My Top 10 Horror Films of 1980

This shit just got real.

In 1980, the horror genre exploded. For makers of Top 10 lists (a noble endeavor to be sure), there are three times as many films to choose from compared to years prior. However, there are also fewer consensus classics.  Your list might look nothing like mine.

To some, Prom Night and Motel Hell are the bees’ knees, whereas I’d take Without Warning or Nightmare City over those two any day.

We can all agree on one thing: mainstream critics hated this stuff.

 

My Top 10 horror films of 1980

 

  1. The Shining

 

The most quoted, homaged, and parodied horror movie ever made, The Shining is famously hated by Stephen King, yet I feel it’s by far the best movie based on one of his books. Honestly, I’m in it for Stanley Kubrick. The film is mesmerizing; the novel leaves me colder than snow falling at the Overlook Hotel on a Wednesday.

 

  1. Friday the 13th

 

When I discuss a movie’s “scares,” I’m often talking about effective genre filmmaking, not actual fear. I’m not literally scared watching The Exorcist. The sensation is more akin to pleasure at how successfully it delivers the thrills.

Friday the 13th, on the other hand, is scary to me for real. Like, “sprint up the stairs from my man cave after watching it, hoping to outrace the hand that is sure to grab me any second” scary. I’ve had multiple nightmares about this film.

Viewed out of context, it’s a cheap-looking, unstylish slasher flick, so I’m not sure what makes it so effective and influential. The isolation of the characters? The fact that you never see the killer but you see the kills? The location shooting? The score? Whatever it was, director/producer Sean S. Cunningham captured lightning in a bottle. Critics be damned, this film is among my all-time favs.

 

  1. City of the Living Dead

 

Does anyone know what this movie is about? Coherence was never a strength of Lucio Fulci’s horror oeuvre, but this entry is especially dreamlike and disjointed. My plot summary: something séance, something buried alive, something table drill, puking entrails, here come the zombies.

 

City of the Living Dead AKA The Gates of Hell may be little more than a 90-minute string of horror set-pieces, but they are wonderfully shot, gruesome, eerie, and atmospheric set-pieces. Phantasm, Fulci style?

 

  1. Zombie Holocaust

 

Back in the early days of VHS, we rented every single new horror flick that hit the shelves in the hopes of finding that rare grindhouse jewel: A flick that delivered everything you wanted and more. If you ever wanted “Zombie meets Last Cannibal World meets Island of Lost Souls,” this was that one time it happened.

 

  1. Cannibal Holocaust

 

Cannibal Holocaust is such a vile film, I contemplated bumping it from the list. But to do so would be a violation of the sacred oath taken by list-makers: Thou shalt be as honest as possible (even if thine moods are known to change like the shifting wind).

Appalling qualities aside, this grindhouse epic is well-directed, intense, and influential. It’s certainly more significant than the goofy gore-fest with the similar title that I slotted right above it. I never promised you I have good taste.

 

  1. The Fog

 

Auteurs sometimes trip up after creating their first masterpiece, such as when Tobe Hooper followed Texas Chainsaw Massacre with Eaten Alive or when George A Romero somehow thought There’s Always Vanilla to be the right vehicle after Night of the Living Dead.

Not John Carpenter. Perhaps The Fog isn’t quite on par with Halloween, but Carpenter still delivered an effective and eerie ghost story that serves as a fine example of how to wring maximum horror from a minimal budget. I think it misses a few opportunities, which is why it isn’t higher on this list. Nevertheless, it’s one of the top films in a busy year for the genre.

 

  1. Maniac

 

This is a grim fucking movie. Audiences hoping for shriek-then-laugh jump scares and scenes of good-looking teenagers getting picked off one by one instead got a grimy character study about a serial killer. And they had to look at Joe Spinell’s sweaty, crying mug for 90 minutes.

The character-study approach to horror in the early 80s was surely an artistic rather than commercial choice. It tended to limit the crowd-pleasing aspects of a film and might even have suppressed word-of-mouth. How many casual moviegoers viewed Maniac and then told their friends, “I just watched this sickening and depressing flick about a fat, greasy killer with mommy issues. You gotta see it!”?

Then again, the film does boast brutally realistic gore FX by Tom Savini. I doubt we’d be talking about it if it didn’t.

