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