The 21 Best Horror Movies of the 1970s: Looking Back at One of Horror’s Best Decades
Note: We’re kicking off Collider’s Halloween month with a trip through horror history — so far, we’ve explored the roots of the genre from 1900 through the 1950s and the 1960s, and up today are the best horror films of the 70s. Stay tuned throughout the week as we make our way through the decades and look for more killer horror content every day this month.
The 1970s is arguably the most fruitful and consistently excellent decade for horror cinema. Of course, that argument could be to extended that time period for cinema as a whole, and perhaps that’s why the 70s provided the breeding ground for so many of the genre’s greatest auteurs, enduring franchises, and singular creeptastic creations that altered and defined the course of horror movies to a track they remain on to this day. But if it was a time of cinematic revolution, it was also a time of cultural upheaval.
It was a time in which the mentality in America significantly darkened from the free-love optimism of the 60s. In its place, a harsh sense of reality arose. The horrors of the Vietnam war had seeped into the national atmosphere, both intimately in the homes of the millions of men and women who served, and on a massive scale where the war’s gruesome footage was constantly broadcast over the airwaves. Racial tensions were at a peak in response to the overdue social revolution of the Civil Rights movement. Nixon, Watergate, rising crime rates… American moviegoers were facing real life terror and strife on a daily basis and as a result, they were no longer moved to terror by gothic imagery, classic monsters, or character portraits of the damaged and insane. At the same time, the American censors opened the floodgates of violent imagery, resulting in an emergent aesthetic of realism and bloody, visceral violence that cut to the bone.
But America wasn’t the only nation experimenting and expanding their horror vocabulary. Overseas, Europe was also reaching new cinematic heights with their genre output. Perhaps most famously, the gruesome thrills and tightly-packed mysteries of Italy’s Giallo movement were at a height. In Britain, Hammer continued to deliver a steady stream of monstrous spine-tinglers in the studio’s last decade of mass-production, while smaller, more esoteric fare also made its way to audiences. Spain, too, had an exceptional horror movement despite still being under the rule of a fascist dictator for the first half of a decade.
Basically, anywhere you turn in the 1970s, you’ll the birth of legendary directors, cinematic movements in full swing, and first-rate horror movies galore as a generation of filmmakers pushed and prodded the boundaries of the genre. By exploring the endless permutations of subgenre allegory, those filmmakers took full advantage of the limitless opportunities for self-exploration, social commentary, and good old-fashioned meditations on mortality and the human condition. And they covered it all in blood and dirt and viscera.
Check out 21 of the absolute best from a brilliant decade below.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Tobe Hooper‘s sophomore feature film is a brilliantly blunt deconstruction of human mortality that forces us to confront the reality that we are all but meat and bone racing toward the unavoidable moment when we cease to be anything but a decomposing corpse. It’s brutal and it’s basic, and that ruthless efficiency is what makes it such a grueling, unnerving watch to this day. What’s more, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre revels in the reality that death does not have sympathy, it does not care who you are — strapping and strong, young and beautiful, good-natured, kind, weak, meek, abled or disabled — death comes for us all.
The setup is simple, and it’s all in the title, a group of good kids make a detour in Texas where they are massacred one by one, sometimes with a chainsaw. It’s a genre-defining entry in backwoods horror, a relentless onslaught of butchery that invokes sledgehammers and meat hooks and, of course, chainsaws as implements of horrific violence and depravity. It’s almost too ugly and too effective to ever be really “enjoyed”, a bit like staring in the face of the worst-case-scenario underlying humanity’s inherent mortal fears, but it is an undeniable achievement of the horror genre that evokes dread with such efficacy and aggression that it possesses an unaging effectiveness.
Don't Look Now (1973)
Nicolas Roeg‘s Don’t Look Now is one of the most emotionally devastating, haunting, and sensual horror movies ever committed to film, and it’s about as classy as horror can get. A meditation on grief, loss, and mortality based on the literary pedigree of Daphne Du Maurier, Don’t Look Now unites the dumbfounding talents of Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in the tale of of a married couple who relocates to Venice in the hopes of healing after the tragic death of their young daughter. But once they arrive, they encounter an elderly psychic who brings warning of yet another tragic loss they seemingly cannot avoid.