 

  1. Humanoids from the Deep

 

It’s well known to horror fans that the director of this film, Barbara Peeters, attempted to deliver a PG-rated eco-horror movie, but the producers sabotaged her vision by inserting new footage laden with gratuitous gore and nudity.

I can’t say I’m sympathetic. They took what would have been a dull and anachronistic monster movie and turned it into a grindhouse classic. Sit back and enjoy the royalty checks, Ms. Peeters!

 

  1. Hell of the Living Dead

 

That’s right. Of all the options I had available to me for this list, I went with a Bruno-fucking-Mattei flick so famously dumb it should come with its own wisecracking shadow robots.

“Borrowing” liberally from Dawn of the Dead and Zombie, and making use of egregiously inappropriate stock footage, Hell of the Living Dead is funnier than most comedies and more entertaining (to me) than the last ten Best Picture winners put together.

 

  1. Terror Train

 

1980 had plenty to offer slasher movie fans. Terror Train, a stylishly shot and well-paced film, was one of the best. Sure, the characters are dimwitted even for a slasher film, but the above-average cinematography and the claustrophobic setting make up for its flaws.

 

Honorable mention

 

Alien Contamination Alien gave you one chestburster. Alien Contamination gives you 12! That means it’s better. It also stars Ian McCulloch of Zombie and Zombie Holocaust fame.

Wait a minute. Why the hell isn’t this film on my Top 10 list?

 

Alligator – Animatronic gators. What more do you need in life?

Altered States – A story ideally suited to Ken Russell’s psychedelic-kitsch aesthetic.

Anthropophagus Joe D’Amato’s famously dopey cannibal horror film has its charms.

Invasion of the Flesh Hunters John Saxon + Giovanni Lombardo Radice + cannibalism = a movie both actors seem embarrassed about.

Don’t Go in the House – Gloomy, gruesome character-study-slasher overshadowed by the similar but better Maniac.

Dressed to Kill Brian de Palma does a giallo and it turns out pretty well.

Fade to Black – Fan-favorite slasher features a sympathetic killer a lot of viewers can relate to. It’s not the least bit scary, though.

 

House on the Edge of the Park – Any similarity to Last House on the Left, including the casting of the same lead actor, is purely intentional.

Inferno – I love Dario Argento movies, but this one falls a bit short for me. That underwater room scene, though! If I ever obtain an HD version, I may be forced to revise my opinion.

Motel Hell – I dig the black-comic horror elements, but this film is way too long for the flimsy plot. It should be 80 minutes, not 103.

Mother’s Day – Now here’s a black-comic horror I love. It’s brutally violent, though, which can be off putting to some.

 

Nightmare City –Did Umberto Lenzi just invent the “fast” zombie?

Prom Night – Hot take: this film is a slashiallo (a giallo-slasher hybrid).

The Boogie Man – The most terrifying film ever made about a little piece of broken glass that sticks to a lady’s face.

The Changeling – A subtle, psychological ghost story lost in a sea of splatter.

The Exterminator – I’m not sure it’s a horror movie, but genre fans have embraced it as one.

Without Warning – That time two Oscar winners and an Emmy winner starred in a $5 piece of trash about an alien that kills people with fleshy hamburger buns.

My Top 10 Horror Films of 1979

You’re kidding, right? Three of my all-time favorites were released within a 12-month span, yet only one can claim the top spot. Why you doin’ me like this, year?

My Top Horror Films of 1979

  1. Alien

 

Alien is as close to a perfect horror film as you’re going to find. Like HR Giger’s titular creature, the film is “unclouded.” Indeed, the movie is the monster: simple, relentless, single-minded.

Performed by an A-list cast and shot and assembled by a young Ridley Scott operating at the top of his game, Alien is at once eerie, harrowing, and beautiful. When those elements are blended as expertly as they are here, you got yourself a masterpiece of modern horror.

 

  1. Zombie

 

Lucio Fulci, a genre-hopping Italian director, had up to this point in his career crafted two top-notch gialli, helmed a number of westerns and comedies, and done well with crime dramas and gangster films. Then, in 1979, he filmed the Italian sequel to Dawn of the Dead (called Zombi 2 in his home country), the spectacular success of which ushered in a new wave of spaghetti splatter that played a major part in defining the genre for the next decade.

