With the amount of awesome horror programming on television these days, it’s easy for genre gems to fall through the cracks, and even easier to ignore some of the more fantastic fright fare from horror TV’s past. In fact, there’s so much good horror television that one rarely gets inspired to look beyond the streaming space and look up some of the underrated terror titles that didn’t quite make the impact of THE X-FILES or THE WALKING DEAD. So with that in mind, we’ve assembled five petrifying programs that you might have missed and may want to dig up from their early grave…
AMERICAN GOTHIC (1995-1996)
Two decades before the 2016 dramatic thriller of the same name hit the small screen, CBS teamed up with EVIL DEAD maestro Sam Raimi and actor-turned-filmmaker Shaun Cassidy to create a small town horror series that would fill the void left by TWIN PEAKS as well as capitalize on the growing success of THE X-FILES. Starring Gary Cole, Lucas Black, Sarah Paulson, Paige Turco, and Jake Weber, it was one of three shows that Raimi would shepherd during this period-the other two being HERCULES: THE LEGENDARY JOURNEYS and XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS- and it was his only horror property among the bunch. Yet in many ways, AMERICAN GOTHIC was one of the first times where Raimi truly took the horror at the heart of the story seriously, creating a disturbing domestic story that felt closer to Stephen King than to EVIL DEAD.
While Raimi sadly never got behind the camera for any of the show’s 22 episodes, AMERICAN GOTHIC was still an extremely impressive endeavor, pushing the boundaries of what horror storytelling could get away with on television while offering ample twists and turns. Sadly, AMERICAN GOTHIC never lasted more than one season, and while the series was difficult to find for some time, AMERICAN GOTHIC has since grown in reputation after CBS made its entire run available on DVD and Hulu.
The most recent of the series on this list, SALEM has not quite received as warm of a welcome as certain other contemporary horror series, mainly because the show features female anti-heroes and many rushed to label the show as a “gothic romance.” But make no mistake: SALEM is a horror show through-and-through, with some truly incredible moments of practical gore and earned terror throughout. With nods to Lovecraft, giallo, and the real-life tale of Elizabeth Bathory throughout the series, SALEM doesn’t just reward horror fans who tune in: it spoils them.
Lasting three seasons at a grand total of 36 episodes, SALEM had everything a fan of supernatural horror could want: witches, murder, cannibalism, sex, disembowelment, mysticism, resurrection, and even a Hieronymous Bosch-esque depiction of Hell. Beyond that, SALEM really hit its stride in its second season, with Lucy Lawless as the new main villain, episodes helmed by Joe Dante and Allan Arkush, and literally jaw dropping special FX shots unlike anything thats been put to television. While its sad to see SALEM go into the great hereafter, there’s no doubt in this writer that Brannon Braga and Adam Simon’s show will certainly live on as a cult favorite for years to come.
MURDER IN SMALL TOWN X (2001)
In the late-early ’00s, horror reality shows inexplicably came into vogue: FEAR was an MTV sensation, SCARE TACTICS became a fan favorite on SyFy, and ghost-hunting series were just beginning to surface. Yet while these shows made light of crafting horror out of reality, FOX decided to craft horror out of fiction with MURDER IN SMALL TOWN X, a game show of sorts that set 10 amateur investigators into a fictional town stocked with actors as townsfolk, tasked with figuring out which one is a noted serial killer with designs on his community and the contestants. At the end of each day, the group would take a vote to send two people out to investigate a pair of locations: one holds an instrumental clue to solving the mystery, while the other is a trap, from which the investigator will not return to the group.
Despite some pacing issues, MURDER IN SMALL TOWN X was a very fun show; it was way more cerebral than most reality programming, and when the “killer” would strike, the show’s POV would emulate that of a slasher film. Sadly, the show was not a commercial hit for FOX, and it was canned after one 8-episode season. With the boom of escape rooms and interactive theater, however, MURDER IN SMALL TOWN X would be a welcome revival, should FOX ever choose to pursue it.
Another FOX horror offering, FREAKYLINKS was developed as a potential replacement for THE X-FILES, which was on its last legs yet still a ratings powerhouse for the network. So FOX turned to Haxan, the production team behind THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, to develop an X-FILES-esque series for the Y2K generation, one that could integrate the use of creepy message board posts and the growing eBay marketplace as the impetus for a horror series. Surprisingly, FREAKYLINKS was much, much better than the clear gimmick-gunning might imply, thanks to a strong core story and a fantastic lead performance from a young IT-actor, Ethan Embry.
FREAKYLINKS was critically lauded, especially considering how well the show balanced horror and humor, yet outside of a core group of viewers- many of whom indulged in the show’s promotional ARG campaign, inspired by the experimental marketing of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT- FREAKYLINKS sadly did not reach the ratings FOX had hoped for. Following a hiatus, FREAKYLINKS aired the final installments of its 13-episode run in June of 2001, with a grassroots fan campaign failing to earn a series renewal. Nowadays, FREAKYLINKS is difficult to find legally online; the show was never released to DVD and is unavailable on major streaming platforms.
TODD AND THE BOOK OF PURE EVIL (2010-2012)
While REAPER and SUPERNATURAL became popular and lighthearted small screen scare fare stateside, TODD AND THE BOOK OF PURE EVIL was slaying it in the Great White North. In the vein of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and COMMUNITY, TODD AND THE BOOK OF PURE EVIL followed a metalhead and his friends after they inherit a Necronomicon-esque book that frequently escapes their grasp, granting the petty wishes of their classmates with monstrous, often ultra-gory results. It’s hilarious, bizarre, and unfortunately, too good for this world, as it was canceled after two seasons and 26 episodes.
However, TODD AND THE BOOK OF PURE EVIL has found life after death: a successful streaming reign on Netflix as well as the show’s re-emergence on Fearnet and Chiller helped U.S. audiences find and embrace the superb and splattery series. In 2013, the creators of the show launched a successful indiegogo campaign to fund an animated film that would give the series proper closure, but as of this writing, the film has yet to debut, and TODD AND THE BOOK OF PURE EVIL is no longer available on the major streaming platforms. However, both seasons are available on DVD and VOD, and the series still plays on Chiller fairly regularly, so if you want to get sucked into the addictive anarchy of TODD AND THE BOOK OF PURE EVIL, go forth!