Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Psychobabble’s 150 Essential Horror Movies Part 6: The 1970s

In this feature, Psychobabble creeps through more than 90 years of horror cinema to assemble a highly personal list of the genre’s 150 most monstrous works, decade by decade.

78. The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971- dir. Robert Fuest)

Horror had mutated into an artier, more political, more self-aware beast by the time the ‘60s shuddered to a close. It had also gone international, and the monster movies of the past had been supplanted by harsher violence, sweatier sex, and consciously probing social commentary. Out went the innocence, in came the irony as later ‘60s offerings like Spider Baby and Rosemary’s Baby swept in the cult movie era. A sad symbol of this new era was the passing and winding down of so many horror stars of yore. Peter Lorre— a sort of honorary genre star for his roles in Fritz Lang’s child-killer noir M and the more legitimate horrors Mad Love and The Beast with Five Fingers—was the first to check out on March 23, 1964. On February 2, 1969, the genre’s greatest star flickered out when Boris Karloff succumbed to emphysema, bronchitis, and cardiopulmonary failure. It took three ailments to bring down the mighty Frankenstein Monster. Lon Chaney, Jr., managed two credits in the new decade with the not-too-fondly-remembered The Female Bunch and Dracula vs. Frankenstein, but our favorite moon howler, long ravaged by alcoholism, died of heart failure on July 12, 1973. This left Vincent Price as the final member of the old guard to carry classic horror’s torch into the future. Part Phantom of the Opera homage, part camp surrealist concoction, The Abominable Dr. Phibes was the perfect vehicle to power Price into the ‘70s. As early as 1959, Price had transitioned from the more sober horrors of The Fly to the winking fun of House on Haunted Hill. Throughout the ‘60s, he’d cultivated his talent for finding the fun in the frightening with his scenery-munching turns in Roger Corman’s horror comedies that pitted him against Karloff and Lorre and even further out roles like the ridiculous master criminal Egghead on TV’s “Batman”. Despite the occasional straight-faced part in The Masque of the Red Death or Witchfinder General, Price’s campy die had been cast. Perhaps no film fit that persona better than Phibes, even as the actor gives one of his more restrained performances. Part of this is surely due to the restrictions of the character. Phibes is the survivor of a car crash who has lost the ability to speak, forcing him to (somehow) communicate through a phonograph. The robotic vinyl voice levels out Price’s relishing cadence, while his elaborate costumes worthy of Liberace restrain his usual limb flailing. But with so much wildness swirling around him, Price doesn’t really need to do anything too crazy. The elaborate murders based on the ten plagues of ancient Egypt he devises to take revenge against the medical workers who failed to save his wife do a lot of the work for him. With the help of his lovely assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North), Phibes sics a flock of lip-licking bats on a snoozing victim, smooshes a guy’s head with a frog mask, creates a deadly hailstorm in the backseat of a car, and unleashes a plague of blonde rats in the cockpit of a biplane. He saves the most awful punishment for Dr. Vesalius (a game Joseph Cotton), and a necrophilia-tinged one for himself.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes is as visually outré as its plot, the mad doctor tinkling the giant psychedelic pipe organ in his garish art deco lair, dancing to his weird clockwork big band with Vulvania, who wears bizarre Busby-Berkley-esque gowns, or making calls on a rotary phone with a photo of his dead wife (sex symbol Caroline Munro, whom we only see as a photo, and briefly, a corpse) at the center of the dial. Even with all of his film’s silliness, Robert Fuest manages some disturbing images, as when he zooms in on a rat pulling apart red meat in the cockpit scene or when Phibes yanks off his Vincent Price mask to reveal a hideously scarred skull. The film also set off a new subgenre in which Price plays some sort of ham executing a series of gimmicky murders. The doctor would be back in Dr. Phibes Rises Again. In Theater of Blood, Price would play a lousy actor offing his critics with inspiration from Shakespeare. Though regarded as a genre great, that film suffers significantly from ugly cinematography. By far the best of Price’s new strain of camp horror was the first entry.

79. Tales from the Crypt (1972- dir. Freddie Francis)

Throughout the ‘60s, Hammer Studios unquestionably ruled British horror and set the pace for other U.K. thrill-merchants in terms of stories, style, and stars. Amicus Productions trailed behind Hammer but still managed to hack out a specific niche for itself by becoming the number-one exporter of horror portmanteaus. The first of these pictures appeared in 1964. Directed by Freddie Francis— essentially Amicus’s Terence Fisher (he also worked as an ace cinematographer for the likes of David Lynch and Martin Scorsese)— Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors was typical of the portmanteaus to follow: brief tales of varying quality bolted together by a frame story resolving in grotesque irony. Hammer refugees, such as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, were often along for the ride. Amicus churned out ten of these movies, the best of which was certainly Francis’s 1972 adaptation of five gruesome episodes that originally appeared in E.C. horror comics. Tales from the Crypt is so consistently good because the source material is top-notch, lending itself to brief segments beautifully. Screenwriter Milton Subotsky selected some real classics. “…And All Through the House” puts a couple of brilliant spins on the axe-murderer scenario by casting the killer as a Santa Claus amok on Christmas Eve and the victim as a murderer in her own right. “Reflection of Death” is executed, like its illustrated forerunner, from a clever first-person perspective. “Wish You Were Here” is an update of “The Monkey’s Paw” with a truly disturbing twist. The other pieces aren’t quite up to those standards, although “Poetic Justice” features a nice turn by Peter Cushing and “Blind Alley” is the likeliest to get viewers squirming in their seats and gasping that old E.C. interjection: “Good lord! Choke!”