Zombie isn’t merely a bloody film; it’s a gut-slinging, throat-tearing, eyeball skewering masterpiece. If you’ve seen photos of real rotting corpses, you know this film got the undead look down. But the reason people love it is not simply the gore; it’s the pall of doom, the decay, and overbearing dread, propelled forward by a terrific score and a tropical setting that’s unexpectedly eerie.

And of course, the shark scene.

 

  1. Phantasm

 

Good lord. What kind of year is it for horror when a film as unusual, creative, and visually arresting as Phantasm falls to number three on a top-10 list?

Perhaps it’s not as seamless as Alien or relentlessly grim as Zombie. The acting is spotty in places. However, director Don Coscarelli did conceive and deliver an authentically dreamlike film packed with unforgettable moments.

Angus Scrimm‘s Tall Man stands among horror’s greatest icons, and the silver ball scene is unique in all of cinema (until Phantasm 2 that is).

 

  1. Salem’s lot

 

After the disappointment of Eaten Alive, Tobe Hooper needed to make a strong showing to avoid being labeled a one-hit wonder. Brian de Palma did more than all right by directing Carrie, based on the debut novel of superstar author Stephen King. Maybe Hooper could take a stab at King’s second book, ‘Salem’s Lot.

Filmed as a two-part television miniseries, Salem’s Lot did more than assuage fears about Hooper’s talent. It proved he could make a scary-as-hell vampire movie. I was a kid back then, and all anyone my age talked about for weeks was this terrifying TV movie.

Viewed today, it’s a bit slow in spots, and in hindsight, David Soul might not be the most dynamic actor to play the hero. But the scares still work like new, and Reggie Nalder’s Nosferatu-eque Barlow is unforgettably horrifying.

 

  1. The Brood

 

Horror auteur David Cronenberg followed up his bouncy shocker Rabid with a more, well, brooding psychological film. This time, Cronenberg subverts his own exploration of body horror in ways that are hard to describe.

This was an era in which “extra sensory perception” and psychic power dominated the pop culture landscape, as manifested in cinema by Carrie and her knock-offs such as Patrick and The Fury. It takes a visionary like Cronenberg to do something this original with the concept as late as 1979.

Mainstream critics recoiled upon seeing The Brood, calling it repulsive and accusing Cronenberg of being afraid of women (?). They shoved it away in disgust like a severely deformed, murderous child. I view this as a positive in favor of the film.

 

  1. The Amityville Horror

 

Haunted house movies were hardly new in 1979. Rather, in a post-modern age where horror was laden with social commentary about religion, STDs, war, and cynicism toward governmental authority, the haunted house sub-genre must have seemed quaint. But this haunted house tale was based on an up-to-date, best-selling TRUE STORY!

Sometimes, you get people’s butts into theater seats by tapping into something trendy and relatable. In this case, it was three things: the late-70s fad for anything paranormal/psychic, the obvious similarity to the types of stories Stephen King was writing, and the mobility of young professionals in America (who were buying up big, old houses like the one in this story).

I don’t love this film as much as a lot of other horror fans do; its trashy, gory sequel is closer to my grindhouse heart. However, The Amityville Horror truly is one of the most influential horror films of the past 40 years and doesn’t get enough recognition for that.

 

  1. Beyond the Darkness

 

Confession: I write derisively about Joe D’Amato as if he’s terrible, yet here’s the second of his films to show up in this blog series. I own a few of his films on DVD or Blu-ray, and I await the release of others. Basically, I’m a liar!

Some of his films are terrible, honestly. But Beyond the Darkness AKA Buio Omega AKA Buried Alive may be D’Amato’s darkest and most unsettling film, and it does not elicit chuckles like some of his sloppier efforts do.

 

  1. Dracula

 

Does this film mark the beginning of the hot-vampire trend that continues to this day? Did the sparkle in Frank Langella’s eye become, decades later, the sparkle of Edward Cullen’s entire being? Should we hate this movie?

