1970: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage
The early 1970s are an odd time for horror, when it can sometimes feel like the genre is being produced in abundance, everywhere but the USA. European horror output is certainly through the roof right now, whether it’s the relentless Hammer sequels in the U.K., a steady stream of giallo from Italy, sexploitation films from Spain or the emergence of arty horror fare from Czechoslovakia. The global volume of horror cinema is rarely more robust than it is in the first half of this decade—it’s just a bit odd to see the U.S. market seemingly failing to keep up with the voracious European appetite for blood and bared breasts. Of course, things won’t stay that way for too much longer, but in this moment, Europe’s dominance of the genre is fairly pronounced.
Chief among this year’s international offerings is the fantastical, deeply confusing (but visually sumptuous) Valerie and Her Week of Wonders from Czechoslovakia, which tells an allegorical story of a 14-year-old girl’s puberty and sexual awakening, as condensed into a week filled with bizarre mistaken identities and the occasional vampire. The film defies any attempt to categorize it, existing on the periphery of horror and psychedelia—a mysterious film that is loathe to give up any of its secrets.
Vampires, indeed, are being portrayed all throughout Europe with more sex appeal than ever these days. In the U.K., The Vampire Lovers forms the first piece of what is later known as the “Karnstein Trilogy,” for Ingrid Pitt’s character Mircalla Karnstein, often referred to as cinema’s first prominent example of the “lesbian vampire” archetype. A fusion between Hammer’s gothic horror sensibilities and the kind of “women in prison” exploitation mindset that would be popular in the U.S. later in the decade, these films are unabashedly sexualized but still retain enough horror bonafides to attempt occasional scares. The same attitude is also present in this year’s not one but two Hammer Dracula sequels, Taste the Blood of Dracula and Scars of Dracula. Whereas the latter throws continuity to the wind entirely in a half-hearted reboot attempt, the former is more interesting and more odd, centering around a club of human, miscreant thrill-seekers who decide to resurrect Dracula just for the fun of it. Unsurprisingly, he then ends up killing most of them, again in a performance where Christopher Lee utters very little dialog. If you’re wondering why Lee kept accepting these roles while apparently being very reluctant to do so, the actor himself referred to the process as “emotional blackmail,” as studio executives and his agent routinely guilted the performer into accepting the jobs by saying that his refusal would be putting entire film crews out of work. Looking back on the series, it’s a shame that Lee often felt trapped in the role, but it’s also hard to think of anyone else who could have given Dracula such animal ferocity.
One final note: If you’re ever hosting a Halloween party, by all means queue up this year’s An Evening of Edgar Allen Poe, which simply features Vincent Price in a chair, narrating a bevy of Poe stories with his camp-o-meter turned up to 11. It sets the mood pretty beautifully.
1970 Honorable Mentions:
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, Witchhammer, Taste the Blood of Dracula, The Vampire Lovers, And Soon the Darkness, Hatchet For the Honeymoon, An Evening of Edgar Allen Poe
The Film: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage
Director: Dario Argento
After years of writing prominent westerns, war movies and even comedies in the Italian film market, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage announced the arrival of Dario Argento to the director’s chair, tackling that most iconic of all Italian film institutions: giallo. Building upon tropes established by Mario Bava and others, in films such as The Girl Who Knew Too Much or Blood and Black Lace, Argento began his experimentation with the sumptuous visual style that would become his signature, while throwing in a few storytelling innovations of his own—he also wrote the film’s script. With a dreamy, off-kilter score from Ennio Morricone, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage seems subtly demented from its opening moments, in a way that is quintessentially Argento.
Our viewpoint character is Sam, an American writer preparing to leave Rome when he happens to witness the late-night assault of a young woman by a man in a dark coat, wielding a knife. As Sam becomes a person of interest in the subsequent police investigation, first as a suspect and then as a prime witness, he comes to realize that the incident was only one in a series of stabbings, slashings and slayings of women in the area. And not only that, but the black-gloved killer (with his collection of long, cruel knives) is still on the loose, springing from the darkness to wallop people with hammers or carve them up with straight razors. There’s no shortage of blood, as you would no doubt expect.
Narratively, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage makes some interesting choices that seem geared to toy with the audience’s expectations. False leads and dead ends abound in the “evidence collection” phase of the film, encouraging largely fruitless speculation and frustration on the audience’s part. This sense of detachment is amplified by the fact that we as viewers don’t typically know the victims in any way—they’re simply introduced right as they’re killed, which makes the motive extra dubious, as we don’t know anything about them. The true answer, meanwhile, is ultimately hidden in plain sight—Argento simply relies on the audience’s trope dependence to make them misinterpret what he’s already shown them, and it works like a charm.
Ultimately, this is a nifty little giallo that took some logical next steps for the genre, even as Argento used it as a blank canvas to test some of the visual (and especially aural) cues he would later use to great effect in Deep Red, Opera and Suspiria. In particular, the opening scene of Sam, trapped in a glass enclosure and unable to help while a wounded woman crawls pitifully toward him, feels reflective of the nightmarish but beautiful filter through which Argento has always seen our world.
1971: The Devils
1971 is a year that continues the strong run of European horror output, while crystalizing the trend toward “extreme” horror at the same time with a bevy of films that deeply challenged censors and audiences alike. There are more roots of the quietly approaching slasher genre to be found here, as well as the debut of one of the greatest populist film directors of all time. There’s simply a prodigious amount of horror cinema in general, and greater output from the U.S. than in the last few years as well. The horror genre is as popular in this moment as it’s ever been, and inarguably more transgressive at this time than at any point in the past. More and more, horror cinema is coming to represent the deviant side of a cultural divide between “serious” film critics of the day and the thrill-seeking, supposedly deviant audience members who packed grindhouse theaters and kept the flow of pulp coming.
This year certainly doesn’t want for films that stirred up controversy, as The Devils is among the most scandalous horror pictures ever released, while Straw Dogs also caused a scene, leading to accusations that it (along with the likes of A Clockwork Orange, released a few months earlier) represented a new, disturbing wave of brutal violence in American film. Sam Peckinpah’s film in particular seemed to be misunderstood in its initial release, as contemporary reviews failed to appreciate the complex motives of its antagonists and the delicate progression of Dustin Hoffman’s David Sumner from milquetoast academic to testosterone-crazed home defender. Straw Dogs is a film about difficult choices, and it doesn’t seem to offer any real opinion of its own on whether David’s choices in particular are the “correct” way, or the only way, that the ultimate confrontation could have gone down. We understand why he does what he does, but the audience’s personal detachment from the crippling affronts experienced by David (and especially by his wife) put us at a distance far enough removed to see alternate routes, or ways that violence might have been avoided—which only makes the killings seem more senseless.
At the same time, Mario Bava is experimenting with depictions of cinematic death that are meant to be consumed in a considerably less challenging, more titillating way, in his important proto-slasher, A Bay of Blood. In terms of structure, this is very nearly a true slasher film, sprinkling stalking and grisly kills (replete with bright red rushes of blood) among a cast of characters gathered at the titular bay. Several of its death scenes would be repeated almost exactly in Friday the 13th Part 2 in particular, most notably the sequence in which two young lovers in mid-coitus are simultaneously killed by a spear that impales both. The only thing that keeps A Bay of Blood in the giallo rather than slasher camp, in fact, is its focus on mystery and concrete, real-world motivations for the killings, which revolve around financial gain rather than demented sport. Still, it’s clear that the true slashers are almost upon us now.
