Top Ten Horror Films 1970sA column article, Top Ten by: Laura Akers, Danny Djeljosevic, Dylan Garsee, Nick Hanover, Paul Brian McCoy, Steve Morris
Do you feel that?
The wind is getting cooler and night is falling earlier. You know what that means! Halloween is almost upon us!
But before the creepy crawlies hit the streets begging for treats and threatening tricks, we here at Comics Bulletin have your next installment of the Top Fifty Horror Films of All Time!
This week we have the Top Ten Horror Films of the 1970s!
So pull the covers up, turn out the lights, and prepare to get goosebumps!
By the way, in case you missed it, here's our Top Ten Horror Films Pre-1970!
1973 – The Exorcist (Dir. William Friedkin)
I've been obsessively watching horror films for as long as I can remember. When I was a toddler, my favorite film was Critters or, depending on the day, Critters 2. I successfully convinced my parents to let me stay up and watch HBO's Tales from the Crypt every night it came on. I even went so far as to call my brother the Cryptkeeper after he was bitten in the face by a brown recluse in our backyard in Jacksonville, Florida and his flesh mummified anywhere near the bite. Horror is something I've eagerly sought out since the moment I was capable of seeking out culture. And yet I can count on one hand the number of films that have truly scared me. William Friedkin's mesmerizing heartbreaking work of staggering genius The Exorcist is one such film.
That's because The Exorcist is a film that scares you not with cheap shocks and desperate gimmicks but with haunting psychological invasion. It is a film that gets under your skin and refuses to depart, long after it should have vacated the premises. At this point in time, everyone knows of The Exorcist, even if they haven't seen it. It is a film that has been parodied endlessly, the unhinged performance of Linda Blair as the accursed Regan in particular a go-to pop culture landmark. But even that ubiquity has done little to diminish the impact of the film itself, which stands as the ultimate example of psychological horror, a marriage of William Friedkin's trademark exploration of debased humanity and the religious confusion that has marked this country since its founding.
That's why the film made a staggering near $500 million at the box office, fueled by the decadent identity crisis of the '70s, where the film's themes of violent possession and spiritual unease rang especially true to contemporary audiences. But that fear has never really gone away, with each subsequent era finding those themes relevant in new ways. In the 21st century, it's easy to relate to the film's sort-of-hero Father Karras (Jason Miller), who can only overcome his fear by giving in to it. It's the war on terror gone macabre; a convenient evocation of the sacrifices we've made in regards to freedom in exchange for safety and what we hope is a better future for our sons and daughters. And what makes it so terrifying is that no matter the era, there's no escaping the bleakness of the ending, with every hero dead and broken and our future generations filled with some darkness we can't be entirely sure is completely removed.
- Nick Hanover
1974 – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Dir. Tobe Hooper)
Made for $300,000 in the early 1970s, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is an influential film with its small group of hapless young people in a cabin, its use of everyday tools in grisly murders and its hulking, iconic monster of an antagonist. But it's also aged incredibly well, delivering a creepy mood made creepier by its scrappy production values.
Patton Oswalt has an old routine about non-committal movie titles like Something's Gotta Give -- which tells you exactly how old it is -- and points to a brazen title like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre which, upon just hearing it makes a movie play in your head. With a title like that, one expects a free-for-all splatterfest on the level of Tokyo Gore Police or Dead Alive, but it's hardly as indulgent. The gore is hilariously minimal, but the mood is strong and director Tobe Hooper knows how to unsettle a viewer through proper filmmaking, not just relenting to bloodlust.
Still, there are a lot of solid kills, but one of the most enduring moments of the film doesn't even feature a chainsaw: a long sequence involving one of the female protagonists tied to a chair at a dinner table with her cannibal captors leads to an incredible final scene of roadside terror at the hands of the chainsaw-toting Leatherface, and easily one of the best final shots in horror cinema.
So, yeah -- not quite the film that plays in your head, but it's still an amazing work of horror whose reputation precedes it.
