What do we even mean when we call it a horror movie? People often argue about what qualifies in the genre: is it a horror or a thriller? Those are apparently different genres. But getting into an explanation of that difference quickly becomes murky: a thriller is psychological, so is horror defined by shock value and gore?
Reading classic novels like Dracula or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a modern reader might be surprised to find that they contain monsters, but no one jumps out of closets to scare us. The stories are more concerned with taking a look at the unpleasant fears that lurk in our minds (or allegories of social concerns like class and sexuality). Sometimes, they even put us, sympathetically, in the mindset of the creature or its victim, as in Frankenstein, which indulges mostly in a philosophy of the outsider without really being all that interested in being frightening until James Whale got his hands on it.
Classic movies had plenty of scares that qualify by today’s idea of horror. Witness The Island of Lost Souls in the 1930s, or the drive-in creature features of the ’50s, but the two most popular horror films in the ’60s saw the genre traveling in opposite directions: Hitchcock’s Psycho embraced the modern love of shock scares and Robert Wise’s The Haunting indulged in a Victorian principle of suggestion and mood. By the time you get to the ’70s, the genre is still having a great time with all types of storytelling, both atmospheric pieces questioning a state of mind (you can add Charlotte Perkins Gilman to that list of classic books as influence) as well as grindhouse features that advanced the craft of creating convincing fake blood and hacked off limbs. Growing up in the soulless, corporation-produced slice-and-dice murder franchises of the ’80s, as I did, it’s a treat discover a much more diverse landscape of frightful storytelling. Enduring today’s age of endless Blumhouse entries, where nothing resembles reality but takes place in an artificial “horror movie world” (where everyone has plenty of time to light thousands of candles in a basement, for example), it’s great to see movies that scare you partly just because of how convincing their setting is. The Criterion Channel’s look at the horror films of the ’70s is a bounty of tricks and treats that arrives just in time for Halloween.
Here are the films in preferential order:
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)
The genre was changed overnight when Tobe Hooper’s micro-budget indie became a runaway success and deservedly so. This many decades of imitations, sequels and remakes later, it’s still one of the scariest movies ever made. Its spontaneity is its power, observing as a group of hip kids travel to a family property in a rural town and accidentally walk into the lair of a psychotic murderer. He dispatches them one after the other until it’s just Marilyn Burns attending a VERY unhappy family reunion. The old man in low budget old age makeup is the only time it threatens to get goofy, otherwise what makes this film so terrifying (other than the obvious) is just how real its setting seems.
The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)
One of the greatest cases of a film that fools you into watching one narrative and then turns out to have been telling a different story all along, the upending of your expectations might make this the most horrific film of all time. Edward Woodward comes to a remote Scottish island in search of a missing girl after receiving an anonymous letter, and finds a paradise of pagan believers whose society he just knows has something rotten at its core. It’s the movie that Ari Aster thought nobody but him watched before making Midsommar, and it does everything smoothly and spontaneously that he achieved with such self-important intellectual laziness.
Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)
Nicolas Roeg’s masterpiece is a textbook example of how you can fill an audience with dread just by the way you film things. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are set on a path of eerie coincidences after the drowning death of their daughter plunges them into a grief that they hope to exorcise while he works on a cathedral restoration job in Venice. They keep seeing weird things in the canals of the city late at night that make them think they are being haunted by the ghost of their child. She becomes obsessed with the paranormal after meeting a woman with second sight. There are sound cues in this film that have provided me with some of the most thrilling frights in my movie-watching life. It’s an exceptionally eerie movie that reveals things to you every time you rewatch it.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978)
Today he pops up in roles of authority and wisdom, but in the 1970s, filmmakers really knew how to use Donald Sutherland’s lanky frame and haunted face. Fellini cast him in Casanova because he said he had the bulging eyes of a chronic masturbator. Bertolucci and Schlesinger made him the creepiest villain of the decade in 1900 and Day of the Locust. Philip Kaufman saved the best for last in this superb remake of the 1956 Don Siegel classic. Sutherland gives a facial expression at the end of the film that will haunt your dreams for months. Leaving behind the cold war paranoia of the original, Kaufman and screenwriter W.D. Richter present a world unable to put itself back together after the fracturing effects of free-love counterculture, vulnerable to an alien invasion that goes ignored because psychiatrist Leonard Nimoy (in an inspired bit of casting) tells everyone that it’s not that their spouse has been replaced by someone else, you just don’t know how to commit anymore. Creepy, crazy fun.