1971 is also home to an array of other notable films, including Duel, the feature-length horror-thriller debut of Steven Spielberg, along with Vincent Price’s classic, campy revenge story The Abominable Dr. Phibes and another Cushing and Lee anthology film from Amicus, The House That Dripped Blood. Truly, there’s too much good stuff here to even list it all.
1971 Honorable Mentions:
Straw Dogs, A Bay of Blood, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, Duel, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Twins of Evil, The House That Dripped Blood, The Omega Man
The Film: The Devils
Director: Ken Russell
There’s little doubt that Ken Russell’s The Devils is among the most audacious historical dramas/horror films ever made, featuring striking performances, elegant cinematography, and yes—an incredibly depraved, sacrilegious stance toward the church. Even in its heavily edited state, it’s a film that still needs to be seen to be believed, and remains one that many film aficionados simply choose to ignore from a comfortable distance. The “uncut” version of The Devils, likewise, is quite difficult to lay one’s hands on, but it contains scenes that are all the more shockingly explicit and powerful. This is a film that truly redefined the nature of trying to provoke a reaction via outrage in cinema.
The Devils is based on Aldous Huxley’s 1952 text The Devils of Loudun, concerning a case of supposed mass demonic possession that struck a convent of Catholic nuns in the city of Loudun, France in the 17th century. The true root of the possessions was unsurprisingly a political one, as the royally backed governors of the region wish to tear down the city’s fortifications to prevent the local Protestant population from being able to fortify the city against the crown. Standing in their way is Catholic priest Urbain Grandier, who is betrayed by a jilted, hunchbacked nun who is secretly in love with him, and accused of crimes that include an array of supposedly devilish doings.
As Grandier, English star Oliver Reed gives a performance for the ages; a magnetic tour-de-force delivered with dramatic, Shakespearean overtones. Grandier is a self-obsessed and worldly man of the cloth, fallen from the pure of faith no doubt, but with the safety of the populace as his primary objective. Women are drawn to him, and understandably so—he possesses a rugged masculinity and commanding presence the Latvian Orthodox priests on Seinfeld would no doubt have termed “the Kavorka.” Every time Reed speaks, the people around him listen, and he holds the audience in rapt awe. Russell highlights this well, especially in one sequence as he cross-cuts back and forth between Grandier stirring up the townspeople and a duplicitous cardinal inciting the king against Grandier and the city of Loudun.
Actress Vanessa Redgrave, likewise, is stunning as the deeply repressed and pathetic sister Jeanne de Anges, the hunchbacked sister who eventually leads a crusade against Grandier, roping in the rest of the nuns along with her. Together, they’re forced to perform wild feats of hedonism as proof of their possession by the devil, in order to absolve themselves of responsibility for their behaviors. They play-act these behaviors with reckless abandon; pawns in the church’s game to dispose of Grandier and subdue the city. Redgrave emotes both guilty piety and a lust she knows she’ll never be rid of, and is quickly consumed by both.
The singular images of The Devils range from the profound to the patently absurd—at one point a man with a sword fights another one holding a stuffed crocodile—but they’re impossible to forget. Mountains of corpses tumble into pits, the result of horrific depictions of the agony of the plague. Disorienting fantasy and dream sequences openly mock sacred Christian imagery. It’s a true fever dream of a film, suffused in sweat, tears and mucous. If you feel the need to take a shower afterward, you’re likely not alone.
1972: The Night Stalker
This is another one of those years that is rife with thrillers bordering on the edge of horror, but in the case of films such as Deliverance or Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy, we’re ultimately inclined to keep them out of the official “horror” genre. As for the rest of the year, many of the themes of the early 1970s continue to gather strength, including graphic violence, wanton sexuality and an increasingly exploitative mindset. There is certainly a feeling in the air that the genre is exploring a side of cinema that many viewers would have preferred to see kept out of the public eye entirely, which manifests in a moral blowback of sorts against horror movies.
In Italy, director Lucio Fulci, who already has two decades of directing experience under his belt at this time, begins to move in the direction of horror with the influential giallo film Don’t Torture a Duckling. Containing a rather scathing portrayal of the Catholic church that calls to mind last year’s The Devils (although nowhere near so depraved), Don’t Torture a Duckling follows a detective searching for a serial killer of children, and displays some of the touches that would become Fulci’s hallmarks in a series of supernatural horror films in the 1980s, especially his creative use of gore and strange death scenes. Along with Mario Bava and Dario Argento, Fulci would become one of the three biggest icons in Italian horror cinema.
All throughout Europe, the horror gravy train is moving at full speed. Amicus Productions in the U.K. has a particularly notable year in 1972, releasing not one but two of its signature horror anthologies, Asylum and the EC Comics-inspired Tales From the Crypt. The latter is a fun footnote in horror history for the fact that it may have been the first depiction of a killer Santa Claus, who appears in its best-known segment, “...And All Through the House,” far predating the considerable ruckus and outrage that would be stirred up by the likes of 1984’s Silent Night, Deadly Night. Not to be outdone, Hammer also releases Vampire Circus, a heavily eroticized panoply of breasts and fangs that feels sadly like an older studio trying to keep up with changing appetites. Confirming that impression, meanwhile, is Hammer’s Dracula A.D. 1972, which bizarrely tries to transplant the Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee vampire dynamic to the modern day, with tonally jumbled results. This more or less marks the end of the golden era of Hammer Horror, although there are still a few offerings to come.
This year is also home to the first in Spanish director Amando de Ossorio’s “Blind Dead” series, Tombs of the Blind Dead, which would set the tone for the deluge of post-Romero Italian and Spanish zombie cinema that would be coming down the pipe in a few years, as well as Wes Craven’s notorious rape-and-revenge feature The Last House on the Left.
1972 Honorable Mentions:
Don’t Torture a Duckling, Tales From the Crypt, What Have You Done to Solange?, Asylum, Images, Vampire Circus, The Last House on the Left, Tombs of the Blind Dead, Dracula A.D. 1972, Horror Express
The Film: The Night Stalker
Director: John Llewellyn Moxey
Those who are aware of the legend of Kolchak: The Night Stalker tend to fall into one of two camps: Either they were regular network TV watchers in the early 1970s, or they were deeply passionate about The X-Files in the 1990s and 2000s. Fans of Chris Carter’s seminal sci-fi/horror investigation series know that the series was deeply indebted to the legacy of one Carl Kolchak, and actor Darren McGavin even made appearances on The X-Files as a character named Arthur Dale, referred to as “the father” of the X-Files program. But fans of The Night Stalker knew it was really a tribute to Kolchak, the hard-nosed newspaperman/investigator of the supernatural.
The Night Stalker is the rare TV movie inclusion into this project; a surprisingly effective, though tonally unusual and fast-moving horror story about a Las Vegas wire service reporter who stumbles onto a rash of killings that appear to be vampiric in nature. It’s an amalgam of disparate genre influences, playing in large portions like a police procedural drama, but peppered with Kolchak’s own colorful, film noir-style narration, like he’s a cross between Sam Spade and Rod Serling. The reporter’s relationship with his editor, meanwhile, is straight out of police shows and films of the era, with Kolchak as the “loose cannon” rogue cop and editor Vincenzo as the antacid-chewing, red-faced obstacle who says things like “I expect you to report, not come back with fairytales!”
