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
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.
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.
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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.