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 1975

1975 can be considered a down year for horror. Outside a few classics, there’s not much to get excited about. The trickle of Hammer and Amicus chillers had dried up. Spanish filmmakers moved away from vampires and toward gangsters. The Italian giallo, with one obvious exception, began to lose its luster with audiences. The American grindhouse aesthetic—violent and lurid content shot on grainy film stock with harsh lighting—no longer horrified the way it had before Linda Blair rammed that crucifix into her crotch in The Exorcist.

Boiling it down: If Hollywood was willing to go there, the indie filmmakers and distributors had lost their one advantage, shock value.

To be fair, I’m missing a few 1975 titles from my viewing resume. I’ve never seen Exorcismo, Lips of Blood, Bug, or Picnic at Hanging Rock, plus undoubtedly other obscurities that have yet to cross my path. Future revisions of lists, and perspectives, are always possible.

 

My Top 10 Horror Films of 1975

 

  1. Deep Red

 

The giallo genre, which began in earnest in 1964 with the release of Mario Bava’s seminal Blood and Black Lace, by 1975 had become tired. You can only have so many black-gloved killers slashing pretty models with razors before attention drifts elsewhere.

So leave it to Dario Argento to return to the genre after a four-year break and remind everyone how it’s done. Not only did Argento imbue his murder mystery with brilliant set-piece kills, he showed a new maturity and sophistication as a filmmaker that promised viewers the best was yet to come.

 

  1. Jaws

Unseen, Jaws sounds like a B-movie. The premise is basic, banal monster-movie fluff, and the script employs standard genre clichés (e.g., the mayor refuses to close the beach because of the big fair/festival, despite the obvious foolhardiness of doing so).

But truly gifted artists are transcendent in ways that are hard to describe with words. You know you’re experiencing such a filmmaker when camera shots that should be bland are striking and when moments that normally serve as padding vibrate with energy. It’s doesn’t hurt to have great actors on board, one of whom, Robert Shaw, turned in a performance for the ages.

Biographical note: The director, Steven Spielberg, quickly faded into obscurity and was never heard from again. Or something like that.

 

  1. Shivers

 

A.K.A., the instant classic that propelled David Cronenberg into the ranks of horror auteur directors.

Before Cronenberg, horror films generally played on a universal fear: death. We, as viewers experiencing the story through the heroic characters, don’t want the monster to kill us. In Shivers (and many of his subsequent movies), Cronenberg tapped into a different source of terror, which is that of our own bodies. Of things invading and changing our bodies, not necessarily killing us but taking our autonomy, changing our looks, robbing our identities, making us repulsive and different.

His movies have a way of causing viewers to feel uncomfortable. A jump scare is easy. Getting in people’s heads … that’s talent.

 

  1. Night Train Murders

 

Aldo Lado, the underrated filmmaker who gave us the excellent gialli Who Saw Her Die? and Short Night of Glass Dolls, here gives us a rape-revenge shocker modeled after Last House on the Left. Instead of two young women abducted on their way to a concert, however, we have two young women taking an overnight train home for the holidays. They get on the right train but at a very wrong time.

Like its inspiration, this film is rough and violent, only there are no slapstick cops around to distract us from the horror.

 

  1. Autopsy

 

A pathology-horror film that stars Mimsy Farmer (Four Flies on Grey Velvet) as a medical examiner who starts to wonder if all these suicides coming through her lab might actually be murder victims. In the meantime, she keeps hallucinating that bodies are getting off their slabs and groping her. The autopsy room scenes do not hold back, so if you like your full-frontal nudity cold and horizontal, this is your film.

It’s too bad director Armando Crispino had such a short career. This flick is pretty tight and delivers the gruesome goods.

 

  1. Night of the Howling Beast

 

Good old Paul Naschy, still bringing comic-book horror to a world drifting in a different cinematic direction. This time, however, Naschy moves his werewolf saga off the gothic estate and into the big city. That is, until the cast finds itself in the Himalayas tracking the Yeti. Think of it as an alternate version of Werewolf of London, where Henry Hull’s Dr. Glendon, after being turned into a werewolf, sticks around the snowy mountains for some rampant sex with flesh-eating demon priestesses.

Although Night of the Howling Beast isn’t any more lurid or shocking than other Naschy films, it’s the only one to appear on the U.K.’s original list of video nasties (alongside 71 other movies, including the fourth title from today’s spread).

 

  1. Satanico Pandemonium

 

In its first act, this Mexican nunsploitation film seems more like erotica for nun fetishists than a horror flick, but as soon as the compassionate and sensitive Sister Maria (Cecilia Pezet) drifts from dabbling in girl-on-girl action to committing bloody murder, you know Satan has gotten his claws in.

The movie passes on the opportunity to ask meaningful questions about the nature (and potential cost) of religious belief, and it’s bedeviled (haha) by a lame backpedal ending. It could have moved closer to classic status if the filmmakers didn’t hedge on the thematic elements. As is, the shock value is impressive but superficial.

 

  1. The Devil’s Rain

This movie tends to get knocked by horror fans, but for a PG flick, it’s got some delightfully gruesome imagery, a few nice twists, and decent payoff at the end. And a hell (pun intended) of a cast: Ernest Borgnine, William Shatner, Tom Skerritt, Ida Lupino, and Eddie Albert.

It’s no masterpiece, but it has its moments.

 

  1. Trilogy of Terror

 

Conversely, here’s a beloved anthology movie that is far better remembered for that Zuni doll that shows up in the final 15 minutes than it is for anything that happens in the preceding hour.

Trilogy of Terror tells (as one surmises from the title) three stories connected only by the presence of the always cool Karen Black in the lead role. Although Richard Matheson is one of my favorite writers, I don’t feel these stories represent his best work (William F. Nolan wrote the actual script). The first two tales are fairly predictable and drag even at 22 minutes each. The final story is a classic, of course, and the one everybody remembers when speaking so fondly of this film.

 

  1. Strip Nude for Your Killer

 

You know it’s an off year when a trash giallo like Strip Nude for Your Killer makes my top 10 list. Directed by Andrea Bianchi of Burial Ground infamy, this flick retains the giallo genre’s more lurid elements—nudity and violence—and chucks out anything resembling style or visual flair.

If your taste in euro-trash cinema leans toward exploitation fare like Slaughter Hotel and “Emanuelle meets the cannibals” type films, Strip Nude should hit the sweet spot.

 

Honorable Mention

 

Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom

 

Like many horror fans, I’ve made an effort over the years to see the most notorious, disturbing , and twisted creations filmmakers have come up with. Outside a few moments in Cannibal Holocaust, no film besides Salo has ever prompted me to ask myself, “Why am I watching this?” It’s that fucked up.

Many view this movie as a substantial work of art. I don’t. I get that it’s a “message film,” but I simply can’t find entertainment or enjoyment in watching a bunch of children get tortured, degraded, and humiliated for two-and-a-half straight hours. I’m including it here for cinematic significance, not because I like it.

 

The Stepford Wives

This is another of those nihilistic movies that would never get made in today’s Hollywood. The focus groups wouldn’t allow it. Well, you may get a kitschy remake, perhaps (insert eye-roll emoji).

The Stepford Wives is a well-made movie that, in spirit, is really just a big, colorful Twilight Zone episode. Overall, it’s a solid mainstream production. It’s not on my top 10 list because 1.) it’s not visceral enough for my tastes, and 2.) It’s a message film with message that has no relevance anymore.

My Top 10 Horror Films of 1974

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.

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My Top 10 Horror Films of 1974                       

  1. 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.

 

  1. Deathdream

 

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.

 

  1. Vampyres

 

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?

 

  1. Deranged

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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

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Honorable mention

 

It’s Alive

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.

 

Sugar Hill

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.

My Top 10 Horror Films of 1973

With the success of independent, low-budget horrors like Blacula and Count Yorga, Vampire, along with stylish, sexy imports such as Bird with Crystal Plumage doing solid business in the States, it was inevitable Hollywood would want in on the action. Naturally, they mucked it up royally with some expensive shit show nobody went to see. What was it called again?

Okay, so that’s not exactly what happened. What happened is Hollywood made one of the greatest horror films of all time. Go figure.

My Top 10 Horror Films of 1973

  1. The Exorcist

I don’t really need to explain this choice, do I?

 

  1. Torso

 

While Dario Argento’s reputation as Italy’s top horror director of the 1970s is well deserved, I argue that Sergio Martino’s output up through 1973 was just as strong if not stronger. His artistic eye was less splashy but perhaps more nuanced. With Torso, however, Martino eschewed the subtleties and went all in with nudity, violence, and gore. What does it say about me that I ranked this film higher than his others?

 

  1. Horror Rises from the Tomb

 

Paul Naschy films are an acquired taste; you either love them or can’t even watch them. If you’re not sure where you stand on the issue, give this one a shot (and be sure to see the unedited version). It’s a bit of a kitchen-sink horror story, with intermittently headless warlocks, zombies, murderers, ghosts, and whatever else seemed appropriately lurid at the moment. It’s the cinematic equivalent of an old horror comic cover.

