I was lucky enough to grow up in a veritable golden age of made-for-TV movies. Between Lifetime, Hallmark, and ABC After School Specials, the ’80s and ’90s were positively overflowing with melodramatic tales theoretically designed to be watched and discussed as a family but more usually devoured and mocked at slumber parties. Much of the time, these flicks starred popular teen actors in an effort to draw more viewers, but even with unknowns, the stories were as gruesome and depraved as they were memorable. A few that scarred me for life:
For the Love of Nancy (aka the Tracey Gold eating disorder movie)
Eating disorders were an extremely popular topic for made-for-TV movies, so it was hard for me to pick just one. After all, the Calista Flockhart vehicle The Secret Life of Mary Margaret taught me that some bulimics store their vomit in Tupperware in their bedroom closets. And Perfect Body starring none other than the Pink Power Ranger, Amy Jo Johnson, tied together eating disorders with the competitive world of gymnastics. Hard to resist. But this Tracey Gold special was particularly poignant because the actress herself was suffering from an eating disorder at the time and actually collaborated with the filmmakers to incorporate elements of her own story. Most important, Mark-Paul Gosselaar plays her brother. Enough said.
Co-Ed Call Girl
Tori Spelling at her absolute cheese-tastic best! Based on a true story (but of course), Tori plays a debt-ridden young college student who gets drawn into the world of high-class escorts before finding out (shocker) that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. The clear predecessor to more recent gems like The Client List, this movie stuck with me because of how easy they made it look to fall into the world of depravity and paid sex. Tori gets involved because her roommate signs her up as a joke. A simple college prank leads to prostitution and (spoiler alert) a shoot-out! Should we be doing this to all our enemies?
Sarah T. – Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic
This movie was actually made in the 70s, but for some reason (read: brilliance) it’s remained meaningful even to those of us born in later decades. Starring Linda Blair of The Exorcist, Sarah T. tells the story of a 15-year old girl who has the same problems most 15-year old girls have. She’s lonely, her parents are divorced, she’s jealous of her older sister, and so on. The inevitable solution to these arguably mundane teenage woes is, of course, alcohol. To an extreme degree. Sarah T’s life devolves from there, culminating in a shocking climax involving a dead horse. Yeah, it goes there.
I Know My First Name is Steven
Another ripped-from-the-headlines winner, this movie is based entirely on the true story of Steven Stayner, kidnapped at the age of seven and held against his will until he escaped at age fourteen. Honestly, this is one of the best made-for-TV movies out there and I am being entirely serious. While it is admittedly terrifying (pedophiles! kinky threesomes! cigarette smoking!), it’s also extremely well done, well acted, and true to the real life events. If you read the Wikipedia page about Steven Stayner and then watch the movie, you’ll see that almost every detail in the movie is accurate to what really happened. This whole story has to bear at least some of the blame for my ever-present and crippling fear of kidnapping, despite the fact that I am now at the age where I’d more likely be the perpetrator than the victim.
15 and Pregnant
What’s funny about this Kirsten Dunst vehicle is that given our current obsession (and resulting acceptance) of shows like 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom, there’s nothing shocking about the premise. But at the time, I was completely scandalized. A 15-year old girl from a decent home was not only having sex but becoming pregnant? And having to just, like, deal? Despite the fact that at the time I was absolutely, positively, tragically nowhere near kissing a boy let alone doing anything that could theoretically lead to a baby, this movie scared the crap out of me. From not being able to button her favorite jeans to catching her baby daddy cheating, life for Kirsten was grim as an expectant mother. Although looking back now, the message of this movie was a little shady because the unwanted baby does, in fact, help heal Kirsten’s broken family and bring them all closer together. Hmmm.
She Cried No a.k.a. Freshman Fall
No list of made-for-TV movies would be complete without this shining piece of history, starring none other than Candace Cameron and Mark-Paul Gosselaar! He plays, of course, a known date rapist who Candace readily befriends in an effort to fit in her freshman year of college. Lo and behold, he sets his sights on her, and one disturbing party scene later, her life is ruined. This movie is actually mostly about how hard it is to prosecute date rape and the double standard of Candace’s tarnished reputation vs. Mark-Paul’s golden boy image. It’s all interesting enough, or at least it was in 1996, but all that matters to me is that we’re supposed to buy Zack freakin’ Morris as a date rapist. Kelly and Jessie would definitely not approve.
While these movies should be lauded for tackling serious and sensitive issues most TV shows don’t dare approach, the overall lack of production quality, mediocre writing, and at once saccharine-and-gratuitous tone are what most people remember. But if you want to host a whole different kind of Halloween horror movie night, you can always scare yourself stupid with a double feature of kidnapping and DJ Tanner date rape.