This summer NBC is bringing anthology horror back to network television with the new series, "Fear Itself". The horror genre and television have been reasonably good to each other over the years. Horror films themselves were shown on local television early in televisions "golden age", the 1950’s, and by the end of that decade anthology series like "Twilight Zone" and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" were in their prime. The decades since have brought "Dark Shadows", "Thriller", "Monsters", "Freddy’s Nightmares", "Tales from the Darkside", and many more. TV’s even produced some feature length thrills, such as "Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark", or "Dark Night of the Scarecrow" have become horror classics. To celebrate the return of anthology horror to network television Icons of Fright presents our “Top 10 Scariest TV Episodes”
1) Amazing Stories, Season 1: "Mirror, Mirror"
Aired March 9, 1986
Sam Waterston ("Law & Order") plays best-selling horror author Jordan Manmouth, who unwisely dismisses the supernatural world while making a television appearance. Soon after, Jordon begins to see something sneaking up behind every time he looks into a mirror. A figure dressed in a long black coat and hat that keeps getting closer and closer to him each time he catches a glimpse of a reflective surface.
"Mirror, Mirror" was possibly, and as a lifelong horror fan I don’t say this lightly, the most terrifyingly traumatic 30 minutes of my entire childhood. The figure that is gradually working it’s way toward Jordon was a perfect combination of the kind of 80’s horror villains I spent many nights hiding under the sheets hoping to avoid (and he’s played by Tim Robbins, in a very early role). The now cliched gimmick of seeing the horrible bad guy in the mirror behind you had never been done so well before, or as well since.
The way this episode played with the viewer and cranked up such an intense amount of unbearable suspense and fear was unprecedented. It’s often hard for television, with it’s frequent commercial interruptions and short running time to truly sustain the kind of tension generated in this episode. Yet each scene of this little shocker is incredibly well timed, and beautifully executed it’s almost as if some kind of highly regarded master director was behind this episode. It had to take someone who really understood film to take that stupid mirror trick and make it work again and again for an entire half hour but they just found this Martin Scorsese guy to direct it. He should get more work.
2) "Ghost Contact" – Sightings- Special report-
Aired Feb.28, 1992
This particular episode of Sightings terrifies you because as an eight year old you’re watching a show that’s saying "Here it is! Hard evidence that ghosts are real, and they can hurt you!" Shows such as Unsolved Mysteries, Sightings, and A Haunting, with their re-enactments and convincing evidence can frighten a person just as much as a high budget horror flick.
On Feb.28, 1992 Sightings aired a special report on the experiences of a woman named "Carla Moran". During the mid 1970’s, the woman claimed she was being repeatedly attacked by an entity in her home. Over thirty paranormal investigators witnessed the anomalies while conducting the investigation. One of the photographs taken at the home was even published in a photography book, naming it "The only genuine ghost photo ever captured." To this day, paranormal investigators everywhere puzzle over the video and photographic evidence captured at the "Moran" home. They even made a film about her story called "The Entity".
3) "Duel", Movie of the week directed by Steven Spielberg.
Aired November 13th, 1971
An excellent adaptation of his own story by Richard Matheson. Tense, powerful direction and editing by Steven Spielberg. And a performance by Dennis Weaver that pushes paranoia to the breaking point. When a big rig starts following Weaver’s protagonist on some desolate stretches of highway, he becomes prey on the road. Watching the slow burn as he falls apart makes for intense viewing. Never seeing the truck’s driver adds another level of fright to the proceedings. This is filmmaking at its best.
4) "Dark Night of the Scarecrow", Movie of the Week directed by Frank De Felitta
Aired October 24, 1981
Wow. What a messed up made for TV movie! Larry Drake (of Dr. Giggles & Darkman fame) stars as a retarded man, who is unjustly accused of killing his best friend, 12 year old little Marylee (Tonya Crowe). He hides out in the cornfields dressed as a scarecrow and is gunned down by a group of hick vigilantes. And it’s not until after they shoot him that they realize it’s all a big mistake and the little girl is fine. These hick bastards get away with the murder, but later end up being stalked one by one by a mysterious scarecrow seeking vengeance!
There are so many recognizable faces in this flick. Postal worker and head of the posse Otis is played by Charles Durning (When A Stranger Calls, Sharky’s Machine, Tootsie, TV’s Rescue Me). Lane Smith (My Cousin Vinny) is also one of the vigilante crew and I’m sure you’ll recognize a number of the cast from dozens of movies. I know a lot of people remember catching this on TV as a kid, but I have to thank Chris Garetano for introducing me to this lost & forgotten gem. It’s not “officially” on DVD yet, but you can easily find it on line or at a convention.
5) (The first 2 hours of) Stephen King’s It, ABC Miniseries directed by Tommy Lee Wallace
Aired November 18th, 1990
Dude, the picture of Pennywise the Clown on the cover of the TV Guide that week was enough get me going. The first two hours of this miniseries about some kind of unstoppable, supernatural force murdering any young kids it could get it’s slimy claws on in the unfortunate town of Derry, Maine. That’s what I knew when I started watching this, what I didn’t know was that evil force was going to manifest itself in one of the most horrifying and wickedly vicious characters in horror history (theatrical or television). Tim Curry, of all people, plays Pennywise the Clown with such a nasty, menacing manner that to this day I can’t look even look at anyone in extreme makeup and not want to run and hide. What also helps to make this one of the best 120 minutes in television horror history is that there’s also a group of kids, that nobody believes, fighting for their lives and the lives of their friends against this thing. It’s one of the rare moments in horror cinema where everything is working perfectly. "It" also proved that d
espite the violence inherent in his stories, the best format for adapting Stephen King’s work was the drawn out miniseries format, despite a much weaker second part of the show. (Although to be fair, the second part of the novel this is sourced from was just as weak).