- Danny Djeljosevic
1975 – Shivers or They Came From Within (Dir. David Cronenberg)
Feel free to argue this point with me in the comments below, but I'd say that David Cronenberg's debut feature film, Shivers (or as it was released in the US, They Came From Within) is the most subversive film on this, or any of the lists to follow. Although it might be challenged by other Cronenberg films that made the cut, this is the one that really pushed the limits not only in its violence, but in its sexuality, and ultimately in its themes.
This one isn't just about dread or the inevitability of death. This one is about fear of violation, fear of one's own and others' bodies, and fear of loss of control. And when everything is said and done, Cronenberg comes down decidedly on the side of the monsters.
Essentially, Shivers can be described in one sentence as "What if the zombies didn't want to eat you, they wanted to fuck you?" The menace of the film is personified in a parasite that spreads like a venereal disease inside a prestigious modern, almost clinically sterile, apartment complex. Once you're infected, you can't control your carnal desires. Nothing is off limits.
And once everyone in the building is infected, they calmly stop fucking each other, load into their cars and drive off to infect the rest of the world.
Shot in 15 days on a micro-budget, Cronenberg was learning how to make a film on the fly and it shows in the straightforward, no-nonsense approach to setting each scene. From the shocking contrast between the opening sales pitch for the apartment complex and the brutal murder/suicide of the doctor who created the parasites and his first subject, to the final orgy of violence and sex in the complex pool, everything about this film is a confrontation with the viewers' senses of outrage, sexual anxiety, and both physical and moral disgust.
It slaps you in the face and tells you that real freedom is only achievable through infection and transgression.
It's a work of genius that everyone should see, and a clear demonstration to low-budget horror filmmakers of just what they should be aiming for every time they get their hands on a camera.
- Paul Brian McCoy
1976 – Carrie (Dir. Brian De Palma)
Carrie has been and continues to be one of the most frequently banned books in high schools and middle schools across the country. While it might be possible to make an argument against the book now, in this post-Columbine era, that’s not what’s usually invoked to justify removing it from school shelves. When parents and others object to the book, they throw a laundry list of sins at it: it contains teenage sex, has Satanist-like murders, oozes cruelty, attacks Christianity, and is (using that incredibly vague catch-all term) age-inappropriate. (As a woman, I also suspect it has to do with the menstrual blood in the shower scene—we are willing to watch someone be butchered with a machete, but a few drops of this kind of blood or the sight of a tampon still somehow gives us the vapors.) It is also a quite successful experimental novel which appeals to readers who identify with the true horror it depicts: life in high school.
Based on this first-published of Stephen King’s books, Brian de Palma’s Carrie was also the first of the author’s works to be adapted for film. This was not easy considering two of the obstacles it had to overcome: first, the novel itself is made up of a combination of various kinds of reports and analyses on the lethal events in Chamberlain, Maine along with an omniscient narrative primarily from Carrie and Sue’s points of view. Second, De Palma had a budget of only $1.8 million (pathetically small considering he was supposed to depict Carrie taking out an entire town in flames and showers of stones). De Palma needed to walk a very fine line to be able to portray both the interior emotional hell and the terrible destruction caused by that torment.
In many ways, this challenge made de Palma the best possible director for the job. The man has made most of his career on cruelty and violence: he excels at showing us the dark side of humanity and makes us recognize it in ourselves.
The movie works, however, precisely because de Palma knows where to pull himself back from the edge. He limits his use of his own trademarks (the split screen, iconography that fleshes out his characters, over-the-top violence), and instead focuses on the emotional landscape that is so central to the plot (the remake, slated for release in March, will probably not limit her destruction of the town to a scant 3 minutes of screen time, I’ll wager right now). He gets solid performances out of most of the cast, including several making their feature-film debuts (Nancy Allen, John Travolta, Edie McClurg, and Amy Irving) and Oscar-nominated performances from Sissy Spacek (Carrie) and Piper Laurie (Carrie’s mother, Margaret).