No, we shouldn’t! As I recall, this Hollywood-ized, A-list Dracula movie was not viewed all that favorably by fans upon its release. Too romantic, not edgy or modern enough. In hindsight, though, it actually stands out from the other films of the era for exactly those reasons. It’s a big-budget period film with some great looks and a strong cast. Not a masterpiece, but pretty good.

 

  1. Nosferatu the Vampire

 

And here’s the anti-Dracula. Same story, more or less, but instead of the lush, romantic presentation of Dracula, we get lots of gloom, doom, shadows, and overcast skies. It’s cheaper looking and somewhat flatly directed by Werner Herzog; an intentional artistic approach, but one that deadens the pace. It’s a good film, but not so easy to view if you’re not already in the mood.

Or maybe this says everything you need to know about the difference between these two vampire movies: Dracula is played by Frank Langella. Nosferatu is played by Klaus Kinski. Two guys not typically competing for the same roles.

 

  1. The Prophesy

 

I had a choice between the artsy favorite The Driller Killer, with its commentary on urban alienation, and a dumb-ass eco-horror film about a mutant bear.

I went with the bear.

 

Honorable mention

 

The Killer Nun

 

This is the cosmopolitan, sophisticated entry into the nunsploitation genre. I’m partial to the histrionic Mexican variety. We all have our preferences.

 

When a Stranger Calls

A fairly well regarded horror film that aims for suspense rather than visceral thrills and largely succeeds. The major drawback is that the first half hour is better than anything that follows.

 

The Driller Killer

By now, the scandal has broken all over the internet: I chose the mutant bear drive-in flick over this film, which is artistically superior on all counts. I’m just not that crazy about it.

My Top 10 Horror Films of 1978

History results from timing and convergence. The late 1970s saw the rise of the horror-auteur director just as Star Wars was causing a paradigm shift in the movie business. The fuse had already been lit on the upcoming home-video revolution. Italian filmmakers would soon find a new, global audience, and independent movies were coming back into prominence.

Combine those elements, and you get a 10-year span, 1978-87, unmatched in horror history both in terms of total output and in an incomparable run of major classics. From Halloween to Hellraiser, from Jason to Freddy, the conventions of modern horror were defined in—and continue to radiate from—this era.

That doesn’t mean 1978 represents a break in continuity from the past. Hollywood was still knocking out movies inspired by the then-recent success of The Exorcist, The Omen, and Carrie, such as Patrick and The Manitou. Even the director of Carrie, Brian De Palma, copied himself with The Fury, another movie about telekinetic teens.

But it wasn’t Hollywood self-imitating that would launch the new wave of horror. The two films at the top of today’s list played a slightly bigger part.

My 10 Ten Horror Films of 1978

  1. Dawn of the Dead

 

Is there another horror film more effective at making you feel so present as the events unfold? From the entropic opening sequence, to the SWAT attack on the apartment building, to the siege at the shopping mall, George A. Romero’s masterpiece sinks its rotten teeth in and drags you into the action. This movie  catapulted Tom Savini into the realm of make-up FX stars, and with good reason.

Dawn is arguably the best zombie film ever made. For whatever record anyone is keeping, I prefer co-producer Dario Argento’s European edit, but both it and the U.S. versions are equally brilliant.

 

  1. Halloween

 

Choosing between Dawn of the Dead and this film to top today’s list was like choosing a favorite child. Halloween would have come in first place in nearly every other entry in this blog series.

With his third feature, John Carpenter put horror in a place it had rarely ventured: the suburbs. If the genre had scared you out of the ocean, the woods, the desert, the city, and the mountains, at least you felt safe in your suburban neighborhood. That is, until the night he came home.

 

  1. Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Invasion of the Body Snatchers may just be the best remake in horror history, aside from The Thing and David Cronenberg’s The Fly perhaps. It’s also likely the scariest PG-rated film you’ll ever see. Every scene is that much more unnerving than the one before, until the movie reaches its devastatingly bleak climax (which, of course, has been ruined by internet memes. Damn you, internet).

A masterpiece of paranoia that can be read many ways.

 

  1. Grapes of Death

 

As this blog series leaned heavily on Italian, Spanish, American, and British films to round out its top-10 lists, our French pal Jean Rollin was hovering on the periphery. In 1978, while taking a break from vampire flicks (and softcore porn), Rollin delivered this most excellent and underappreciated zombie film.

