. He then dies when a mob of angry parents corners him in the boiler room at his work and the original arresting officer burns him to death.
After that, Freddy’s Nightmares: A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Series offered a series of dark tales set in fictitious Springwood, Ohio, often on Elm Street. A few examples include “Lucky Stiff,” in which a widow realizes that a winning lottery ticket was buried with her deceased husband; “Silence is Golden,” which sees a radio DJ stalked by a mime he assaulted in ; and “What You Don’t Know Can Kill You,” in which a psychiatrist who seduces patients while they are under hypnosis attempts to escape punishment after being caught in the act. The series also had occasional sequels of sorts to earlier episodes, and another unique spin is that smaller characters in one segment sometimes became the main focus of the following one.
Beginning the same year that Tales from the Darkside ended its run, Laurel Entertainment set Monsters loose on the world. This horror anthology featured half-hour episodes spotlighting a wide variety of practical effects creatures and makeup. The series originally ran in syndication from October 1, 1988 to April 1, 1991. Sometimes the monsters are all in the mind, while other times they are decidedly real. Vampires, animated dolls, demons, the Grim Reaper, werewolves, and many other beasts of all shapes and sizes shared time during the series’ run. The majority of tales were of the milder-than-cable-TV straight-horror variety; others ranged from comedy (“Murray’s Monster” and “My Zombie Lover,” for example) to tear-jerkers (“Glim-Glim”).
The quality of writing for Monsters varied, but overall the stories have held up well over time. Some episodes were based on stories by famous writers such as Stephen King (“The Moving Finger”) and Robert Bloch (“The Legacy,” “Mannikins of Horror,” and “Reaper”), and Gahan Wilson even wrote the teleplay for the episode “Leavings.”
Many famous faces from the past, then-present, and then-future graced the episodes of Monsters, and though the acting and wardrobes are often quite mired in eighties trappings, there’s a great deal of fun to be had here thanks to the likes of Troy Donahue, Imogene Coca, Abe Vigoda, Russell Johnson, Deborah Harry, Linda Blair, Frank Gorshin, Peggy Cass, Adrienne Barbeau, Darren McGavin, Soupy Sales, Fritz Weaver, Meat Loaf, Lili Taylor, and Steve Buscemi — to name but a few! Fans of genre-film favorite Tom Noonan will find plenty to enjoy, as he wrote and directed two episodes and starred in another.
Monsters had its share of well-known quantities in the director’s chair, as well, including Debra Hill, David Odell, and Michael Brandon. Several directors kicked off their careers with Monsters as their first or second helming gig, such as Allen Coulter, Manny Coto, Alex Zamm, and Roger Nygard.
For many fans, the main draw of the series is the wide variety of creature designs. The legendary Dick Smith served as special makeup consultant for Monsters and though not all of the creature effects are noteworthy, they are almost always fun, even when a few seem a bit corny and dated now — actually, that’s a good part of the show’s charm. Famous makeup artists such as Mark Shostrom and Greg Cannom also had opportunities at helming episodes.
As a lifelong Monster Kid, I find Monsters to be a fun series that I recommend to those who haven’t tried it yet. Fans of extreme horror won’t find very much in the way of graphic material because this show was syndicated and targeted toward a general audience among most age groups, as evidenced by the folksy family of creatures that opens each episode. Those who love creature features, classic horror, horror comedy, or practical effects should have a blast with the series.
Cohen Perry: Nightmare Classics is a 1989 Showtime television series produced by award winning actress and writer Shelley Duvall, for which four classic literary horror stories were adapted to the screen. Now, I should mention that tracking down this series is a bit difficult, as it only ever got a VHS release in 1990. Given that, it has fallen into obscurity and I could only get ahold of episode 2, an adaptation of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla. It’s a shame because I was really interested in seeing the adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s The Eyes of the Panther, as I really enjoy Bierce’s short stories and am curious to see the attempt. The other two episodes featured Henry James’ Turn of the Screw and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, two stories that have been adapted extensively.
Duvall aimed for the adult audience in Nightmare Classics after very successful runs for her two kids’ shows, Faerie Tale Theatre (1982) and Tall Tales & Legends (1985). I feel that Classics would enjoy a timely renaissance, as the Victorian era has enjoyed a bit of popularity recently with television audiences. Classics appeals to this demographic well, and the sets and costume design uphold the aesthetic in a fantastically authentic way. Originally penned in 1897, Le Fanu’s Carmilla is one of the earlier entries to vampire fiction and it would go on to influence the entire genre with a notable impact on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I enjoy the purity in the approach that Nightmare Classics takes to reimagining respected literary works — something that might be considered “boring” by today’s standards, but that perhaps could be quite successful if done by PBS.