Sisters (Brian de Palma, 1973)
De Palma’s first masterwork is this deeply troubling tale of conjoined twins who have recently been successfully separated but with different outcomes, one pursuing a modeling career in New York and the other locked in an insane asylum, both played by the stunning Margot Kidder. After the good one has a one night stand that the bad one kills, an ambitious reporter (Jennifer Salt) who witnesses it from her window decides she will stop at nothing to prove the crime and find out who the culprit is. Shades of Franju and Hitchcock are splashed across the screen with gory vigour by the young filmmaker’s passionate energy.
Shivers (David Cronenberg, 1975)
One of Cronenberg‘s earliest films, and still one of his best, is a simultaneously disgusting and utterly hysterical satire on the corruption beneath middle-class fine living. A swanky Montreal apartment building is infected with a parasite that turns its residents horny and violent. Their desire for high-intensity contact is contagious, making life difficult for a doctor (Paul Hampton) whose nurse girlfriend lives in the building and who is hoping to contain the outbreak. Expert makeup effects and stunning cinematography are pulled off on a low budget. I t’s easy to see how Cronenberg inspired fans to take his career to the heights that it would eventually reach.
Theater of Blood (Douglas Hickox, 1973)
Vincent Price later said this was his favourite of his films and it’s easy to see why. It’s a terrific combination of laughs and gory thrills as he plays an embittered actor who fakes his suicide and then, two years later, vengefully kills all the critics who maligned him in manners relating to his greatest Shakespearean performances. Outrageous, colourful and darkly funny, this film should be a priority for anyone going through this list.
Death Line (Gary Sherman, 1972)
Released as Raw Meat in the United States and promoted as a zombie movie, this is actually a terrifying horror film about a London police chief (Donald Pleasance) investigating people going missing at Russell Square Station. What he learns is that late nineteenth century tunnel workers were thought dead after a roof collapsed on them, but actually survived underground for a century as cannibals. American David Ladd (son of Alan, brother of the film’s producer) decides to brave the subterranean network to find his girlfriend after she is snatched up by a very hungry denizen from below. Alex Thomson’s pristine cinematography gives the perfect finishing touch to some very very scary moments.
Deathdream (Bob Clark, 1974)
Sometimes culty genre pictures do a better job of tackling important social issues than self-important prestige fare does. I’d venture to say that Deathdream punctures Vietnam angst with more accuracy than Coming Home or even The Deer Hunter did a few years later. John Marley and Lynn Carlin, whom you can imagine here as a perverse sequel to Faces, get a telegram from the war department that their son (Richard Backus) has died in battle. They refuse to believe it and are thrilled when he shows up on their doorstep late that same night. They don’t notice, of course, that he’s devoid of emotion or appetite and only slowly begin to realize that his body is decaying except when he drains others of their blood for sustenance. Something of a reworking of W.W. Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw, this film has some terrifying images but also incorporates a genuine feeling of sorrow.
Black Christmas (Bob Clark, 1974)
If Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood is credited with creating the murder-by-numbers slasher genre, it was Black Christmas that brought it home to North America. This beautifully shot Canadian production is still beloved as a Halloween favourite, or a dark Christmas classic in some cases. Olivia Hussey leads a cast of concerned sorority sisters (including then still relatively unknown Andrea Martin and Margot Kidder) who are concerned when one of their members goes missing. It might be temperamental Keir Dullea doing it but then how is he also making threatening crank calls at the same time that he causes a fuss in their house? The film dares to keep its threatening menace unseen and unknown as all these characters, which also include Art Hindle in a magnificent coat, grasp at straws to save themselves.
Rabid (David Cronenberg, 1977)
Despite being condemned with a lack of government support after the Canadian outcry over Shivers, Cronenberg managed to raise a bigger budget and show a progression in his storytelling strength in this disturbing horror film. Notorious adult film star Marilyn Chambers has experimental plastic surgery for burns suffered in a motorcycle accident, and the techniques used to heal her also create a very upsetting orifice in her armpit, out of which emerges a dagger-like organism that punctures anyone who comes too close to her. As she goes from person to person lusting for their blood, she leaves in her wake a trail of highly contagious zombies wandering Montreal feasting on each other. Cronenberg is as imaginative as he is smart and funny, and all three factors combine for a thrilling tale.
Long Weekend (Colin Eggleston, 1978)
Horror is an atmosphere in this wonderful thriller in which a couple whose intimacy is slowly fraying make the mistake of thinking a week at the beach will solve all their problems. Heading out of the city and bringing all their urban disregard for the environment with them, they set up a tent on a glorious stretch of abandoned beach and then suddenly find themselves beset on all sides by strange coincidental accidents involving sea creatures and land beasts. Gorgeously shot, creative, and benefiting from the sexy chemistry between its leads, it’s a gem.
The Brood (David Cronenberg, 1979)
Another private clinic is the breeding ground for trouble in David Cronenberg’s creepy tale of an estranged husband (Art Hindle) who believes that his wife (an outstanding Samantha Eggar) is being brainwashed by a charlatan “psychoplasmic” doctor (Oliver Reed) under the guise of helping her cope with motherhood. Hindle’s daughter keeps coming home from visits with bruises on her body, and then his in-laws are murdered by tiny people who might be signalling some kind of alien invasion. Cronenberg’s style has real relish as he connects his preoccupation with the horrific possibilities of mortal human flesh with maternal anxieties and the fragility of the marital bond. The film is highlighted by excellent acting and genuine tension that keeps it from being the kind of Alice Sweet Alice trash that the plot could easily give way to.
Images (Robert Altman, 1972)
Between his multi-character, panoramic examinations of American life, Altman formed something of a trilogy of intimate character pieces investigating a female protagonist’s psychology in Images, A Cold Day In the Park, and Three Women. Susannah York won the Best Actress Prize at Cannes for her sharp and commanding performance as a woman who can’t quite keep a grasp on her sense of reality. She tries to maintain a bourgeois normalcy for her husband (René Auberjonois) but is beset by visions wherever she turns, including a dead lover and another version of herself. Altman is always more interested in the process of human behaviour than on any kind of climax and catharsis structure, so don’t be surprised if you’re not satisfied with it dramatically. However, it features some of the most beautiful imagery in his oeuvre and the manner with which it moves through the main character’s frail sanity is always clear and assured.
The Hills Have Eyes (Wes Craven, 1977)
Many films in this collection have the tension, excitement and imagination of this gorefest, but few provide the emotional satisfaction at its climax. The film that deservedly made Wes Craven‘s career, it’s about a family of seven whose car breaks down in the middle of the desert and leaves them stranded. Their initial concern is getting back on the road until they learn they are also at the mercy of cave-dwelling cannibals who are coming to pick them off one by one. Violent, intense and very clever, Craven pushes his luck with the magical pet dog who seems a bit too smart and morally astute, but it’s all part of the fun of satirizing urban fears in rural places.
Coma (Michael Crichton, 1978)
More of a thriller than a horror film (see?), this is a wonderfully preposterous medical drama about a surgeon (Geneviève Bujold) who begins to look into a series of medical mishaps occurring at her prestigious Boston hospital: for some reason young, healthy people are going into comas during routine medical procedures. Her investigation gets dangerous people’s noses out of joint very quickly, which only makes the insatiably curious amateur detective that much more intent on getting to the bottom of the matter. However, her boss (Richard Widmark) is worried for her career and her fellow surgeon/boyfriend (Michael Douglas) is worried for her sanity. Michael Crichton made a few films in the 1970s before focusing on writing novels and this film, based on a bestseller by Robin Cook, plays like a good beach read and is among his most enjoyable works.
Dracula AD 1972 (Alan Gibson, 1972)
Cool cats in swinging London decide to hold a Black Mass for fun, not realizing that one member of the crew is purposely calling up the soul of the long-deceased Count Dracula (Christopher Lee). It’s been one hundred years since Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) died defeating him, and among the group of friends is Van Helsing’s great-great-granddaughter Jessica, played by the luscious Stephanie Beacham, who becomes the resurrected Count’s focus for revenge. Thankfully for her, her grandfather (also Cushing) has continued the family work of fighting unexplained phenomena. Colourful and silly, this film takes far too long to get going, likely because Hammer Productions wanted to focus on the action of the young people for box office purposes, and it doesn’t seem like Lee was called in for more than a week or so, but it has a bright energy to make up for its very weak script.
The Vampire Lovers (Roy Ward Baker, 1970)
The Roger Corman horror films of the ’60s are given nudity and some kinky Sapphism as a way to make them appeal to the modern kids. It’s an adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla in which Ingrid Pitt plays the lady-loving vampire who is cutting a swathe across the country, felling beautiful damsels left and right,. She slowly drains the life from a nobleman’s daughter while seducing her French governess (Kate O’Mara) into complicity. I don’t know if Hammer horrors were ever all that scary. They certainly aren’t scary now, but their visuals are always stunning, with rich cinematography and a sense of playful fun that makes the half-hearted effort at historical accuracy only that much more pleasurable.
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (John D. Hancock, 1971)
Zohra Lampert’s wonderful performance is the reason to watch this low-key thriller in which a woman recently returned from psychiatric care following a nervous breakdown has moved to New York state farm country with her husband and his best friend. Everywhere she goes, she sees spooky things like mute women in white beckoning her to follow them, or undead Victorian brides emerging from the lake outside her new home. Is she falling back into her madness or is something else going on? Great imagery abounds, although the plotting falls apart in the last third and it stops being fun even if you haven’t figured out what’s going on–and given the fact that the answer is handed to you quite blatantly, the last third should be way more fun.
Ganja & Hess (Bill Gunn, 1973)
Bill Gunn directed this underground cult classic, in which Night of the Living Dead star Duane Jones plays an anthropologist studying an ancient civilization. He is killed with a ceremonial knife by his assistant (Gunn) who then turns a gun on himself, but Jones somehow survives and comes back to life with a bloodlust that he cannot sate. When Gunn’s wife (Marlene Clark) shows up looking for her husband, she becomes his vampire bride. Shot on a low budget, the grainy photography is still beautiful and, although the plot meanders more than necessary, it successfully manages to combine sexy humour with its more disturbing plot elements.
The Crazies (George A. Romero, 1973)
George Romero reimagines Night of the Living Dead as a pandemic-themed action film, with yet another small group of survivors trying to withstand the danger of the angry hordes. The United States Army descends on a small farming community and quarantines the town. They inform the mayor that a plane that crashed in the vicinity and was carrying a dangerous virus that has entered the town’s water supply and is turning citizens into violent killers. As soldiers round people up and bring them in to be treated, two firemen, a pregnant nurse and a father and daughter try to make their way out of town. Made on a low budget and the grungy production values show it, it’s an exciting and fun film whose social message (look how violent we are in trying to prevent violence!) is enveloped quite seamlessly into the charismatic mayhem.
The Nightcomers (Michael Winner, 1971)
Milo and Flora are orphaned by their parents’ deaths and installed in a country manor where their closest living relative has left them on their own, asking the housekeeper to keep an eye on things while they study under the tutelage of their governess (Stephanie Beacham). They spend most of their time cavorting with the estate’s groundskeeper (Marlon Brando), a rascal and eccentric whose ideas about love and mortality twist the children’s understanding of the world. They also witness his love affair with the governess. These nights of torrid sex accentuated with bondage influence their increasingly perverted sense of play. It’s a prequel to The Turn of the Screw, so if you’re familiar with that story, you’ll know where it’s all going. It has wonderful cinematography and a terrific ending, but it meanders quite a bit on its way to its conclusion and isn’t up to the intensity that the entire fine cast is giving it.
Daughters of Darkness (Harry Kumel, 1971)
Delphine Seyrig is the most glamorous vamp of them all no matter how you define the term. she plays a slinky, honey-voiced Hungarian countess who shows up at a near-empty hotel in Ostende during the winter off-season at the same time as a newlywed couple. The newlyweds have missed the boat to England and are holing up in the hotel for the night, but Seyrig takes one look at the luscious blond wife and decides to keep them there longer. I don’t know why lesbians are so much more acceptable in movies when they’re vampires, and much like The Vampire Lovers, the girl-on-girl action is dampened by actresses who look terrified to ruin their lipstick. While this film has no frights to offer, it provides a kind of underhanded pleasure in the way that it draws out its campy tale of passion and lust. Plus, the dresses are divine.
Trog (Freddie Francis, 1970)
Having this one in the collection is a bit of a cheat. Its style is more of a ’60s horror movie than what was to come in the next decade, but it’s great to see the great Joan Crawford in her final film even if it is an unintentional camp classic. She plays an anthropologist who is excited when scientists exploring a cave (one of them played by ’60s physique model John Hamill) discover a primitive troglodyte living underground. She brings him in to be studied and possibly civilized, while other more reactionary voices want him destroyed. If it wasn’t so obviously an actor in makeup and a bad Halloween mask (actually a leftover costume from 2001: A Space Odyssey), maybe it would have a chance as science-fiction fun, but even then it’s not likely.
It’s Alive (Larry Cohen, 1974)
A couple check into the hospital for the blessed event of the birth of their second child and are rather distraught when she gives birth to a ravenous monster that kills all the medical professionals in the delivery room. The monster heads out to cause mayhem in the city as the couple has to deal with the public embarrassment of their dangerous issue. Dad John P. Ryan loses his job and makes clear his determination to kill the little beast, while mom Susan Farrell insists that it’s still her child and she needs to find it and care for it. As a creature feature, it has a great set up, but only a handful of exciting action sequences are memorable. The opportunity to plumb the psychological terrors of parenting and childbirth à la Cronenberg aren’t explored either, leaving something that is dissatisfying despite being so good-naturedly campy.
The Witch Who Came from the Sea (Matt Cimber, 1976)
Millie Perkins stars in a little-seen, often banned curiosity written by her husband Robert Thom that, like many of the films in this collection, uses the horror genre to explore the psyche of a damaged and oppressed woman. She’s a waitress in a seaside town who has disturbing fantasies about harming the men she sees while walking the beach or watching television. We soon come to realize that these are acts of murder that she enacts in real life and are tied back to childhood trauma. The imagery is impressively bold and the setting adds a chilly mood to an already disturbing tale, although it makes the mistake of getting less tense as it moves towards its conclusion instead of more. Furthermore, given that you can guess the cause of all her woes well before you’re given it, you might lose patience before it’s over.
Season of the Witch (George A. Romero, 1972)
Romero’s third film is a toothless drama about a woman who is plagued by nightmares relating to her soulless marriage and empty life as a bored, suburban housewife. After her friend takes her to a tarot reading with a woman who identifies as a witch, Jan White becomes interested in the dark arts herself, reading how-to books and shopping for occult paraphernalia to cast spells at home. Is she actually becoming a sorceress, or is she just lonely and needs the excuse to call her daughter’s teacher over for wild sex on the shag carpet? Romero usually put serious concerns for societal issues into his over-the-top plots, and here his consideration is the burgeoning power of the women’s movement, but the film suffers from a lack of cause and effect. It loops around the same moments over and over again (basically that she has a bad dream and then spends her waking moments in a daze without ever really learning or growing). Watch it for the kitschy wallpaper and gowns (from Gimbel’s), but don’t expect much else.
The Driller Killer (Abel Ferrara, 1979)
Abel Ferrara followed a brief stint as a director of hardcore porn with this first foray in legitimate filmmaking with this grindhouse feature about a frustrated New York City artist (played by Ferrara himself) who is having trouble paying his bills. Between his financial concerns and the noise coming from the rock band rehearsing below him, he is driven mad and starts taking to the streets late at night with his power drill, boring holes into the drunk and homeless men he finds lying around at night. Ferrara would make a career of showing the corrosive effect of urban life, although Ms. 45 works better with its spirit of revenge and Fear City has a detective story framing its shocking violence. This one feels more like an Andy Warhol film with extra gore and is something of an effort to get through.