As Kolchak, Darren McGavin—an actor primarily known to most modern audiences as “The Old Man” from A Christmas Story—is a delightfully sardonic presence. He’s a truly oddball character, a hard-drinking goofball who has the enthusiasm of a child when sticking it to the local authority figures, but also isn’t afraid to descend into the suspected lair of a vampiric serial killer with zero backup. He somehow manages to maintain a wide network of informants and friends who seem to like him against their own wills, while being petulant enough that he delights in correcting someone’s grammar while they’re in the middle of berating him. He is, suffice to say, the last character you’d expect to see pitted against a vampire, which gives The Night Stalker an aura that runs actively counter to contemporary vampire films from the likes of Hammer.
The vampire, too, has been updated here for the modern world in a way that is much more organic and realistic than the silliness of Dracula A.D. 1972. This vampire, one “Janos Skorzeny,” projects more of the vibe of desperate drug addict than an all-powerful creature of the night, putting himself in serious risk to attain blood on a nightly basis. He engages in car chases of all things with police, and lives in a messy hovel, which looks for all intents and purposes like an unkempt drug den. He’s powerful, shrugging off bullets and throwing men through fourth-story windows, but is simultaneously a pathetic figure who is unable to adapt to a world that is quickly leaving him behind.
Although the majority of the film concerns itself with the investigation and the pleasantly prickly performance of McGavin as Kolchak, The Night Stalker does have some genuine moments of fright as well. There are a few solid jump-scares sprinkled throughout, and things finally do get legitimately spooky in the film’s final third, as Kolchak creeps around the vampire’s lair, taking photos for his investigation. The suspense of these sequences is nicely drawn out, leading to a final confrontation that echoes the one between Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in 1958’s Horror of Dracula. The classics, as they say, never truly go out of style.
1973: The Exorcist
Even if The Exorcist had somehow been all alone for 1973, it still would have been a big year for horror, but considering everything else that is also released this year, you have to call it one of the most prominent, important years in genre history. After a start to the decade that was dominated by European output—monster movies, giallo, sexploitation, etc.—this is the year that American horror comes screaming back, although it’s a prolific year for the U.K. horror industry as well. The quality is through the roof, as the year’s three top films—The Exorcist, The Wicker Man and Don’t Look Now—would be very strong contenders to win any year in which they were released. It certainly feels like a breakthrough moment for psychological horror in particular, suggesting that the newly minted classics of the genre would achieve their status not necessarily via gore and exposed flesh, but by probing the human mind.
Of the other films released this year, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man looms the largest in the public eye, contributing what is considered by many to be the quintessential British horror movie. Christopher Lee shines as the regal Lord Summerisle, making the most of a rare opportunity to appear in a prominent horror film as something other than Dracula or a reimagined Universal monster. A key film for the idea of “pastoral” folk horror, the likes of Midsommar could hardly exist without The Wicker Man, a keen examination of the ideological and cultural divide between the old world and the modern one. With a notably dire ending that dares its audience to consider the real possibility of their own powerlessness, the film’s greatness managed to remain untarnished by the abysmal 2006 remake, now infamous for its many moments of unhinged Nicolas Cage bizarrity.
Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, meanwhile, somehow remains less familiar to casual horror fans than The Wicker Man, but it’s likely the more persistently disturbing of the two films. A dreamy, surrealistic examination of a marriage fracturing under the stress of grief, the film stars Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland as a couple who travel to Italy in an attempt to heal following the accidental death of their daughter. But as the two begin to experience nightmarish blurs of the past and the future as timelines collide, it becomes difficult to trust (or act on) any of their perceptions in a way that doesn’t make things that much worse. Like The Wicker Man, Don’t Look Now stands out for its shocking ending, ranking among the most chillingly memorable reveals in the history of the genre.
And that’s just this year’s acknowledged masterpieces. We also have films such as the gleefully weird haunted house yarn The Legend of Hell House, the thespian revenge story Theater of Blood with Vincent Price, more Amicus anthologies like Vault of Horror, influential black vampire movie Ganja & Hess, dystopian people-eating nightmare Soylent Green and prime giallo such as Torso. Which is all to say: 1973 was one hell of a year for horror.
1973 Honorable Mentions:
Don’t Look Now, The Wicker Man, The Legend of Hell House, Theater of Blood, The Night Strangler, The Vault of Horror, Sisters, Torso, The Crazies, Ganja & Hess, Soylent Green
The Film: The Exorcist
Director: William Friedkin
The most incredible thing about The Exorcist is the way this film has managed to retain its potency; its ability to truly shock and horrify an audience, almost 50 years after its initial release. So often proclaimed as the greatest horror film of all time—including in Paste’s own list of the 100 best horror films —it stands as a graven exception to the rule generally stating that horror films tend to lose some of their mystique and transgressive notoriety over the decades. There’s something innately wicked, something metaphorically canted about the images that Friedkin captured here. Even today, when you watch The Exorcist, it still occasionally feels like you’re inviting cosmic calamity upon yourself, like it’s a sin to even remove that Blu-ray from its case.
The Exorcist is of course the story of a mother, Chris MacNeil, played by Ellen Burstyn, and her daughter Regan, played by a disturbingly mature Linda Blair, who undergoes demonic possession and then the titular exorcism. It kicked off an incredibly prolific wave of imitators, from blaxploitation films like Abby to European rip-offs like Italy’s Beyond the Door, launching a full-fledged Satanic panic in the process, as evangelical audiences recoiled from the fact that the devil himself had not only come to cinemas—he earned a Best Picture nomination as well! But although the attempts to copy The Exorcist were numerous, none of the imitators came close to rivaling its primal power—they were uniformly lacking the creativity it demonstrated in displaying behaviors the audience would find deeply disturbing, and simultaneously lacked the spine-chilling performance of the afflicted Blair, the steadfast Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) and wounded Father Karras (Jason Miller). This was not a formula that could simply be replicated for the grindhouse crowd.
With the benefit of repeat viewings, the other thing one notices while viewing The Exorcist is that it’s often scenes other than the famous possession and exorcism sequences that are the most deeply disturbing. In particular, Regan’s battery of hospital tests, including a freakishly accurate depiction of a cerebral angiography, hammer at the audience with dull blows of painful reality from an uncaring universe. It is incredibly uncomfortable to watch young Regan, strapped to a platform and stuck full of tubes, her eyes pleading for some kind of help or comfort, as her mother waits in another room, slowly unraveling—Burstyn gives an extremely vulnerable performance here as a woman pushed beyond all possible lengths of endurance. Furthermore, the hospital scenes are made only more skin-crawling to watch today when one is armed with the knowledge that the bearded technician appearing in them was none other than Paul Bateson, a confessed serial killer who was arrested in 1979. As if we needed something else to make us uncomfortable.
Tales of the public reaction to The Exorcist have understandably become the stuff of cinematic apocrypha. As hysteria about the film hit the mainstream, there were stories of people being driven insane by viewing the exorcism, or vomiting in the aisles, or simply keeling over with heart attacks from sheer fright. Some of those tales were no doubt their own form of covert marketing from the executives at Warner Bros., not too far removed from the stunts pulled by the likes of William Castle, but contemporary interviews with shaken audience members as they exited the film show you just how deeply it affected many Americans. In fact, watching those reactions, one starts to empathize with the poor souls who seem genuinely afraid their souls will be stolen next—and distrustful of the glassy eyed horror fanatics saying they loved the show and can’t wait to see it again. It makes it a bit easier to understand the vitriolic obscenity charges that kept the film from receiving a home video release in the U.K. until 1999.