There is a quality to grief that accentuates everything about life; every breath, every beat, even stillness becomes heightened in a world that somehow seems re-lit and re-cast by the fires of suffering. Don’t Look Now pulls of an incredibly rare feat by capturing that desperate immediacy. Then it uses it to torment you through an almost unconscious fright that unfurls as the film blends present, future, and past to evoke parallelism and suspicion of the predetermined in an agonizing lilt toward the supernatural. Roeg uses visual metaphors and subtle hints of impending doom to drag the viewer into the depths of guilt and despair, pulling off a unlikely but seamless marriage between stark domestic drama and supernatural scares, and ultimately putting the pieces together until they form an image of soulful, heartbreaking horror.
Ridley Scott’s sexually-charged gothic horror in space is a perfect sci-fi movie. And a perfect horror movie. And hell, I’ll say it, just a perfect movie. Scott takes the baseline narrative following the crew of the Nostromo, an ill-fated space expedition, as they come across the galaxy’s deadliest predator, the H. R. Giger designed Xenomorph, and infuses it with hyper-violent manifestations of imagery that invoke sexual violation, the biological perils of gestation and birth, all manner of sexual anxiety.
Ian Holm’s secret cyborg Ash, who harbors technological terrors of his own, describes the Xenomorph as a “perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” The same can be said for Scott’s film, which is an exercise in pure terror, crafted so specifically with the intention evoking dread that each layer of the film’s construction functions toward that fixed goal. Giger’s aesthetically beautiful but inherently disturbing designs, Dan O’Bannon’s expertly paced screenplay, the naturalistic and perfectly-pitched performances from the cast (led by a career-defining turn from Sigourney Weaver), and Scott’s gift for twisting tension and dread out of every moment between the Xenomorph’s ever-evolving appearances — every individual element of the film works in tandem to push the audience further into their fear. And each time the killer alien pops, lurches, or scurries onto screen, its presence cuts like a knife, turning the enduring ache of unease into an acute, piercing terror.
The Tenant (1976)
It is perhaps unsurprising that a filmmaker who suffered so prodigiously as Roman Polanski (and committed his own unforgivable sin in the admitted rape of a 14-year-old girl) is best capable of conjuring the slippery human hold on identity and the fearsome sensory assault of falling to madness. For The Tenant, Polanski casts himself as Trelkovsky, a meek man who moves into the apartment where a woman, Simone, recently attempted suicide. Fascinated with what drove her to try and take her own life, and falling short of society’s bullish pressure to conform, Trelkovsky begins a slow slide into insanity as he finds himself identifying with Simone too intensely and losing his sense of self.
I’ll be honest, it was tough for me to put Polanski on this list, a single entry in the regular struggle to separate the art from the artist, but to leave it off felt disingenuous. The Tenant was met with mixed critical response when it debuted (Ebert famously hated it), but as so often happens, the truth of time has revealed it to be an inexorable classic of paranoia and the terrifying threat of becoming a stranger to yourself in the face of the constant pressure of conformity. As Trelkovsky’s grasp on reality loosens, Polanski crafts a series of disconcerting imagery that drags you down with him, messing with your mind as it buries you in the finely-crafted nightmarish aesthetic. The Tenant feels a shared fever dream between Edgar Allen Poe and Franz Kafka, and may well be Polanski’s most disturbing film.
Black Christmas (1974)
Before Bob Clark made Christmas wondrous with 1983’s A Christmas Story, he made it terrifying with his 1974 horror classic Black Christmas. Often misattributed as the first slasher film (you’ll find that elsewhere on this list) but correctly attributed as one of the best of its kind, Black Christmas is classy and subtle, but an acutely effective exercise in tension. The film stars Olivia Hussey and Margot Kidder as two sisters in a sorority house besieged by abusive, pornographic phone calls from a raspy-voiced predator that unfurls as a murder mystery meets house of terrors. When the obscene phone calls escalate to murder, Clark executes the violence with a restrained hand, letting his effective imagery do the heavy lifting with an occasional cheeky indulgence in the holiday trappings — the favorite being when a band of carolers drowns out the sounds of Kidder’s death by ornament.
Black Christmas is also one of the rare slashers that treats its victims with complete respect, never overtly sexualizing them and never punishing them for their presumed sexuality. In fact, Hussey’s “final girl” is not only openly sexually active, she’s struggling with her decision to have an abortion. And she’s never penalized for it. Likewise, Kidder’s character is endearing despite being a drunk. Hell, even the house mother gets to have a personality. From concept to execution, Black Christmas is one of the most dignified entries in the slasher genre that feels like it was made for adults seeking a thrill rather than teenagers seeking perversity.