80. Don’t Look Now (1973- dir. Nicholas Roeg)

As one of the most striking cinematographers of the ‘60s, Nicholas Roeg (The Masque of the Red Death, Fahrenheit 451) developed into one of the most audacious directors of the ‘70s. Roeg’s style should be self-contradictory. His choppy editing and jumbled time-lines should undercut the emotional resonance of his meditative stories and very human characters, yet they create a sense of uncanny inevitability that makes his experimental work hit harder. Roeg’s most emotionally powerful and well-realized film is Don’t Look Now. This adaptation of a short story by Daphne du Maurier explores what has been said to be the most devastating experience one can live through: the death of a child. Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland are the grieving couple, and both are extraordinary in the film. Christie’s Laura is open to the possibility that her lost daughter may be trying to communicate through a psychic. Sutherland’s John is the skeptic who may possess latent psychic abilities, himself, seeing a small figure clad in a red mac that resembles the one his daughter was wearing when she drowned. As they clash over Laura’s belief during a business trip in Venice, a serial killer stalks the canals. Don’t Look Now works as a creepy tale of supernatural abilities and unlikely murderers and packs one of the great shock scenes of horror cinema. The film is most memorable as a realistic, aching study of mourning. Its sex scene is famous not because of any erotic value, but because of its truth: a moment of two deeply sad people clinging together while working to rebuild damaged lives. Roeg intercuts the creative lovemaking with John and Laura performing mundane activities. One moment you could be suffering over the death of a loved one. One moment you could be having passionate sex. One moment you could be brushing your teeth. Roeg swirls these moments together, each one commenting on the other, crafting a complete portrait of life as it hurtles toward death.

81. The Exorcist (1973- William Friedkin)

The Exorcist has often been called the scariest movie ever made. Does it live up to that reputation? It certainly contains shock scenes that one would only expect to find in some sort of hardcore film: an adolescent girl repeatedly stabs herself in the vagina with a crucifix, then pulls her mother’s face into the gory wound while screeching “Lick me! Lick me!” William Friedkin’s adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel of demonic possession has no shortage of shocks and gross-outs: the pea-soup puking and the carpet peeing, the child’s mangled face and potty mouth, the spinning head. But are these moments, which are the film’s most discussed, scary or just grotty? That depends on the viewer’s sensibilities. For this writer, The Exorcist is most effective during the quietly spooky moments that precede all the mayhem and bodily fluids. Strange phenomena whirl around an archaeological dig in Iraq. Odd clattering sounds in a Georgetown attic. A recording reveals a choir of tortured, demonic voices when played in reverse like some heavy metal album. Such chilling scenes are quickly overwhelmed with heavy-handed horror and even heavier-handed conservatism. Ellen Burstyn’s Chris MacNeil is an agnostic single parent working in the “immoral” film industry. She is punished with a daughter whose demonic possession manifests with threatening sexuality and metaphorical menstruation. Chris is rescued from her disbelief in religious superstitions and her daughter’s satanic sexuality by a self-sacrificing priest struggling with his own doubts. Religious symbolism was not new to horror films. Crucifixes, crumbled eucharists, and holy water were integral to dispatching Dracula. Yet those objects were used as convenient totems of goodness, whereas The Exorcist makes an explicit plea to embrace Christianity and reject the “evils” of secularism and sexuality that make the movie harder to embrace. Dracula was evil, but appealing, charming. The demon in The Exorcist is unappealing on every level: ugly, witlessly vulgar, unable to keep its lunch down or its head in the right direction, essentially a pedophile. So, The Exorcist is ideologically flawed and lacking the subtlety of films that are genuinely scary rather than merely gross, yet there is still much that classifies it as a great horror film. The performances are uniformly excellent, particularly those of Burstyn and Jason Miller as heroic Father Karras. Dick Smith’s demon design and the use of Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” are iconic. And there are truly frightening moments, as delineated above, but also secreted within the film at a nearly subliminal level: images of a Nosferatu-like face leer at the viewer for split seconds. Having nothing to do with what is occurring in the film, these inserts further exemplify Friedkin’s determination to traumatize the viewer by whatever means necessary.