 

  1. The Wicker Man

 

Hearing a description of this film’s premise might lead the uninitiated to think, “So what?”:

 

A police inspector visits a small island community to investigate a child’s disappearance and runs into opposition from the locals, who seem to be keeping a secret.

 

Yet it’s much more than that. Riveting, sometimes eerie, and unlike any other movie, The Wicker Man does what many of the best psychological horrors do, which is to make you start doubting what you were sure of just moments earlier.

 

  1. The Crazies

 

After George A. Romero’s unsuccessful foray into other genres post Night of the Living Dead, he returned to his bread and butter with The Crazies, a story about a bio-weapon that causes those exposed to become murderous lunatics. Happily for us, Romero’s anti-authoritarian streak was stronger than ever, which resulted in an intense, nihilistic film that offers many layers of meaning. Bleak movies are the ones that stick with you the longest, aren’t they?

 

  1. The Creeping Flesh

 

Much has been written about rival British movie studios Hammer and Amicus, both of which specialized in horror and churned out a high number of both gothic and contemporary fright films. So why are Tigon flicks the ones that keep showing up on my lists?

 

The Creeping Flesh concerns the discovery of a monstrous skeleton by a scientist (Peter Cushing), which his cruel brother (Christopher Lee) wants to steal. Unfortunately for all parties, the skeleton is way less dead than it looks. Despite the familiar cast and direction of Hammer and Amicus regular Freddie Francis, Tigon’s film conjures a uniquely grim and atmospheric vibe and feels more focused than contemporaneous releases from the more well-known production houses mentioned above.

 

  1. Hunchback of the Morgue

 

Yes, I’ve got another Paul Naschy film on my list, and there are more coming. The early 1970s were a prolific time for the Spanish horror star, and many of his top films were released in ’73. The title for this one says everything you need to know about the story. It’s quite gory and lurid, as Naschy-philes have come to expect. The creepy atmosphere is the clincher.

 

  1. The Legend of Hell House

 

Serving as a partial blueprint for later films like Poltergeist and The Conjuring, this movie features a team of paranormal investigators looking into a supposed haunting. Director John Hough was no stranger to horror, having helmed the sexy vampire thriller Twins of Evil two years earlier. But it is charismatic star Roddy McDowall and renowned screenwriter Richard Matheson (Burn, Witch, Burn and The Devil Rides Out) who push this flick into the upper echelon of genre films released that year.

 

  1. The Hanging Woman

 

This Spanish-Italian co-production features all the usual trappings of early 1970s euro-horror: heavy gothic atmosphere, beautiful women, and a story that unfolds at a rather stately pace (i.e., some will find it boring). It’s got plenty of zombie mayhem and a fair amount of gore, however, plus a small role from Paul Naschy, who plays yet another hunchback. Released under at least six titles, the film came into my world in the VHS era as “Return of the Zombies.” Been a fan ever since.

 

  1. Count Dracula’s Great Love

 

On Paul Naschy day, it was either going to be this vampire flick or his werewolf movie (Curse of the Devil) closing out 1973, but I couldn’t justify both. As it stands, 40% of the titles on this list involve Naschy. I need to retain at least a shred of credibility here.

 

Naschy, a one-man horror industry, may not have been a brilliant actor, but he was “all in” every time and might have had more passion than anyone else in the film business. Count Dracula’s Great Love, like most of his movies, follows the same formula of gothic imagery + graphic violence + boobs. Somehow it never seems cynical coming from him.

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Honorable Mention

 

Theater of Blood

 

Vincent Price delivers one of his most memorable, over-the-top performances yet as a spurned actor with vengeance on his mind. The film doesn’t quite grab me the way it does other fans, but I included it here because I didn’t want you to think I’m too clueless.

 

Sisters

A disturbed young woman (Margot Kidder) may or may not have a murderous twin sister everyone thought was dead.

 

The trailer for this early Brian De Palma effort suggests a dark and perhaps even profound psychological thriller. In reality it’s rather fluffier than that and turns downright silly in the third act. Still, smart moviegoers can usually spot a burgeoning talent, and De Palma obviously delivered big time a few years later with Carrie and Dressed to Kill.

 

Flesh for Frankenstein

Viewed today, it’s hard to understand why “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein” carried such notoriety. The film is so blatantly comedic and Udo Kier’s delivery so over-the-top that you have to laugh at the alleged shocks. That said, any movie featuring the line, “To know death, Otto, you have to fuck life in the gall bladder,” deserves some sort of recognition.