In the end, The Exorcist was a monumental moment for the history of the American horror genre. It was the first mainstream horror film nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and went a long way in establishing the idea of horror as a genre that was not mutually exclusive from critical acclaim and universal cultural relevance. Much as many would have liked to dismiss it out of hand as a sick aberration, The Exorcist was a clear sign of things to come.
1974: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
As we get into the mid-1970s, we’re presented with a year that isn’t quite as deep as those that preceded it, but still has an array of very ’70s classics to its name. Whether or not you think it’s appropriate to include the likes of Phantom of the Paradise in this listing, there’s few things more ’70s-tastic in horror than Larry Cohen’s killer baby movie, It’s Alive, which perfectly dates the era.
This is also a groundbreaking year for the arrival of a genre that would come to dominate the late ’70s and early ’80s: The slasher film. Finally, after describing so many movies such as Psycho, Peeping Tom, Blood and Black Lace or A Bay of Blood as “proto-slashers,” we can definitively say the first true slasher is here, and it’s called Black Christmas. Note: This year’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre also contains more than a few slasher elements, but the film doesn’t fit the tropes of the emerging genre nearly so snugly as Black Christmas.
Bob Clark, who would later, ironically go on to give us A Christmas Story, directed Black Christmas with inspiration drawn largely from the world of urban legends, and the tale of “the babysitter and the man upstairs” that would also serve as the basis for When a Stranger Calls in 1979. The story revolves around a sorority house, where the occupants have been receiving a series of bizarre and threatening phone calls, before girls begin to disappear. At the same time, composed and mature student Jess Bradford is dealing with her own relationship struggles, even as she begins to feel the eyes of a stalking presence on her. Portrayed with uncommon emotional strength by actress Olivia Hussey, Jess proved to be the foundation, in many ways, for the archetype that we later began to refer to as the “Final Girl.” At the same time, though, her individuality, self-assuredness and sexual independence place Jess in a different tier than the more damsel-fied or virginal Final Girls who would often follow in her wake. Beyond the characterization of Jess, however, Black Christmas is notable for its many other contributions to slasher canon: An anonymous, mentally deranged villain who kills for the sheer enjoyment of it; gruesome death scenes; a body count; a cast of nubile victims; POV shots from the killer’s eyes, and more. Perhaps surprisingly, the film didn’t generate an immediate wave of imitators—although there are more quasi-slasher giallo films in the next few years, the genre doesn’t explode into popularity in the U.S. until the sea-change moment of John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978.
1974 is also home to one of the genre’s great comedies, Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks’ classic send-up of the Universal Monsters era, which contains far more direct inspiration from Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein than viewers who have never seen those movies would likely expect. Venturing out further, we also have the Romero-inspired Spanish/Italian production Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, and Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile, inspired directly by the infamous serial killings of Ed Gein. Suffice to say, this is certainly a prominent year for “extreme” horror, and that’s before we’ve even discussed The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
1974 Honorable Mentions:
Black Christmas, Young Frankenstein, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile, Dead of Night, Captain Kronos — Vampire Hunter, It’s Alive, Madhouse, From Beyond the Grave
The Film: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Director: Tobe Hooper
In the annals of great horror movie taglines, you’ll have a hard time finding better than “Who will survive, and what will be left of them?” The phrase adorning posters for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre—the official title is indeed “Chain Saw,” for whatever reason—managed to perfectly capture the taboo sensation of this scandalous film, and the feeling that even the audience might not make it out alive. Like The Exorcist, Texas Chain Saw is a movie with a malevolent aura about it—its set pieces look infectious, as if you might catch tetanus through the screen. Unlike The Exorcist, though, the film doesn’t hold itself with a great deal of dramatic gravity. Rather, it seems to wallow in its own filth, and invites you to climb into the pen with it.
Joining this year’s Deranged as another film loosely based on the serial killings and necromantic perversions of the notorious Ed Gein, TCSM’s killers are an inbred family of backwoods, cannibalistic butchers who prey on anyone unlucky enough to stumble onto their patch of turf. There’s an entire familial structure here; one with some confusing hints at gender dysphoria among some of the members, but ultimately it’s really only important to know that these people want you dead, and inside their stomachs, although not necessarily in that order. Likewise, it’s the hulking Leatherface you’ll really want to be watching out for, with his titular chainsaw and his mask made of the dried skin of his victims.
Arriving in theaters less than two weeks before Black Christmas, it’s tempting to refer to TCSM as the first true slasher film, but its family/group dynamic of killers flies in fairly stark contrast to the classical, single killer model you expect in most slasher films. However, with that said, it does make contributions to the genre, from the use of power tools as weapons (where would The Driller Killer be without it?), to the hulking, masked figure of its most famous antagonist. There’s a whole lot of Leatherface in Jason Voorhees, that’s for sure.
In terms of tone, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre casts a uniquely sadistic and hopeless shadow. The deaths are brutally realistic and difficult to watch, aided by masterful sound design and gore effects. There are few sequences in genre history so stunningly, simply brutal as Leatherface bringing a hammer down on poor Kirk’s head with a dull thud, as the audience listens to his feet spasm on metal paneling before Leatherface throws the metal door shut with a bang. The whole sequence lasts only about 20 seconds, but it’s agonizingly realistic in presentation. The deaths of female characters such as Pam, on the other hand, are considerably more drawn out, as they are repeatedly tortured and taunted, made aware seemingly deliberately of their own powerlessness.
It gets a point across—watching this film is meant to be an ordeal, rather than a source of cheap laughs. Nobody is getting away unscarred—not Sally Hardesty, and certainly not the likes of you. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre will have its pound of flesh, one way or another.
Compared with the heady days of the early 1970s, horror finally seems to be slowing down a little bit by the time we reach 1975. The insane output from Europe is beginning to ebb a bit—Hammer has just about run out of steam in the U.K., and giallo is beginning to lose a bit of its luster in Italy, although the genre will ebb and flow there in popularity well through the 1980s. There’s a few classics at the top of this list, but when looking at the whole field of honorable mentions, the lack of depth becomes much more apparent.
Jaws, obviously, is a major moment in populist film history—the coronation of Spielberg, and the birth of the idea of summer blockbuster season. Is it a horror film? Well, to the entire generation of bathers literally terrified to walk into the ocean past their ankles, it’s safe to say it was. It was so successful, in fact, at demonizing the great white shark that author Peter Benchley eventually came to rue his influence in world-wide shark-phobia, becoming a prominent marine conservation activist in the process.
The only film that can hold a candle to Jaws as an artistic accomplishment—certainly not at the box office, that’s for certain—would be Dario Argento’s Deep Red, a seminal giallo that catches the director at a perfect midpoint between his earlier proto-slashers and the supernatural horror he would soon unleash in the likes of Suspiria. This is a delightfully over-the-top murder mystery with numerous slasher elements and classic giallo style dressing, ‘ala the killer’s black leather gloves. It stands out largely for its kills, each of which are inventive and plain weird, focusing in on strangely intimate and painful details (like a man repeatedly having his mouth and teeth smashed against various household objects), which serves to make them that much more uncomfortable to watch. As he would on Suspiria, Argento collaborates with the art rock band Goblin for the film’s distinctive, electronically tinged soundtrack. Fun fact: The director discovered Goblin after failing to book none other than Pink Floyd for the job. Now that would have been something to hear.