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Dawn of the Dead may well be the greatest zombie movie of all time, though it fights in fierce competition with its predecessor Night of the Living Dead, the stunning feature film debut with which George Romero single-handedly invented the modern zombie movie as we know it. For his sequel, Romero dodged the temptation to retread familiar territory (a quality he would maintain for each of his subsequent “of the dead” films, even as they become a series of diminishing returns), ditching the intimate confines of a home for the sprawling (but still confined) reaches of a shopping mall, and trading his black-and-white bleakness for a playful color-saturated palette.
Dawn of the Dead is a horror sequel in every sense, bigger and bloodier, but it maintain’s Romero’s commitment to skewering social commentary, this time tackling American consumerism. It’s also packed to the brim with Romero’s skilled eye for visceral violence rendered with first-rate old-school gore effects from Tom Savini, the legendary craftsman of carnage who transplanted his experience as a combat photographer in Vietnam to a career spent creating on-screen nightmares for generations. As in all of Romero’s great work (and the best horror in general), the bloodshed acts as a backdrop for a compelling character drama as the group of strangers seeking refuge in the abandoned shopping complex cope with increasing interpersonal conflict as the month pass in this safe-haven from an apocalyptic world gone mad. Romero directs it all with wit and empathy, and an unwaveringly attuned eye for when to drop the next big scare.
The Wicker Man (1973)
Robin Hardy began his infrequent and unusually sparse directorial career (he made three movies over the course of 45 years) with his magnum opus, The Wicker Man. But hey, when you’ve made one film this exceptional, perhaps any more would be greedy. The Wicker Man sneaks up on you. It’s subtle and seductive, and it’s nasty secrets are revealed with an expert patience, but when it ends up at its final destination, it will leave you curled in a ball with a smoldering sickness in the pit of your stomach.
Centered on the investigation into the disappearance of a young girl, The Wicker Man follows Edward Woodward‘s Seargeant Howie to a remote Scottish island village where nobody is offering answers and the clues never add up. Much of the film doesn’t play as horror at all, but a sort of jovial, vaguely eerie trip to a peculiar society where pagan ritual reigns supreme under the benevolent leadership of the island’s ruler Lord Summersisle (a perfectly utilized Christopher Lee). Anthony Schaffer‘s script is a wickedly clever subversion of expectation, and Hardy nurture’s the slow-boiling tension for all its worth, gingerly doling out hints of the evil hiding behind the artifice of folksy, flower-crowned charm. Once the riddle is solved, you’ll wish it hadn’t been, watching the predestined horror show as your rendered helpless alongside the hero, unable to stop the grim fate from unfolding. The Wicker Man is gripping and haunting; a completely unusual spin on terror
Credited with inventing the summer blockbuster, Stephen Spielberg‘s Jaws is not just a giant of horror, but of cinema altogether, and may well be the greatest achievement in the embarrassment of riches that is Spielberg’s career. Every single element of the film functions like flawless clockwork, but it has such humanity, it’s as if that clock were single-handedly operated by a mad genius with mastery over every gear and bolt. That mad genius is of course Spielberg, who directs Peter Benchley and Paul Gottlieb‘s scripted adaptation of Benchley’s hit novel with a flawlessly structured commitment to substance over easy scares. Spielberg exacts tremendous performances from his entire cast, but most notably the leading trio of Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw, giving the characters the care and attention they deserve to ensure that when our heroes square off against the monstrous great white, the audience is left gasping on the edge of their set in anxious anticipation.
Jaws is a bonafide classic, an enduring cinematic adventure that never looses its effect. They say necessity is the mother of invention, and Spielberg famously struggled with “Bruce”, the unreliable on-set shark construct that forced him to reevaluate and use the giant beast sparingly — a move that makes his big appearance an ace in the hole when the film finally delivers on the promise of the enormous primordial beast. Jaws will have you busting a gut one moment before twisting those guts into intolerable suspense and horror the next, much of that inherent terror thanks to John Williams‘ groundbreaking score. A movie about a giant shark has no business this excellent, but what Spielberg and co. wrest from that barebones concept is a tremendous character drama that pits the spectacularly rendered heroes against the greatest antagonist of all, that bitch mother nature. And it’s unmitigable proof that Spielberg is a force of nature as fierce as any of the wonders you’ll find in his films.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)
The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a delightful Grand Guignol chiller that marries cheeky humor with quiet moments of stomach-sinking terror and puts the inimitable horror icon Vincent Price to work in one of his most memorable roles. As the titular Dr. Phibes, Price creates a phenomenal villain, completely despicable but just sympathetic enough to carry us through his misguided mission of revenge. Thought to be dead from a horrific car crash, Dr. Phibes is horribly disfigured and hell bent on doling out murderous vengeance to the team of doctors he holds responsible for his wife’s death on the operating table. Inspired by the biblical plagues, Dr. Phibes inflicts inventive horrors upon his victims, sometimes humorous — see the skull-crushing masquerade mask he uses to dispatch the “head-shrinker” (why there was a psychiatrist in an operating room, you’ll have to tell me) — and sometimes disturbing — see the prolonged death by exsanguination that is absolutely chilling.
