It was dark and cold in Los Angeles when I walked up to the Philosophical Research Institute for Miskatonic’s class Big Scares on the Small Screen: A Brief History of the Made-For-TV Movie lectured by Amanda Reyes. I’d heard of Miskatonic, the international educational community of horror writers, directors, scholars and curators providing classes and special events worldwide but this was to be my first experience.
I took in the venue, an auditorium reminiscent of my college theater days, with low lighting and burnt yellow cement walls. I was there for a retrospective on the history of the made for television horror movie and already I was riding waves of nostalgia. The event opened with a lovely intro from Kier-La Janisse, founder of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies and author of the book “House of Psychotic Women”, extolling the expertise of Amanda Reyes in the world of the TV movie. I grew up in the late ‘90s with two turn-dial televisions in my home until the mid-2000s. While I caught the odd TV movie here and there (I vaguely remember the Melissa Joan Hart lost-at-sea TV movie that came out during her tenure as Sabrina the Teenage Witch) TV movies were not a large part of my viewership development. But Amanda Reyes, in her passion of the subject, has produced a podcast (Made for TV Mayhem Show), a blog (Made for TV Mayhem) and edited one of Barnes and Noble’s listed “Best Horror Books of 2017” Are You in the House Alone? A TV Movie Compendium: 1964-1999.
I had no idea what to expect. I’d researched Amanda Reyes ahead of time but there’s only so much information on a person you can mine from tweets and the odd photo. When she took the stage behind a podium, I was struck by how much her physical presence reminded me of my best friend in college, a film and philosophy student who first introduced me to films from the unknown. And then, she began to speak. And didn’t pause, save to show a few TV movie clips to illustrate her points, for over two hours. Like Henry Rollins at the mic, Amanda Reyes dove into her subject matter and enraptured an entire auditorium.
How could she not? I could have never imagined the history of the made-for-TV-movie could be so in-depth and fascinating. Of course, the TV movie can be corny or silly. But there were so many chances being taken in that format from experimenting in horror form (many current franchises have TV movies to thank) to creating the forum for difficult conversations such as feminism, violence in media and sexual assault. Furiously I was writing notes, trying to keep up as Amanda rattled off incredible information on rankings, titles I’d never heard of but desperately now want to see and the intricacies of the subject matter presented in these works.
As a final compilation clip of Amanda’s favorite TV movie monsters played, I took a breath and glanced around the room. There were pink hair and punkesque outfits, hoodies and glasses, button-ups and khakis. We were a diverse group all engrossed in one topic. Because, as expressed in the lecture, the TV movie was more than content and facts. It was a conversation, multi-generational, and engaging. This was sitting with your family in the den watching Cry in the Wilderness. This was hanging with your friends in the basement watching Death of a Cheerleader. This was sharing a copy of Spring Break Shark Attack with your roommates in college.
This was cultural history, less about facts, and more about feelings. Conversations and connection through some really weird but really engaging stories.
I don’t want to give away too much of a lecture that should really be seen. My interview with Amanda Reyes gives a bit more insight into her passion for the Made-For-TV-Movie.
The question I’m sure you get all the time, where did your interest in TV movies begin?
Amanda Reyes: When I was a kid, I lived here in California and our local channel, I don’t know what that was, they used to show a lot of really great monster movies, some were made for television. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and Gargoyles were the first two tv movies I saw and Gargoyles I loved instantly. I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever seen. It’s beautiful, the monsters are fantastic, but Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark terrified me and I could only watch it in pieces. So I would watch the beginning and the end and then pieces in the middle and I actually didn’t see the whole film until I was an adult because it scared me so bad. But then we moved to Vegas, I grew up in Vegas, and a local channel showed all kinds of TV movies like Trilogy of Terror, Horror At 30,000 Feet so it’s been something that’s been in my life, my entire life, so I just kind of loved them and when I got older I started to get nostalgic for them. I was writing for this fanzine and they asked me to do an article on anything I wanted and I thought “you know, I’m going to write about TV movies” because I’ve been thinking about them. And from there I started researching and looking for more movies and rediscovering them and that’s kind of where it got started.
You spoke quite a bit on the role of feminism and women in tv movies but I don’t recall you mentioning many women director and writers. Were there notable female writers and directors in the TV movie world?
AR: There was, the one that comes to mind right now is Rita Lakin. She actually wrote a book called The Only Woman in the Room and it’s about her life writing for television and she did a movie called Women in Chains which is a “woman in prison” movie I think from 1972 which was, at the time, one of the highest rated tv movies ever to air. Like even into the 80’s, it was ridiculously highly rated. They did the top twenty TV movies ever made and it was in the top twenty somewhere. And she did an adaptation of Death Takes a Holiday which is amazing, it’s really beautiful and it’s nuanced and it has Myrna Loy in it and these really fabulous actresses in it. But it wasn’t very common, I can’t think of female director aside from the one I mentioned. I’m sure there was one or two… oh, maybe Gloria Monty, who was a producer on General Hospital she did some The Wide World of Mystery’s, Sorority Kill and I can’t remember the name of the second one (author note: Monty’s second TV movie is the Screaming Skull) but there are two of them that I know she did. But it was very rare to see that.
No that makes sense considering the time period. You mentioned a few times how much you love TV ratings. What kind of interesting patterns in the ratings data have you come across?
