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
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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?