With an Art Deco flourish, The Abominable Dr. Phibes is prone to moments of campy panache. Dr. Phibes performs ominous opuses on his in-house organ, delivers monologues through an unmoving mouth, and is ever-accompanied by his beautiful mute assistant, Vulnavia (Virginia North), who plays the violin as the backdrop to Dr. Pibes’ gruesome deeds and has a determined dedication to fur hats. Under director Robert Fuest‘s guidance, The Abominable Dr. Phibes strikes a charming chord between horror and humor with Price serving as the pitch-perfect conductor.
The Omen (1976)
As far as classy satanic thrillers go, The Omen ranks right up there with The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby as one of the genre’s best, though it is admittedly more thrill-based and less introspective than its predecessors. The Omen stars the extraordinary Gregory Peck, who brings an inherent gravitas to whatever project he touches, as an American ambassador who begins to suspect he might be raising the Antichrist. Peck’s talents are matched behind the camera by the crowd-pleaser extraordinaire
Peck’s talents are matched behind the camera by the crowd-pleaser extraordinaire Richard Donner — yep, the director behind Lethal Weapon and Superman also made one of the great horror classics — who cues up one ingenious set-piece after the next. The nanny gleefully hanging herself at Damien’s birthday party, the sinister child wheeling full-speed to knock is mother off the second story banister, the priest speared from on-high by a church spire — each inventive kill has become a moment of horror iconography, and their rapid-fire execution makes for a taught, tension-filled film that never drops pace. The Omen never aspires for soul-searching dread, and it doesn’t need to when its form and function merge so effectively to create such a consummately entertaining, engrossing, and propulsive thrill ride.
A Bay of Blood (1971)
One of the finest and most formative directors of the Giallo subgenre, Mario Bava had been turning out first-rate horror thrillers for a decade when he helmed A Bay of Blood (alternately titled Twitch of the Death Nerve and Last House on the Left Part II, among many others). Because this world is light on justice, it is perhaps best known now as the film that heavily inspired the inferior Friday the 13th and the emergence of the slasher subgenere at large. That’s is not to disparage Friday the 13th, which admirably crystalized A Bay of Blood’s most lurid elements into their purest slasher form, but to consider it “that movie that inspired Friday the 13th” is to under-credit Bava’s complex, brazen murder mystery.
Centered around a warring set of family members willing to do whatever it takes to secure their inheritance, A Bay of Blood keeps the audience guessing throughout the film, establishing unpredictability from the brilliant first scene. The film opens with the murder of old woman at the hands of a mystery man in black gloves, only to spin expectations on their head when that same man is immediately murdered by a second mystery assailant. All told, there are five murderers in A Bay of Blood, each as creative and remorseless as the next, and Bava manages to orchestrate it in a way that’s never confusing. It’s essential for any fan of the slasher genre, the intelligent accidental godfather to the simplistically visceral genre that followed it, and it’s one of the best efforts from a legendary voice in Italian horror.
David Lynch is the indisputable reigning champ of modern cinematic surrealism and he cemented that status straight away with his feature film debut Eraserhead. Completed over the course of five years, Lynch described the film as a “dream of dark and troubling things” and that’s pretty accurate. But it’s more of a nightmare than a dream, and those dark and troubling things tend to revolve around fear of marriage, fatherhood, and society’s pre-ascribed roles, mixed in with a sick-making biological paranoia. Through Lynch’s craftsmanship, Eraserhead is as beautiful as it is disgusting, a black-and-white fever dream and a sensory assault of textures and symphonic ambient sound.
