This 1995 made-for-HBO film told the true story of the notorious McMartin preschool trial, where a family-run facility was accused of sexual abuse and Satanic rituals. It is horrifying, repugnant, difficult material, made into a riveting story by director Mick Jackson and writers Abby and Myra Mann — with considerable help from James Woods at his slick, fast-talking best in the role of McMartin defense attorney Danny Davis. Supporting performers are terrific as well: Mercedes Ruehl and Lolita Davidovich for the prosecution, Shirley Knight, Alison Elliott, and (in the very definition of playing against type) E.T.’s Henry Thomas as the McMartins.
You Don’t Know Jack
Barry Levinson went on a hot streak in the late ’80s, directing Tin Man, Good Morning Vietnam, Rain Man , and others, before veering off into a series of less-than-inspired efforts. Al Pacino’s recent cinematic output has been more profitable but hardly more reputable. This 2010 HBO biopic of Dr. Jack Kevorkian is the best thing either of them has made in years. Though unabashedly sympathetic to its subject and agreeably opinionated on his central cause, You Don’t Know Jack is not a simple film — that wouldn’t do justice to Kevorkian or what he stood for. But it’s not some kind of issue-driven, mouth-piecing, “liberal Hollywood” dirge either. It is a prickly, messy, fast-paced, brutally smart, emotionally exhausting piece of work. No wonder they had to go to HBO to make it.
If These Walls Could Talk
Nancy Savoca, the astonishingly underrated director of Dogfight and the Sundance winner True Love, co-wrote all three segments of this omnibus HBO film about abortion in America, and directed two of them (the third was directed by Cher, who co-starred). With sections set in 1952, 1974, and 1996, this powerful and heartbreaking drama is thoughtful and angry, firm but fair, and boasts tremendous performances from producer Demi Moore, Sissy Spacek, Cher, CCH Pounder, Jada Pinket Smith, and Anne Heche — who became one of the driving forces behind its equally memorable 2000 sequel (which applied the three-part, time-spanning structure to stories about lesbianism).
Angelina Jolie officially went from “progeny to keep your eye on” to “holy shit, full-on movie star” with this 1998 biopic for HBO (last one, promise) from director Michael Cristofer. As Gia Marie Carangi, a bisexual model and drug addict who died of AIDS at 26, Jolie found the perfect role for her tortured bad-girl sexiness; she’s fierce and unforgettable in the role, which nabbed her a Golden Globe and SAG award. And the copious nudity of not only Jolie but Lost’s Elizabeth Mitchell has given the picture a considerable afterlife on DVD, if you’re one who is interested in such things. (Also, side trivia note: young Gia is portrayed by Mila Kunis. Of course.)
Italian neorealist Roberto Rossellini had directed countless masterpieces — including Paisa, Europa ’51, Journey to Italy, and Rome, Open City — when he held a news conference late in his career to announce “Cinema is dead.” With that, he turned his attention to a series of television films focusing on historical figures, which he attempted to present in a “present tense,” focusing on the minutiae of day-to-day living in historical eras. The best of these was his 1972 film Blaise Pascal, which looked at the life of the philosopher and mathematician who struggled to unify God and science amid widespread religious persecution.
Trilogy of Terror
ABC aired this horror film in March of 1975, in which three scary stories by Richard Matheson were brought to life with Karen Black in four different roles. Director Dan Curtis made the film as the pilot episode for a Twilight Zone-style anthology series, and though it wasn’t picked up, Trilogy of Terror became a popular cult item in the years that followed — primarily due to its third segment, “Amelia,” a one-character tour de force in which Black is terrorized by a Zuni fetish doll. It’s a little campy, sure, but it’s also scary as hell, which isn’t a label commonly applied to made-for-TV efforts.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
You can slap it on one other mid-70s movie of the week, though: John Newland’s surprisingly effective haunted mansion effort Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which aired on ABC in October 1973 as their “Wednesday Movie of the Week.” While many made-for-TV movies (then and now) lost control of their ambitions and ended up letting their rough edges show, Newland wisely made his film about atmosphere and tension, minimizing our views of the rather goofy goblin creatures in the fireplace. Young viewers the world over were mesmerized by this creepy little item — among them Guillermo del Toro, who would later produce and co-write a big-screen remake of the picture.
Steven Spielberg had not yet directed a feature film — just some episodic TV work and a segment of the inaugural episode of Night Gallery — when he was handed the job of helming this crackerjack suspense picture, another telefilm adaptation of a Richard Matheson story. Dennis Weaver was cast as David Mann, a motorist on a business trip whose tense encounters with a Peterbilt tanker truck result in a classic battle of man (or Mann) against machine on a California highway. The film so impressed Universal brass that not only was it expanded and distributed to European theaters, but it got Spielberg his next job, directing another road movie: the Goldie Hawn vehicle The Sugarland Express. What’s more, its experiments with unseen horror (the truck’s driver remains a mystery) proved fine practice for Jaws four years later.
Those are just a few of our favorite made-for-TV flicks — what are yours?