As the horror film evolved throughout the 1970s, two fascinating trends began to emerge that would come to define the genre in the 1980s: the rise of the “horror auteur” director, and the sudden prominence of the make-up FX artist.
Up to that point in cinema history, most filmmakers who toiled in horror were journeymen or contracted craftsmen, and many had been forgotten by all but the most dedicated monster-magazine readers. When it came to monster make-up, Universal’s classic creatures may have been iconic, but their designer, Jack Pierce, had not even received a film credit.
While it’s unlikely that people thought much of the name George A. Romero upon the release of Night of the Living Dead in 1968, by the beginning of ‘74 he was on the rise. Wes Craven had hit the scene as well, and within a few years both men would be seeing their names above the titles of their films. Meanwhile, make-up veteran Dick Smith was suddenly a household name for his FX work on The Exorcist, aided by a young fella named Rick Baker.
In 1974, two more names would join the rising-horror-star list: Tobe Hooper and Tom Savini.
My Top 10 Horror Films of 1974
- Texas Chainsaw Massacre
No one tries to make a bad movie. Sometimes it comes together, sometimes it doesn’t, and it’s not always easy to figure out what went wrong.
Then there was that time Tobe Hooper made the perfect horror film.
Bob Clark’s previous effort, Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1972), was a lively, sometimes eerie, and charmingly primitive zombie flick with little in the way of substance. Deathdream, a tale about a KIA soldier who mysteriously returns home alive, is such a leap forward it’s hard to believe the same guy made it. It feels quite Romero-eque in its nihilism, and it may surpass Romero’s work up to that point in terms of emotional punch.
The make-up FX in Tom Savini’s debut film are fairly simple but chillingly effective.
Hmmm. Lesbian vampire erotica keeps showing up on my lists. Call me a perv, but maybe they shouldn’t have made these films so good if they didn’t want me to write about them in blog posts forty-something years later. It’s hard to choose a favorite, but this production is a strong candidate. Vampyres offers a Jean Rollin feel with a Blood Spattered Bride look. What’s not to like?
Written and directed by frequent Bob Clark collaborators Alan Ormsby and Jeff Gillen, Deranged is a bit of an oddball production. The gloomy but dated-sounding funereal music, as well as the propensity of the narrator to show up in the middle of scenes (while remaining invisible to the characters), make it feel more like an early 1960s film. Imagine Hershel Gordon Lewis directing a Twilight Zone episode.
On the other hand, the scenes of horror are pretty disturbing, especially once you realize they are modeled after real-life crime photos from the infamous Ed Gein case that inspired Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It adds up to an enjoyably weird and grim little flick. More early work by Tom Savini, who shared the make-up FX duties with Ormsby.
- Let Sleeping Corpses Lie
I have to confess, I’m not as in love with this film as a lot of genre fans are. It’s got strong atmosphere and a topical story that unfolds with a nice slowburn. However, while the zombies are cool and creepy, the film is a little light in terms of payoff. Perhaps my worldview has been colored by Lucio Fulci, Umberto Lenzi, Bruno Mattei, et al, with their predilection toward over-the-top, gory set pieces.
Still, it’s a solid entry in the modern zombie canon and helped set the stage for the explosion in popularity the genre underwent later in the decade.
- The Loreley’s Grasp
1974 saw Tombs of the Blind Dead director Amando de Ossorio deliver the most prolific 12 months of his stop-and-start career, during which he helmed three feature films, all horror.
The Loreley’s Grasp, though perhaps more aptly described as a gory fantasy, is the best of the bunch. Reuniting Horror Express co-stars Silvia Tortosa and Helga Line, the movie concerns the exploits of a mysterious, beautiful woman who transforms into a murderous reptile at night and does away with whatever young, attractive ladies cross her path. The Loreley’s Grasp is rather silly at times, but quite fun and ambitious on a microscopic budget.
- Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll
Spanish horror star Paul Naschy made a handful of gialli in the early to mid-1970s, and this film is widely considered the best of them. Playing an ex-con who may or may not be a serial killer, Naschy takes a handyman job at an old estate run by three women who are even more secretive and threatening than he is. In fact, it was released as House of Psychotic Women on VHS, a more apt title for this lurid production.
- Night of the Sorcerers
Amando de Ossorio’s voodoo-themed jungle-horror flick resides well off the beaten path of most early ‘70s Spanish horror, which tended to be set on gothic estates and often featured werewolves, vampires, and zombies. To be fair, the creatures conjured by the voodoo priests do look an awful lot like the sexy female vampires we’re used to seeing in that country’s genre output, but there are plenty of shrunken heads and stone altars around to sell us on the jungle setting.
Not really. The film appears to have been shot on the banks of a creek outside Barcelona, but it entertains all the same.
- Black Christmas
My mama used to say: If you can’t stand the heat, don’t bake up a top 10 list that places an incredibly popular and seminal film after a goofy Spanish voodoo movie that hardly anyone has seen. Cuz, well, “They’re all gonna laugh at you!”
But I don’t care.
Yes, Black Christmas is the first North American slasher movie. It’s well directed by the talented and underappreciated Bob Clark. The cinematography is top notch. Creepiness pervades the film.
However: The dopey comic-relief characters drive me nuts (I despise the concept of the comic-relief character in horror), and they get way too much screen time. Also, I don’t understand Keir Dullea’s sub-plot or what it has to do with the rest of the movie. And the final 10 minutes don’t make much sense. I like Black Christmas; I just don’t love it the way everyone else seems to.
- Ghost Galleon
Can you believe it? All three of Amando De Ossorio’s 1974 productions are on my top 10 list. Maybe they shouldn’t be, because these films aren’t “good” in the way that, say, The Godfather, Part II was good that year. I simply love the look and feel of Spanish horror movies from that era, which should be abundantly clear to anyone who has followed this blog series.
Ghost Galleon is the third of the director’s four Blind Dead movies. This time around, a bunch of pretty models end up on a ghost ship populated by the sightless zombies we came to know and love in the previous films in the series. I’ll skip the convoluted story machinations that got them there, because the first half of the film is a disjointed mess. But once the ladies climb on board, it’s smooth sailing (ha!) into creepy imagery, delightful atmosphere, and gory deaths.
A movie about a deformed monster baby has a 99% chance of being a campy romp on par with The Incredible Two-headed Transplant and a 1% chance of being a character-focused drama with emotional substance. Incredibly, this film beat the odds. The monster scenes are hokey, but the filmmakers play it straight and mostly get away with it.
The problem with character-focused horror films that explore issues instead of delivering scares or splatter set-pieces, however, is that they seldom invite a rewatch. As a fan of trashy exploitation cinema, I’d rather view a gory, twisted monster-baby movie with no artistic merit than a restrained, mature monster-baby movie that does have artistic merit but doesn’t deliver the grue.
Unless it has “Rosemary’s” in the title.
Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter
Confession: I’ve never seen this movie. Horror fans tell me it’s great, and it has to be better than Beyond the Door or Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, two other notables I decided to omit. Abby has its moments, but I’ve never seen a non-beat-to-shit print to properly judge. So, Captain Kronos gets to occupy a coveted honorable mention spot on the strength of reputation among genre fans I respect.
Bonus points for Caroline Munro.
Blaxploitation movies may have lacked for big budgets and high production values, but they sure beat mainstream cinema to the punch when it came to badass heroines. In Sugar Hill, the titular main character turns to the Lord of the Dead in a quest for revenge after her man is killed by mobsters. With an army of undead ghouls at her command, no criminal is safe.
This film is loaded with colorful characters and some of the weirdest-looking zombies ever, with their silver eyeballs and stringy cobwebs pasted to their bodies. Unfortunately, the story unfolds in such a perfunctory fashion that there’s almost no suspense, which knocks it into the honorable-mention zone for me.