But for all of Eraserhead‘s technical achievement, it’s a legendary piece of filmmaking because it’s never more confounding than it is engaging. When Henry (John Nance) discovers an old fling resulted in the birth of a wormy, lizard-like malformity whose hunger is as unending as its cries, his life is turned upside down in a series of visions and unsettling tangents where every indulgence sets a trap for further terrors. Lynch proves a remarkable emotional command with his ability to wring sympathy for the pathetic, putrid creature who lays there throughout the film like a raw nerve and constant source of agitation. Eraserhead is a force of singular vision, with Lynch serving as director, producer, writer, editor and sound designer, and as a result it unfolds singular horrors that defy genre categorization and announce the emergence of one of cinema’s most unnerving and beguiling voices.
Zombi 2 (1979)
Zombi 2 (released under the title Zombie in America) bears the strange distinction of bearing a title with a “2” without actually having a first installment. It was billed as a semi-sequel to George Romero‘s Dawn of the Dead (which was titled Zombi in Italy), but beyond spectacular zombie effects, the two actually have very little in common, neither narratively or tonally. The film follows Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow), a young woman who heads off to a remote island to help her ailing father, unaware that the land is under a voodoo curse that brings the dead back to life.
Helmed by Giallo maestro Lucio Fulci, Zombi 2 brings none of the social commentary or nuanced character drama of its marketed predecessor, but what it lacks in pedigree, it makes up for in stylistic panache and first-rate zombie action. That, and a zombie vs shark fight, which if we’re being completely honest very well may be the ingenious set piece that landed Zombi 2 on this list. It’s the best zombie film to come out of Italy’s gloriously fruitful horror golden age, but all the same, Zombi 2 is basically zombie trash. However, it’s the very best trash — top of the heap — and it boasts some of the most inventive and flawlessly rendered zombie set pieces of all time (zombie vs shark is the best, but it isn’t the only). And it does so with extraordinary makeup effects that not only stand the test of time, but for my money, match the six-year running zombie art catalogue that is The Walking Dead. Zombi 2 isn’t deep, but swims along brilliantly in the shallows.
With Carrie, Brian De Palma took one of Stephen King‘s leanest stories, infused it with his high-style aesthetic, and created a horror masterpiece about the perils of abuse that wrenches your stomach into knots with the certain, unavoidable knowledge that this is all going to end very badly. While De Palma’s signature style and gift for paranoid unease makes his chilling construct pop, it’s built on two pillars of tremendous strength in the Oscar-nominated performances from Sissy Spacek as the titular pubescent telepath and Piper Laurie as her hideously pious mother, who has sheltered and tormented her daughter to a life of outcast solitude and crippling naivety.
When Carrie gets her period, unaware of what’s happening or what it means, she’s brutally bullied by the girls in her school locker room, who unify in the special kind of ugly that comes from group think, screaming and hurling tampons at her while she shrieks, cries, and shivers naked in the public showers. Burdened by guilt, Sue Snell (Amy Irving) recruits her boyfriend Tommy (a lion-maned William Katt) to take Carrie to the prom, seemingly a dream come true that turns into a fevered nightmare when the school’s bullies strike again, crueler than ever. As that pig’s blood iconically rains down on Carrie’s all too short-lived happiness, they doom their classmates to a fiery death when the trauma unleashes the full force of her telepathic abilities in a deadly outburst of rage. As Carrie, Spacek is exquisite, and you feel a tender ache for this poor girl’s lifelong suffering — until she snaps, and you feel nothing but terror as she contorts the world around her into a hellscape with a bug-eyed stare and chilling stillness. It’s one of the best King adaptations of all time, but it’s also a complete product of De Palma’s trademark stylistic flourish and a testament to the director’s gift for taking every genre under the sun and twisting it to a sick-making exercise in anxiety.
The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
Horror auteur Wes Craven made a startling, scathing debut with 1972’s Last House on The Left (which would earn its own spot on this list if it were about ten entries longer), a deeply dark, soul-crushing exploration of the cyclical torment of violence. Wiith The Hills Have Eyes, Craven took his proven gift for shattering depictions of sadism and added a healthy dose of world-building. The Hills Have Eyes explores our innate fear of the outsider and the fallout (both figuratively and literally) of a society that turns a blind eye to the monsters it created, while continuing Craven’s meditations on the corrosive costs of violent action.
