Frequently called the golden age of horror, it would be perhaps more appropriate to call the 1970s the birth of modern horror. With beloved chillers like Halloween and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre leading the charge, 70s horror movies also included influential art-house films like Nicolas Roeg’s terrifying Don’t Look Now and Dario Argento’s giallo masterpiece Suspiria (a remake by Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino is set for a late October/early November release). Any way you call it, these 70s horror movies set the gold standard for a whole genre of cinema. Fifty years later, they still scare.
On the surface, the plot summary of Suspiria is simple enough: An American ballet student finds herself at the center of a series of gruesome murders at an academy in Germany. But the movie is deeply complex. Argento’s use of lurid, florescent colors (the blood is almost day-glo pink) and a score by the prog-rock ensemble Goblin made it a shocking movie when it was released in 1977. Since then, it’s become a beloved cult classic, and Argento’s most successful film.
It’s hard to imagine audiences’ reaction to Halloween when it was released in 1978. Director John Carpenter made Halloween on a next-to-nothing budget but clearly hit a nerve. The movie went on to gross $47 million in the United States alone, spawning a whole new generation of “slasher” movies and its own franchise of sequels. Forty years later, Jamie Lee Curtis will revive the original “final girl” role of Laurie Strode in Halloween, set for release October 19, 2018.
To put it simply, when The Exorcist hit theaters in 1973, it was one of the most terrifying and shocking films American audiences had ever seen. It garnered 10 Academy Award nominations and has remained on lists of the scariest movies of all time. Linda Blair’s committed and utterly terrifying performance as the possessed pre-teen Regan was deeply unsettling, as were the dark themes surrounding religion.
Don't Look Now
Adapted from a short story by Daphne du Maurier, this intense horror-thriller stars Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland as a grieving couple who travel to Venice after the drowning death of their young daughter. While there, they are accosted by supposed psychics who claim they are in danger. Don’t Look Now was a controversial movie at its release in 1973 (thanks mostly to its infamous sex scene) but there are some really disturbing moments that do not fade away easily. Do look at Don’t Look Now—just don’t watch it alone!
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Shot for about $140,000 under grueling conditions in the Texas summer heat, Tobe Hooper’s influential horror masterpiece almost didn’t see the light of day. Its unrivaled violence made it nearly impossible for the movie to find a distributor. When it was released, in 1974, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was banned in several countries, and many American theaters refused to show it. Today, it’s recognized as one of the finest and most influential films in American horror history.
Perhaps based on the success of The Exorcist, filmmakers went after the Devil again in 1976, this time with a story of Damien, who turns out to be the Son of Satan. Starring Gregory Peck, The Omen horrified audiences and was met with critical acclaim upon its release, earning two Academy Award nominations and spawning its own franchise. It’s all for you, Damien!
Stephen King’s first novel was adapted into a movie by Brian De Palma in 1976, earning a Best Actress nomination for Sissy Spacek and a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Piper Laurie. The lurid imagery of Carrie being doused with pig blood in her pink dress at her high school prom has gone down in cinema history as one of the most recognizable horror images of all time. Deeply influential, Carrie has lived on through a series of sequels and remakes, including a Broadway musical of the same name.
The terrifying unknown, outer space, may seem expansive, but in this 1979 horror movie, directed by Ridley Scott, it’s pretty damn claustrophobic. Thanks to the incredible script by Dan O’Bannon, the horrifying special effects by H.R. Giger, and brilliant performances from Veronica Cartwright, John Hurt, and Sigourney Weaver, Alien is one of those horror films that truly transcends genre. Taking the typical horror “final girl” to a stratospheric level, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley is a hero for the ages.
This wacky 1979 B-horror movie had one of the lowest box office grosses ever, but that hasn’t stopped it (and its numerous sequels) from becoming a fan favorite. An undertaker known as the Tall Man develops a system of murdering people and reanimating their corpses into dwarf zombies. There are some weird silver balls that fly through the air and, anyway, you get the (very strange) idea. Look up “cult classic” in the dictionary and you’ll see Phantasm as a primary example.
Dawn of the Dead
Night of the Living Dead director George A. Romero teamed up with none other than Dario Argento to write this 1978/79 horror classic in which a scourge of undead attacks a suburban shopping mall. At its release it was one of the most successful horror films ever made, and is still considered one of the scariest movies of all time. Even today, its themes on modern life and commercialism resonate.
This early slasher film often gets the shaft when it comes to talking about innovators in the genre. Sure, Black Christmas isn’t as tight or as darkly elegant as Halloween, but the pieces for all the teen slasher flicks you’ve ever seen are here, as early as 1974, in this movie about a sorority house that’s terrorized by a serial killer. Its unresolved ending makes it all the more terrifying to contemporary audiences who are accustomed to having everything tied up with a bow.
The Last House on the Left
Wes Craven’s directorial debut still goes down in history as one of the most shocking, brutal films ever made. When two teenage girls are gang-raped and murdered by a group of thugs, the parents of one victim discover their crimes and decide to take revenge in equally violent ways. When the film was released in 1972, it was met with almost universal disgust. Gene Siskel said there was nothing redeeming about the movie. Promotional material for the movie urged viewers to remind themselves “it’s only a movie” and recommended that no one under the age of 30 be admitted.
I Spit on Your Grave
Like The Last House on the Left, 1978’s I Spit on Your Grave is a deeply disturbing, violent movie about rape and revenge. The difference, however, is that the victim survives her gang-rape and takes her revenge herself. Though at the time Roger Ebert called it “a vile bag of garbage” and the movie landed on lists of the worst films ever made, I Spit on Your Grave has since become a cult classic and is even considered an early feminist film by some viewers.
Featured still from "Halloween" via Compass International Pictures