Other prominent entries at our 1970s midpoint include the still-disgusting sexual sadism and torture seen in Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, along with the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers riff seen in The Stepford Wives, the actual Body Snatchers remake still being a couple of years away. We also have David Cronenberg making his genre debut with Shivers, and the well-remembered TV horror anthology Trilogy of Terror. The latter is mostly referenced for its final story starring Karen Black, in which a woman is terrorized by a living, African “Zuni fetish doll” with razor sharp teeth, the image of which splits the difference between “adorable” and “hideous.” To those who think Child’s Play was the first killer doll story, check this one out.
1975 Honorable Mentions:
Deep Red, Shivers, Trilogy of Terror, The Stepford Wives, Salò, Race With the Devil
The Film: Jaws
When you get right down to it, sharks hardly needed Steven Spielberg’s help to frighten the masses. Unlike vampires, or werewolves, or the bulbous-headed aliens of 1950s stock science fiction, a hungry shark represents a rational fear, should you somehow manage to encounter one on the open ocean. Moreover, sharks are frightening for the fact that, should you actually encounter one on its home turf, a human being is automatically at an absurd disadvantage in a face-to-jaws encounter. Their perfect symmetry—what Richard Dreyfuss refers to in this film as a “perfect eating machine”—highlights man’s own ill adaptation toward truly fighting his own battles. In this way, Jaws calls attention to our own species’ lack of guts—in the metaphorical sense, of course. We have plenty of guts, when it comes to being what Dreyfuss also described as “a hot lunch” in the same scene.
Of course, the presence of Steven Spielberg doesn’t hurt, either, when it comes to populating this tale with instantly memorable characters. And truly, Jaws is fully dependent on its wonderfully fleshed out characters. At the center there’s Brody—respected, empathetic, but occasionally indecisive, torn between the extremes of Hooper’s informed (but hyperbolic) prophesying and Mayor Vaughn’s arrogant, pigheaded (but financially sound) commitment toward keeping the beaches open. One side asks Brody to doom Amity Island’s economy. The other demands he place the townspeople in danger. And watching from the wings the whole time is Robert Shaw’s Quint, his face a perfect picture of disdain for everyone else on the island, waiting for Brody to finally give him leave to do what he knows needs to be done. The interplay between Brody, Hooper and Quint is particularly beautiful, as each approaches the island’s shark problem from a very different position of knowledge and empathy. It reaches its zenith in the much-quoted scene in the Orca’s cabin, where the three drunk men relate love stories and shark stories, culminating in Quint’s chilling recollection of the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. Few “horror” films are known for their powerful monologues—this is one of the exceptions.
The strength of Jaws’ characters was doubly important for the practical fact that the film’s animatronic shark bodies were so famously temperamental and perpetually on the fritz. As a result, the thought of the shark is always on the periphery of the audience’s attention, but until the final hunt we see its power only through the devastation it wreaks, whether it’s the ragdolled body of the swimmer in the opening scene or the massive bite marks in the sunken boat Hooper investigates. It manages to lull the audience into an expectation of never really seeing the shark in the flesh, which is gloriously shattered by its sudden appearance to Brody, making the shot one of cinema’s all-time jump scares. It’s the switch-throwing moment in Jaws—once the shark decides to make its presence known, displaying a disturbing degree of premeditated intelligence, we leave the brooding mystery of the film’s first half behind to focus entirely on a personal battle of man vs. nature.
And my, how effective is that shark, once we finally get to see it? It looms large in any kind of pantheon of cinematic “villains,” even if its behavior is simply meant to be predatory instinct—inaccurate to real life as that may be. Spielberg imbues the shark with a streak of malevolence that seems far more human than animal—there’s no good reason for it to be so hell-bent on destroying our protagonists, and yet it is anyway. It stands in for every aspect of life that would wish to see us dead. Has there ever been a more perfect metaphor for the inexorable slide toward our own personal demise, than Quint tumbling along the deck of the boat toward the gnashing mouth of the shark, kicking his feet in futility as the jaws clamp down on his legs and torso? It’s the moment when we lose all hope for the survival of Brody or Hooper—what can a mere human do against such a monstrous force of violence? The shark is like a god of the sea, punishing us for daring to even set foot in its domain.
As a template for the future of summer blockbusters, Jaws introduced less than ideal concepts to the industry as well—namely, a series of sequels that descend rapidly in quality, while being tied to whatever gimmicks are relevant at the time. Few film franchises ever illustrated sequel decay more effectively than Jaws, which starts sliding in Jaws 2 and only gets worse—much worse—from there. As for the original? It will never be challenged as the best “shark movie” of all time, but also stands as one of the greatest American films of the 1970s.
1976 serves up a heady mix of pulp, psychological and supernatural horror; a very ’70s stew indeed. Like several of the other recent years in this project, it’s toplined by multiple films that are considered classics of the genre, making choosing a #1 a bit more difficult than usual. It’s a case where you have some options, ranging from the Repulsion-esque descent into madness of Polanski’s The Tenant, to the pure creepiness of little Harvey Stephens as Damien in The Omen, to the seminal high school horror satire of Carrie, to the influential proto-slasher elements of Alice, Sweet Alice. Any of the four would be a defensible choice, but there can be only one—for us, it’s Carrie.
Of the three films in Polanski’s so-called “Apartment Trilogy,” The Tenant likely has the lowest profile. Structurally, it’s somewhat similar to his previous Repulsion, taking place largely within protagonist Trelkovsky’s (played by Polanski himself) dwelling spaces, but unlike Repulsion, the character’s disconnect from reality is far more social in nature, as he comes to believe that all the people within his life are joined in some kind of discriminatory cabal against him. The film has been theorized to capture the real-world anti-semitism experienced by Polanski’s Jewish family, who were subject to intense scrutiny for all their activities, exactly as Trelkovsky is perpetually harangued by his neighbors for seemingly minor greivances. So too does the film bear some psychic resemblance to Hitchcock’s Rebecca, in the sense that Trelkovsky is always being compared to the apartment’s previous tenant, and found wanting, eventually adapting his life into another person’s image, against his own will. It doesn’t always feel like a “horror” film during its entire runtime, but with sequences such as its infamous scream, The Tenant can lay claim to some suitably unnerving material.
The Omen, by contrast, is a film that gets by on style and an inherent sense of impending doom more than it does via plotting or performances—with the exception of the already mentioned Stephens, who was perfectly cast as a budding Antichrist. Written down on the page, the plot of The Omen sounds especially ludicrous, but presented on screen it instead comes off as apocalypticly dour. How else can one describe Damien’s fifth birthday, where the entertainment of clowns and carnival games is interrupted by the boy’s nanny, smile plastered on her face, joyfully hanging herself from a third floor window while children scream and cry? The intensely dramatic nature of the film—especially its Oscar-winning soundtrack from Jerry Goldsmith—can make it seem a bit hokey when consumed outside an era where “satanic panic” was running high, but David Warner’s famed decapitation by a sheet of wayward glass remains as gruesomely hilarious today as ever.
