By Frank Pittarese
In the ‘70s and ‘80s, cults became a go-to source for villainy in episodic TV. Inspired by real-life events like the Manson Family attacks and the mass suicide at Jonestown, series ranging from Starsky & Hutch to The A-Team turned to the bizarre sects as story fodder, often with effective results. But shows with a more supernatural bent could — and did — go a step further, cranking up the otherworldly elements in an attempt to keep us awake at night. Here are a few memorable instances of those paranormal TV cults…
KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER was a short-lived series based on — at the time — one of the highest-rated made-for-TV movies ever broadcast. In its single season, bungling reporter Carl Kolchak (played to perfection by Darrin McGavin) stumbled into deadly encounters with a vampire, a werewolf, Jack the Ripper, a Hindu demon, and even aliens and robots. But in an episode called “Legacy of Terror,” Kolchak faced his first and only supernatural cult.
A series of gruesome murders are happening in Chicago, and in each case, the victim’s heart has been removed from their body. Kolchak quickly discovers that these ritualistic murders occur every 52 years. A fanatical Aztec cult is on a kill-spree with the intention of resurrecting their mummified god, Nanautzin, and once the first four deaths are complete, the mummy himself will rise to claim the fifth and final soul, completing the gruesome cycle before going dormant again.
This low-energy episode comes late in the series run, and unfortunately isn’t one of the standouts. The cult attacks are quick and hectic, and with no central figure to creep out viewers, they just amount to a bunch of silent randos in robes and feathers. Worse, the appearance of Nanautzin is just minutes in length, in a rushed finale that takes place in a brightly lit sports arena. McGavin’s larger-than-life personality carries the episode, as always, but despite the series being an inspiration for The X-Files, this particular monster-of-the-week entry is a dud. Grade: C
HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR was a one-season anthology that aired in the UK in 1980. A show from the studio that gave us the Christopher Lee Dracula films comes with an expectation of heavy Gothic atmosphere — plus a bit of camp — but overall, the episodes are quite sedate and straightforward, whether dealing with witchcraft, haunted houses, or the Devil himself.
In “Guardian of the Abyss,” an antiques dealer comes into possession of a supernatural mirror — a mirror desperately wanted by a sinister cult. Their plan is simple: using the mirror, plus a human sacrifice, they’re going to free the demon Choronzon from the netherworld. But when the antique dealer encounters a beautiful runaway cultist, he’s drawn into a dangerous series of events. Can she be trusted? Will he relinquish the mirror…or will he become a willing sacrifice?
This episode is loaded with twists and turns, which makes it pretty engaging, although things do get confusing at times — particularly regarding the mirror. The cultists want it…but thanks to two unintentionally similar props, they also seem to have an identical mirror already in their possession. The script, however, is solid. You never know who to trust, and the ending is wonderfully bleak. The demon is only seen briefly, but it’s an effective bit of makeup. The series is currently streaming on Peacock, Tubi, and more, and worth checking out. Grade: B
When it premiered, FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE SERIES was a slight disappointment. Without a single reference to Crystal Lake, and with nary a Voorhees in sight, what was the point? But the show very quickly grew into its own, and the freaky, often outrageous situations it put forth turned it into a three-season delight. The premise was this: Cousins Micki Foster (Louise Robey) and Ryan Dallion (John D. LeMay, Jason Goes to Hell) inherited an antique store from their late uncle. But Uncle Louis had made a pact with the Devil to sell cursed antiques which, for the run of the show, spread evil into the world. Micki and Ryan, along with their mentor of sorts, Jack Marshak (the late Chris Wiggins), make it their mission to recover these haunted objects. And the body count is massive.
“Tails I Live, Heads You Die,” is one of the highlights of the series. A Satanic cult has come into possession of a cursed coin which can bring the dead back to life — after it kills a living person. Using the coin, the cult’s leader has been murdering random citizens, then resurrecting long-dead sorcerers and witches, with the ultimate intent of summoning Satan himself.
The tense atmosphere of this episode is underscored by its unpredictability, especially when, at the episode’s halfway point, one of the show’s main characters is killed off! When it first aired, this was a jaw-dropping moment for me, and (although there’s a twist), it still holds up. The chemistry of the three leads always makes for an engaging watch, and the special effects, while certainly low-budget, are sufficiently creepy. It’s a dark episode, for sure, and worth watching if you can find it. Grade: B+
DARK SHADOWS was, in its heyday, a television sensation. A daytime soap opera with a 175-year-old vampire as its heroic lead, the show delved into its own versions of Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and The Turn of the Screw, transporting addicted viewers through time — and even into parallel universes. But from late 1969 through early 1970, the writers made perhaps their most ambitious choice when they presented their take on H.P. Lovecraft, via the cult of the Leviathans…
Barnabas Collins, while attempting to return to the present after a months-long adventure in the year 1897, suddenly finds himself intercepted and placed upon an altar for a bizarre ceremony. At the mercy of two mysterious cultists, Barnabas is quickly transformed, becoming not just a cultist himself, but their central figure. Given a “Leviathan box,” which houses the essence of the Chosen One, Barnabas expands the cult’s membership, all with the singular goal of bringing the Chosen One to life…a being who will someday rule the Earth.
Coming off one of their most popular storylines, this was a rocky time for the show. The Leviathan arc runs a brief four months, but it’s not especially fast-moving, and the opening weeks are fraught with uncertainty as the writers try to find their footing. Still, they aimed high. In an “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” move, several good/heroic characters become wicked cult members. An infant is born, grows to manhood, and courts the show’s young ingenue. And an actual Lovecraftian monster (who also happens to be the dude that’s courting said young ingenue) occasionally runs amok. Unfortunately, due to the very limited budget, that monster is always off-camera, but the writers and cast are always so committed to the campy madness that it’s a joy to watch. At 20-minutes an episode, it all goes down like candy. Currently streaming on Prime (and beginning with episode 886). Grade: B