Borrowing a few ideas from Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue but putting his own spin on them, Rollin tells the story of a woman (Marie-Georges Pascal) trapped in a nearly abandoned village by a horde of undead flesh eaters, who were rendered so by pesticide-contaminated wine. If you enjoy the vibe of European horror of the 1970s and haven’t seen this one yet, put it on your watchlist right away.

 

  1. Piranha

 

Roger Corman gets it.

While other producers and studios try to mimic hit films by making inferior versions of the same thing (e.g., Orca imitating Jaws), Corman made films that looked superficially like knock-offs but in actuality embraced their uniqueness. Starcrash, for example, may have been a Star Wars cash-in, but it maintains a quirky look and feel all its own. You could say the same about Piranha relative to its inspiration, Jaws.

Directed by Joe Dante, who went on to make The Howling and Gremlins, Piranha is a silly good time as shallow as the water the nasty little bastards swim in, and it’s a hell of a lot more entertaining than The Deep.

 

  1. Alucarda

 

A histrionic Mexican nunsploitation flick featuring a rather spirited performance by Tina Romero in the title role. Trashy, gory, erotic, and overwrought … all the qualities you want in a film about Satan-possessed nuns.

 

  1. Magic

 

If the word “creepy” hadn’t existed in 1978, they would have invented it for this movie. Starring Anthony Hopkins and a ventriloquist’s dummy, the story concerns a … ah, I don’t really need to keep going, do I? That was enough to certify creepiness right there.

 

  1. Damien: Omen II

 

This sequel to the 1976 hit is so polished and tautly suspenseful that you kinda don’t notice it’s little more than a rehash of the previous film and does absolutely nothing to move the story forward. There’s no arc, as we end up in exactly the same place we were at the end of part one. You get a higher body count this time, though.

 

  1. Blue Sunshine

 

Underappreciated director Jeff Lieberman’s offbeat thriller about recreational drugs turning people into murderers serves as a sort-of bridge between Romero’s The Crazies and Cronenberg’s Scanners, both of which explore the unexpected side effects of chemicals on the human mind and behavior.

The film is missing (in my opinion) some of the visceral qualities of those classics, which leaves it somewhat unsatisfying. Still, Lieberman’s attempt at literate, provocative horror on a low budget deserves recognition.

 

  1. Toolbox Murders

 

When you say something is “half” this and “half” that, you usually mean the two haves are blended together. Half-vanilla and half-chocolate swirl, for example. With Toolbox Murders, we get half a splatter movie and half a psychodrama spliced together. Meaning, the first half is about gory murders, and the second half is about getting into the killer’s head.

The mix of gloomy character study and graphic violence prefigures the approach taken with Maniac, Don’t Go in the House, Christmas Evil, and Nightmare a few years later.

 

Honorable mention

 

I Spit on Your Grave

 

Some will wonder how this film didn’t crack my top 10. While I Spit on Your Grave is hardly the first rape/revenge film to shock audiences, it‘s surely the most notorious. Camille Keaton brings a lot of screen presence and acting skill, making the gang-rape sequence all the more grueling to watch.

However, beyond Keaton’s performance, I don’t think it’s especially well done. The pacing is flat, and the revenge portion is unsatisfying. I venture to say that if this film had gone out under the original title of ‘Day of the Woman’ sans the lurid ad campaign, it would not garner as much attention.

 

Dracula’s Dog

 

Also known as Zoltan, Hound of Dracula, this is a movie so absurd but played so straight that I can’t determine if it’s crap or brilliant satire. If it’s satire, what are they satirizing? If it’s crap, why is it so cool to see a vampire dog rising from his coffin?

 

My Top 10 Horror Films of 1977

After a succession of high-profile blockbusters (The Exorcist, The Omen, and Carrie) the movie business was in full-on imitation mode. Lots of demonic possession and religioso horror had already hit the circuit, and plenty of psychic misfits were on the way. 1977 was also a big year, unsurprisingly, for Jaws rip-offs, The Deep and Orca being two notable entries.