Outside of the heaviest hitters, 1976 also offers some depth, especially if you’re willing to expand the genre definition a bit. John Carpenter’s gory action film Assault on Precinct 13 is sometimes lumped into fold, although only one notable sequence truly feels like “horror.” Who Can Kill a Child? on the other hand, backs up The Omen and Alice, Sweet Alice, suggesting this year might be the #1 draft pick of “creepy kids” years for the genre, arriving several years before the similarly themed Children of the Corn took the concept to its (illogical) conclusion.
1976 Honorable Mentions:
The Omen, Alice, Sweet Alice, The Tenant, Who Can Kill a Child?, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, Burnt Offerings
The Film: Carrie
Director: Brian De Palma
Carrie is one of those films that was simply easier to make with fidelity in the New Hollywood era than it would be today, when Stephen King’s source material would be under even heavier fire for its antiquated gender politics and vengeance-driven mentality. A modern remake of Carrie would no doubt fail to accurately present the character of Carrie White in the first place, missing out on the genuinely and painfully gawky portrayal brought to the table by Sissy Spacek in the 1976 original, in favor of a character who comes across like the “hidden beauty” protagonist of a high school comedy such as She’s All That. Coming from a major studio, at least, a 2010s remake of Carrie would be a pointless endeavor.
Oh wait: There was a Carrie remake in 2013, although I wouldn’t blame you for having entirely forgotten it by now. Succeeding only in terms of bloodletting, this version with Chloë Grace Moretz was doomed from the start, for exactly the reasons mentioned above—its version of the character seems practically like a prom queen from her first moments, rather than an unassuming and unusual girl who is cruelly targeted by her uncaring peers.
Nor can any of the other versions of or sequels to Carrie ever recapture the dynamic that works so well between the chief performers of this film. Sissy Spacek’s plaintive performance is genuinely wounding—it’s very difficult to believe she was a 27-year-old playing a 16-year-old here, because she brings such vulnerability and instability to the character; an uncertainty over every word she utters and action she takes. You find yourself not only disgusted by how she’s treated but consistently enraged on her behalf, not just at the likes of P.J. Soles, pelting her in the bathroom with tampons, but with the mother who allowed her daughter to navigate the waters of high school without any information to prepare her for the challenges of puberty. As Margaret White, meanwhile, Piper Laurie is an unholy terror in the guise of a holy one, and even her attempts to care for her daughter help the audience to understand how dangerous she would be once she discovers the true nature of Carrie’s gifts. After all, “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
Ultimately, Carrie is among the most empathic of the Stephen King works that would go on to receive film adaptations, despite being the very first to do so. Spacek’s performance creates a genuine, diffident young woman who has been damaged in truly serious ways, and even if she hadn’t been armed with telekinetic powers, one is led to conclude that she probably would have snapped one day all the same. Perhaps, instead of a bucket of blood raining down on her head at prom, it would have been when she was dumped by a boyfriend, or fired from a job, or (most likely) confronted one times too many by her abusive, withered mother. King merely gave Carrie an unusually strong bag of tricks to use in her inevitable retaliation. The world, he would likely say, had it coming.
The horror genre revels in one of its most surreal years in 1977, fully throwing itself into the zeitgeist of 1970s experimental cinema. There’s no shortage of quality offerings here, but few that you would call traditional or classical—it’s a decidedly weird and offbeat lineup from start to finish, as even the horror genre is really reflecting the New Hollywood spirit at this point. Many of the genre’s notable auteur types are releasing notable films here: David Lynch, George Romero, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Wes Craven, Mario Bava, David Cronenberg and more. In fact, looking just at that list of directors, you might assume that 1977 ranks among the greatest years in horror history, but most of those releases are typically considered “minor” works of their directors—it’s ultimately a good year rather than an all-time one.
With that said, any year containing Lynch’s Eraserhead has a certain weird mojo going for it. Ascending to a status that essentially makes it the unofficial patron saint of surrealist body horror, it’s a film that defies attempts at categorization and thematic analysis. You can interpret the disturbing images in Eraserhead in so many ways—societal rejection of the individual; fear over the burden of responsibility and negligence; criticism of the pacifistic or fatalist mindset—ultimately, your opinion will likely reflect which aspects of the film you find most unnerving. But rest assured, you will be unnerved, whether it’s by the explicit use of nightmarish imagery or the masterfully subtle application of low-level distorted sounds, hums and drones that occur throughout. Thanks to its sound design in particular, watching Eraserhead is a bit like experiencing a visualized migraine headache.
Japan also gets in on the surrealist fun in 1977 with quintessential “midnight movie” Hausu/House, a film that is often described off hand as “like Jaws, except the shark is a house.” A film modeled after that description in a literal way would no doubt be some kind of farce, but those who have seen Hausu know it’s a significantly more potent kaleidoscope of colorful insanity. The plot is simple—a group of schoolgirls go to a house, and it murders them—but the images are hallucinatory and intensely psychedelic, rather than legitimately frightening or self-serious. Home to flying heads, animated cats and the best piano-based death scene in horror film history, there’s nothing else quite like it. Surprising at times in its pastoral beauty, and then guffaw-worthy for its silliness moments later, Hausu is a film that begs to be seen with a large crowd of neophytes who are ready to be taken on a trip.
Elsewhere, gritty, violent horror is the theme of the day, as Wes Craven unleashes the sadistic The Hills Have Eyes, while Cronenberg serves up an eroticized body horror combination of vampire and zombie tropes in Rabid. George Romero, meanwhile, crafts what is often considered one of his best, but most perennially underseen works, Martin. A treatise on identity, delusion, sex and violence, Martin is the story of a young man who may or may not be a vampire—Romero plays it coy in ever revealing whether the kid is 84 years old, as he believes, or just a mentally disturbed young man. That ambiguity is key to keeping the audience’s attention, as a definitive answer to the film’s central question would irreparably transform it into either a gritty, urban vampire flick or an ultra-depressing psychological drama. Instead, Martin operates as both at times, making us unsure of how to process the reactions that society has toward Martin—is he a monster that needs to be staked, or a sick boy who needs antipsychotic medication? Horror exists in the constant doubt as to which actions one should take.
One last fun note: 1977 gives us the most prominent example of a horror-ish premise that desperately needs modern, big-budget reexamination: “All animals vs. all humans.” This year’s Day of the Animals is a laughable attempt to execute on that shower thought of a plot, but hey, you at least get a shirtless Leslie Nielsen fighting a bear. This is exactly as awesome/stupid as it sounds.
1977 Honorable Mentions:
Eraserhead, Rabid, Martin, Hausu, The Psychic, The Hills Have Eyes, Shock, The Sentinel
The Film: Suspiria
Director: Dario Argento
The career of Dario Argento can essentially be compartmentalized into eras: The writer era, the giallo era, and the supernatural era. There’s a little bit of overlap, certainly, and the structure begins to fall apart in the later years of Argento’s career—as do the films from the 1990s onward, if we’re being honest—but the idea of “three eras” nicely dovetails with Argento’s most famous creation, the “Three Mothers” first seen in Suspiria. This trio of powerful, absolutely wicked witches lead human covens around the world, providing a rich bed of mythology on which Argento works his visual magic, first in Suspiria and then in 1980’s Inferno and 2007’s inessential Mother of Tears. Of the three, though, it’s Suspiria that continues to stir the imagination of filmmakers worldwide; the film that marked the start of Argento’s supernatural horror phase.