82. The Wicker Man (1973- dir. Robin Hardy)

Having made some of the best horror films of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, Hammer Studios had degenerated into cheap exploitation for good by the ‘70s. Some of these films were still great fun—The Vampire Lovers, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, and The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires are a few highlights—but the studio had long since lost any desire to produce anything but camp. Released by British Lion Films in 1973, The Wicker Man feels like what-might-have-been had Hammer continued taking its horror seriously while also feeling like nothing before or after it. Hammer stars Christopher Lee and Ingrid Pitt are in tow for a completely bizarre pagan musical undulating with queasy paranoia. Edward Woodward is Sgt. Howie, a police investigator lured to tiny Summerisle where a young girl has gone missing. There he is confronted by a pagan society with barely concealed secrets and a delicious lack of respect for his Christian ultra-conservatism (what a fresh antidote after The Exorcist!). Eerie folk songs are used to unsettling effect as the residents of Summerisle test Howie’s devotion to his job and religion and confound him with strange behavior and contradictory clues. It all builds to a fevered climax that was unwisely given away by the film’s trailer and poster art. But even if you already know how The Wicker Man unravels, the film is still essential viewing for its originality, terrific music, wicked humor, and disturbing atmosphere. Unfortunately, the film was edited for distribution in America at Roger Corman’s request, and further butchered when released in Britain on a double bill with Don’t Look Now. The excised material lost for years, most audiences saw a severely altered version of The Wicker Man, though a decent reconstruction appeared in 2001. This is the recommended way to view what may be Britain’s greatest horror film.

83. The Legend of Hell House (1973- dir. John Hough)

In 1953, a squad of mentalists was slaughtered while investigating the haunted mansion known as Hell House, the former home of a fellow who allegedly dabbled in “drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, bestiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism, not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies.” Twenty years later, a deathbed-bound millionaire commissions another group to convene at Hell House to prove the existence of an afterlife. Based on a book by Richard Matheson, who also wrote the script, The Legend of Hell House is a lot less schlocky than its title suggests. The film owes much to that greatest of haunted house pictures, The Haunting, both in its premise and the way director John Hough’s active, disorienting camerawork makes Hell House into a character with as much personality as any of the mentalists. The house is a meaner entity than the ones in The Haunting or The Shining, at times physically attacking its inhabitants. Hough pulls off this dodgy concept cleverly, only lapsing into silliness occasionally, as when a housecat mounts an absurdly relentless attack. The ending is disappointingly trivial too, but taken as a whole, The Legend of Hell House neutralizes most criticisms with Hough’s brilliant camerawork, Matheson’s trademark wit, and an ace ensemble cast led by Roddy McDowell as the sole survivor of the 1953 excursion and Pamela Franklin as the most prodigious mentalist in the gang.

84. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974- dir. Tobe Hooper)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre marked as distinctive a shift in the evolution of horror as Psycho or Night of the Living Dead did in the previous decade. Or is it devolution? Without anything as superfluous as plot, meaningful dialogue, professional acting, or social message, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre strips horror to its very essence. Tobe Hooper’s debut is an 84-minute sensual assault on the viewer. The nonstop screaming and chainsaw buzzing are as unendurable to the ears as the vomit-tinted images are to the eyes. Had it been shot in Smell-O-Vision, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would have played in theaters funked-up with the stench of rotting meat. Because the movie is so relentless, viewers tend to leave it believing they’ve seen something a lot more graphic than it is. The violence is largely left to our imaginations (Hooper supposedly kept the gore to a minimum in the hopes of getting a PG rating. Ha!), yet we are seeing something truly horrific because the director subjected his cast to a genuine ordeal. Actors were essentially forced to perform their own stunts in many instances, suffering various injuries. As Leatherface, Gunnar Hansen wielded a real, running chainsaw. Real meat decorated the set, and as it rotted in the over-100° Texas heat, cast and crew had to endure its wretched stink. Hooper pitted his actors against each other in private to create tension on the set. All of these behind-the-scenes tidbits are apparent in the exhausting finished product. The moments of humor— such as a grotesque, absurdist dinner sequence— do nothing to lighten the tone. The grainy cinematography creates the uncanny sensation that we are watching some lunatic’s home movies. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre will be repellent to the mass of filmgoers, but its complete concentration on unnerving viewers makes it a bizarre work of art and essential viewing for steely horror fans.

85. Young Frankenstein (1974- dir. Mel Brooks)

Hardy stuff like The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre surely left old-fashioned monster fans longing for the days when a canned lightening storm and a Jack Pierce-makeup job were enough to terrify. But Dracula, The Wolf Man, and Frankenstein weren’t likely to elicit much more than a roll of the eyes from audiences subsisting on a steady diet of cynicism from the likes of Hooper, Friedkin, and Wes Craven— not to mention non-horror auteurs, such as Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, and John Cassavetes. To survive in the contemporary climate, the classic creeps had to take their proper place for better or worse. Comedians Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks did their part by giving that greatest of all monsters a fresh lease in Young Frankenstein. No longer was The Monster set loose to draw gasps. Now he would draw guffaws. Yet Wilder and Brooks’s parody does not belittle our old friend or the movies we adore. Young Frankenstein is a loving, richly detailed tribute to Universal’s Frankenfranchise. The black and white cinematography, authentic sets and costumes, Pierce-esque makeup, and sumptuous score by John Morris all play on the viewer’s sense of nostalgia. Unlike Satan or Leatherface, The Monster, as embodied by Peter Boyle, reminds us of the charm of a sympathetic creature. Comedy or not, his speech at the film’s climax is deeply touching. But let’s not forget that laughs are at the top of Brooks and Wilder’s agenda, and their script provides a barrage of perennial one-liners (“It’s pronounced Eye-gor”) and unforgettable comedic sequences (“Puttin’ on the Riiiitz!”). Boyle, Gene Wilder as the doctor, Madeline Kahn as his fiancé (“financier”), Teri Garr and Marty Feldman as his assistants, Kenneth Mars as the police inspector with a grudge against the Family Frankenstein (“It’s pronounced Fronkensteen”) and Cloris Leachman as Frau Blücher (“Naaaay!”) are all on top form. Plus, fans of Universal’s classic Frankenstein films will have a ball spotting the references to everything from James Whale’s original Frankenstein to Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.

