This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.
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.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.