To be certain, there are few films in the genre with such an immediately distinctive sense of visual flair. Suspiria is stylized in the extreme, eschewing naturalistic presentation of the world in favor of dreamlike (and then nightmarish) expressionism. Its light sources appear out of the darkness seemingly of their own accord, throwing up huge splashes of primary colors that can seemingly be recognized only by us, the viewer, rather than the characters on screen. To the eyes of young American dancer Suzy Bannion, she’s entered a world that is ruthlessly competitive and physically demanding, yes, but it’s still a world she recognizes as her own personal reality. To the viewer, on the other hand, the film’s visuals alone imply that we have traveled through the looking glass, and into a world of sadistic fantasy. As writer Astrid Budgor put it, describing Suspiria for Paste’s list of the 100 best horror films of all time, the film “makes gorgeousness its primary concern.”
That isn’t to say there aren’t a few effectively terrifying setpieces. The killings in the film’s opening moments tend to get the most attention in horror genre clip reels, but it’s the fate of blind pianist Daniel that most perfectly captures the beautiful interplay between Argento’s direction and his use of visuals, sound and the score by frequent collaborators Goblin to achieve a state of unbearable tension before the big payoff. As Daniel strolls into a huge, deserted plaza, we already know that something bad is about to happen to him. Goblin’s score builds to a crescendo as the blind man and his seeing eye dog realize that something is amiss, calling out challenges that reverberate off the silent statues. The camera dips behind a pillar, suggesting that some sinister force is eyeing the man from afar. And then … well, the fact that Argento still finds a way to end the sequence in a surprise speaks to a master at the height of his powers. The whole scene is a masterclass in suspense, as are the majority of the famed “last 12 minutes.”
It’s a testament, likewise, to the lasting power of Argento’s Suspiria that a remake 42 years later would attract a talent the size of director Luca Guadagnino to provide a sense of visual iconoclasm that could stand up in terms of personality to the original, without attempting to actively replicate it. At this, it’s a rare case where a remake largely succeeds. The film is not without its issues in terms of pacing and plotting, but a lack of ambition certainly isn’t among its flaws. Like Argento’s original, it refuses to have its weirdest impulses constrained, and it’s better for it.
There have been some “kill your darlings” years so far in this Century of Terror project, but nothing like this. You’re saying I have to pick a “best movie” between HALLOWEEN and DAWN OF THE DEAD? What kind of sick joke is this? Why did I decide to embark on this project in the first place?
Suffice to say, this is a year where the top two entries are universally acknowledged as a pair of the greatest and most influential horror films of all time—and Philip Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers isn’t far behind, either. They form a powerful trio at the head of this top-heavy year for the genre, wherein the overall quality of most releases may have slipped a bit, but it’s easy to overlook when you get multiple genre-defining classics.
First, to make our apologies to the spirit of George Romero: No hard feelings, buddy. In practically any other year, the director’s razor sharp social satire on race, consumerism and gender equality would have catapulted Dawn of the Dead to an easy win, but this year he’s facing off against John Carpenter’s perfectly crafted distillation of the slasher genre in the form of Halloween, and that’s a very tough assignment. Still, there’s no denying the profound impact of Dawn of the Dead, which directly influenced a wave of imitators that were much more slavish in copying its aesthetic than filmmakers were after the 1968 original introduced the idea of “Romero-style” zombies. You might say that if Night introduced Romero’s satirical worldview with the modern undead zombie as its herald, then Dawn codified the concept and then released it into the public domain, to begin a cycle of endless mutation and evolution. Within a few years time, this particular style of zombie would be everywhere, providing fodder for an entire generation of low-budget, would-be auteurs looking to follow in Romero’s footsteps. But despite many attempts to replicate its particular tone of gallows humor, joyful bloodletting and eventual, depressive collapse of the will, few have ever recaptured Dawn of the Dead’s spark of the divine. It remains one of the most generally imitated films in horror history—not just in the 1980s, but through the direct-to-VOD era and beyond.
Kaufman’s spin on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, on the other hand, loses some of the Cold War paranoia of its predecessor, replacing it with a more purely horrific consideration of the physical implications of the “pod people.” Its FX haven’t exactly aged well, but as in the case of that infamous, human-faced dog, it’s a case where the clumsiness of dated effects have somehow made them MORE profoundly disturbing rather than less—a happy accident that makes watching the film today especially gut-churning. As does that devastatingly bleak ending, of course.
The rest of the year is something of a mixed bag, split between lesser sequels like Jaws 2 and strange, mystical supernatural horror, as in The Shout and The Fury. We will say this for the latter, though: It ends with one of the most ridiculously graphic explosions of a human body ever captured on camera. If nothing else, watch the last two minutes of The Fury for a gory KABLAM the likes of which you’ve never seen before.
1978 Honorable Mentions:
Dawn of the Dead, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Shout, Magic, Long Weekend, The Fury, Jaws 2, I Spit on Your Grave
The Film: Halloween
Few films are so utterly synonymous with a genre as Halloween and the concept of the slasher movie. Although by no means the first “true” slasher—we still contend that Black Christmas wears that title, although there are many proto-slashers and giallo in the years prior that almost qualify, such as Alice, Sweet Alice—this was where slashers broke big in the U.S. Halloween kicks off an impressive wave of imitation that turns first into a trickle, and then into an outright flood following 1980’s Friday the 13th. But of the two, Halloween is the real masterwork, and it has aged sublimely in the four decades since, being just as perfectly chilling today as ever.
The key, of course, is Michael Myers. He is the ur-slasher villain; the template for Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger and every mask-wearing psycho who ever stalked a nubile young girl in the 41 years that have followed. He is a mysterious, brutal cipher—dismissed as a cataonic loon by the medical world, but secretly hiding what seems to be extreme intelligence, ingenuity and what Dr. Loomis eventually refers to as “inhuman patience.” Indeed, it’s hard to tell whether Myers truly is human. His lack of vocalization, superhuman resistance to injury and the pools of darkness in each eyehole of his mask hint at an aura of demonic indestructibility, like whatever is powering Myers’ actions is decidedly not of this Earth. He gives no rationale for his evil actions; no grandstanding or pompous ego-stroking. He just murders with silent satisfaction, defying any attempt to understand him. His reasons are his own, and he’s not sharing them with anyone.
Much of this characterization, though, comes not directly as a course of Michael’s actions, but secondhand, via the expert perspective of Dr. Loomis. He’s an incredibly important character to the slasher canon; the archetype for what is later described in Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon as “an Ahab.” If Michael is an embodiment of pure evil, then Loomis represents the polar opposite—the only one who knows the depths of Myers’ wickedness, and thus the one man who will do anything to stop him. His histrionic freak-outs and hyperbolic descriptions of Myers throughout the course of the series—he calls him “death on two legs” at one point—inflate the stature of the villain immensely, propelling him into the realm of legend. Without Dr. Loomis, Michael is just an escaped mental patient with a mask. But with a character of this caliber to hunt him, Myers appears to the audience as an unstoppable force of evil.
As the story’s ingenue, Jamie Lee Curtis is also of course an incredible model for what would go on to be called the “final girl.” She possesses the perfect combination of gawky awkwardness and sexual repression that came to typify the archetype, which was largely built in her image. Like other final girls after her, one could say that the story of Halloween is ultimately about Laurie’s rite of passage from girlhood to womanhood. Forced into a fight-or-die scenario, she reaches down deep within herself to grasp a newfound assertiveness and determination to survive, empowering herself in the process. That’s all the story ever needed to be effective—the “Michael is actually Laurie’s brother” nonsense tacked on in Halloween 2 ultimately did little to raise the stakes, to the point that the most recent 2018 return to Halloween decided to do away with that bit of canon entirely.
