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.
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
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.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.