June 3, 2008
With "Fear Itself" set to debut this Thursday night on NBC, serving as the unofficial third season of "Masters of Horror," it looked like a good time to round up the top 10 horror TV series of all time. Note that "The Twilight Zone" and "X-Files" aren't on this list, simply because they veer way more in the direction of sci-fi than horror. Actually horror shows are pretty rare, but when they come up they're well remembered.
So without any further ado, here are the top 10 greatest horror TV series of all time. Note that about half of these are not on DVD yet -- or if they are on DVD, they are in pretty incomplete formats. "Night Gallery", for instance, only has one season out.
10. The Hitchhiker (1983-91)
A forerunner to the R-rated TV series that would later dominate HBO, "The Hitchhiker" was a sexually explicit, sometimes gory TV anthology series that aired on the cable network in the 1980s. A wandering hitchhiker would interact would an episode's characters early on, talk into the camera about them, then we'd have a story -- usually with some kind of a twist ending. Not the greatest series in the history of cable, but certainly an innovative one. Its first season was probably the most interesting. It eventually went into syndication outside of HBO and really lost its edge then.
Best Episode: When Morning Comes (1983)
9. Twin Peaks (1989-90)
It may be a slight stretch to call this series "horror" -- but it had so many supernatural elements -- not to mention serial killer elements -- that it qualifies. Certainly long segments of it qualify. Kyle McClachlan plays FBI Agent Dale Cooper who is investigating the murder of a prom queen in the northern town of Twin Peaks. It becomes pretty clear that something supernatural -- and very evil -- is behind the killing. Had "Twin Peaks" kept the quality it had during its first season, the show truly would have gone down in history as one of the all-time greatest TV shows. But Season 2 of this soap opera-like series was deeply flawed. Still, if you are looking for a great time waster, get the new box set (which features the original pilot directed by David Lynch) and watch the first season back to back. Earlier versions of the series didn't feature the pilot (essential viewing to understand what the heck is going on), so buyer beware.
Best Episode: Series Pilot (1989)
8. Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-74)
The two succcessful pilot TV movies, penned by the legendary Richard Matheson, that spawned this series have enjoyed an enormous cult following over the years. The series itself, not so much, but it definitely stands out as one of the seminal horror TV shows and Chris Carter has acknowledged it as an inspiration for "The X-Files." XXXX McGavin stars as a newspaper reporter who, ever week, investigates murders committed either by a monster or some science fiction-style being.
Best episode: The Pilot Movie (1972)
7. Friday the 13th (1987-90)
Originally, this show was going to be called "The 13th Hour." But it just so happened that producer Frank Mancuso Jr. was also producing the "Friday the 13th" film series, so it was easy for him to borrow the title. The series, however, doesn't feature Jason and bears no resemblance to the film franchise. The series follows a team of protagonists who track down cursed antiques sold out of an inherited antique store. (To make a long story short, the old owner made some deal with the devil, agreeing to curse his antiques or something along those lines.) One episode, "Faith Healer," was directed by David Cronenberg.
Best Episode: Scarecrow
6. Freddy's Nightmares (1988-1990)
It's hard for people that are under 30 to fathom just how utterly huge the "Nightmare on Elm Street" series was in the 1980s. New Line milked the franchse for every penny it was worth to such an extent, a TV series was launched in 1988. With Freddy introducing the anthology horro tales, all set in Springwood, Ohio, the series featured guest performers like Brad Pitt! The first episode was directed by TObe Hooper and another episode by Mick Garris. The series is definitely a blast to watch from a nostalgia perspective but it obviously doesn't come close to the quality of the film franchise. The opening episode, "No More Mr. Nice Guy," was directed by Tobe Hooper and serves as a prequel to the film series. You can actually watch this series online right here.
Best episode: No More Mr. Nice Guy
5. Dark Shadows (1966-71)
Airing weekdays from 1966 to 1971, "Dark Shadows" was created by legendary TV horror man Dan Curtis. The show initially didn't start off as a supernatural horror series, but vampire Barnabas Collins (portrayed by Jonathan Frid) was introduced a year into its run and the show became enormously popular. The series obviously developed an enormous cult following that continues to this day.
4. Tales From the Darkside (1983-88)
Following the success of "Creepshow," George Romero and the producers at Laurel Productions were under pressure to develop an anthology TV series under the same name. But the fact that "Creepshow" had been distributed by Warner Bros. complicated matters, so they opted to go with an unrelated anthology horror series, adapting some Stephen King stories for the show in the process. The show had a long run of 30-minute episdoes from 1983-88. A follow up series from the same producers, "Monsters," ran until 1991 after this show ended and featured similar "Creepshow"-esque tales.
Best Episode: Inside the Closet (1984) -- directed by Tom Savini
3. Tales From the Crypt (1989-96)
The show that dominated the horror genre throughout the 1990s, "Tales from the Crypt" the series isn't as good as the Amicus movie that came out in the '70s. But it was hugely popular and it featured gore, nudity and swear words -- as it didn't face censors because it aired on HBO. It was clearly inspired by George Romero's "Creepshow" too, and somewhat by "The Hitchhiker," which also got away with blood and boobs on the boob tue. The series of half hour episodes debuted in 1989 and had a long run -- all the way to 1996. Directors included Russell Mulcahy, Robert Zemeckis, Richard Donner, Tom Holland, Kevin Yagher, Walter Hill and Gilbert Adler, among others. Undeniably one of the most important horror TV series ever produced, it was what many fans turned to as the horror movie genre tanked during the early 1990s.
2. Rod Serling's Night Gallery
It's a crime that every single season of this series isn't on DVD. A pretty disappointing box of the first season made it to disc, and although it was still a great season for the show, easily the series best and most legendary episode -- "The Caterpillar" -- aired during the second season. Steven Spielberg helmed one episode of the original pilot movie -- which featured three short stories -- and also directed one episode of the TV series that followed. With Rod Serling writing a big bulk of the episodes, the show was much more than a retread of "The Twilight Zone". It had much more of a horror focus and was, of course, shot in color.
Best Episode: The Caterpillar
1. Masters of Horror (2005-2007)
Hands down the greatest horror TV series of all time, Masters of Horror delivered 60-minute episodes (with no commercials), sex, gore, and, best of all, quality. Filmmakers like John Carpenter and Joe Dante delivered the best material they've produced in decades for the series. Episodes like "The Screwfly Solution," "Homecoming" and "Pro-Life" would stand out as classic modern horror films even if they had been extended by 15 minutes to become feature film length. Some episodes were better than others, but there was never truly a bad episode of Masters of Horror. In fact, much of what was produced for Masters of Horror was way better than the feature film stuff being produced at the same time. It's a crime it was cancelled by Showtime after only two seasons, but at least the shows are readily available on DVD.