And finally, we must give personal credit to John Carpenter for the potent, terrifying vision that brought us Halloween. From the instantly iconic, primordially powerful opening theme, to the various techniques he helped make into genre staples, like the prolonged “killer’s POV/voyeur/stalking” shots, Carpenter achieves maximum fear with what are ultimately minimal moving pieces. Hell, there’s barely even any blood in Halloween—certainly less than in many giallo of the day—but it doesn’t matter, because Carpenter instead establishes a much more profound sense of dread by creating a character whose name became synonymous with fright. Even four decades later, you’ll be forgiven if you go to bed after watching Halloween, wondering if the boogeyman might be coming for you.
A pretty damn strong collection of horror films across several different subgenres, 1979 feels like a bit of a crossroads for horror overall. At the top of the list, Ridley Scott’s Alien thrusts science fiction and spacefaring stories back into the horror genre, where they’ll be frequent settings throughout the 1980s. The Halloween imitators are likewise revving up, with early slashers in a variety of molds such as Tourist Trap, The Driller Killer and The Silent Scream, although the genre will truly go into overdrive in 1980 and beyond. Meanwhile, both body horror (Cronenberg’s The Brood) and psychological horror (When a Stranger Calls, based on the same urban legend as Black Christmas) are still going strong. It’s even an unexpected banner year for vampire movies, home to Werner Herzog’s reimagining of Nosferatu, Frank Langella’s spin on Dracula and the well-regarded TV version of Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot. As the decade moves into the 1980s, though, the more psychological and cerebral horror films will recede a bit, being replaced by a sheer volume of crowd-pleasing slashers, science fiction and exploitation movies.
Of the films we just mentioned, Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre deserves special recognition. Starring frequent collaborator Klaus Kinski as an especially intense version of Dracula—although still retaining the design of “Count Orlok” from Murnau’s Nosferatu—Herzog’s film is both beautiful and poignant. Its vampire is in no uncertain terms still a fiend, but this version of the story finds an unusual degree of empathy for him, highlighting what seems to be the crumbling of Dracula’s social and mental faculties after centuries of isolation and loneliness. This vampire seems tired; weary of his endless existence and on some level desperate to end it all—but at the same time, afraid to let go of his grip on life, especially when tempted by the beauty of young Lucy Harker. He becomes a tragic, almost pathetic figure, despite all of his menace; a portrayal not unlike the one Kinski also brings to Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Here was an actor uniquely suited to playing a classic film monster and imbuing him with a depth of humanity not seen in the genre before.
On the other side of the spectrum, 1979 delivers some oddball gems as well, from the flying, chrome death ball of Phantasm to the underseen mannequin slasher Tourist Trap. Also notable: Lucio Fulci directs what becomes the defining example of Italian zombie cinema, Zombi 2. Presented as an unlicensed sequel to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which had been released in Italy under the title Zombi, Fulci’s film has essentially nothing to do with Romero’s creations, aside from lifting the concept of undead corpses walking the Earth. His zombie movie throws any form of subtlety or social satire to the wind, beginning the genre’s long tradition of “anything goes” zombie violence mentality. It contains multiple legendary moments, from the absurd spectacle of a zombie fighting a shark, to the incredibly gross kill scene where a woman’s eye is slowly impaled on a jagged splinter of wood—shots that would be heavily copied around the world in the decade to come. The 1980s will be typified by the rise of low-budget, gore-driven zombie films in the U.S., Italy and beyond.
1979 Honorable Mentions:
Nosferatu the Vampyre, Zombi 2, Phantasm, The Brood, Tourist Trap, Salem’s Lot, When a Stranger Calls, The Amityville Horror, Dracula
The Film: Alien
Did you know that there are people out there who question whether Alien is really a “horror movie”? Does this not make you wonder what those people would consider a horror film, if Alien of all things doesn’t make the criteria? Rest assured, Alien is not only horror but a jaw-dropping assemblage of body horror, social commentary and slasher elements, tied together by some of the genre’s finest production and creature design. It’s a perfect storm of nightmare fuel.
With that said, even those who rightly recognize Alien within the horror camp sometimes have a tendency to oversimplify the film upon description, using terms like calling it a “slasher in space,” solely because of the film’s body count and Ripley’s loose fit to the archetype of the “final girl.” To do so is dismissive to the brilliance of Scott’s film, which focuses with incredible intensity on immersing the viewer in its wholly original setting. It’s a beautifully realized vision of one possible future for the human race; a science fiction setting that stood out sharply from other, contemporary depictions of space travel in particular. Put simply, the film’s spaceship is a dump, and its crew are the interstellar equivalent of long-haul truckers. They’re not brilliant scientists, soldiers or philosophers, seeking truth among the stars; they’re just corporate employees hauling cargo, and their job sucks for myriad reasons, all of which are reflected in their crumbling hulk of a ship. Navigating through the interior of the Nostromo is like crawling through city sewers or some kind of industrial septic system. Doors fail to open neatly, as rust is scraped away and maintenance falls by the wayside. Even if the alien on the loose doesn’t kill you, it feels like a misdirected jet of steam or a collapsing catwalk would probably do the job, and it only makes the setting that much creepier. One of the greatest challenges faced by this crew is the fact that they’re barely equipped to live in this place, much less fight acid-blooded aliens in it.
And oh my, what an alien. Crawling from a no-doubt glistening cocoon in the subconscious of Swiss surrealist painter H.R. Giger, the “xenomorph” of the Alien series is perfectly disturbing to behold. It contains just enough anthropomorphization to remind the audience that it’s the product of deadly human insemination, while simultaneously including insectoid touches (like the double mandibles) that push natural buttons of revulsion in viewers. The basic design seen here in the original Alien is tweaked throughout the many sequels that followed, but never is a single xenomorph ever presented as such a coldly calculating and unstoppable threat. This alien tears through the entire crew of the Nostromo like they’re nothing, forcing viewers to confront their own very likely insignificance in the universe in the process.
Dan O’Bannon’s screenplay, likewise, deserves credit for how subtly it introduces the crew of the Nostromo and Ripley in particular, never truly making it clear that Sigourney Weaver’s “warrant officer” will become one of film’s greatest feminist icons by the end of its two-hour runtime. In fact, the script cleverly de-emphasizes Ripley in the early going, making Tom Skerritt’s Captain Dallas seem like more of an obvious protagonist, playing with the audience’s preconceived notions of who should and should not be a “hero.” So too does our lack of information in terms of the nature of “synthetics” make the reveal of science officer Ash’s true nature that much more shocking—a twist that deeply reinforces the film’s undercurrent of distrust toward the possibility of corporate responsibility. Of all the themes that survive into James Cameron’s much more action-oriented sequel Aliens, the most vital is that shared criticism of “the corporation” and the remorseless bureaucracy it represents.
So yes—despite decades of inferior sequels (Aliens excluded), constant attempts to redefine the series mythology, crossovers with other properties (including Batman, at one point) and a general assumption of its imagery into the mainstream of popular culture, Alien is still a masterpiece of horror. Scott’s film, unlike the putrid innards of the Nostromo itself, has remained untarnished.