Top 5 Horror Movies of the 1970s

Cinema Verité. The death-throes of the studio system. Docu-dramas and New Age Woo conflated with UFOs, Bigfoot, The Loch Ness Monster, the Bermuda Triangle, the pyramids, the Moth-Man, and a variety of urban myths into a muddled roux of pseudoscience and fictionalized academic speculation.

It was a great time for monsters. Or rather, it should have been. Unfortunately, while the horror movies had a wealth of history and tradition to draw on, they instead relied on quick camera cuts, shaky, hand-held footage, and confusing storytelling to hide the fact that the mutant bear was, in fact, only a guy in a suit, and not a very good suit, either.

There was a lot going on in the 1970’s, both at home and abroad. Television had finally become ubiquitous in American households, and the networks wasted no time showing everyone the horrors of the Viet Nam war, the Manson children trials, the tragedy of the 1972 Olympics, and the Watergate investigation. Students were protesting on college campuses, and four of them were killed at Kent State. The economy was in a recession and we were in the midst of an energy crisis. Is it any wonder we needed to escape to the movies?

Horror movies in this decade were largely reactive, and carried a verisimilitude of realism that wasn’t quite an imitation of reportage, but had enough leading headlines cobbled together to make it seem like the events could have happened. All pretense of decency was abandoned, and with it came shockingly realistic depictions of violence like what was shown (or implied) in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Exorcist (1973). It’s not surprising that some of the most iconic and influential horror movies of all time were from this decade.

5. Black Christmas (1974)

It’s Christmas time at the sorority house, and while all of the young women are making plans for the holidays, or struggling to keep their lives together, a faceless, unknown hulk climbs into their attic and waits… If you’ve ever heard someone say by way of a quote, “The calls are coming from inside the house!” here’s your movie, a blighted little suspense thriller with all of the Christmas bells and whistles that define 70’s cinema: there is a noticeable lack of artifice, an emphasis on ‘realism,’ and a nihilism that would become a hallmark of Generation X’s trenchant cynicism.

This manic gem has a couple of interesting things going for it; notably, director Bob Clark, who is today best known as the director of A Christmas Story (1984). These two movies form the strangest bookends to Clark’s career, especially since they share a similarly framed and shot ending. Everyone will recognize Margot Kidder as the alcoholic loudmouth, of course, as well as John Saxon is a what would become a string of law enforcement roles he’d play throughout the seventies and eighties.

But what Black Christmas brings to the table is this: it’s the start of the faceless killer stalking young co-eds. We’ve had murderers and madmen before, but this was the first time we got to see things from the Killer’s P.O.V. Halloween would make it famous, and Friday the 13th would kick-start the slasher movies in earnest, but Black Christmas gets the credit for getting there first. And while the movie has its lighter moments, it really see-saws back and forth between genuinely funny character-driven bits of business and crushingly depressing slice-of-life conversations. I mean, it’s really uneven, and what does that say when you’re happy the killer shows up so that the victims will stop talking about their sadness? If you don’t celebrate Christmas for whatever reason, this will be your new go-to film during the month of December.

4. Tourist Trap (1979)

A friendly joy ride turns deadly as a flat tire sends Woody to get it aired up, leaving Ellen to wait by the car. When Jerry and the girls pull up a little later, they collect Ellen in her white summer dress and hat (the other girls are wearing cut off jeans and tube tops) and go find Jerry. When Jerry’s Volkswagen breaks down as well, they find they are right outside of an old, abandoned Tourist Trap, run by Mr. Slausen. He offers them a ride up to the museum, and offers to fix their vehicle. When the girls get impatient and start exploring the place, that’s when they find Jerry…

You want to get weird? Let’s get weird. This is one of the oddest movies you’ll ever experience, and if you hate mannequins and killer dolls, well, then, this will trigger a panic attack. Chuck Conners brings all of his gravitas and charm to the role of old man Slausen, the guy who just couldn’t catch a break. Tanya Roberts is instantly recognizable, either from the many movies she starred in during the 1980s, or as Donna’s mom on That 70’s Show.

Produced by Charles Band (who would later go on to direct the Puppet Master films for Full Moon) and directed by David Schmoller (another future Full Moon alumnus), this this film gets by on sheer bombastic mannequin action thanks to an out-of-control case of telekinesis, as the last gasp of the New Age Unexplained Phenomenon fad petered out at the end of the decade. What a way to go out, dancing with home-made love dolls.

3. The Last House on the Left (1972)

A gang of murderous criminals happen upon a pair of teenage girls, whom they torture, rape, and kill. Later, their car breaks down right in front of the home of one of the girls they butchered. This shocking, disturbing movie has more trigger warnings than a Roy Rogers Fan Club meeting, as there is so much to revile about this movie, starting with all of the torture/rape/kill scenes. A truly horrific film, easily among the most gruesome of the decade. This is drive-in movie fare, grindhouse cinema verité’ and as such, is not for the faint of heart. That sounds like a promotional line, but it’s not. 