Fortunately for serious genre fans, the horror-auteur scene gained major momentum with George A Romero, Dario Argento, Wes Craven, and David Cronenberg all delivering new tales of terror. Argento’s artistic success foreshadowed the resurgence of Italian horror that would be timed perfectly with the rise of home video, thus providing genre fans with a new wave of horror heroes. But that was still two years away.

My Top 10 Horror Films of 1977

  1. Martin

 

Romero’s modern vampire tale may have lacked for funds, but I believe it’s his most artful creation. The film’s basic question, what is a vampire?, can stand in for any number of philosophical ponderings we might have about ourselves and the world around us: Do we to choose our own identity, or is it chosen for us by our parents, teachers, and society? Can reality be defined more than one way? In a given culture, how does one perspective become the default while others are relegated to the fridges or shunned altogether?

If you can’t be bothered with all that pretentious drivel, you can still enjoy Martin for its stylish flourishes and early FX work by Tom Savini.

 

  1. Suspiria

 

A film many consider the pinnacle of Dario Argento’s career, Suspiria boasts an opening sequence that stands among the best in genre history. The cinematography sparkles throughout, even if the story momentum, in my opinion, flags a in a few spots. I tend to prefer Argento’s gialli to his supernatural stories for their plot impetus. That said, Suspiria more than earns its status as one of the top horror films of the decade.

 

  1. The Hills Have Eyes

 

This is my favorite Wes Craven movie. It’s the kind of film that succeeds because of its low budget, not in spite of it. The horror sequences, while far from gory, are harrowing and often arrive unexpectedly. Thematically similar to Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it doesn’t quite reach that height, but it’s quite grueling in ways that only seem to work within the 1970s drive-in aesthetic.

 

  1. Rabid

 

Much of David Cronenberg’s output plays like a sexual fever dream, the kind of nightmares you keep to yourself because you don’t want people to know what a twisted place your mind is. Luckily, Rabid lets us exercise our demons at the same time we sit back and watch a rollicking good horror movie. In this case, a horror movie about armpit dicks.

 

  1. Last Cannibal World

 

The Italian cannibal horror subgenre occupies the cinematic fringes for good reasons. The films are brutally violent, misogynistic, morally questionable, and sometimes straddle the line between fiction and reality. They can also be pretty effective if made by a skilled filmmaker like Ruggero Deodato.

Last Cannibal World may be reprehensible in a lot of ways, but it’s quite suspenseful and extremely harrowing. I like it better than the director’s better known and even more appalling Cannibal Holocaust.

 

  1. The Incredible Melting Man

 

That was not a typo. Yes, this stupid, gory piece of trash falls far short, artistically, of other 1977 releases not on this list, such as Demon Seed and The Haunting of Julia (a creepy-ass flick if you’re looking for one). But when I was a kid, I had that issue of Starlog that featured Rick Baker posing with his Melting Man sculptures on the cover. I stared at that photo every day for weeks. I wanted to be Rick Baker. In short, I can’t not love this film. And really, you get exactly what you’re promised: a guy who melts spectacularly for 90 minutes.

 

  1. House

 

Director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s haunted house horror-fantasy beggars description. From the purposely phony sets and effects, to the tonal lurches between children’s movie and intense horror, to the nonsensical, dreamlike elements (one character turns into a pile of bananas without explanation), House is like Hello Kitty on a really bad acid trip.

 

  1. Rituals

 

Hal Holbrook and four of his doctor friends head off into the wilderness for a revitalizing getaway (and maybe an opportunity to air some personal grievances that have driven a wedge between them). What they get instead is someone or something weird and pissed off hiding just out of sight, airing a very different set of grievances. Spoiler alert: They ain’t all gonna make it out alive.

Imagine if 1970s Wes Craven had directed Deliverance. It’s a rough flick.

 

  1. Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals

 

I was really hoping I’d make it through this blog series without Joe D’Amato showing up on any of my lists. But then someone reminded me recently that he directed Trap Them and Kill Them a.k.a. this movie, which I like. Sure, I could have picked Shock Waves or The Car if I wanted to bump old Joe off the page. Those flicks don’t have Laura Gemser or obscene cannibal violence, so…

Parental note: There’s a wee bit of nudity in this film.

