One of the key things to a good film fest is not simply the films, but panels — and one of my favorites from the Chattanooga Film Fest this year was the masterclass in made for TV genre titled: The Nights That Panicked America: A Brief History of the Golden Age of the Made for TV Genre Movie. Hosted by Amanda Reyes who also literally wrote the book on it – Are You In The House Alone?: A TV Movie Compendium, it was a an informative deep dive into the world of genre cinema that premiered on the small screen in the 70s and gave context to the following secret screening, the excellent made for TV film from 1971, Five Desperate Women.
The film itself follows five friends who are meeting up five years after graduating from college to go to a retreat on a remote island resort. The only other people on the island are two men, and one of them is a killer who recently escaped from a mental institution. As the proto-slasher speeds through its runtime, you’re treated to some camp as expected and some genuinely engaging performances. The film manages to do this all while treading some rather progressive territory for the time, one example being one of the graduates being a black woman. While we do discover that she has fallen on hard times since college and has resorted to being an escort, the film doesn’t use her sex work to turn her into a stereotype or sexualize her character unnecessarily.
Running a scant 70 some odd minutes, the film doesn’t waste any time and the script knows exactly what it needs to accomplish here, while even throwing in a few twists for good measure. The film was written by Marc Norman, who wrote not only Oscar winner Shakespeare in Love, but Cutthroat Island as well, so there’s definitely a deft hand at work. It’s the script paired with the ensemble made up of Anjanette Comer, Joan Hackett, Denise Nicholas, Stefanie Powers, and Julie Sommars that helped make this one of the most popular made for TV features in its time and it still works great today. Not only was it surprisingly dark for a made for TV film, but thanks to the aforementioned panel we had the tools to view this film properly and truly appreciate it for its choices. While I was a child in the 80s at the tail end of the glory days of the “Made for TV” feature, this double bill had me not only picking up Reyes’ book as soon as it concluded, but now digging into those forgotten small screen treasures as well.