86. The Stepford Wives (1975- dir. Bryan Forbes)

Horror is often used as a nifty Trojan Horse secreting political commentary, yet surprisingly few are willing to take a look at the genre’s commonest victims. Women are likelier to be dispassionately dispatched in horror films than anyone else, and it wasn’t until Bryan Forbes adapted Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives that such disposability was addressed. Despite being the creation of men, The Stepford Wives treads where no horror film had before and few have since: feminism. Joanna Eberhart is a young wife and mother with ambitions of becoming a photographer who “messed a little with women’s lib” while living in New York City. Now she and the family have moved to the pre-fab community of Stepford, Connecticut, where she is surrounded by submissive wives and husbands who gather to collude in the mysterious Stepford Men’s Association. Finding a likeminded ally in neighbor Bobbie Markowe, Joanna scratches through Stepford’s veneer and is horrified by what she discovers. Although its title wives have entered the vernacular as shorthand for subservient women, The Stepford Wives does not receive the attention it deserves as one of the sharpest films of its day. William Goldman’s script and Forbes’s direction do not squander an opportunity to underscore the film’s themes while never stumbling into ham-handedness. Though men are the film’s villains, they are presented as conflicted and genuinely remorseful about their own shallowness and willingness to follow the pack. Katharine Ross is fine as the hero and Paula Prentiss is absolutely brilliant as saucy Bobbie. After spending time with such likable, intelligent leads, the finale is acutely painful. The Stepford Wives takes on much and succeeds marvelously on all levels; it’s a darkly funny satire of suburban blandness, plastic surgery, and advertising (“I’ll just die if I don’t get this recipe!”); a horror film packing some genuinely disturbing sequences; a tragedy; and a groundbreaking feminist thesis.

87. Deep Red (1975- dir. Dario Argento)

Dario Argento bridges Italian giallo (graphic, lurid crime stories) and pure horror with Deep Red. David Hemmings is Marcus Daly, a music teacher with a P.I.’s curiosity who gets sucked into investigating the murder of a medium when he witnesses her getting smashed through her apartment window. The murders are absolutely awful, particularly that initiating one. If you’re at all squeamish about broken glass, you may find it nearly impossible to watch. Argento intensifies such scenes by presenting them from the killer’s perspective with roaming, first-person shots, making the viewer feel uncomfortably complicit in the violence. Deep Red is also beautiful. Argento’s obsession with vivid color doesn’t end with the buckets of Sherwin-Williams blood spilled throughout the picture. Nor is the horror all of the graphically gross sort. The children’s song that is the killer’s calling card is way eerie in the tradition of the Rosemary’s Baby theme. A mechanical puppet makes an appearance for no other reason than its extreme creepiness. Argento gives us some much-needed breaks from the tension by introducing an appealing romance between Marcus and reporter Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi). Though Argento cops out a bit in the end, their charming arm-wrestling match is a playful subversion of ‘70s cinematic sexism. Argento also introduces a red herring that seems expressly designed to tease his audience’s homophobic assumptions. Of course, Argento has always been more bent on administering visceral thrills than enlightenment. In his goal to do so, he makes one major misstep by having Goblin score the film with agitated prog-funk that totally shatters the mood whenever it starts farting from the soundtrack. Argento’s taste in music is often questionable, but good taste is not really paramount in a flick full of throat gouging, decapitation, and bathtub boiling. 

88. Jaws (1975- dir. Steven Spielberg)

The giant, mechanical shark in Jaws was accused of everything from driving swimmers away from beaches to driving filmgoers from the gritty movies that had defined ‘70s cinema thus far. Granted, Steven Spielberg’s debut feature employed special effects to thrill audiences and drew record-breaking revenue, but its thrills do not make Jaws any less thoughtful or its characters any less complex. And after the kills have lost their shock value with repeated viewings and sophisticated contemporary special effects have rendered “Bruce” the Shark somewhat less realistic, Jaws continues to work wonderfully as a character piece. And what characters it has! Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) the conflicted police chief; Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) the smart but inexperienced rich kid with an arsenal of shark-finding technology; Quint (Robert Shaw) the salty, glib sea captain who has seen more than his share of horror. Quint’s account of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the feeding frenzy that followed may be cinema’s most spellbinding monologue. Dreyfuss’s enraptured attention contributes as much magic to the scene as Shaw’s recitation. We care about these characters, and it is a rare monster movie that possesses human heroes more interesting than its monster. A lot of work went into animating these people, who were rather dull stereotypes in Peter Benchley’s mediocre novel. Much of the credit goes to Carl Gottlieb, who continued revising and improving the script throughout the shoot, but Dreyfuss, Shaw, and Roy Scheider’s completely committed acting may be the film’s greatest triumph. All that being said, Jaws still works as a champion popcorn flick. The adventure sequences are exhilarating without overpowering the reflective moments. Gottlieb’s dialogue is consistently quotable and very, very funny. The shark looks a tad phony in certain shots, but for the most part, it is used subtly and frighteningly (another triumph considering how many technical problems the effects crew suffered). John Williams’s score is unforgettable, and Steven Spielberg shows that he was capable of intricate orchestration of action and intimacy before he started allowing spectacle to take the starring roles in his films. Watch Jaws back-to-back with Jurassic Park— which features more spectacular special effects, but cops out on characterization and dialogue— and the more important elements become painfully clear.