So, why is it on this list? Because it’s effective and compellingly watching in that “from-between-the-fingers-covering-your-eyes” kind of way. Wes Craven’s first movie (yes, that Wes Craven) is a tour-de-force that earns its place at the table by going through hell to get there.  The actors are largely unknowns and stage veterans, and they were paid very little for the work. It was a grueling shoot, with imprecise camera work and hand held footage to add to the ‘realism.’ And let’s talk about that for a second. From the first minute the criminals show up, they are written like caricatures of terrible people, more asshole than psychopath. This trend can be seen through most films in the 1970s and 1980s. They are unsympathetic, of course, but also unbelievable in just how completely unremorseful they are. Only the heroin addict seems to not like what he and the gang are doing; just not enough to put a stop to it.

It’s clear that The Last House on the Left is leaning heavily on the reputation the Manson family murders that dominated the conversation for several years thereafter. Their crime spree is wild, chaotic, and ultimately pointless, and to grown-ups in the early seventies, who were already living in a world that didn’t make much sense anymore, these man-made monsters were exactly the kind of thing the nightly news told them was waiting for them in the dark of the night.

2. The Amityville Horror (1979)

A man murders his family out in the boondocks of Long Island. A year later, newlyweds James Brolin and Margot Kidder move their family in, and even though they knew about the murders, they still seem a little surprised when the house tells the priest to “Get Out.” Incident upon incident piles up until all hell breaks loose and the family has to make a run for it.

There are two reasons why it’s on this list: first off, it was a legitimate phenomenon when it came out, thanks to the ad campaign that intentionally blurred the line between the facts and what constituted the phrase “based on a true story.” And second, this nutty little mess of a movie became the template for nearly every haunted house movie that followed, up to and including Poltergeist (1982). It manages to be scary thanks to all of the Catholic priests wigging out, and of course, Brolin’s descent into madness is pretty cool, too. Margot Kidder is great in the film; it’s a nice piece of horror cinema that has been made infamous by misinformation.

There were a lot of horror movies in the 1960s and 1970s that were “based on true events,” which gave the filmmakers a license to swipe from the newspapers and also make up whatever they wanted. I mean, Psycho and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre are both based on real serial killers, in a glancing sort of way. This was no different. The movie was based on Jay Anson’s book The Amityville Horror, which was billed as a “true story,” as well, and even though over the years massive chunks of the original account have proven to be false, greatly altered, or non-existent altogether, people still believe it to be true to this very day. The book came out during the time that people were reading Chariots of the Gods? and other similar books from the late New Age/Esotericism movements so you have to consider the time and place that this occurred. The Amityville Horror has now become a franchise, spawning a handful of sequels and remakes, all of which flogged the “true story” angle to death. If The Exorcist was the horror movie that kicked off the decade, then The Amityville Horror was the horror movie that ended it.

1. The Legend of Hell House (1973)

A dying millionaire named Deutsch decides to throw a lot of money to prove the existence of life after death by having a group of strangers investigate his new real estate purchase, a creepy mansion named the Belasco House, which is said to be haunted beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. The group contains a couple of psychics and a physicist, who aims to debunk the house and chalk it up to bad electromagnetic energy. Rounding out the cheerful group is the physicist’s wife, who has a basket full of problems including a troubled marriage. Sounds like a nice, relaxing staycation, doesn’t it? Well, it would be, only the place is called “Hell House,” and naturally, it’s haunted to the gills. If that set-up sounds a lot like The Haunting (1963), well, you wouldn’t be the first person to point it out.

However, the author of the book and the screenplay, Richard Matheson, made sure that aside from the broad strokes of the story (a group of people investigate a haunted house), that the two movies are vastly different. Mostly. Matheson’s Belasco house, unlike Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, is the real deal and makes no apologies. The scares and the screams come pretty fast as each team member is challenged and eventually unravels (or worse). In the end, the ghost is hoisted on his own petard as MacDowell figures out they each had a piece of the puzzle all along; it’s a novel ending, one you won’t see coming.

These modern adults, with their modern sensibilities, are quintessential 1970’s protagonists with feet of clay. Roddy MacDowell is the guy you’ll immediately recognize as the beleaguered psychic and survivor Ben Fischer. But it’s the physicist, played by Clive Revill, that’s the most baffling. Oh, he believes the psychic activity, all right, but not the ghosts, and spends the entire movie pissing everyone off. The pacing is brisk, and it’s a great haunted house movie at a time when there weren’t that many being made. The scares are mostly of the “jump” and “scream” variety, but it’s still quite effective. The Haunting of Hell House is a minor classic.

2 thoughts on “Top 5 Horror Movies of the 1970s

  1. Haunting of Hell house is one of my favorite horror films. Very well made, very stylish, great performances, but it has one super major flaw for me. The reason for the haunting: Belasco’s motivation. When they get to the big finale and realize what’s going on, my reaction is always “Really? That’s why? Oh come on.” I’ll never understand why such a good writer as Matheson had such a disappointing ending. That said, it’s a wonderful journey until you get there. My favorite 70’s made for TV horror movie is still the cheesy but fun “Spectre” by Gene Roddenberry.

Leave a Reply