One of the most defining decades in horror was the 1970s. Gone was the free-loving spirit of the 1960s and instead it was replaced with the grim pessimism that set in thanks to the Vietnam War. Gritty, dark, and horrific violence permeated the films that also became the breeding ground for prolific voices that would forever alter the horror genre for the better. While it’s typical for films to reflect the social, political, and economic events of its time, the 1970s honed in on the fears of childbirth, the sexual revolution, and the introduction of oral contraceptives. It took advantage of the loosening of censorship laws, allowing for the boundaries to be pushed far greater than ever before. What the 1970s lacked in remakes it made up for in its basing much of its horror on popular horror novels. Some of the most regarded horror spawned from this decade, and here’s the best:
A Bay of Blood (1971)
Also known as Twitch of the Death Nerve, among many other alternate titles, Mario Bava’s most violent film may not be as widely known or as financially successful as the other films on this list. But it is extremely vital to the slasher sub-genre in terms of influence and how we’ve come to know slasher films today, starting with Friday the 13th in particular. There’s a lot that Friday the 13th seems to owe to this film; the killer’s POV, a cast of teens who like sex and drinking, and even death scenes like the pair of lovers who get skewered together. Though John Carpenter may have famously disregarded Friday the 13th as a cheap money grab based on Halloween, the truth is that Sean S. Cunningham owes a lot more to Bava’s A Bay of Blood.
The Last House on the Left (1972)
Talk about a stunning debut by now household name, Wes Craven. Inspired by The Virgin Springs, the quiet director shocked even producer Sean S. Cunningham (Friday the 13th) with the level of realistic violence Craven captured on camera. Perhaps that’s because he had injected it with much more sex and graphic violence than made the final cut, as Craven and Cunningham ultimately decided to soften it down a bit to make it just a tad more commercial. If you haven’t guessed by now, this seminal shocker launched the careers of Craven and Cunningham, who went on to become extremely important to horror in the ‘80s. It’s also a film that took a while to catch on with critics, who widely hated it upon release except for the usually hard to please Roger Ebert.
The Exorcist (1973)
Based on William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel, the author had a surprising amount of input for the film adaptation. When notable directors like Stanley Kubrick rejected Warner Bros’ offers to helm the adaptation, it was Blatty who insisted on William Friedkin for his gritty, documentary-style work. It’s that precise style, and Friedkin’s manipulative handling of his actors, that made The Exorcist so scary. The shocking imagery terrified audiences, some to the point of passing out, and was the first film to scare up $230,000 at the box office. It’s also one of the few horror films that are widely embraced by even non-horror fans, also impressing the Academy enough to nominate the film for 10 Academy Awards. Initially released in theaters on December 26, 1973, this is one holiday gift audiences didn’t see coming.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
One of the best and most influential films in horror history, Tobe Hooper’s horror film continued the decade’s trend in guerilla filmmaking. Considered extremely controversial and shocking upon release, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre also birthed the first horror icon in Leatherface, long before the arrival of Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, or Jason Voorhees. While the newer wave of horror directors like Alexandre Aja and Rob Zombie have cited this film as a major influence, it’s also directly responsible for influencing important films of its own decade- notably Ridley Scott’s Alien.
Much has already been said about Steven Spielberg’s first directorial hit; that the notorious animatronic shark malfunctions lead to Spielberg utilizing it in a way that became far scarier, that composer John Williams’ minimalistic theme left a lasting imprint that is still recognizable today, or that it simply instilled a tremendous fear of going into the water. Based on Peter Benchley’s novel of the same name, Jaws is not only responsible for really kicking Spielberg’s burgeoning career into overdrive, but it also established the modern day summer blockbuster. While the film itself went over budget during production, Universal spent a whopping $2 million, with an unprecedented $700,000 of that towards national television spots, creating a ton of hype for the film prior to release. Jaws became such a box office hit that it became the prototype for modern blockbuster advertising. There’s no denying just how great the actual movie is, but thanks to Universal’s marking strategy, it also changed horror history.
The film that began David Cronenberg’s signature body horror was not only notable for being the director’s first feature film but also for royally pissing off critics and the Parliament of Canada over its overtly violent sexual nature. The plot sees residents of a luxury high-rise falling prey to a slug-like parasite that turns its victims into sex-crazed, murderous maniacs that spread their infection like a venereal disease. Cronenberg partially funded the film through the Canadian Film Development Corporation, and a high profile critical attack on the film made it difficult for the director to obtain funding on future projects. It even reportedly got him kicked out of his Toronto apartment. Yet, despite the controversy, the movie was a financial success in comparison to its meager budget. Truthfully, both of Cronenberg’s subsequent body horror in the ‘70s, Rabid and The Brood, fared better, but it’s this underrated classic that declared Cronenberg a horror auteur to be reckoned with that should be celebrated.
Based on Stephen King’s 1974 novel, Brian De Palma’s masterpiece not only marks this film as the first Stephen King big-screen adaptation, but also one of the few horror films to receive Academy Award nominations. Well received by critics and audiences alike, Carrie cast a long lasting stamp on the horrors of high school. King has praised De Palma’s style in translating his story into becoming something far greater than what was on the page. Nancy Allen and John Travolta created memorably vicious villains, but funnily enough, Allen claims she thought they were playing the comic relief. It wasn’t until she saw the final cut that she realized they were the villains.
If you’ve ever seen this wacky, acid trip of a movie, it may seem like an odd fit among the horror giants on this list. Of course, that’s precisely why House is one of the best in horror of the 1970s. Toho Studios wanted a sort of Japanese Jaws when they enlisted Nobuhiko Obayashi. Instead, they got a psychedelic horror comedy that works as a precursor to the work of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson. Dancing skeletons, severed fingers playing the piano, and decapitated heads biting butts, the absurdist imagery may have you questioning if someone slipped something into your drink while watching this movie. For all of its strangeness, there’s also a surprising tragic depth beneath the surface, with Obayashi delving into the culture pre and post-atomic bomb. Toho may not have gotten the Jaws sized hit they wanted, but House did become a success.
Perhaps the best known and most widely regarded giallo of all time, Dario Argento’s beloved classic is not only hyper-violent but hyper-stylistic with its stunning vivid coloring. Playing like a fevered dream against the rock score of Goblin, Suspiria consistently makes it on lists of best films ever made and holds close critical regard, though that wasn’t always the case. A large part of the film’s success is the Technicolor, which Argento has stated he was inspired by the color in Walt Disney’s Snow White. While a remake is currently on the way, the original classic is still selling out theaters today with its recently discovered 35mm print and a 4k restoration.
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
While keeping in trend with his knack for social commentary, this time taking on American consumerism, George A. Romero upped the ante on this important sequel in every way. Not only is it much bigger in scale, but it’s also a proper introduction to the masterful effects work of Tom Savini, who’d previously worked with the director on vampire flick Martin. What’s perhaps lesser known, though, is that giallo master Dario Argento was eager to help Romero get his sequel funded, and also managed to earn editing rights to the foreign release. This gave Dawn of the Dead multiple versions for fans to track down. Argento’s cut is bleaker and replaces the score with a soundtrack by Goblin.
John Carpenter’s first horror hit is so synonymous with the genre that there’s not much left to say. This unofficial sequel to Black Christmas spawned the birth of not only horror icon Michael Myers, but the final girl trope as well in Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode. Carpenter’s direction that sets Myers up as an uncanny Boogeyman and his famous score solidified Halloween as a requisite horror classic. It was one of many that influenced the modern slasher sub-genre, and launched one of horror’s longest lasting franchises.
Written, produced, and directed by Don Coscarelli, this DIY horror film is the very definition of a labor of love. Wholly unique to anything before and after, Phantasm defies categorization. Equal parts horror and sci-fi, and short on definitive answers, the story’s concept came to Coscarelli in a dream. Fitting, as it the overall aesthetic feels like one fevered dream. Killer chrome orbs, the iconic Tall Man, and one sweet 1971 Plymouth Barracuda, Phantasm may not have won over critics upon release but it did win over an extremely loyal fan base that still consistently begs Coscarelli for more, decades later.
The horror classic that launched an entire franchise and inspired tons of copycats almost didn’t come to be at all. Or rather, it wouldn’t have existed in its current, near perfect state. Screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett were on the verge of closing a deal with low budget cult film producer Roger Corman before realizing they might get a better offer elsewhere. This proved correct when they sold it to 20th Century Fox. Enter in Ridley Scott, whom O’Bannon then introduced to H.R. Giger, and this unnerving haunted house thriller in space became horror history.;