89. The Tenant (1976- dir. Roman Polanski)

Roman Polanski wraps up his trilogy of urban horror films with his strangest installment. Polanski himself plays Trelkowski. Like Carole Ledoux in Repulsion (and the actor/director, himself), Trelkowski is dislocated in an unfamiliar, hostile nation. The Polish immigrant takes up residence in a Paris apartment building in which his every step draws complaints from officious neighbors. Trelkowski also suffers attacks from within, as he grows obsessed with Simone Choule, the former tenant who gave up the apartment after shattering her body in a botched suicide attempt. Left to stew in his shadowy room, Trelkowski convinces himself that his neighbors are conspiring to transform him into Simone and force him to reenact her leap from the window. Humor plays a broader role in The Tenant than it had in either Repulsion or Rosemary’s Baby. Polanski was no doubt struck by the absurdity of his gnomish figure dolled up in Simone-drag. Comedy dominates the film’s opening acts, but then the director starts weaving thick threads of psychological horror into the film’s increasingly disturbing tapestry. Trelkowski experiences hallucinations that work as both parodies of horror-movie imagery and sincere horror. Still reeling from the murder of his wife Sharon Tate and their unborn child, Polanski may not have been merely simulating Trelkowski’s paranoia and mental deterioration in The Tenant. The baggage he brings to the film helps his performance  transcend whatever limitations he had as an actor, and it heightens the queasiness of the film’s marriage of humor and horror.

90. The Omen (1976- dir. Richard Donner)

Following in the cloven footsteps of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, The Omen is neither as suspenseful/satirical as the former nor iconic/shocking as the latter. Richard Donner’s adaptation of David Seltzer’s novel remains fresh partly because it does not have such a looming reputation to fulfill. Polanski’s film remains the very best of the period’s devil-baby movies, but The Omen is more enjoyable than The Exorcist because there is a self-aware wink in its reptilian eye. Donner’s shocks could easily pass for schlocks: the showy nanny suicide, the baboon siege, the nonstop menacing looks from demonic Damien and his screechy temper tantrum as he approaches a church, the almost Rube-Goldberg-esque death sequences, and a bonkers discovery involving a deceased canine. The same could be said of The Exorcist, but that film’s status as “the scariest movie ever made” makes its silliness more difficult to digest. The Omen pays minor lip service to current issues—themes of the devil infiltrating a political family are detritus of the days immediately following Watergate— but the film is too broad to take as serious political commentary. That’s fine since The Omen is such a hoot on its own creepy, crazy terms. Jerry Goldsmith’s choral score captures the over-the-top appeal perfectly and Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, David Warner, Billie Whitelaw, and little Harvey Stephens turn in neat performances.

91. Carrie (1976- dir. Brian DePalma)

Stephen King’s first published novel nearly went out with the trash. Only after his wife pulled the first few pages from his waste bin and convinced him to complete it did King will Carrie into existence. We all know how his ridiculously successful writing career continued from that moment, but he has not always been well served on film. Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Carrie is one of the best King (and De Palma) films because the story is focused with a relatable, emotionally resonant lead character. Carrie White cowers at the far fringes of her cliquey high school. She matures later than her peers in a shower scene that is as sad as the one in Psycho was shocking. Carrie’s ignorance about her own body can be traced back home where her religiously domineering mother chides her about her sexuality and locks her in a small closet to pay penance to a spooky statue of St. Sebastian. After a particularly spiteful peer plays a vicious prank on her at the prom, Carrie whips up a telekinetic tempest staged in disconcerting split screen. King and De Palma’s often-painful look at adolescence, and its disturbing, misfit wish-fulfillment finale, are offset by humor that while occasionally too silly for its own good (the sped-up tuxedo-modeling sequence), gives the film the flavor of an E.C. Comic, as does the shocking epilogue. Nancy Allen as Carrie’s classmate Chris Hargensen and Piper Laurie (who thought the movie was a comedy after reading the script!) as her horrific mother play their roles as cartoon-villains without diluting the direness of Carrie’s plight. That’s probably because Sissy Spacek is so committed in the title role, conveying Carrie’s discomfort in her own body, her desire to be accepted, her joy when she believes this to be happening, and her scariness when she discovers it isn’t with tremendous power.

