Horror movies made for TV are rarely satisfying, because if the filmmakers pulled out all the stops and made the films really scary, then somehow smuggled them past network censors, parents would throw 10 fits. Over the years there have been exceptions, like the Dan Curtis-Richard Matheson "Trilogy of Terror" and Tobe Hooper's "Salem's Lot," but usually these things boil down to lots of peekaboo and little payoff.
Tonight's ABC spooker, "Don't Go to Sleep," at 9 on Channel 7, is, however, occasionally quite effective, and producer-director Richard Lang has been extremely generous with the proverbial nice touches. And tomorrow night's CBS movie, "Cry for the Strangers," at 9 on Channel 9, almost makes up in Gothic scenic atmosphere what it lacks in such little frills as coherence and credibility.
Parents of very young children may find both films objectionable for their kids, because both involve young children in peril. And "Don't Go to Sleep," a kind of "Bad Seed Meets The Exorcist," involves a little girl on a homicidal binge. She wipes out virtually the entire household before the picture ends with a screaming freeze frame.
Ned Wynn wrote the film, sort of a shrunk-down "Poltergeist" that also brings to mind the failed theatrical feature "Audrey Rose" because "Sleep" also revolves around a little girl who dies in a fiery car crash. This little girl comes back, and not just to say hello, either. She inspires her surviving little sister (Robin Ignico) to kill off first nasty old granny (Ruth Gordon, whose exits from films are seldom premature), then little brother Kevin (Oliver Robbins), then daddy (Dennis Weaver, in another thoroughly professional performance) and -- could mommy (Valerie Harper) be next?
Lang really worked wonders with the script and the limited shooting schedule TV movies have. The tone does waiver; sometimes the film seems a dark black comedy, as when the little boy falls off the roof and Lang cuts suddenly to a watermelon dropped with a splat onto the kitchen floor by mom. Or when it appears mom is to be done in with a pizza cutter. But the middle-class domestic ambiance is keenly observed and helps the film achieve a sense of menace to be reckoned with.
If Lang relies too heavily on shots of a suspicious-looking iguana, kept in a glass cage as the family pet, in "Sleep," he has nothing on Peter Medak, who directed "Cry for the Strangers" and reverts at least two dozen times to a stock shot of dark thunderclouds rolling ominously across the sky. A shot of lightning also keeps coming back for a bow. Medak does it so many times that a) it gets to be funny and then b) it becomes very, very annoying.
The film opens on a dark and stormy night in 1937, then flashes to the present, but never passes a night that isn't dark and stormy. The residents of mythical Clark's Harbor, Wash., (actually an extremely photogenic seaside town called Coopeville on Puget Sound) have to be the most storm-tossed crowd in film history. Every night a storm. When a character says, "There's a storm coming, a big one," you wonder why she bothered, since there's nothing newsworthy about that.
A young couple (Patrick Duffy and Cindy Puckett) move to Clark's Harbor for peace and quiet and find neither. The house they rented isn't ready, so they stay at an inn presided over by a desk clerk with all the charm of Igor in the Frankenstein films. Mysterious happenings begin quickly: a boat comes in with no one on it! Kids see ghostly, torch-bearing figures on the beach in darkest night! A woman hangs herself! And Jeff Corey, as a demented old geezer in a dinghy, gets to say with no fear of contradiction, "This ain't a safe harbor."
Although some of the buildup is adroitly done, viewers should be warned that J.D. Feigelson's script crumbles into a con job. The ghostly figures are never explained, the identity of the murderer is an utter letdown, and the film ends on a note of sissified equivocation. Of course, by the time the umpteenth shot of those durned clouds rolls around, it's pretty hard to give a hoot anyway.