AR: I look at so many different ratings, I’ve got all these different numbers in my head now it’s kind of fascinating to see what hits and what doesn’t. Sometimes I look at the top five and the bottom five but I haven’t done much with that yet. I do think that TV viewers were interested in topical viewing. Especially in the early 70s when it was really new, the tv movie, and it was being used as a platform for all different kinds of things. Like in 1973, two of the top ten films were about sexual assault and it was A Case of Rape with Elizabeth Montgomery and She Cried Rape (author note: listed on IMDb as Cry Rape) with Andrea Marcovicci. They’re both really interesting films because A Case of Rape came out after She Cried Rape and it’s the more important of the two. But She Cried Rape is a really… well, first of all, it’s called She Cried Rape. It’s like She Cried Wolf and it’s about a victim misidentifying the rapist. It’s really the issue of the negative discussion or conversation about… it puts a lot of onus on the victim and “oh she must be mistaken”. It’s kind of a stereotype of how we want to blame the victim, she didn’t get it right, she must be wrong about this and that and it’s an interesting film but the guy who made it, Leonard Freeman, he did an interview and he was talking about how he wanted to open the dialogue up and somebody asked him if he knew they were making another movie about this with Melissa Montgomery and he was really excited by the fact that these two movies were coming out at the same time because he really wanted it to open up the discussion about sexual assault. Which it did. But even though I think his film is doing something that’s maybe an issue, it still opened the doors for us to actually start confronting the idea of rape.
So there’s a lot of topical things that happened, it was really interesting. It’s really not recognized for the things that it did in terms of trying to create conversations with people.
That’s incredible, I can’t imagine a film with that kind of content coming out now.
AR: And millions and millions, tens of millions of people were watching this stuff. Like ten million people watch The Walking Dead and people are like “that’s huge!”, but that would be like a bomb in 1975.
What I took away from your lecture pretty predominantly was how much of the history of TV movies is less about the facts and more about the feelings. Do you have any thoughts as to whether we’re losing that experience with streaming or it’s just another evolution of viewing?
AR: I do think it’s an evolution. Something not really TV movie related, there’s more story arcs in TV which comes from the soap opera, which is my other passion. So the feeling is there but I do think there are a lot of shows, I haven’t seen them, but a good example would be Luke Cage. And just based off what I’ve heard about the show, it’s a lot of the public versus the private. If you look at, and I know it’s Netflix not TV proper, but if you look at the superhero movies it’s about how we’re saving the world but Luke Cage is all about how he saves his neighborhood. So we’re actually still doing the same things on TV in the public vs the private but in different ways. And I think the story arcs allow the viewers and the showrunners to tell bigger stories in smaller spaces that I think also generate conversations in their way. I think TV is more nuanced now but people are savvier and understand when the message is there. I think in the 70’s a lot of times we just sort of watched TV because we were coming off a lot of TV that was just made to be watched like My Three Sons and stuff like that. Like really fun stuff. And so, even if the messages were there, I feel like they were… maybe not more embedded but maybe we were less likely to look at it as we would be now. But I do think there’s a great evolution from what I hear about TV, people are really excited about it and I love that. So even though I don’t watch a lot of new TV, I love to hear people talk about it, go on Twitter and love these new shows like American Horror Story or to download all the new Stranger Things. It’s really great to see that people are still looking at these smaller venues for really great entertainment.
It’s true, there’s a lot of strong emotional reactions to the new content that’s out there. Especially in horror which is just fantastic.
AR: I agree.
What has your experience been like giving these public lectures? My understanding is initially you had to be kind of talked into it but my experience of you was like a punk lead singer commanding the stage.
AR: (laughs) Thanks. Yeah, I’m really introverted actually and Kier-La, who does Miskatonic, really has nurtured me in so many amazing ways. But she used to be the, I think, director of Monster Festival in Melbourne and she wanted to do something with my book (Are You In The House Alone?). It hadn’t come yet but she wanted to do an early launch and she invited me to come do a panel with her and couple of the other writers who are located in Melbourne, Lee Gambin, John Harrison and his wife Marneen Lynne who’s a stunt woman who did stunts in the 70s. And so that was really terrifying but it was good because I had a group of people and they really prepared me. Lee moderated it, he was really good about like “this is generally what I’m going to ask, so just think about things and it’ll be really casual”. It felt really good and people were really receptive to it. Then she was doing Miskatonic in London and she and I were talking about doing something with the book there. I was terrified of doing a whole presentation by myself so she and Jennifer Wallis, who’s another author located near London, offered to help so I only had to take a smaller chunk of it. Since then, I’ve been doing different versions of this lecture, mostly with Kier-La, but with her, it really helps.
So it’s terrifying, it still scares me. This last one really terrified me because it’s in a town that I lived in for so long and I have friends there and I really didn’t want to mess up. You know what I mean?
Oh I know.
AR: My friends are like “That was so great, Amanda! No really!” you know? So I worked really hard on this last version, I’m really glad you enjoyed it and got something out of it. It means a lot to me.
I got so much from Amanda Reyes lecture and you can too by following Miskatonic for future events, picking up a copy of Are You in the House Alone? A TV Movie Compendium: 1964-1999 and checking out the podcast Made for TV Mayhem Show.