92. Suspiria (1977- dir. Dario Argento)

Dario Argento fully graduated from Italy’s top maker of giallo to the country’s contemporary horror maestro when he delved into the supernatural with Suspiria. The first and best chapter in the “Three Mothers Trilogy”, Suspiria is set in an atmosphere-rich ballet academy where American student Suzy Bannion has recently enrolled. A series of strange and violent events coincide with Bannion’s arrival that may have something to do with the academy’s history as a hub of witchy rituals. The plot does not get much deeper than that as Argento busies himself with the gory set pieces that are the film’s raison d'être. A woman is hanged in spectacular enough fashion to outdo a similar scene in The Omen. Another traverses a room full of barbed wire. Maggots drip from the ceiling like some repulsive water leak. As Bannion, Jessica Harper wanders through this freakishly ornate landscape ethereally until finally confronting horrific Helena Markos: The Mother of Sighs (whom Harper later revealed was played by a local veteran prostitute). Suspiria would have been more effective had Argento toned down some of its assaultive visuals and chosen a subtler outfit than The Goblins to compose the soundtrack. Yet it remains a vivid, poetically choreographed nightmare, as gorgeous as it is grotesque.

93. The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977- dir. Don Taylor)

Overshadowed by the towering legacy of Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls and the infamous shittiness of John Frankenheimer’s Island of Dr. Moreau, Don Taylor’s 1977 film of the same name tends to get dismissed as a sub-par rendition of H.G. Wells’s horror classic. Yet the excellent monster makeup, eerie jungle setting, and composer Laurence Rosenthal’s elliptical, evocative main theme easily transcend the film’s shoddy reputation. Taylor created an old-fashioned monster movie in an era with precious few, subtly calibrating the pace from the disquieting stillness of the early passages to the chaotic creature orgy that concludes it. Burt Lancaster as Moreau, Michael York as castaway Andrew Braddock, and Richard Basehart as the sheep-like Sayer of the Law all give restrained performances that compliment the film’s somber tone. In contrast to Charles Laughton’s leering, villainous realization of the mad doctor in Island of Lost Souls, Lancaster plays Moreau as a serious man of science whose concepts of right and wrong have been distorted by too many years isolated in the jungle. Barbara Carrera is also noteworthy as beast-woman Maria, whose blink-and-you-miss-it fate ends the picture on a potentially tragic note. The subtle tempo and acting are matched by impressive makeup work that does not look nearly as low budget as one would expect from an AIP picture.

94. House (1977- dir. Nobuhiko Obayashi)

After Toho, the studio responsible for all those terrifically cheesy Godzilla movies, approached Nobuhiko Obayashi about making Japan’s answer to Jaws, the filmmaker took a rather novel approach. He recalled seven of his school-age daughter’s worst fears and crammed them into a haunted house movie that plays like Suspiria reimagined by Sid and Marty Krofft. A severed head flies from a water well and bites a schoolgirl on her bottom. A piano consumes human flesh and disembodied fingers pound on its keys. A girl gets into a kung-fu brawl with firewood. A cat’s eyes glimmer with cartoon sparkles. And there isn’t a single shark in sight. Naturally, Toho was baffled by Hausu (House), as were critics, but the film became a huge hit in its homeland because kids instantly recognized its candied horrors and psychedelic flights of fancy as reflective of their own whimsical imaginations. As gruesome as this story of seven schoolgirls who meet varying fates in an old dark house can be, the delivery is more cartoonish than the average episode of “Scooby Doo”. Teeny-bop pop chirps cheerily on the soundtrack, and the actresses play their parts as though they may break out into The Partridge Family’s Greatest Hits at any moment. Those characters are just as transparently farcical as their adventures, each one named for the stock stereotype that dictates her every move: there’s Fantasy, Gorgeous, Kung Fu, Prof (as in “Professor”), Mac (as in “Stomach”…she’s always eating!), Melody (the musician), and Sweet. Collect them all! The scares are on the level of those in The Wizard of Oz, which means they will particularly disturb kids. The special effects are non-stop, ranging from primitive video manipulation to “How the Hell did they do that?” magic. Nonsensically whimsical as a toddler telling tales on the fly, House is a puzzling delight.