The cast is made-up of some notable talent: Meg Tilly plays the temptress vampire Carmilla; Roy Dotrice is Leo the plantation owner, who unwittingly takes her in; and Roddy McDowall is the keen Inspector Amos, who is set to foil Carmilla’s attempts at seducing Leo’s daughter Marie, played by Ione Skye. The thing is, for a seductive, lesbian vampire story, the production is surprisingly tame. While we can acknowledge that Le Fanu was writing in a society notorious for its sexual oppression, he left a bit more up to the imagination in his writings. Nightmare Classics does not exist in such a context, and while I am by no means begging for some fan service, I did find the toning down of certain themes a bit counterproductive to Le Fanu’s original intent. The sexual relationship between Carmilla and Marie becomes an elephant in the room, while Marie’s father seems pathetically unaware. It’s as if Tilly was directed to portray Carmilla in an overtly sexual manner, at times showing cleavage that would make any Victorian gentleman blush, but then the rest of the cast wasn’t allowed to acknowledge this. It wasn’t awful, but in an interview with Fangoria Magazine, Tilly claimed that she took the role for the paycheck and had never seen the final product. A sad reflection that isn’t surprising.
For the most part, the entire cast seemed to act in vacuum chambers at a distance from each other, and while I was entertained by the 60-minute episode, it could have done with a bit more love and care. Nightmare Classics was slated for six episodes, but only four were ever released. I’m still interested in tracking down the other episodes, but I don’t necessarily feel like I’m missing too much. I will say this: Nightmare Classics definitely leaves me with a desire for a PBS production of some classic horror literature.
JP: The United Kingdom also offered its share of supernatural shocks and reality-based scares on the telly. The British television anthology series Tales of the Unexpected — not to be confused with the 1977 Quinn Martin horror anthology of the same name — is not an outright horror series but offers enough chills, creepiness, and wicked twists to satisfy discerning fright-fare fans. Lasting for 9 series with 112 episodes from 1979 through 1988, the first three seasons featured tales based on short stories written by Roald Dahl, who usually hosted those episodes, as he often gave brief background or explanations about his inspiration for writing the stories.
One of the eerier episodes of Tales of the Unexpected is “Royal Jelly,” a Dahl adaptation in which professional beekeeper Albert Taylor (Timothy West) and his wife Mabel (Susan George) have trouble getting their baby daughter to take any food. As the child grows more sickly, Albert decides to secretly apply a method he knows that works in the bee kingdom to his daughter, with surprising results. The ending may seem a little silly to modern audiences but the creep factor still holds up pretty well, in my opinion.
A particularly disturbing and unsettling episode of the series is “The Flypaper,” in which a lonely and somewhat neglected young girl named Sylvia (Lorna Yabsley) walks home daily from her piano lessons in an area where a missing girl turns up dead. A strange man starts to watch and seemingly follows her. Revealing anything more would be going into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that the ending packs a punch.
The series is well-produced and well-acted, with familiar names such as John Gielgud, Denholm Elliot, Joan Collins, and Jennifer Connolly on hand. Those who haven’t given this often quirky series a try should find many delights on tap.
British anthology Hammer House of Horror saw a single-season run of 13 51-minute episodes on ITV from September 13 to December 6, 1980. Featuring stories with both supernatural and non-supernatural themes, the generally high-quality levels of acting, writing, and production values help soften the toll that time has taken on the special effects and then-hip costume design.
Hammer Film Production icon Peter Cushing starred in one episode, “The Silent Scream,” and such renowned performers as Denholm Elliot, Lucy Gutteridge, Diana Dors, and a young Pierce Brosnan appeared in others. The stories were set in contemporary England, rather than the gothic period-piece settings of most of the earlier Hammer horror film output. The usual supernatural tropes such as ghosts, witches, voodoo, and werewolves are on display, along with more reality-based shocks like serial killers, cannibalism, and other surprises.
Perhaps the best title in the Hammer House of Horror series is “The House That Bled to Death,” which almost lives up to the lofty promise of that legend with its tale of a family that moves into a seemingly cursed house where a husband viciously killed his wife years before. This entry isn’t short on the red stuff, including a famous scene in which a children’s birthday party suddenly becomes a lurid bloodbath. This tense episode boasts a climax that is still effective.
The aforementioned “The Silent Scream” stars Peter Cushing in a fine turn as Martin Blueck, a pet-store owner who offers to help out ex-convict Chuck (Brian Cox) by offering him a job. Blueck needs someone to take care of his dangerous animals, which he keeps in open cages that use electric force fields. Chuck sees Blueck’s safe and the temptation it holds causes him to question going straight. There is more to Blueck than Chuck first suspects and the elderly man’s sadistic side is something to behold.
