Sunday, March 3, 2013

Death of the TV Movie

On a decidedly random topic, I'd like to talk a bit about TV movies. The other day I was flipping around on TV and stopped on the movie "The Face On The Milk Carton", starring Kellie Martin. This is a movie I remembered watching as a kid. It got me to thinking about how many made-for-TV movies I had seen growing up, and the impact they had on me.

When I was young, television didn't have ratings like they do now. For the most part, my parents allowed me to watch anything on TV, because they were under the impression that a lot of things weren't allowed on TV. Which was true, to a degree. TV movies were always a treat. Since strong language and violence weren't as common or allowed  on TV back then, I always felt the writing on TV movies and clever directing had a much deeper impact with "adult themes", and left more of an impression on me than even outright cursing or gore in an R-rated movie. There were always disturbing or even scary elements that were somehow overlooked by or completely ignored by the network censors. A perfect example? Pretty much any Stephen King TV miniseries.

Stephen King's IT was the first Stephen King movie I recall seeing (Stand By Me may have been first, but since it wasn't horror, I'll discount it for now ;)). I loved it from the opening scene, which probably sounds a bit bizarre considering I was only about seven years-old at the time. I was a big Tim Curry fan even then, and somehow the familiarity of him being the clown (Pennywise) both scared and delighted me. But for all its lack of gore (being a TV movie and all), it was frightening and disturbing. So many images from that movie haunted me, even apart from Pennywise himself--the shower room scene, the scenes in the sewers (especially with Belch getting sucked into a pipe and Henry's hair turning stark white), the fortune cookie scene, Stan getting locked in the house with "IT", and many more.

After watching IT, it became a tradition of watching Stephen King's TV movies with my family, such as Tommyknockers and The Langoliers. Every time a new Stephen King movie was coming on TV, I couldn't wait to watch it. The movies were often spread over two nights or more, and I loved that formula. The anticipation of seeing part two, having something to look forward to all day at school--I just loved it.

Apart from straight up horror TV movies though, I saw a lot of "based on true events" ones. That seemed to be really big at the time. A couple really have stuck with me. One starred Neil Patrick Harris and was called "Snowbound: The Jim and Jennifer Stolpa Story". I don't remember it terribly well, but the concept of it (getting lost and stranded in a basically barren snowy environment) really freaked me out--even moreso knowing it was based on a true story.

Another was "The Flood: Who Will Save Our Children?". When I was five years-old, we had a relatively bad flood where I lived. I remember my mom walked me and my sister home from school, and the water was up to my waist. Now this is hardly as traumatizing as what happened in the movie, but I think my personal experience is what made the movie have such a huge impact on me. I'm sad to say I haven't gotten the chance to see it again since that first airing. If I recall correctly, the plot involved a school bus full of children that gets caught in a heavy flood. I found it deeply disturbing.

It saddens me today how made-for-TV movies aren't as common as they once were, especially on network TV. Some of my fondest memories of childhood was gathering around with my family, usually a bowl of popcorn, and tuning in for a TV movie. Sure, most of them really weren't appropriate for children, but I still enjoyed them. I think in many ways they even inspired me and my writing, because they often had plots that weren't common in theatrical movies, and there was a lot of creativity involved in making them effective without crossing censorship lines.

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