10 Best Made-for-TV Movies of the 70s and 80s

People often associate made-for-TV movies with lower quality, poor acting, and cheap pricing. Unfortunately, most of the time, this perception turns out to be justified. However, that’s what makes discovering an example of the form that breaks that mold such a rewarding experience.

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In the 1970s and 80s, there were a lot of these gratifying made-for-TV movies. Directors like John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg branched out into the form during these years, and television special dramas saw increased exposure due to increased commercial competition on the networks. It paid off for well-executed creativity.

10/10 Someone’s watching me was the prototype of Halloween

John Carpenter made two films for television in the late 1970s, the first of which has been considered something of a precursor to his all-time classic. Halloween. However Someone is watching me! made his television debut a few weeks after HalloweenCarpenter had been hired for the film, about a woman stalked by a social outcast, by NBC in 1976.

Lauren Hutton is solid in the film as harassed TV director Leigh Michaels, and the rest of the cast is fair enough for this kind of film. However, the film’s strength lies in Carpenter’s ability to make the most of a limited budget, which is also found throughout his early directorial run.

9/10 Elvis saw Kurt Russell channel an iconKurt Russell as Elvis Presley in Elvis

Kurt Russell felt an attachment to Elvis Presley due to his time with the rock & roll legend on It happened at the World’s Fair as a pre-teen. The opportunity to play the role of Presley in John Carpenter’s Elvis was a huge career move for him, and he did it justice.

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The film makes excellent use of cinematography and set design, and its outlandish costumes come out with all the brilliance of the great Presley. At 168 minutes, this ABC production might feel a bit too long, and Carpenter himself wasn’t happy with the lack of editing ability he was given, but it’s still worth watching.

8/10 Roe Vs. Wade captured a moment of political progressHolly Hunter and Amy Madigan in a promotional photo for Roe vs Wade

In these times of backsliding on women’s rights, Roe vs. Wade is a more timely watch than it has been since its television debut on NBC in 1989. For director Gregory Hoblit, the film meant another Primetime Emmy Award, having won others, including for the police procedure Hill Street Blues.

What makes the film work so well is that it captures the old romantic American ideal: that one person can change the course of history. Holly Hunter steals the show as the pregnant Ellen Russell, who portrays the oppression of women at the hands of the pro-life movement – which sadly regained power in 2022.

7/10 Small sacrifices captured the real crime on the small screenRyan O'Neal and Farrah Fawcett in Small Sacrifices

Ann Rule’s true story of Diane Downs’ murder conviction aired on television in 1989. Farrah Fawcett plays Downs, a performance for which she was nominated for an Emmy Award. The 159-minute ABC special was originally split into two parts.

Director David Greene does a good job of maintaining tension and intrigue throughout the film as the actors play each role seamlessly. The best element of the film is its ability to play with the gray areas surrounding memory and recollection, digging deep into Downs’ mind.

6/10 The Facts of Life Down Under is an Underrated Change of PaceCloris Leachman as Beverly Ann Stickle in The Facts of Life Down Under

The facts of life showed an incredible ability to maintain his strengths deep in his race, and the 1987 TV movie The realities of life down under perfectly shows how he did this. NBC used the film to counter ABC’s success America miniseries. Director Stuart Margolin was a TV movie veteran, having previously directed Suddenly loveand The glittering dome.

The exploits of Jo Polniaczek and Blair Warner carry this film, unsurprisingly, since that is what has generally carried the show for so long. The lack of a laugh track, the confusion around the identities of Jo and Blair’s love interests, and the gorgeous Australian settings make it an interesting sidekick to the big series.

5/10 Salem’s Lot is one of Stephen King’s best adaptationsReggie Nalder as Kurt Barlow in Salem's Lot

Stephen King adaptations have been all over pop culture for decades, but few are as good as Tobe Hooper’s made-for-TV version. Salem Bundle from 1979. Hooper, whose Chainsaw Massacre came five years prior, was in retrospect the perfect director to helm this 183-minute offering that debuted on CBS.

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The evocative atmosphere of this film is absolutely spellbinding, and the decision to make vampire Kurt Barlow non-vocal makes the character much more effective within the context of the film. The ambiance, the performances, those of James Mason in particular, and the story of lost innocence and corrupting influence make for a packed three hour experience.

4/10 The Executioner’s Song does justice to Norman Mailer’s crime novelGary Gilmore (Tommy Lee Jones) and his lawyer in The Executioner's Song

Norman Mailer won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Executioner’s Song, and he provided the screenplay for this 1982 television adaptation directed by Lawrence Schiller and distributed by NBC. This story of the life of Gary Gilmore, which prompted his own execution, laid the foundation for Tommy Lee Jones to win an Emmy Award for his performance.

It’s a film that deals with a subject that is not easy to swallow, but which is also captivating. Jones is Amazing as Gilmore and Rosanna Arquette as Nicole Baker, who form an unstable bond as two lost souls trying to find something solid for themselves, while Gilmore tries to move beyond his misfortunes.

3/10 Dark Night Of The Scarecrow Is A Great Piece Of Moody HorrorPhoto of Scarecrow from Dark Night of the Scarecrow

Many bad made-for-TV horror movies have been made over the past few decades. In contrast, CBS Scarecrow’s Dark Night from 1981 is one of the absolute best. Frank De Felitta’s film deals with the murder of a mentally handicapped man at the hands of a mob of townspeople.

Few horror movies from this era handle creating mood and atmosphere as well as this one. He also manages his expectations exceptionally well. You never know if a supernatural force takes revenge or if the characters’ guilt and shame get them killed. Audiences are constantly left adrift, trying to discover answers to this dark and unsettling enigma.

2/10 This certain summer was a huge step forward for TV moviesHal Holbrook, Scott Jacoby and Martin Sheen in This Certain Summer

Lamont Johnson Emmy Nominated That certain summer from 1972 is remembered as one of the first sympathetic portrayals of gay characters on television. The film, which debuted on ABC, sports great performances from Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen and an excellent script.

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The 73-minute film moves at a remarkable pace while trying to get Doug Salter’s (Hal Holbrook) son to understand his love situation. It’s ultimately a heartwarming experience because of the film’s promise of gay acceptance in society.

1/10 Duel is one of Steven Spielberg’s best films.Duel Peterbilt 281 Tank Truck

Arguably, no director is more synonymous with 1970s American cinema than Steven Spielberg, and his 1971 effort Duel, which originally aired on ABC, is one of his absolute best films. Although nowhere near as well-known as most of the other films he has directed, the film maintains a strong cult following among fans of shocking, low-budget movies.

The mystery surrounding the film’s antagonist leads to its effectiveness. The identity of this truck driver is never introduced to the audience, and the suspense the deranged driver carries in his mad pursuit of David Mann (Dennis Weaver) makes this movie worth watching. One of Spielberg’s greatest pacing managements.

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