 

  1. Kingdom of the Spiders

 

People poke fun at this movie, which is admittedly on the cheesy side and features William Shatner playing a smarmy lout of a hero. As 1970s eco-horror flicks go, however, this one delivers. The first act is quietly suspenseful as the characters identify then begin to discover the scale of the threat. Once all shit breaks loose, there’s plenty of creepy crawly action that leads to a surprisingly bleak climax. With the always slightly odd Tiffany Bolling (Candy Snatchers) on board as Shatner’s romantic interest, the character dynamics get weird.

 

Honorable Mention

 

The Sentinel

 

On its surface, The Sentinel appears to be a blatant pastiche of The Exorcist, The Omen, and other contemporaneous Hollywood horrors. It delivers some creepy looks and good scares, though, and it features an all-star cast to rival that of any big-budget disaster epic from the era.

 

Eraserhead

 

Confession: I’ve never been that big of a David Lynch fan. There’s no question he’s an excellent filmmaker, but I feel his movies sometimes veer into weirdness for the sake of weirdness. Perhaps I’m missing something. Nevertheless, he’s an important and influential director, and I would be remiss if I did not mention his feature film debut.

 

Hitch Hike

I almost put Audrey Rose here because so many people like it, but then I remembered the savage Hitch Hike with David Hess and Franco Nero, which is much closer to my cinematic sensibilities.  Perhaps it doesn’t qualify as straight horror, but it’s pretty horrific and has been “borrowed from” quite a few times, including both versions of The Hitcher, Joyride, and Breakdown.

My Top 10 Horror Films of 1976

After the massive successes of The Exorcist and Jaws, Hollywood was all aboard for horror in 1976, with Paramount, 20th Century Fox, and United Artists submitting entries. They must have done something right. Fans remain as passionate as ever about the top films released that year.

Low-budget, grindhouse-style movies continued to be produced as well, including a couple of rather notorious ones, but the big resurgence of indie horror was yet to come.

 

My Top 10 Horror Films of 1976

  1. Burnt Offerings

 

This is a little like a sports draft when all the scouts rank the same two guys at the top. Then the team that owns the first-overall pick steps up to the podium … and selects guy # 3.

Perhaps a few other films on this list are artistically superior to Burnt Offerings, but it’s horror we’re talking about, and this movie scared the crap out of me and the other kids so badly we talked about it for weeks. That hearse driver! Plus, pairing Oliver Reed and Karen Black in a haunted house movie is inspiration itself.

 

  1. Carrie

 

If you’re a movie studio and you want to make a splash in the horror scene, you may want to consider adapting a blockbuster novel by a breakout writer and then bring in a hot young director to shepherd it to the screen. With a little divine intervention, you might even make brilliant casting choices on the order of Sissy Spacek as Carrie and Piper Laurie as her mother. No two actors in the world would have been more right for those parts.

Brian De Palma is a wizard with shot composition, and while some of his later films may have played out on a grander scale, I don’t think his framing has ever been better than it was here.

 

  1. The Omen

 

Now this is what you expect a Hollywood horror film to look like: highly polished, broad in scope, and featuring an A-list director and cast. Memorable moments abound, but the “It’s all for you, Damien” scene is surely one of the high points in genre history.

My two issues with The Omen and why I don’t rank it higher:

One, the last act of the film far weaker than what preceded it; admittedly a problem with quite a few horror films, but this is a revered classic.

Two, style over substance. Whereas Carrie and The Exorcist ask profound questions about religious belief, The Omen is religioso. It uses biblical imagery and themes to be ominous and scary, but their deployment is a superficial parallel rather than substantive metaphor. Yeah, I know it’s just a horror movie.

 

  1. The Tenant

 

Roman Polanski’s best films seem to be those set in confined spaces (Rosemary’s Baby, Repulsion), and The Tenant is among them.  In fact, it’s often thought of as the third film of his unofficial “apartment trilogy” alongside the two mentioned above.

It’s very much of a slowburn psychological horror, which can seem uneventful when you’re not in the mood for that sort of film. When you are in the mood, however, dig in. There are many layers to explore and a chilling climax to contemplate.

 

  1. Squirm

 

What sounds like routine eco-horror for the 1970s—a fallen power line causes mutant worms to emerge from the ground and attack a town—is quite a bit more than that in the very capable hands of director Jeff Lieberman. Sure it’s good, slimy fun, but the human drama is legitimately interesting, and it’s a well shot and assembled production.