Following the big, bawdy Carter family on trip through California’s off-road desert, The Hills Have Eyes pits the semi-dysfunctional unit against a fully dysfunctional clan of cannibals that calls the perilous terrain home. Even now, a near forty years after its release, The Hills Have Eyes remains genuinely disturbing for its ultra-violent, upending, rules-be-damned willingness to go for the throat as the two families are locked in a war where the winner takes all — well at least, all the body parts and loves ones they manage to hold on to. It’s pulpy shock schlock at its absolute best, and under Craven’s confident direction, each loss twists the knife a little deeper with a sick streak of cruelty that belies the famously kind-hearted filmmaker behind it.
The Brood (1979)
For my money, David Cronenberg, he of the most horrific body horrors, didn’t reach the peak of his craft until his staggering 1980s haul, but in the decade preceding he delivered three disquieting and devious horror delights; Shivers, Rabid, and The Brood. It’s the last of these, delivered appropriately at the turn of the decade, where Cronenberg’s mastery of physiological and psychological terrors truly began to emerge. Here we see the nascent stages of the slick, sci-fi bent aesthetic Cronenberg would adopt over the gritty grindhouse feel of his early films.
Staged as a commentary on the cold cost of divorce and the piteous inefficiency of psychiatry, the film follows Art Hindle as Frank Carveth, a man determined to uncover the peculiar means psychiatric treatment his estranged wife (Samantha Egger) is receiving at the hands of the unorthodox practitioner Dr. Hal Raglan (the always-welcome Oliver Reed) and his desperate attempts to protect their daughter (Cindy Hinds). At the same time, hideous hooded childlike malformities are murdering those closest to the family. Cronenberg builds the unease at a steady pace, erupting occasionally into shocking fits of violence, but saving the best (read: most disturbing) for last in a reveal that’s quintessentially Cronenbergian (or Cronenbergundian, as he prefers). A piquant combination of biological and spiritual terrors — fitting for a story about corrupted motherhood — The Brood is a prime example of the idiosyncratic horrors that spring forth from a mind as singular as Cronenberg’s.
Dario Argento‘s masterpiece is a technicolor fever dream of lavish violence and operatic production design that stands as possibly the ultimate incarnation of the Giallo aesthetic — rich, sumptuous, and frenzied — a film you experience as much as watch. Along with the staggering achievement that is Deep Red (which fought tooth-and-nail in my mind for this spot on the list), Suspiria cemented Argento as the patron saint of Giallo, and one of horror’s greatest filmmakers.
The film follows a young American ballet dancer abroad at a prestigious German dance academy where she uncovers an ancient, sinister coven of witches. Suspiria is famous for its baroque, wildly violent kills and Goblin‘s clamorous, chanting prog-rock score. As elegant as it is salacious, it’s a visually and aurally immersive trip down a red and blue-tinged rabbit hole where intricately orchestrated murders are a common occurrence and enchanted evil-doing lurks around every corner.
Don Coscarelli has never been the kind of filmmaker to opt for the safe or the usual, and his horror debut Phantasm remains one of the most idiosyncratic and unusual films on his resume. There was nothing like Phantasm when it came along, and most impressively, aside from its own sequels, there still isn’t. The film stubbornly defies coherence and concrete answers, demanding the viewer to immerse themselves in the dream logic of parallel dimensions, three-pronged skull-sucking orbs, and Angus Scrimm‘s iconic Tall Man, the menacing figure who stalks our heroes relentlessly.
Set in a mortuary sprung straight from a nightmare (even more so than your average mortuary), the film finds our trio of heroes, brothers Mike (A. Michael Baldwin) and Jody (Bill Thornburry) and their reliable companion Reggie (Reggie Bannister — for all its inventive oddity, Phantasm was fairly lazy about naming its characters) thrust into The Tall Man’s domain where he greets them with logic-bending terrors and sends the souls of the dead to an afterlife of slavery. Made on a shoe-string budget, Phantasm doesn’t triumph for staggering effects or scope, but for the pure inventiveness that made it an instant cult classic. It may baffle the mind, but it will also leave you looking over your shoulder to make sure The Tall Man or his Lady in Lavender are nowhere close behind.
The Exorcist (1973)
The Exorcist is considered by many the scariest movie of all time. Still, to this day. When it first arrived in theaters, audiences completely flipped. There were reports of fainting and fleeing audience members, viewers making sick in the aisles, and while that’s usually the kind of stuff you’d chalk up to marketing, it is completely believable for the context in which the film arrived. Because The Exorcist is the demonic possession movie that cast the mold, even the most hardened of horror-going audiences had never seen anything like William Friedkin’s wickedly sinful, staggeringly sympathetic portrait of a 12-year-old girl’s battle with the devil.