95. Eraserhead (1977- dir. David Lynch)

David Lynch emerged from the world of painting and sculpture, and his early short films are avant-garde extensions of the abstract visual arts. So is his debut feature, Eraserhead, yet many have categorized the film as horror because its dark, dank, black and white cinematography recalls early horrors from Nosferatu to Night of the Hunter, its images are consistently nightmarish and occasionally gory, and its baby is one of cinema’s most disturbing monsters. The film’s shadowy composition, marionette-like acting, surrealism, unashamed emotiveness, and absurd humor are reminiscent of Lynch’s fellow avant gardists Buñuel and Cocteau. Eraserhead is most accurately viewed as a genre of one. Mel Brooks famously declared David Lynch “Jimmy Stewart from Mars,” and Eraserhead barely resembles a product of Earth. It’s certainly tough to place as a film made in 1970s Hollywood. With a bare minimum of dialogue (“Oh, you are sick!”), Eraserhead has the flavor of a silent film (the charmingly inarticulate Lynch has a notorious distrust of language; his first short “The Alphabet” was nothing less than a nightmare about learning letters). However, sound plays a key role: the clanging of Henry Spencer’s industrial landscape, the Fats Waller records he plays on his little turntable, the hissing of his radiator, the mewling of his mutant baby. Ah, the baby. Lynch wisely refuses to reveal how he made it (one of the most popular theories is that it’s some kind of puppet fashioned from a calf fetus!), but its symbolic significance is not as difficult to decode. Lynch had recently discovered his wife was pregnant, and his fears about first-time fatherhood can be felt in every sickening roll of the baby’s eyes, every loll of its swollen tongue, every snicker it emits at its father’s expense. Yet it might also be erroneous to view the baby as a clear-cut stand-in for Lynch’s daughter, as it also functions as the embodiment of Henry’s apparent self-loathing. When the odd little lady living in his radiator assures him that “In heaven everything is fine,” she may not be impelling Henry toward suicide as much as telling him to uproot his own feelings of anger and self-loathing— something Lynch, himself, was only just learning to do via transcendental meditation. Therefore it isn’t surprising that Lynch views Eraserhead as his most spiritual film, but for the many who fixate on the grotesque baby—and fail to see the humor in a tiny, bleeding chicken—it is most easily digested as a horror film. Regardless of whether or not one chooses to box in the picture, it remains a completely unique experience percolating with stark beauty, huge laughs (the dinner party is a mini-masterpiece of uncomfortable comedy), a deeply poignant performance from Jack Nance as Henry, and moments of breathtaking transcendence. A perfect film.

96. Dawn of the Dead (1978- dir. George Romero)

Ten years into the zombie apocalypse, America is in a state of anarchy. The media is breaking down, the FBI has failed to contain the epidemic or control a crumbling society, and it’s everyone for him or herself. As the zombies glut themselves on human flesh, a tiny band of survivors hole up in a shopping mal and glut themselves on the various products and luxuries inside. Creating their own little creature-comfort-crammed cages in the recesses of the building, our heroes are in danger of morphing into passive, brain-dead creeps no different from the walking dead stalking them. George Romero takes a more decisive, though less subtle, critical stance in Dawn of the Dead than in the preceding Night of the Living Dead. The sequel plays more like a satire, even as gory horror—as realized by up-and-coming make-up wiz Tom Savini—is plentiful and even more stomach churning in full color. Romero’s ample, often slapstick humor makes graphic images of cannibalism, disemboweling, and cranial gunshots easier to stomach. The likable cast of non-dead characters fulfills viewer fantasies when zipping through a mall giddily on a glutinous shopping spree and realizes nightmares when they start succumbing to the zombie onslaught. The epic structure lends weight to the film’s criticisms of the military, vigilantism, and mindless consumerism. Dawn of the Dead is less atmospheric and visceral than the first installment of the “Living Dead” series, but it is Romero’s most accomplished and satisfying film.

97. Halloween (1978- dir. John Carpenter)

For better or worse Halloween spawned a new strand of horror that would dominate the genre in the decade to come. Seen out of context, John Carpenter’s film can seem hopelessly formulaic, but let’s not forget that Halloween was the movie that set the slasher formula in place: a superhuman killer hacks up horny teens, only to meet his match in the most virginal of the lot (which film theorist Carol J. Clover labeled “The final girl”) and a fate ambiguous enough to allow room for an endless stream of sequels. Carpenter’s film stands above the mass of joyless, predictable, cynical slasher movies because he executes his with such style. After a disturbing prologue in which young Michael Myers commits his first murder on Halloween night, 1963, Carpenter reduces the pace to a creep, with the adult Michael stalking an atmospherically autumnal Illinois suburb. There we meet our future final girl, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), and Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasence), the Van Helsing-esque doctor on the hunt for the escaped psycho. Carpenter peppers his film with references to the grandpappy of slasher films, naming the good doctor after John Gavin’s bland hero in Psycho, casting Janet Leigh’s daughter as Laurie, and weaving themes of incestuous desires into Michael’s back story. Of course, masked Michael is not the compelling, sympathetic monster Norman Bates was. He’s more like the shark in Jaws, his William Shatner mask fashioning a dead, expressionless face, his actions ruled by an animal instinct to kill. Many have read much into Halloween—from critics who condemn it as near-pornographic in its depiction of the slaughter of sexually active women to those who praise it as near-feminist because of the heroine’s survival instincts—but Carpenter dismisses such analyses of his movie. He intended Halloween to be nothing more than a scary way to pass 90 minutes, and it accomplishes that job well enough.

98. The Brood (1979- dir. David Cronenberg)

Horror films are often spawned from anger, whether it’s Romero’s political angst or Hitchcock’s barely repressed sexual aggression. Few are as upfront about their anger as The Brood. While fighting for custody of his daughter, David Cronenberg conceived this nasty item in which an abusive mother (Samantha Eggar) falls under the thrall of Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), a therapist peddling half-baked regression methods at his prison-like compound. Even as his followers declare him a genius at his absurdly theatrical public sessions (which foretell talk show therapists like Dr. Phil), his former patients range from the pathetically dependent to the physically ravaged. His masterpiece of misguided psychology is Nola Carveth, who literally gives birth to anger, which manifests as monstrous, murderous mockeries of the young daughter she abused. The Brood is troubling both for the usual horror elements of violence and monstrosity and for Cronenberg’s livid jumble of ideas. He lays waste to cod therapists and the toll of custody battles, coming to the precipice of misogyny in the final showdown, a recent divorcee’s wish-fulfillment indulgence. With his absurd science, monster toddlers, and climactic Grand Guignol birth scene, he also flirts with outright silliness. Yet the blatantly personal nature of the film keeps it rooted and makes clear that Nola is not a representative of her entire gender. Any silliness is also resoundingly quelled by Cronenberg’s punishing pessimism, as he examines how one troubled person can emit waves that destroy the people closest to her or him and how the cycle of abuse persists over generations. 

99. Alien (1979- dir. Ridley Scott)

Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon made the masterstroke of fusing the two hugest blockbusters of the ‘70s when he wrote Alien. This hybrid of Jaws-style terror and Star Wars technology and creature creation transcends its commercial attributes because of Ridley Scott’s sophisticated direction and the superb cast. A master of mood and shadow, Scott realized Alien as a finely calibrated balance of simmering terror and unexpected shocks. Electrifying thrills are abundant by way of a chest-busting baby alien and its towering, multi-jawed elder self, but the angst-steeped stillness that bridges its attacks are just as nerve unraveling. Alien also resembles Night of the Living Dead in its uncommon hero. O’Bannon had a male actor in mind when he wrote the role of Ripley, but producers David Glier and Walter Hill decided to cast a woman to distinguish their film from the mass of male-dominated action flicks. Without a screenplay altered to suit that gender change, Sigourney Weaver plays the hero with a level of strength and resolve rarely afforded female characters. Alien wins extra progressive credit by allowing the two female and one African American crewmembers on the Nostromo to outlive their white, male ship-mates. Brought to life by Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, Harry Dean Stanton, and Ian Holm, that crew’s chemistry is strong, and we mourn whenever one falls into the alien’s terrifying clutches. As much as the victims are missed, the creature is a thing of awe. Designed by biomechanical artist H. R. Giger, the alien is a killing machine with the phallic toothiness of the shark in Jaws, the lean, armored physique of Darth Vader, and the emotionless cool of both.

100. Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht (1979- dir. Werner Herzog)

The dark, serious new-horror cinema of the ‘70s made little room for the beloved monsters of previous decades. Hammer studios gave up the ghost by the mid-‘70s, bringing an end to its increasingly desperate Dracula and Frankenstein movies. Andy Warhol-associate Paul Morrissey recast the two legendary creatures in a pair of gross, campy movies that had little in common with the Universal classics of the ‘30s. At the same time, unpleasant stuff like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Last House on the Left, and The Hills Have Eyes made certain horror fans long for the days when monsters could still arouse sympathy and horror movies could stir more than nausea. If Jaws indicated that horror movies could still be fun, the tremendously popular 1977 revival of Balderston and Dean’s Dracula stage play, and a subsequent film adaptation by good-old Universal, revealed the most renowned undead creature was not dead yet. The same year John Badham released his Dracula remake, visionary German director Werner Herzog was reaching even further back to the first feature adaptation of Stoker’s classic. Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht is both a superb homage to F.W. Murnau’s film and a more accessible glimpse into Herzog’s genius than Aguirre: The Wrath of God or The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser before it. The film is surprisingly faithful to Murnau, with recreations of the vampire’s shadowy stalk through a small village and a return to a subtly surreal seaside graveyard. Klaus Kinski’s make-up is patterned on Max Schreck's in the 1922 version, although Kinski looks more bat-like than Schreck’s ratty countenance. Herzog still picks up on Murnau’s parallels between Dracula’s arrival and the arrival of the rat-infested Bubonic Plague enthusiastically. Like a vile reimagining of the writhing mass of monkeys in Aguirre , rats so infest Nosferatu that characters literally have to wade through them just to enjoy their breakfast. Kinski’s performance synchs brilliantly with the infestation surrounding him. He oozes disease as a Dracula devoid of the sexual power radiated by Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee. His vampire is a simpering, sickly creature. When he feeds on his victims, he isn’t dominating them; he’s desperately scrambling to self-medicate. Dracula may be the main monster, but the real threat seems to arise from nature; a familiar Herzogian theme. The vampire isn’t nearly as troubling as the billowing storm clouds expanding overhead, the stretch of untrodden land Jonathan Harker must cross to reach his castle, the wailing wolves surrounding his castle, or that horrible sprawl of rats. Herzog plays with other character archetypes, remolding Mina (here named Lucy and played by gorgeous, kohl-eyed Isabelle Adjani) as cagey and clever and Van Helsing as an ineffectual skeptic. Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht was an artful, airy antidote to the grainy, grindhouse horror that dominated the ‘70s. Though slashers and serial killers would not be in short order during the subsequent decade, supernatural monsters would make a greater showing in the increasingly eclectic horror landscape of the 1980s.

Creep on to the ‘80s...

Flee back to the ’60s…
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