But its real success is that de Palma does a better job than even King in one important respect in telling this story. King’s novels work not because of the ghost or monster or demon that plagues the inhabitants of his Maine towns. They work because King only uses those things to tell his real tales: those of ordinary people in extreme circumstances which reveal those characters as complex, imperfect, inconsistent, and capable of the greatest and most terrible of acts. In avoiding the novel’s constant dips into possible explanations of why and how Carrie has the power she does, de Palma instead makes us focus on the emotional cost of behavior that all of us saw or experienced in our own high school days. He reminds us of what King in his later novels reveals in such sharp detail: Horror isn’t really about ghosts, or goblins, or things that go bump in the night. The true horror is what we do to each other.
- Laura Akers
1976 – The Omen (Dir. Richard Donner)
The lingering memory from The Omen, Richard Donner’s story of a satanic child and endlessly deluded parents, is of the soundtrack. While the film tackled a familiar horror – the parental fear of losing control over their children – it’s the use of sound and visual which brought the film above the rest of the field. Growling furiously whenever the camera scrolls onto cherubic Harvey Stephens’ face, the soundtrack does a lot of the work for the movie.
However, there’s far more to The Omen than a few demonic chants and choral pleading. Donner’s film builds up the horror slowly, creating set-piece moments of violence which brood darkly over the cast. Gregory Peck and Lee Remick head up the film as parents whose first son is stillborn, leading Peck to secretly adopt a newborn orphan in place of his dead son, without the knowledge of his wife. Initially unaware that his child is the son of the devil, Peck witnesses a series of horrible accidents and incidents befalling various members of his household which leads him to believe that Damien is up to something.
The joy of Donner’s film is the way the horror builds. Once viewers are aware of Damien’s nature, we are left to guess how he’ll set up various members of the supporting cast for horrific trauma. In a sense, it plays like an early version of Final Destination, with viewers left trying to work out how Damien will slowly remove every obstacle in his path. With a particularly memorable decapitation scene and a range of softly-played death sequences, the film doesn’t flinch from showing the violence of Damien’s rampage, but it also doesn’t play him up too much. He’s incidental for these scenes, with the only hint that he’s involved coming from camera close-ups and deft use of the soundtrack.
At its centre, the film is about the downfall of Peck’s character, who is driven crazy by the traumas inflicted on everybody around him (and don’t doubt that the film is absolutely brutal to anybody who stands in Damien’s way) and the true horror comes from seeing a fundamentally decent man driven to try to kill the son he never had. The final sequence, influential and powerful still, is a startling scene which takes Hollywood’s most beloved leading man and throws him into a headspin, unsettling readers and truly showing what fear can do to somebody.
Ignore the sequels.
- Steve Morris
1977 – Suspiria (Dir. Dario Argento)
Dario Argento is known for two things. 1) for being namedropped in Juno and 2) for Suspiria. While I’d love to write a piece about Juno, this is a 70’s Halloween movie list, so Suspiria wins by default. Colored like candy and sharp like glass, the film plays out like a nightmare in a piñata. Shot with the same techniques as The Wizard of Oz, Suspiria plays tribute to one of our worst fears: the familiar.
An early scene depicts one of my favorite attacks from a mysterious stranger in film ever. When Pat (Eva Axén) is grabbed by the neck and slammed against glass, her screams are blood curdling and spine shivering. After being torn through a window, Pat, disemboweled and hanged, sets a tone for the rest of the film to follow.
Suspiria has somehow survived the years and is now seen as a classic, even sparking a remake, out next year. Dangerously bloody, wonderfully acted, and woozily disturbing, Suspiria has only one mark against it: Dario Argento can’t seem to make a good movie past this one. One day, he’ll get back to making what he loves, as opposed to a 3D Dracula movie. One day, we’ll get the man who made Suspiria back.
- Dylan Garsee
1978 – Halloween (Dir. John Carpenter)
It's all too easy to blame John Carpenter for what came in the wake of Halloween. Halloween, after all, is the film that begat the slasher genre (yes, yes, technically it was Psycho, but let's not split hairs here) and thus is the film that launched a thousand shits. But blaming Carpenter and Halloween for what happened later is a little like blaming Nobel for the atom bomb. Because the fact of the matter is, Halloween is a damn good film, well-constructed and fresh, and it still holds up surprisingly well.
Much of the credit for that deservedly goes to Carpenter, who already had a history of making incredible works of horror on shoestring budgets even before Halloween. Michael Myers is about as perfect a slasher killer as one could develop, and it's no wonder that he would become the template for what would follow. Though he is the recipient of incredible violence and the executor of even more incredible violence, Carpenter and his co-writer Debra Hill refrain from casting Myers in the overtly supernatural light of his successors. Myers is of course stabbed, shot and defenestrated, but Carpenter films it all in a way that makes the viewer and the characters both question the effectiveness of those attacks without hitting them over the head with entirely obvious superhuman aspects. Even Myers' look is simplicity itself, built around budget limitations but perhaps all the more terrifying as a result of the minimalism. He is simply a stoic man child, full of evil and lacking humanity.
And as heroine Laurie Strode, Jamie Lee Curtis makes a masterful debut, somehow imbuing what would become the horror trope to end all horror tropes with a deep well of humanity and innocence. Some have retroactively proclaimed Halloween a misogynist, anti-sex film but that's missing the point. Myers as a character is a figure terrified of adulthood and what comes with it and to his psychotically damaged mind, that's wrapped up in the sex and drugs of unbridled teenage hormones. As too many commentators do, Halloween's detractors mistake the politics of character for the politics of the creator and in the process miss out on what makes this film so scary. Myers doesn't just want to kill you, he wants to ruin your good time once and for all, to punish you for being capable of experiencing joy where he cannot. He doesn't care if you're a man or a woman, truly sexed up or merely horny. He's out to ensure that your punishment is visible to all and no one since has been quite as effective as he was here.
- Nick Hanover
1978 – Dawn of the Dead (Dir. George A. Romero)
If Dawn of the Dead is remembered for nothing else, it should have a spot on every important horror film list just for shoving Tom Savini into his first real spotlight. He'd worked on a couple of small films after returning home from Viet Nam – Deathdream (1974), Deranged (1974), and Romero's own Martin (1977), all of which should be seen by horror fans – but it was on Dawn of the Dead that a whole new world of horror special effects began.
Of course, it won't be remembered for nothing else. Dawn of the Dead marked Romero's return to the genre he created, the flesh-eating zombie film, in a way that nobody was expecting. In the interim between Romero's Dead films, only a few real zombie classics had emerged – most notably, Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things (1972), Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974), the aforementioned Deathdream (1974), and a personal favorite of mine, Shock Waves (1977) – but in a manner very similar to Night's game-changing effect on what could be done in contemporary horror film, Dawn launched a whole new world of horror that would carry on through the Eighties and beyond (especially in Italy).
Unfortunately it would be the last truly successful George A. Romero film (Creepshow (1982) notwithstanding).
It was the way that Romero worked dark humor into the mix this time out that really changed everything. With a combination of slapstick (a pie fight!), irony, gallows humor, and absurdity, Romero emphasized the fact that the walking dead were really more of a hindrance than a threat. The real dangers in the world Romero crafted came from the breakdown of societal structures and how that inspired lawlessness and violence.
The zombies were a force of nature; amoral and representative of the urge to consume (as if the Monroeville Mall setting didn't drive that point home). It was the human urge to dominate and control that was set free when there was no more room in hell.
- Paul Brian McCoy
1979 – The Brood (Dir. David Cronenberg)
After two films focusing on collapses of society (Shivers and Rabid), with his next exploration of horror, David Cronenberg decided to move inward and examine the collapse of the family. And what better scenario is there in which to play out the psychodynamics of a fracturing family than a custody battle? Cronenberg was actually going through a divorce and custody fight in his own life while working on this script, and the end result is one of his most personal films – and one of his most disturbing.
Cronenberg considers this film the most "classic" horror film he has made, and it marked the beginning of a string of excellent, higher-profile works that continued throughout the Eighties. The basic plot involves a divorce and custody battle between Frank (Art Hindle) and Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar), while Nola undergoes a radical experimental therapy called psychoplasmatics, where emotional traumas are physically manifested in the patients' bodies in order to work through their issues. The brilliant Oliver Reed plays psychotherapist Dr. Hal Raglan, marking Cronenberg's transition to using world-famous name actors (Marilyn Chambers notwithstanding) in his films.
Things take a disturbing turn when members of Frank's family die in a series of brutal murders by hideous dwarves. And then things dive into the Deep End of Fucked when it turns out that these dwarves are the physical manifestations of Nola's hostilities, birthed into existence through a grotesque external womb (something we'll also see eventually, sort of, in Aliens, but is so much more disturbing here, it is hard to even look at). The moment that drove the censors crazy, though, was the aftermath of a birth, as Eggar's Nola gently cradles a newborn fetus, tenderly licking it clean of blood and viscera.
It's pure nightmare sauce.
I'd be hard-pressed to argue that the film isn't reactionary and portrays feminine sexuality and power as monstrous and irrational, as critic Robin Wood wrote. But I would argue that due to the breakdown of Cronenberg's marriage, this isn't a broad-swath representation and is instead a Grand Guignol interpretation of his own emotional experience in a manner similar to David Lynch's transgressive classic, Eraserhead.
Regardless of how one interprets the events of this film, it cannot be denied that The Brood is one of the most powerfully disturbing examinations of the psychological damage incurred through divorce, and the haunting final image of the daughter, Candice (Cindy Hinds), beginning to manifest physical phenomenon herself should give anyone in a crumbling relationship pause.
- Paul Brian McCoy
1979 – Alien (Dir. Ridley Scott)
From the title to the setting and storyline, Alien is a very simplistic, individual movie. Ridley Scott’s 1979 character piece realises immediately how convoluted and messy science fiction can make a story, and instead chooses at every turn to narrow down the focus and blunt its genre. As a result, the film still feels immediate and frightening today, escaping much of the hammy nature of 1970s genre film-making and instead giving viewers a still-fresh horror experience which draws attention from suggestion more than fast thrills.
There are several brilliant touches in the movie, which sees the crew of a run-down mining ship hostage in their own home while an incredibly-designed monster trespasses and takes them out one by one. Perhaps the most obvious of the film's metaphors is brought about in the first of five set-piece moments from Scott, in which the alien claims its first kill by bursting through John Hurt’s pale English chest. Not only is it a shocking, evocative moment which explores the fear of childbirth through the filter of a male perspective, but it’s also so surprising that it has helped the film cover up several of the other surprises it has to offer.
Chief amongst those would be the reveal of the real protagonist of the film. Audiences at the time were led to believe that Tom Skerritt’s captain would be the hero of the piece, bringing a rough, resigned determination to the role as he makes his way to icon. Instead, he’s hunted down and slain at the most unexpected moment, leaving Sigourney Weaver to take over the role of leader and shut down the alien once and for all. Not only does this make the point that Scream made decades later, it does so with less warning and has far more ramifications for the rest of the cast. Losing the captain throws everybody into conflict with one another, tensing up the narrative while Scott singularly refuses to expand the confined setting.
This leads to the actual most shocking moment of the film, which people tend to forget in their amazement at the chestburster sequence: the explanation for Ian Holm’s character. Such is Scott’s use of rundown equipment and dirty, second-hand staging that viewers forget they’re watching a film set in the future, which makes it impossible to realise that Holm is going to be revealed as an android until he suddenly starts choking out Weaver. The horror of the sequence is finally made completely clear as Holm meets his end, in a moment which has informed science fiction for decades to come. Coming directly from this character, you can trace a line between Alien and movies as diverse as Prometheus (obviously), Moon, and even Austen Powers. If you choose to.
Alien is a surprising work, taking a high concept and passing it off in the most low-brow, exceptional manner possible. And Weaver, obviously, excels. Because she’s Sigourney Weaver. What else would you expect from her?
- Steve Morris
That's one more for the books! Keep looking over your shoulder! Our next installment, covering horror films of the 80s will be sneaking up behind you next Wednesday!