As we prepare to wrap up another decade, I decided it would be fun to take a look back through the history of horror and find the most essential movies of each decade. It’s important to note that these are not the films that I consider the best of each decade, nor are they the most popular, they are the ones that I feel are essential viewing for fans of the genre. This also isn’t a ranking of these movies, in fact I decided that the best way to compile this list was chronologically. We’ll start this exercise by taking a look at the 13 most essential horror films of the 1970’s.
A BAY OF BLOOD (1971)
A Bay of Blood, written and directed by Mario Bava has been called the first slasher film by many. I’m not sure that it can claim that title but there is no doubt that it was a huge influence on slasher films to come, including Friday the 13th. The makers of Friday the 13th claim that they had not seen this film prior to making their movie but the coincidences are a little too numerous to be ignored. If you haven’t seen A Bay of Blood you might find it under a number of different titles including Carnage, Blood Bath or (my personal favorite) Twitch of the Death Nerve. No matter what it is called, it’s an essential movie for horror fans, particularly fans of the slasher sub-genre.
The Wicker Man (1973)
The Wicker Man stands as the perfect example of folk horror. The amount of praise that this film has received over the years is incredible. It has been described as “the Citizen Kane of horror movies” by Total Film and it was named as the 6th greatest British film of all-time. Every cult movie that you have ever seen owes a debt of gratitude to The Wicker Man. If you haven’t seen it, correct that immediately and , no matter what anyone tells you, find the 1973 version, not the Nicolas Cage remake.
The Exorcist (1973)
There’s no way you can put together a list of essential horror films and not include The Exorcist. Why is it essential? Because it’s The Exorcist. It’s a bold film made by a bold filmmaker. It is not only the scariest movie I have ever seen but it is also one of the best movies I have ever seen. The Exorcist is the film that made Hollywood realize that horror is a genre that needed to be taken seriously. Horror fans have always lamented the genre being viewed as little more than a ghetto in the world of movies. William Friedkin changed all of that with this movie. He had just won the Oscar for Best Director two years earlier for The French Connection, by following that up with The Exorcist he moved the genre towards legitimization. By making an absolute masterpiece, he made it so that the genre could no longer be ignored. The Exorcist went on to become the first horror movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. I want you to read the rest of this list but if you haven’t seen this film, I insist that you stop reading right now and watch it.
Don’t Look Now (1973)
If you are a fan of atmospheric horror, you have to see Don’t Look Now. It’s a beautiful, haunting movie that you will be thinking about for days. The performances of Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland are simply amazing, two of the best that the horror genre has ever given us. The tragedy and heartbreak that is just below the surface of the movie isn’t easy to shake. The setting of Venice is absolutely stunning. The score compliments the film perfectly. There simply isn’t anything about this movie that isn’t great.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
It’s impossible to overstate the influence that this film has had on the genre. Wes Craven said that he made The Hills Have Eyes as an homage to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. When We Craven is making a movie as an homage to a film, you know that it is essential. It’s not only Craven, though. Ridley Scott said it was an inspiration for Alien and Rob Zombie has sighted it as a major influence on his work. Leatherface lived on in several sequels and a remake but he has never been more terrifying than he is in the original and film has never felt more suffocating and grimy than it does in this movie.
Black Christmas (1974)
Another movie that is often mentioned as the first slasher film. I don’t believe it is though. I do consider it to be the first MODERN slasher film. The amount of influence that Bob Clark and Black Christmas had on John Carpenter’s Halloween is up for debate. What isn’t up for debate is the fact that it surely had some sort of influence. It’s well documented that Halloween was a major influence on Friday The 13th, which lead to roughly a million imitators in the wake of it’s success. There were slashers before Black Christmas, we’ve already talked about A Bay of Blood, and there was Psycho and Peeping Tom before that. None of them laid the groundwork for the wave of slashers to come in the 80’s like Black Christmas did, however. Ignore the remakes, pop in the original and enjoy.
Deep Red (1975)
This isn’t Dario Argento’s best or most well known work (we’ll get to that one soon) but it does seem like an essential horror film to me. Deep Red feels like the perfect example of Argento. It is certainly a perfect example of a giallo film with the black gloved killer, the convoluted plot and the amazing music. There seems to be a bit of a barrier to entry for a lot of horror fans (specifically us Americans) when it comes to gialli. Deep Red works as an excellent gateway to these films because it seems to be more accessible than most. If you’re looking to dive into the genre, this is probably the best jumping off point.
Some people have argued with me, claiming that Jaws isn’t a horror movie. This is absolutely absurd. Jaws is responsible for at least two generations being terrified to go into the ocean. It’s about a giant shark that is eating people. What’s not horror about that? It’s also an insanely well made film from an insanely talented filmmaker. Jaws not only had a huge influence on the horror genre, spawning tons of cheap imitators, but it changed the way that movies are released. Before Jaws there was no such thing as a summer blockbuster. In fact, if Spielberg hadn’t made this movie there is no telling what the video rental chain would have been called. It seems silly to write anymore trying to convince anyone who isn’t already convinced that they need to see this film, so I’ll stop here.
The Omen (1976)
It seems crazy to me not to consider The Omen an essential horror film but I meet a lot of people who don’t think of it as one. To me this is the mother of all creepy kid movies. Damien is the quintessential creepy kid and Harvey Stephens plays the role flawlessly. It’s also a movie that helped further the notion that horror films should be taken seriously. Gregory Peck is in it for God’s sake, Atticus Finch himself. Richard Donner does a great job of creating an uneasy atmosphere through the whole film, the score is iconic and it has at least two scenes that every horror fan should see. The Omen has left a mark on the genre and needs to be seen.
Dario Argento’s Suspiria is a masterpiece on a couple of fronts. I have never thought that the story was strong. It’s okay but not the reason to watch this film. Suspiria is possibly the most beautiful film I have ever seen. The colors are out of this world. It’s almost hard to believe that it works. A lesser filmmaker could have easily taken these colors and turned it into a visual disaster. This combined with the iconic score from Goblin make Suspiria a must see horror movie. It’s hard to believe that murder and death can be so lovely.
Earlier I said that The Exorcist is one of the best movies I have ever seen. Halloween is on that list as well. We all recognize that John Carpenter is amazing. This movie is where he really showcases that talent. It’s a low budget slasher movie. Carpenter did not treat it as one though. Just look at that opening shot (there are cuts in there but they are well hidden) it rivals the opening shot of Orsen Welles’ Touch of Evil, that’s a lot of effort to go to for the opening of a low budget slasher movie. Carpenter didn’t have to do it that way but he did and it’s perfect. The entire film is that way. No one would even think to bring that kind of vision to a slasher film today. The film looks great, the script is terrific, the actors all hit home runs and the score is unmatched.
Dawn of the Dead (1979)
George A. Romero used his “Dead” series as a vehicle for social commentary. These are the movies that I point to most often when people say that horror films shouldn’t have social messages. We’ve been doing this for a long time. It’s never more clear than it is in Dawn of the Dead. The living seek refuge inside a mall and the dead show up there out of habit. It’s an obvious comment on our materialistic consumer culture and Romero takes no prisoners when it comes to placing blame. Beyond that, it’s an amazing zombie film. The kind that only George Romero could deliver.
Alien is notable for a couple of reasons. First, it is likely the greatest sci-fi horror film of all-time. Second, I don’t think there is a more badass woman in the genre than Ellen Ripley. Sigourney Weaver absolutely kicks ass in this movie. Those things aside, Alien is terrifying. It’s a simple, yet effective, story of a crew trapped aboard a ship with an alien that is trying to kill them. The tension that director Ridley Scott is able to derive from this scenario is incredible. It never seems to let up.
There you have it. My list of 13 essential horror films of the 1970’s. We’ll take a look at the essential horror films of the 1980’s next. Before we do that I did want to give some love to some honorable mentions. Anytime you compile a list some things just miss the cut and I think these films deserve to be recognized as well.
The Last House On The Left (1972)
What Have You Done To Solange? (1972)
The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
Race With The Devil (1975)
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978)