Friedkin called upon his filmmaking origins as a documentarian to stage The Exorcist as an extremely realistic and all-too-believable attack from hell itself. But that never keeps the film from being cinematic, and Friedkin cleverly stages it as an intimate slow-burn drama for most of the film’s run, a move that makes the iconic, climatic showdown with the devil all the more horrifying. You have been lulled into believing this world, you have invested completely in the humanity of these characters — who it, should be said are played gloriously from all involved — and then Friedkin pits them in the ultimate battle between good and evil. And he does it with the vilest, most ungodly deeds unfolding in exquisitely rendered detail across the screen. In an age when we’ve seen just about everything under the sun, and after decades of imitators and technological advancement, the ground-breaking effects and shock value aren’t what drive it home, it’s Friedkin’s commitment to the narrative and his belief in its inherent horrors that make The Exorcist such an enduring example of the heights genre filmmaking can achieve.
Slasher films certainly weren’t new when horror maestro John Carpenter got his hands on the subgenre with his third feature film, Halloween, but they were never better and never more viscerally terrifying. Halloween may not be the first, but it is the definitive, setting the template for decades of slasher flicks to come that would riff on the film’s stylistic devices and creeping, slow-burn dread as freely as Carpenter riffed on Psycho and Peeping Tom. And in Michael Meyers, the unrelenting force of evil at the heart of the decades-long running franchise, Carpenter introduced one of cinema’s all-time great ghouls — the slow-marching force of evil that would be emulated endlessly in almost every slasher movie to follow.
Meyers is as unknowable as he is unstoppable; pure murder incarnate, a soulless evil searching only for the next young flesh to sink his knife into. And Carpenter gave him a “final girl” to match, Jaime Lee Curtis’ Laurie, who likewise set the mold for all slasher survivors to come with a formidable career-defining performance. In addition to Carpenter’s commanding character creations and expertly taut pacing, not enough credit can be paid to his iconic soundtrack, which turns the simply-framed shots into prolonged beats of terror. To watch Halloween is to watch a genre great define his own talents so implicitly that it wrote the rule book for generations to come.
Nosferatu The Vampyre (1979)
Werner Herzog’s breathtaking remake of F.W. Murnau‘s 1922 essential Nosferatu is both an homage to what he considers the most important German film of all time, and a definitive entry into his own career that cements his status as one of modern cinema’s most poetic artists. When making Nosferatu, Murnau famously couldn’t access the rights to Dracula, so he adapted the material to his needs, changing names and locations, in a bold move that resulted in a cinematic masterpiece that was almost entirely struck from existence as a result of retaliatory lawsuits from Bram Stoker‘s widow. By the time Herzog got his hands on the material for Nosferatu The Vampyre, Dracula had fallen into the public domain, so the filmmaker was able to merge the two great source materials into one of the finest horror dramas of all time.
Herzog presents the vampire mythos through the spectrum of loneliness as an ancient ache, questioning any inherent advantage of immortality when one must spend it so completely alone. That existential investigation is carried by a triumphant performance from the director’s long-time collaborator and object of fascination turned mortal enemy (no seriously, watch My Best Fiend), Klaus Kinski. In Kinski’s hands, Count Dracula is as pathetic as he is powerful, spreading his insidious scourge with the weariness of a monster never indulged in mortal rest. His desperation and longing are ultimately his undoing in the staggeringly beautiful, bizarrely sensual climactic moment when he finally feasts on Lucy Harker. That scene acts as a sort of crystallization of the film’s power; an iconic moment in the Dracula mythology that Herzog managed to subtly reinvent with his infusion of pathos. Thanks to Herzog’s gift for capturing nature’s perilous beauty and the reliably resplendent work of his frequent cinematographic collaborator Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein, every beat of the classic tale is rendered with the utmost visual artistry. In Herzog’s hands, the daring remake of one of horror’s greatest films becomes a doting homage (sometimes down to the very shot) while also establishing its own place in the canon of the genre.
As I’ve mentioned, the 70s was a stunning decade for horror with countless exceptional films. So I want to know, what are your favorites horror films of the 70s? Which do you think should have made the cut? Any you think have no business being on this list? I look forward to some lively discourse in the comments!
And if you missed our previous horror appreciation features for the month of October, peruse the links below: