For those who love the grindhouse/drive-in horror aesthetic—grainy film stock, overly bright blood, and lots of jarring camera zooms—1971 is the start of the high classic era. What’s not to admire about an age when vampire erotica, devil-worshiping hippies, motorcycle werewolves, and stylish Euro-cult horror ruled the screen? Even the previews were so entertaining that a whole collector audience now exists for trailer compilations.
As I said in my initial post, I make no claim that my choices are the “best” films of a given year, only that they are my favorites. Please do counter with your own list in the comments. I’d love to read it.
My Top 10 Horror Films of 1971
- I Drink Your Blood
If aliens came to Earth and said, “We only have room in our flying saucer for one movie. Please give us the quintessential grindhouse flick to take back to Planet X,” you’d have no choice but to hand over a copy of David Durston’s hippie-horror classic. It’s got everything: devil cultists, drug use, nudity, gore, a hose, rabies, and an eerie music score. And a multi-ethnic and multi-generational cast, which means it’s classy as fuck and should have won Best Picture.
- Bay of Blood
Hey look, Mario Bava invented the slasher genre, and he did it with flair and style few of his imitators could hope to muster. There are some seriously gory and realistic-looking kills in this film, which must have been quite startling to audiences of the time.
- Tombs of the Blind Dead
Was director Amando de Ossorio attempting a color knock-off of Night of the Living Dead, or did he come up with a movie concept about flesh-eating zombies on his own? Either way, the blind dead are an inspired creation. The pace can be plodding at times, but the marriage of gory zombie violence and a dreamy, ghost-like atmosphere imbues this film (and its three sequels) with a distinctive cinematic flavor.
- Werewolf Shadow
Speaking of Spanish horror, I love the stuff, especially when it has Paul Naschy’s name attached. Naschy might be best known for his many-part series of loosely connected werewolf films, which typically feature Spanish gothic settings, a brooding tone, and copious nudity and graphic violence. These films are not for everyone (they’re serious to the point of being unintentionally comical and often suffer from atrocious dubbing). But if they are for you, you may find Werewolf Shadow the best of the lot, thanks to the presence of two sexy vampire chicks and the atmospheric direction of Leon Klimovsky.
- Let’s Scare Jessica to Death
Too young to have seen these films in a theater, I discovered my love for early-1970s horror watching late-night TV as a kid. I can still remember viewing Let’s Scare Jessica to Death alongside my sister as we held a blanket just under our eyes, ready to pull it over our heads during the scary moments. Even watching it as an adult, I’m creeped out by this tale of a mentally unstable woman who moves into a remote country house and finds what she thinks is a vampire already living there. Of course, no one believes her…
- Twins of Evil
The final entry in Hammer’s “Karnstein trilogy” probably isn’t that great of a film artistically, but it pushes all the right buttons. The debauched Count Karnstein is bored with routine sex and violence and, naturally, turns himself into a devil-worshipping vampire to raise the, er, stakes … just as the prim and proper (as well as shapely and attractive) Gellhorn twins show up with their witch-hunting uncle Gustav. The title suggests what happens next.
- The Abominable Dr. Phibes
If you can take a mundane concept like “a mad doctor seeks revenge on those responsible for his wife’s death” and turn it into something as marvelously kitschy as Dr. Phibes, you’ve captured lighting in a bottle. Had someone the foresight to do this film as a musical, it might be a cult favorite on the order of The Rocky Horror Picture Show today.
- Blood on Satan’s Claw
I suppose it’s unfair of me to rag on Hammer for continuing to do period films after everyone else moved on, and then turn around and praise this period flick from Tigon. Ah, but there’s something weirdly subversive about this pagan-themed flick that makes it seem so much darker and less dated.
- Black Belly of the Tarantula
It may be odd to include this giallo on my list at the expense of some better-known titles released that year, but it does seem the most “horror-film like” of the bunch (unless you consider Bay of Blood a giallo, which I don’t). The stalk-and-slash elements loom heavy, and the movie includes some harrowing, though not particularly gory, kills. The killer’s choice of a hypodermic syringe as a murder weapon ought to unnerve the needle-phobes out there.
- Shiver of the Vampires
Jean Rollin is a hit-or-miss filmmaker, in my view, and I sometimes wonder if his supposedly disjointed and dreamlike storytelling isn’t simply the result of poor shot coverage (this is a guy who struggles to pull focus sometimes). That said, Shiver of the Vampires is a pretty movie with an offbeat cast and represents France well in the vampire erotica sub-genre.
Honorable mention (a.k.a. I’m a clueless idiot for not choosing these over the garbage up top)
Daughters of Darkness
Many of my horror friends sing the praises of this film, but to be honest, I haven’t seen it in 20 + years, so I can’t fairly judge. I reserve the right to revisit and revise in the future.
Four Flies on Grey Velvet
I’m going to get grief for not putting this in my top 10, aren’t I? I do like Dario Argento’s third giallo, especially because it’s loopier than his other prime-era films and is packed with weird surprises. On the other hand, it’s less polished than his other efforts. Some of the edits and scene transitions feel choppy, and I have a hard time getting behind the bland hero, who seems lost in a film that’s more interesting than he is.
Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh
If I were to make a list of the top 10 gialli ever made, this film would be on it, and Sergio Martino is surely among the very best giallo directors. However, while I believe most gialli double as horror films—with their masked killers, gory murders, body counts, and eerie music—Strange Vice feels less like horror and more like one of those kinky detective novels from which the genre was spawned.