Synapse Films released a remastered, Region 1 5-disc set of Hammer House of Horror in 2012; ITV Studios had released a 4-disc Region 2 DVD set 10 years earlier. A second season was planned but cancelled because of funding being withdrawn.
CP: The 1981 British horror series Nightmare Man is not going to win any accolades for its title. In fact, the title is so generic that I nearly passed on it out of fear that it would live up to its name. You see, Nightmare Man is excellent — so excellent in fact, that I can’t help but wonder if the arbitrary name isn’t just a ploy to keep viewers in the dark surrounding the show’s true intentions. Part who-done-it, part speculative fiction, part horror, and part comedy, Nightmare Man accomplishes a little bit of everything, and when you check under the hood, it’s easy to see why.
Perhaps Whovians will understand, as Nightmare Man is the product of the respected Robert Holmes, who is credited in writing more than 73 episodes of Doctor Who from 1968 until his untimely death in 1986. In an interview with The Telegraph, Russell T. Davies, head writer of the 2005 revival of Doctor Who, claimed that Holmes was responsible for some of the best writing the show had seen: “Take The Talons of Weng Chiang, for example. Watch episode one. It’s the best dialogue ever written. It’s up there with Dennis Potter. By a man called Robert Holmes. When the history of television drama comes to be written, Robert Holmes won’t be remembered at all because he only wrote genre stuff. And that, I reckon, is a real tragedy.” It’s not surprising because the writing in Nightmare Man, especially the dialogue, is shockingly good. However, plagued by an awful name and some people’s belief that horror is a lowly category of film and television series, this show may never crawl out of the depths of obscurity to receive the attention it truly deserves as an intelligent, thoughtful, and unique creation.
Based on the novel Child of Vodyanoi by David Wiltshire (now there is a title), the show borrows some classic tropes to push a condensed story line: a small claustrophobic island, a thick fog that renders technology useless, and a mysterious traveler — we accept these things at face value. Where a bad horror movie might rely on these concepts to the point of cliché, Nightmare Man uses them in a way that seems completely natural, toying with the viewer’s preconceived notions and making the viewer question every element of the narrative. It is this mastery of the technical aspects in production that sets this show apart from the bush league horror series we might be used to. In the opening scene of the series, we see a man and a woman debark a ferry; the man turns to the woman, tips his hat and bids her “Goodbye,” and they go their separate ways. A few seconds later, the woman becomes the first victim of the Nightmare Man. I really appreciate this sort of unnecessary foreshadowing and irony. It sets a high standard for the writing, and reflects an author’s interest in every single word that is spoken. Dialogue is not just a means to convey a story, it is a craft in and of itself.
The consistently cheeky dialogue is supported by an incredibly talented cast as well. James Warwick, an award winning theater director and actor on Broadway and the West End, plays Michael Gaffikin, a dentist who becomes the de facto town genius when things start to go down. The onscreen chemistry with his love interest, Fiona Patterson, played by the esteemed Celia Imrie, makes for some extremely entertaining banter. At times I felt like I could watch an episode of just them on a date and I would be thoroughly entertained. Maurice Roëves and James Cosmo play Inspector Inskip and Sgt. Carch, a pair of hilariously incompetent police officers who have never really had to investigate a crime in their lives. The fact that nearly the entire cast has enjoyed quite successful and even prolific acting careers might say something about how high the bar is set for this series.
Of course, I have hesitated to reveal much of the plot. The fact is, you should really go into this series with a blank slate. Because of the who-done-it narrative, it’s fun to discover the absurdity of the mystery along with the characters. This is truly a unique production, one that you should absolutely add to your queue. BBC Worldwide released Nightmare Man on Region 2 DVD format; the series can also be found on YouTube as of press time.
Though many of the horror television series broadcast in the 1980s have been discussed in this article, there is more from that decade to discover or rediscover for viewers who wish to do so. The decade also offered other anthologies with occasional horror or supernatural tales such as NBC’s Amazing Stories and ITV’s Armchair Thriller, as well as science fiction with monsters and aliens in shows like NBC’s V and Something Is Out There, the syndicated War of the Worlds, and the BBC’s The Tripods. HBO’s Tales from the Crypt, arguably the most popular horror series of the 1990s, even got its start in June 1989 — but that’s something that warrants focus in a future article! The bounty of eighties genre television series offers something for just about everyone searching for fear fare from the past, and certainly warrants — and rewards — some deep diving.