6) "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street"– Twilight Zone, Season 1.
Aired October 2, 1959
When an unidentified flying object passes over Earth and the electricity in a quiet suburban neighborhood goes wonky, the residents on Maple Street start with suspicious glances at each other, thinking: Could my neighbor be an outsider? But this show isn’t really about alien invasions. It’s a look at the human condition, and how we can let irrational fears and prejudices turn us on our own neighbors in a heartbeat. It’s a statement on the savagery we’re all capable of within out hearts, and a powerful one at that.
7) "The Paul Lynde Halloween Special"
Aired October 29th, 1976
Oh my goodness gracious…If you’ve heard every argument why the majority of 1970’s pop-culture should be seal in a box and not revealed to any future generations and still aren’t convinced then watch this. This’ll do it for you. The irreplaceable Paul Lynde plays…well, the irreplaceable Paul Lynde in 60 minutes of freaked out, disco-inspired Halloween lovin’ comedy spectacle. Highlights include a 74 year old Magaret Hamilton reprising her role as "The Wicked Witch of the West" (not be outdone, Witchiepoo also joins in too. Really!). And what 70’s holiday variety special would be complete without musical numbers by Donnie and Marie, Flo Henderson, and, of course, KISS. Much like that wax paper wrapped expired salt-water taffy Old Lady Kinderman hands out to trick-or-treater’s this show is utterly unfit for human consumption, and in fact it only ever aired once.
8) The New Twilight Zone (1985), season 1: "Nightcralwers"
Aired October 18, 1985
’85-’86 was a great time for horror on the major networks. NBC had Spielberg on board for "Amazing Stories" and they also revived "Alfred Hitchcock Presents", Not to be outdone CBS made a valiant effort to revive "The Twilight Zone". None of these expensive to produce shows lasted more than 2 seasons, as they all, sadly, suffered from anemic ratings.
CBS’s revival, much like the original, would feature 30-60 minute episodes from stories by renowned horror and fantasy writers like Bradbury, Matheson, Clarke, but also by more current writers and directors who had been influenced by the original 50’s/60’s run such as Stephen King, and famed genre directors such as William Friedkin. Friedkin directed one of the better episodes from this revival, "Nightcrawlers".
"Nightcrawlers" concerned a diner full of people who encounter a drifter named Price who can make objects appear with only his mind. He demonstrates this to the crowd when he make a steak "magically" appear on the grill. In grand "Twilight Zone" tradition this sort of strange and unusual ability gets the ordinary folks a little bit riled up and in a panic. He begins to tell the diners a story about his tour in Vietnam where he and his unit were endowed with these strange abilities, and how he abandoned his unit. As he’s telling that the only thing he ever dreams is a recurring nightmare about his unit coming to hunt him down the sheriff knocks him out cold.
So, what happens when you’ve got a guy who can materialize anything with his mind, out cold, having a horrifying nightmare about war? That war starts to materialize. Soldiers, weapons, and all, and they’re coming to get Price and anyone in the diner that gets in their way.
9) "And All Through the House"
Tales from the Crypt- Season 1 episode 2
Aired June 10th, 1989
This episode of Tales from the Crypt wasn’t the scariest, but it sticks with you because it’s a Christmas themed horror story, that’s actually… scary; and there aren’t many of those. I’m not sure what’s more disturbing in this episode, the wife killing her husband in such a merciless manner or the thought of Santa being a murderer. Although the writing of this creepy, Christmas Eve tale is credited to Fred Dekker (writer of Monster Squad and RoboCop 3), this exact same segment was actually originally portrayed in the 1972 film Tales from the Crypt, featuring Joan Collins as the lead.
On a cold, Christmas Eve, a house wife (Mary Ellen Trainor) murdered her husband by hitting him on the head with a fire poker. But while attempting to stage his death as an accident she overhears a radio bulletin stating that a homicidal, mental patient has escaped from the local hospital. The man, dressed in a Santa suit, lurks around outside her home all evening until finally breaking in. Meanwhile; the woman’s young daughter is lying awake in her bedroom, anticipating the arrival of Santa.
10) The Real-Life Exorcism Episode of "20/20".
Aired April 5th, 1991
Before Barbara Walter’s botox the scariest thing on this long-running and reputable ABC news magazine show was a supposed real-life exorcism. I don’t remember what it was about the early 1990’s but exorcism and weird spirituality seemed to be on the conscious of Americans. Or maybe "20/20" was just trying to compete with the trashy, but popular, daytime tabloid TV shows of the day such as "Hard Copy" and "Inside Edition". It wasn’t a Halloween episode, coming early April, but I do remember this causing quite a stir. They spent the first half of the show talking about the reality of "evil" and the history of exorcism and then promised to show us the real thing.
So, what were we going to see? Would there be violence? Head-spinning acrobatics? Nope. Just a pudgy chick named Gina making screechy noises. Hey, we live on Long Island, New York. We can see pudgy chicks named Gina making screechy, whiny noises any day of the week: Just go to the mall and hang out around Zales. Still…it kinda made me wet my jammies a little bit. You know, from fear, of course.
Contributing Writers: Mike Cucinotta, Phil Fasso, Beth Puttkammer, Robert Galluzzo