It’s a shame Lieberman never joined the ranks of the horror auteur directors. His first three features, which also include the Cronenberg-esque Blue Sunshine (1977) and the backwoods slasher Just Before Dawn (1981) are all effective in their own ways and point to a versatile talent behind the lens.

 

  1. The Town That Dreaded Sundown

 

Sometimes films that stand out aren’t the most polished or stylishly made; we remember them because they’re intriguingly offbeat and odd. Deranged is a good example.

And just as Deranged seemed out of place and time in 1974, The Town That Dreaded Sundown does not suggest 1976. Some of the imagery belongs in a grim Italian giallo from five years earlier, particularly the weird kills (death by trombone?), while other aspects of the film feel—when viewed out of context—dated and clunky, like a 1950s informational film. It all adds up to a unique little entry in the horror canon.

 

  1. God Told Me To

 

Larry Cohen is at it again, making exploitation films that have far more substance than anyone on the drive-in circuit asked for. But while It’s Alive was partly undone by his trying to balance a serious character drama with some silly monster-baby sequences, God Told Me To tackles the subject of mass killings committed by otherwise unremarkable people, a much more grown up (and still relevant) topic. Regardless of its budgetary limitations, the film asks big questions about our need to make sense of things that sometimes don’t make sense. It’s got a little Wicker Man vibe in that way, though delivered in an entirely different vehicle.

 

  1. Satan’s Slave

Enough with the profundity. It’s high time I got some real exploitation trash on this list. Satan’s Slave offers devil worship, gore, gratuitous nudity, and Michael Gough being a right bastard. Like a couple films I mentioned above, it seems out of place in 1976, its aesthetic befitting the grindhouse ethos from earlier in that decade.

 

  1. Eaten Alive

By producing a generational masterpiece right out of the gate, Tobe Hooper put himself in a tough spot. How the hell does one follow The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?

Eaten Alive is a maligned film that, in recent years, has received a bit of favorable revisionist treatment. I confess I thought poorly of it upon first viewing a few decades ago. But, like most Hooper films, the more times you watch it, the more you realize it has greater substance, satire, and social commentary than most originally perceived.

I still think it’s a lesser effort.

 

10. Massacre at Central High

Remember when you were a kid, there were certain movies you used to watch every time they showed up on HBO, or maybe you wore out a VHS copy (or, if you’re still a young’un, scratched up a DVD)? Then you kind of forgot about those titles because they drifted into cinematic obscurity.

I recently revisited this childhood favorite and was struck by its storytelling and cinematic choices. That is, it’s either really smart or really stupid. Does the fact that there are no adults anywhere in the movie have symbolic meaning, or did they just not think of it? Are the exaggerated, after-school-special acting performances satirical, or did the director think that’s how high-school students behave? The message of the film seems to be, “You think bullies are bad? Well, if we got rid of all the bullies, the nerds would act even worse.”

I doubt that’s the message. Either way, the film is weirdly fascinating. Somebody smarter than me needs to explain why.

 

Honorable Mention

 

Alice, Sweet Alice

 

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen it on a list of such films, but Alice, Sweet Alice is totally an American giallo. It features a lurid murder-mystery plot, set-piece kills, a visually striking killer in a creepy mask, and it plays out over an extended time (as opposed to slasher films, which usually contain the story to one or two days).

I was iffy the first time I saw Alice, Sweet Alice, but it has sort of grown on me as it lingers in my memory. It could move up the list one day.

 

The Incredible Torture Show

 

Part Salo, part Wizard of Gore, and part Blood Freaks (the Al Adamson movie he later re-released as Dracula vs. Frankenstein with some incongruous vampire and creature footage added), The Incredible Torture Show is not a remotely good film. However, when it was re-released a few years later as Bloodsucking Freaks, the uptight citizen’s brigade got their panties in a bunch. Bonus points for that.

*******

Films not on my list you may be wondering about: I haven’t seen the popular To the Devil a Daughter in a billion years and can’t remember a thing about it. And I only saw the first half of the notorious Island of Death and got bored. Maybe all the notorious stuff happens later?