Made-for-TV Monster Movies

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, 1973

by Frank Pittarese

The ‘70s were the golden age of made-for-TV horror. It was a decade that gave us The Night Stalker, Trilogy of Terror, and Steven Spielberg’s adrenaline-filled Duel. It was also prime-time for monsters, as seen in these three creature features…

GARGOYLES is one of the most memorable monsterfests of the era. When Dr. Mercer Boley (Cornel Wilde) and his daughter Diana (Jennifer Salt) visit the deserts of New Mexico to research his book on demonology, the two inadvertently come into possession of a bizarre animal skull. From that moment on they’re hunted and attacked, as hordes of reptilian gargoyles relentlessly try to reclaim the skull. When one of the gargoyles is killed, the creatures abducts Diana and the monsters’ master plan of global domination is revealed.

Originally airing in November of 1972, this short-length TV classic features unforgettable make-up work by Stan Winston (for which he and his partners won an Emmy). Their designs for the gargoyles are beautifully crafted — especially the creatures’ leader, played to demonic perfection by the late Bernie Casey. These “gar-things,” as biker James Reeger (Scott Glenn) calls them are truly eerie as they creep around in slow motion, stalking their victims (in one shocking moment that haunted my childhood, a gargoyle appears at the foot of Dr. Boley’s bed).

The cast is great. Wilde takes the material very seriously, giving the whole affair some gravitas. Salt — best known for her appearance in Brian De Palma’s Sisters and as Eunice Tate on the sitcom Soap — is full of personality. As the (possibly lustful) focus of the gargoyle leader, she carries the weight of the movie with energy and charm. Grayson Hall, most famous for her run on the original Dark Shadows, gives a brief but delightfully hammy performance as an alcoholic motel manager. But the make-up is the real star here. The gargoyles are entirely believable and nightmarish, even 50 years later. Seek out and enjoy this unique little gem. Often airing on Svengoolie, Gargoyles can also be found streaming on Tubi and IMDB-TV.

For cheesy, Bigfoot-runs-amok thrills, look no further than 1977’s SNOWBEAST. Olympic champion Gar Seberg (Bo Svenson) and his wife, Ellen (Yvette Mimieux), visit a ski resort in the Colorado Rockies just as the annual Snow Carnival is getting underway. But wouldn’t you know it? There’s a killer Bigfoot on the loose (which, not to split hairs, looks more like a Yeti), tearing people to shreds on the slopes. Despite the attacks, resort owner Carrie (Sylvia Sidney) is determined to keep Amity Beach open for the Fourth of July — whoops — I mean keep the resort open for the carnival. That is until the Snowbeast attacks the festival, creating a mob riot and slaughtering some poor woman in her car. The only solution is kill the furball, so Gar, Ellen, Carrie’s grandson Tony (Robert Logan) and the Sheriff head into the woods to bring it down.

This Jaws-by-way-of-Grizzly ripoff isn’t as tense or thrilling as it could have been. The script by Joseph Stefano (Psycho) is serviceable — and there are some tense moments, particular the carnival attack — but the pace is slowed down by long stretches where people…just…ski. They ski for fun, they ski because they’re searching, they ski because Snowbeast is coming. A mild love triangle between the three young leads provides enough characterization to hang your hat on, and Sidney is perky as the tough-as-nails grandma. The monster itself is kept off-camera for the bulk of the film, with the kills and chases shot POV-style. We do see his face a few times, and he sometimes sticks an arm through a window, but the “less is more” execution (probably dictated by the low budget and/or a cheap suit) sort of works here. It’s not the best killer Bigfoot movie out there, but it’s enjoyable. Notorious for appearing in every public domain horror boxed set known to mankind, Snowbeast can be found on Tubi, Amazon Prime, and IMDB-TV. (Not to be confused with 2011’s similar Snow Beast.)

DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK was a made-for-TV highlight of 1973. A young couple, Sally (Kim Darby) and Alex (Jim Hutton), move into a large house that Sally inherited from her late grandmother. But when persistently curious Sally unseals a bricked-up fireplace in a locked room, she accidentally frees a host of whispering, gremlin-like creatures. They only come out in the dark…and they want Sally’s soul.

Creepy and memorable — so memorable that Guillermo del Toro produced a big-screen remake in 2010 — this slow-burn really gets under your skin. We know something is up, but everyone, even Sally herself, begins to question her sanity as the raisin-headed little freaks stalk her unrelentingly. Handyman Harris (played by wonderful character actor William Demarest) seems to know the truth behind the house’s dark secrets, but the doubtful Alex won’t hear any crazy talk. The final act, in which Sally desperately tries to save herself from the creatures, are truly tense, and it all leads to a haunting ending. Smartly directed by John Newland (best known for the paranormal anthology series One Step Beyond), Don’t Be Afraid features fantastic creature make-up and vivid mood lighting whenever the little beasts appear. It’s not streaming at the moment, but it’s available on Blu-ray. Watch this version before viewing the less-effective remake.

Gargoyles: A
Snowbeast: B
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark: B+

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *