Monday, July 2, 2012
Cynical Screams: The 13 Greatest Horror Films Of The 1970s
The end of the 1960s gave way to a whole new era of cinematic horror and the classic formula of the previous four decades was put to rest with the passing of Boris Karloff in 1969 and the arrival of Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary's Baby, the previous year. Hammer films, who in the late 50s and early 60s, had helped revive horror, was in steady decline and would eventually fall in the mid-70s. The world was on the verge of new sociological and political change and the art of the time reflected that. No longer were mass audiences content with fantasy, but rather with more realistic and gritty entertainment. This gave way to a whole new sexier and violent cinema, unlike anything that had been seen before.
With the fall of the Production Code in 1967, films were suddenly allowed to explore areas that were otherwise forbidden before. In the long run, the more blunt approach of adding gore, strong language and nudity, would eventually dilute the impact, but when it arrived, it was fresh and exciting.
Groundbreaking films like Bonnie and Clyde(1967), Easy Rider(1969), The Wild Bunch(1969) and Midnight Cowboy(1969), helped create this brave and bolder new cinema.
The horror film would be the genre that probably suffered the greatest change, though. As the politics of the time grew more cynical, so did the horror film. Inspired by the three most influential genre films of the last decade, Psycho, Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary's Baby, these new films were meaner and more controversial than ever before. Titles like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre(1974) certainly left no room for subtlety, though was a surprising amount in this modest low budget offering. The Exorcist(1973) was a phenomenon when it arrived, ushering in a new era for makeup, as well as difficult subject matter. Both films based the approach on "real" horror, where the terror happened right next door.
John Carpenter's Halloween(1978) certainly catered to that notion with it's masked killer stalking small town suburban America. Heavily inspired by Mario Bava's Bay of Blood(1971) and Bob Clark's Black Christmas(1974), this film helped usher in the slasher film of the next decade.
Another auteur who dabbled in the unpleasant was Wes Craven, whose violent, low budget films, such as Last House on the Left(1972) would influence the next generation of filmmakers with it's snuff-like approach.
Wildly political and personal films emerged as well, notably from George Romero and David Cronenberg, who set the bar for gore with intelligent, but graphic shockers throughout the decade. Romero hit a career high note with the startlingly original, Martin(1976) which dealt with a modern day vampire in Pittsburgh, and climaxed with the most epic of zombie films, Dawn of the Dead(1978), his sequel to his trendsetting 1968 cult hit.
Cronenberg scored with vastly disturbing films such as Shivers(1975), Rabid(1977) and The Brood(1979), but did not emerge as a full force until he reached supremacy in the 80s with Videodrome(1983) and The Fly(1986).
The classic horror was breathing it's last gasp, but saw some returns to form, including some notable classics with the 60s most revered horror icon, Vincent Price, in such comically tinged horror films like Dr. Phibes(1971) and Theater of Blood(1973). However, by now, the classic monster films were seen as campy and silly, as popular spoofs, Young Frankenstein(1974) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show(1975) bear out. Still, it was a great decade for the vampire film, as many stylish and artistic films were produced, from the sensual and erotic, Daughters of Darkness(1971) to the surprisingly effective, Blacula(1971). The stand-out came at the end of the decade, with one of film's truly great artists, Werner Herzog, offering his take on F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu(1922), with his own remake with Klaus Kinski. It may be the most artistically beautiful take on the vampire yet made.
Monster movies still proved popular, including two that were both popular hits and highly influential. 1975's Jaws, started not just the career of Steven Spielberg, but also the nature gone amok films, which became prevalent during the time. It was a mainstream success and helped create the Summer Blockbuster. While, Ridley Scott's Alien(1979) dusted off a few 50s tropes in favor a gloriously bizarre haunted house film set in space and inspiring a whole new visual design, as well as the look of movie monsters.
The 1970s was a revolutionary era in cinema and many of the most influential and complex horror films were released during this decade. This list was a difficult one as so many outstanding choices were presented. As with my previous lists, it's not my intention to present a definitive list, but rather a guideline for some great and important horror films. There are many essentials that have been omitted and many more that could have easily been added, but I think the ones that are here work the best as a whole. You won't find important films like The Last House On The Left or Bay of Blood here, for while they would influence a lot of pictures, they are not great films. The ones chosen here are great movies, regardless of genre labels and are likely to remain classics far after the shock and terror has worn off, though I suspect with the best of the 70s horror films, that is not likely to happen anytime soon.
These are films that are as terrifying today as they were decades ago and still retain their unearthly power to slip into our subconscious and make us imagine things that are better not to contemplate. They are classics of the horror film.
1. The Exorcist(1973)
Director: William Friedkin
Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, Max Von Sydow
Regarded by many film critics and fans alike, as the scariest movie ever made, The Exorcist proved to be a phenomenon and more than just a frightening motion picture. It helped push the limits of what the genre could do and made horror a mainstream commodity, able to attract bigger actors and directors, as well as open the field of makeup, allowing for the golden age of effects in the 1980s.
What makes The Exorcist is it's emphasis on drama, which it is first and foremost. The story details a single mother, who happens to be an actress, Chris MacNeil(Ellen Burstyn) who is raising her daughter in Washington, while filming a movie there.At the same time, a priest, Damien(Jason Miller) due to poverty and his mother's death, is thinking of renouncing his vows, since he no longer believes. The film is really about how these two different people come together and find faith again, though through the most horrendous of circumstances. You see, Cris' daughter, Regan(Linda Blair) is possessed of some odd malady that eventually erupts into full blown supernatural hysteria, when it is revealed the devil herself has used her as a vessel.
Damien, also a psychiatrist, investigates, and realizes what he is dealing with and enlists the aid of the one man who knows about performing exorcisms, Father Merrin(Ingmar Bergman regular, Max Von Sydow in a genre standout) and in one of the most unforgettable moments in cinema, they attempt to perform an exorcism on the profanity-spewing, pea-soup puking and all around, vile child, attempting to save her soul.
The Exorcist is an amazingly complex film with an excellent script(written by William Peter Blatty, who also wrote the best-seller that this was based on) and intense direction from Hollywood renegade, William Friedkin, who brings a gritty realism to this uncomfortable, but ultimately, rewarding film experience.
Several cast members were nominated for Oscars, including Burstyn, in a career best performance as the distraught mother and Linda Blair, who became a star because of this. However, Miller should have received more acclaim, because he's just as good and his plight becomes the driving force of the picture, with his ultimate fate making for an especially poignant pay-off.
It's amazing to see major actors like Max Von Sydow and Lee J. Cobb in relatively small supporting roles, but it's understandable, too, considering how written they are and the quality of this film as a whole.
Dick Smith's trend-setting makeup would inspire countless artists, and his "head-spinning" effect is justly unforgettable and creepy.
Despite, it's reputation and subsequent rejection by the Catholic Church, The Exorcist is actually a life-affirming movie, proving that there exists a God, but there also exists, a Devil. In many ways, it's an update of what the classic horror films were all about: good vs. evil.
Leading to scores of imitations, some mediocre sequels and upping the ante for shocking cinema, The Exorcist remains at the top of the heap of the modern horror film and easily ranks among the ten finest films that the genre has ever produced.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw
The film that started the summer blockbuster, is also one of the scariest and most influential ever made. Director Steven Spielberg proves himself a great storyteller early on, and one that is well aware of genre conventions and how to manipulate an audience, which is a technique he uses to full effect as the years go by. John Williams, his composer, who has been used, largely to bring us an epic sweep or to tug at the heartstrings, creates one of the simplest and most unforgettable themes since Psycho(1960), a theme still parodied today.
The plot details a small coastal town being besieged by a series of shark attacks, and the battle that ensues from recently arrived, city sheriff, Brody(Roy Scheider) and his battle with the town council, and notably the mayor(Murray Hamilton) who want to keep the beaches open. After Brody's son is nearly killed, he decides to set out on the ocean, along with marine biologist, Hooper(Richard Dreyfuss) and shark hunter, Quint(Robert Shaw). What ensues is one of the most memorable moments of cinema, as the hunters and the shark get involved in a cat and mouse game to the death, resembling Melville's Moby Dick in the process.
Jaws has several unforgettable and scary moments, from the much-imitated opening of the beautiful nude swimmer getting devoured by the giant shark, to the classic line, "We're gonna need a bigger boat."
The cast are wonderful and practically deliver career best, with Roy Scheider giving a great everyman performance as the Sheriff who intends to bring peace to the community, despite his fears and Richard Dreyfuss as the eccentric, but well-meaning, marine biologist, who actually is crazy enough to go into a cage and face the monster underwater.
Perhaps, the film's most memorable performance comes from Robert Shaw, who plays the crusty Quint, like a modern day Ahab, and delivers a brilliant monologue about his experience on the U.S.S. Indianapolis and it's subsequent sinking. And the sharks. That whole bit may be the scariest scene in the movie.
Production difficulties made it so the shark wasn't seen as much, but it works in the filmmaker's favor, heightening the suspense and making the film more terrifying. Some argue that Jaws is not a horror film, but considering it's basically about a giant monster that kills people and has the basic premise of a 50s monster film(notice the homages to Creature from the Black Lagoon(1954)?) i'd say it's definitely a horror film, and a damn great one, too. So, next time someone debates the issue, make sure you tell them to, "Smile, you son of a bitch!" before blowing them away with this most obvious, of revelations.
Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasance, Nancy Loomis
The film that created the slasher film and made the 80s possible, Halloween was one of the most successful independent movies ever made, while also being one of the great horror films of all time. Besides being the best slasher film, John Carpenter's modest low budget shocker, benefits from the use of suggestion over gore, with an intensity that has been rarely been equaled
The story of escaped lunatic Michael Myers, who is first seen as a child(in a clown costume!) knifing his own sister to death(among the most shocking openings ever) and his hunt for fresh blood on Halloween night, has been imitated to death. What hasn't been imitated is the restraint by Carpenter, the dread and the performances of a talented cast, including Curtis, who became a star because of Halloween. Following in her mother's footsteps(her mother, Janet Leigh, was Marion Crane in Psycho(1960), Curtis creates a believable and likable heroine, one that would inspire countless others after her. Donald Pleasance, in a role originally offered to Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, is marvelous as the slightly mad, Dr. Loomis, who knows all too well, the danger of Michael Myers and the threat he poses on the small town. His bit where he explains to the Sheriff of the town about the evil of Myers, is classic.
The ending is unforgettably scary, as we realize that Pleasance's insistence that Myers was not a man, was actually right, especially after being shot six times with a .357 magnum and out of a window by the doctor. All we hear at the end is that heavy breathing and that score by Carpenter, which has been imitated as much as the one for Psycho.
Many imitators would follow, and still are today, along with increasingly inane sequels, as well as an awful remake, but this is the one that matters and it still stands today as one of the scariest films of all time.
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt
If any film laid down the foundations for gritty science fiction, it was this 1979 film from director Ridley Scott, with it's bizarre landscape and set design by H.R. Giger, would influence all manner of genre work to the present day. The plot is borrowed heavily from earlier genre work, such as It, The Terror From Beyond Space(1958) and Queen of Blood(1966) but the design of the monster and it's origins are entirely unique. The insect-like alien is perhaps the most believable of all rubber-suited monsters, and consequently, the most terrifying. It's first appearance, bursting from John Hurt's chest, is one of the most famous(and gruesome) moments in a horror film.
Scott designs his film like a haunted house flick, emphasizing shadows and atmosphere, and a Ten Little Indians-type plot where the crew members of the ship depicted within the film are picked off one by one, including would-be hero, Tom Skerritt, who portrays the Captain of the ship. Ultimately, it's Ripley(Sigourney Weaver) who emerges as the sole survivor and has to combat the alien, setting the tone for all tough heroines to follow, helping to break down gender barriers, which would be taken even further in the sequel, Aliens(1986), an even better film.
Alien is like the flip-side of Star Wars(1977), offering less fantasy and a more realistic look into space, while offering a bleak and frightening experience that was intense, as it was claustrophobic. Despite, being derivative itself, it's atmosphere is unparalleled, and it inspired countless imitations in the following decade and changed the role of the movie monster and heroine, forever.
5. Dawn Of The Dead(1978)
Director: George A. Romero
Cast: Ken Foree, David Emge, Scott H. Reninger, Gaylen Ross
Blood-drenched sequel to 1968's Night of the Living Dead, is even better. Instead of the documentary realism and black and white claustrophobia of the original, this one is in color and in letterbox, presented as an epic and the definitive zombie apocalypse movie. The film depicts four survivors of the zombie holocaust who hold up in a shopping mall, where they fall victim to the zombies and they're own consumer fantasies. Through all the groundbreaking gory fx, created by Tom Savini, Romero infuses a large dose of social commentary and a jab at America's materialist culture. The question of what it is to be living and dead is put to devastating use by a wonderfully, satiric script, which all future versions of this scenario, seemed to miss, including the bloated and unnecessary remake in 2004.
Romero hits a peak here, both artistically and commercially, wielding a deft mixture of intellectual horror and suspense and action, that has rarely been equaled. Several versions exist, the definitive being the extended version, which manages to utilize more character development. Dawn of the Dead led the way for the popular notion of zombie apocalypse, probably more so than any other movie, with it's gore and sociological subtext. However, none come close, as this remains the definitive zombie movie, on par with it's classic predecessor.
6. The Wicker Man(1973)
Director: Robin Hardy
Cast: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland
Ultra-bizarre, but brilliant horror film of a very different kind. The Wicker Man is about a police officer(Edward Woodward) who investigates the disappearance of a small girl, on a remote island. There he finds the locals, all strangely denying that the child ever existed. What he discovers is a mystery that leads him to a pagan cult that still thrives there, ultimately sealing his fate.
The Wicker Man is one of the strangest and most sensual of horror films. It refuses to really fit into genre conventions, not introducing any standard villains, for the people depicted all appear outwardly benevolent and friendly. It's the police sergeant, who proves hostile and ignorant of the culture and seems to represent a throwback to the puritanical and the oppressive, dismissing the sexual advances of both Britt Ekland(who performs a nude dance that is very memorable) as well as Ingrid Pitt(which makes me believe that Edward Woodward's character is insane) and finds himself a victim of a virgin sacrifice.
There's a certain ambiguity to the finale of this film, one of the most terrifying in the horror film, as we are left to wonder who was right in the end and left wondering about our own morality.
Christopher Lee's character may be the best of his career, portraying the eccentric and charismatic, Lord Summerisle, one of the most compelling "villains" of the horror film. Unlike, other Lee villains who are often depicted as cold and calculating, Summerisle is a warm and outgoing sort, which makes what happens in the final reel all the more disturbing. Lee considers this his finest film, and I can see why. He's superb in it.
Sadly, The Wicker Man has existed in many truncated forms through the years and it's doubtful that a "true" Director's Cut will ever turn up, as research indicates that it was accidentally thrown away(!) a terrible loss for film fans. What does remain, though, is still fine and this stands as one of the pillars of British cinema.
7. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre(1974)
Director: Tobe Hooper
Cast: Marilyn Burns, Edwin Neal, Gunnar Hansen
The story was inspired by the same real-life case that inspired Psycho, however loosely. Mild-mannered Ed Gein, the Wisconsin necrophiliac and cannibal was the basis for the character of "Leatherface" the horrific, chainsaw wielding psychopath who wears a mask made out of human skin and eats flesh.
The film plays like one of those old campfire stories, about a group of kids who get lost in Texas and find themselves at the mercy of a family of cannibals, who kill them off, leaving one survivor, who escapes from the horror. Few films have been as unrelenting as this one, from the opening quick shots of a decaying corpse in a graveyard, to a disturbed Hitchhiker, who proceeds to mutilate himself with a razor, the audience is firmly on edge throughout the entire picture.
Credit goes to Hooper, who is able to maintain a level of suspense throughout, making for a truly unforgettable and grimy movie-going experience, anticipating the later snuff and "torture porn" films by a few decades, though no later films were able to recapture the power of this film.
8. Nosferatu, The Vampyre(1979)
Director: Werner Herzog
Cast: Klaus Kinski, Bruno Ganz, Isabelle Adjani
Gorgeous remake of the F.W. Murnau classic, is one of the great vampire movies of all time, while remaining an important artistic milestone, for one of cinema's greatest director/actor teams. Herzog remains relatively faithful to the original 1922 film, while retaining the names from Bram Stoker's Dracula, for reasons unknown. It's a mesmerizing experience, shot on location in beautiful European locales that suggest tranquility and terror. Kinski is a more sympathetic bloodsucker, than the previous demon portrayed by Max Schreck, and makes for a truly unforgettable vampire, longing to be loved and feel the warmth of humanity that he is denied, due to his evil,existence.
Isabelle Adjani is the epitome of classic beauty and her Gothic looks are utilized to the hilt, especially in the pseudo-erotic and disturbing conclusion, where she sacrifices herself to save her husband and her town from the vampire, one of the most poignant moments in a horror film.
The ending is altered somewhat, including some dark comedy that showcases the bizarre mindset of the director and it works well enough, complete with a breathtaking final shot, with Popul Vuh's classical music score underlining the epic beauty of the picture.
While, it's genuine art house production, this is a satisfying and unique film that has earned it's niche among the great horror remakes, while retaining it's own identity and proving it's validity in the pantheons of great cinema.
Director: Brian De Palma
Cast; Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, Amy Irving
Even the conclusion, with Amy Irving placing flowers on a grave, only to have a hand strike out of the ground at her, revealing itself to be only a nightmare, has been imitated constantly. Friday the 13th(1980) with it's famous ending with Jason popping out of the water to grab Adrienne King, is particularly guilty of ripping this film off.
Sissy Spacek delivers one of the best remembered horror film performances as the sympathetic Carrie, an identification figure for all those who have been bullied and picked on, though her final acceptance of herself and her powers is unsettling, if strangely, satisfying for the viewer.
Carrie may not appear on the surface like a horror film, but like it's protagonist, reveals itself to have a shocking and terrifying core that continues to inspire and terrify, decades later.
Director: Dario Argento
Cast: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casi, Flavio Bucci
Dario Argento's best movie is this completely off the wall, high-octane scarefest about a young American ballerina(Jessica Harper) who journeys to an exclusive dancing school, that is really the home of a coven of witches. This film is one extremely intense and unsettling picture, with it's use of bright colors and shadows, and a pounding score by Goblin(who later did the score for Dawn of the Dead), this is one of the most unique horror films anyone has ever seen.
Several terrifying and grisly moments occur, including the opening brutal death of a young woman, who is hanged by her own insides and a woman falling into a room full of chicken wire, which are enough to make even the staunchest viewers, jump out of their seats!
Plus, the conclusion is one of the most wildly kinetic and frenzied endings ever shot, with the final reveal of the school's sinister purpose, proving fairly unsettling. Argento's films are not for everybody, that's for sure, but his melding of graphic violence and intense shadow and color, make him one of the genre's true artists, however abstract his work may appear.
Suspiria is an uncomfortable and terrifying experience like no other and is guaranteed to upset and weaken the stomachs of sensitive viewers, delivering a level of fright that only Argento could muster. This is the film that proved the director's supremacy as Italy's next great horror filmmaker, after Mario Bava.
11. Don't Look Now(1973)
Director: Nicolas Roeg
Cast: Donald Sutherland, Julie Christie, Hilary Mason
A sad and personal film, Don't Look Now is a one of a kind horror film and one of the best depictions of the power of fate in art. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie portray grieving parents who have lost they're daughter, who had drowned in the family pond. They take a vacation in Venice, where a serial killer is operating and Sutherland keeps seeing a figure in red that he believes is the figure of his deceased daughter.
Don't Look Now is an uncomfortable and realistic film that deals with the acceptance of death, like no other. Few films have such a level of dread throughout, with Venice becoming as menacing a place as any castle in Transylvania or the Nostromo in Alien. Death lurks behind every corner and the ending has to be about the biggest surprise that a viewer is likely to see, both tragic and obscure.
The performances by the leads are magnificent and make the film go far beyond the limitations of the genre in depicting the couple's stress and love for each other, including the most realistic love scene ever filmed.
The empathy we feel for these two people make the film that much more powerful and sets it apart from other genre films and illustrates how far it could be bent at this time, beyond the cliched and the stereotypical. What is achieved here is a horror/thriller that could pass itself off as an art film, just as easily, setting the stage for later, sophisticated films like The Silence of the Lambs(1991). However, this film's impact will likely never be eroded, as this remains a landmark of 70s adult cinema.
12. The Abominable Dr. Phibes(1971)
Director: Robert Fuest
Cast: Vincent Price, Joseph Cotten, Hugh Griffin
One of Vincent Price's greatest roles is as the title character in this tongue-in-cheek slice of seventies cinema about a madman(Vincent Price) who uses the nine plagues of Egypt to kill off the doctors and nurses responsible for his wife's death on the operating table, a crash which also left him horribly scarred. Alternately hilarious and disturbing, this film inspired countless later body count horrors, though none of them could hope to match the sophistication of this film, nor the charismatic appeal of Price, one of the genre's greatest stars.
The deaths are creative and sometimes, icky, especially the one involving a pretty nurse who has the pleasure of having her face eaten by locusts while she sleeps and the final nail biter, as Joseph Cotton attempts to save his son's life, by operating on him, in hopes to get a key that will stop acid from pouring over him.
It's bizarre, it's fun and it has Vincent Price in it, which kind of assures it's place as a genre classic. Along with the equally delightful, Theatre of Blood(1973), this is Price's best film of the decade and a last great shot at one of the genre's best remembered staples: the mad scientist movie.
13. The Omen(1976)
Director: Richard Donner
Cast: Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, David Warner
Popular and trendsetting film, one of many made in the wake of Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist, is actually a sophisticated and superior horror venture that introduced viewers to one of the most infamous of horror characters, that of Damien, the Antichrist.
Gregory Peck portrays an American diplomat who adopts a son, which turns out to be Damien and has the child grows, mysterious deaths follow and a terrible secret is unearthed that spells doom for humanity. It's a dark and terrifying picture and led to a few sequels, as well as an ill-advised remake in 2006. Nothing compares to this one, though, which combines elements of the "scary children: genre, from films like The Bad Seed(1956) and makes them it's own, creating conventions that have been borrowed from continuously.
With a number of memorable death scenes and a professional cast and director at helm, this one was able to satisfy the hardcore horror fan base, as well as mainstream audiences and succeeds as one of the few successful genre compromises.
The 1970s was undoubtedly a decade of great change in the world of the horror cinema, as well as the cinema, itself. It saw the fall of the classic horror film, with Hammer and Amicus studios dying out before the close of the decade, as well as the rise of more graphic and violent horror films, that would lead into the 1980s, the decade where special effects began to take center stage in the genre.
There were many classics made that did not make this list, including several television films like The Night Stalker(1971) and the epic, Frankenstein: The True Story(1973). Art house and fringe classics like Daughters of Darkness(1971), Martin(1976), The Brood(1979) and The Hills Have Eyes(1977) would have also been solid choices for the list.
As the decade went on, many classics were produced, but the emphasis on violence and sex also began to disrupt the subtlety and atmosphere of the films and as a result, the genre became compromised. For every The Exorcist(1973), there would be a dozen rip-offs of negligible quality, such as Abby(1974) and House of Exorcism(1973). The 70s saw a lot of classic films, but just as many that were lamentable. This decade saw the end of an era and the rise of a new one, which would signal the death of classic horror. The 80s output was never as collectively creative as that of the 70s, nor as lean and mean. If anything, these were unique films and still stand today as interesting and complex works, at least the best of them do.
It wasn't as prolific as the 1960s in it's impact, but what was great, really was and those films still stand today as landmarks of the horror genre.