The year is 1972. From the seedy grindhouse theaters of 42nd Street to rural drive-ins across America, a smorgasbord of ghoulish delights is available to horror fanatics. But if you’re one of those fanatics, you must make your choice based on minimal information: a newspaper ad, a trailer you saw, a splashy poster, or a catchy title on the marquee.
You might go for something from Hammer Films, a studio fading fast but still occasionally able to whip up a solid production like Vampire Circus. Or instant kitsch such as Beware the Blob or Frogs, two movies far more enjoyable than they ought to be. Perhaps you get shafted by Blood Orgy of the She Devils, but at least you’ll have some cachet with horror fans on social media 45 years in the future.
Or maybe you are gut punched by Last House on the Left and wish later you could somehow get those unsettling images out of your head…
What a year.
Once again, I do not claim these are the best films of the year, only that they are my favorites. Read on!
My Top 10 Horror Films of 1972
- Horror Express
What happens when you take a cool concept about a malevolent, mind-hopping life force, cast the top horror stars of the day, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, add Eurocult favorites Helga Line and Sylvia Tortosa as leading ladies, hire Telly Savalas to chew some scenery, whip up an eerie music score, get Eugenio Martin to direct with flair, and set the story on board a Trans-Siberian locomotive?
You get my favorite movie of 1972.
- What Have You Done to Solange?
This film is everything a giallo should be: stylish, sexy, and full of surprises. Great cast, killer score. They got this one right.
- Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things
I actually watched this Night of the Living Dead knock-off before I saw the masterpiece that inspired it. Way back when I was a wee lad, I’d wait until my parents fell asleep then dial up some juicy late-night horror. On the fateful night this flick aired, I became mesmerized at once by the foggy atmosphere, the satanic ritual, the zombie siege, and even the graininess of the film stock. It lacks the polish of director Bob Clark’s later classics Deathdream and Black Christmas, but it hooked me on the grindhouse-cinema aesthetic forever.
- Last House on the Left
What a way to announce one’s presence as a filmmaker.
Wes Craven’s debut is a raw and brutal film not much more polished than a college student’s but is perhaps more effective for that reason, as the shaky camera work and frequent reliance on natural lighting lend it the air of a really unpleasant documentary. To be honest, the acting is spotty and the comic relief is both painfully unfunny and misguided. But the scenes of horror are so visceral and haunting, it’s obvious, even with its flaws, that Last House is the work of a superior talent.
- The Blood Spattered Bride
Oh those European filmmakers and their dreamy, weird vampire erotica. For anyone curious about Spanish horror, this lesbian vampire flick from director Vicente Aranda is a good sample. As with many genre films from that nation, the pace is leisurely, the women are beautiful, it’s dripping with atmosphere, and the explosions of violence are sudden and savage. The requisite “WTF?” moments are present as well, because every good 1970s Euro-cult flick is required, by cinematic law, to have at least one earnestly oddball sequence that would never show up in an American movie.
- Who Saw Her Die?
Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, and Sergio Martino may be the most revered names in giallo cinema, but Aldo Lado is right up there in artistic vision. Like his Short Night of Glass Dolls sort-of giallo from the year before, Who Saw Her Die is both suspenseful and unnerving, and his skill for shot composition is on full display. It’s also likely to be the only film in this entire blog series to star a former James Bond, in this case George Lazenby from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
- Don’t Torture a Duckling
1972 was both a great and a grim year for gialli. As with Who Saw Her Die, Lucio Fulci’s acclaimed and violent giallo features a child murderer for a villain, necessitating a somber tone. This genre may be noted for casting gorgeous ladies (lovely stalwart Barbara Bouchet is on hand here), but Brazilian beauty Florinda Bolkan is not afraid to rough it as a haggard and persecuted gypsy woman. O’ course, she’s a better actress than were most of her contemporaries in the Italian exploitation scene and had the chops to pull it off.
- The Red Queen Kills Seven Times
Whew, after those two gloomy entries, we’re back in the giallo comfort zone where style trumps substance and everyone looks like a magazine cover model. This story teases a supernatural threat, but we’re soon up to our eyeballs in slicing and dicing, and I’m not sure ghosts are that handy with a straight razor. As usual with the better gialli, the film is visually striking, and Barbara Bouchet, Marina Malfatti, and Sybil Danning make sure those same eyeballs remain pacified between the set-piece kills.
Based on the exploitative title, you’d expect to see Rudy Ray Moore dressed like Bela Lugosi, running around making wisecracks while buxom lasses peel their tops at every opportunity. Surprise! Blacula is a solid flick with emotional resonance and a terrific performance by William Marshall as Prince Mamuwalde. He brings all the gravitas needed to suggest a 200-year-old vampire.
- All the Colors of the Dark
This film may be the most stylishly directed of Sergio Martino’s several well-made gialli, and the demonic-cult element brings it close to straight horror. However, Ernesto Gastaldi’s uncharacteristically messy script is confusing and fails to resolve story questions the way a good mystery should, thus pushing it down my list. I think they were going for a Rosemary’s Baby angle (is the devil cult real or is the female lead insane?), but … as much as I adore Edwige Fenech, she’s no Mia Farrow as an actress and doesn’t bring a whole lot of range to the role.
- Tales from the Crypt
That year saw the release of two strong anthology films from Amicus (the rival of Hammer that often used the same actors and directors but set their films in modern times), this one and Asylum. Take your pick, but I find the stories in Crypt more memorable and closer to the flavor of a comic book.
- Baron Blood
Mario Bava’s modern gothic horror doesn’t boast a particularly interesting story, but his shot composition is stellar as usual, the gruesome elements are fun, and the titular villain cuts a creepy figure. It co-stars little Nicoletta Elmi from Who Saw her Die? as well as many other genre films of the period.
- Death Line
Full disclosure: I haven’t seen this film in many years, though I enjoyed it a lot at the time. It sports a strong cast led by Donald Pleasence and has maintained a respectable critical reputation. The good news: Blue Underground is releasing the Blu-ray next month (June 2017), so I’ll have a chance to update my opinion.
- Man from Deep River
Prolific Italian director Umberto Lenzi has thus far gotten no love from me in this blog series. Honestly, I don’t think he’s a hack as his detractors say or that he’s a greatly underappreciated artist as claimed by his advocates. He knows what he’s doing, but there’s usually someone doing the same thing better in any given year. That said, credit goes where it is due. Lenzi was close behind Bava in developing the giallo, and with Deep River he kind of invented the Italian Cannibal genre, however dubious an accomplishment that may be. Regardless, it’s a film of historical significance to grindhouse horror fans.