When I refer to 70s horror movies, I'm referring to films that have a certain look, feel, pace, and, well, just general quality. I've long considered the 70s to be the best decade for horror, but my definition is a little fluid. Because I'm thinking of it in terms of style as much as timeline, I have a few movies from the late 60s and early 80s which I lump into the catergory "70s horror films". Just needed to get that out of the way before we begin to avoid confusion.
Night of the Living Dead (1968) The only thing quintessentially 60s about this movie is the fact that it is black and white. The creepiness, the fact that it centers on just a few characters stranded in the middle of nowhere, and the fact that it is able to achieve amazing scares with few special effects makes it very 1970s-esque horror. Couple that with the fact that this is the movie that ushered in the zombie apocalypse genre, and you have more than enough reason to go watch it.
Rosemary's Baby (1968) Another from the late 60s that I'm throwing into the 70s category. Though the mood is more psychological thriller than horror, still there's the whole "I'm carrying the devil's child" thing, which adds the supernatural element, thereby turning this into a horror movie. Why is it a 70s horror movie, despite the year it was made? It has more to do with the look of it than anything else. 70s movies looked different from sixties movies. The actors looked like real people, as opposed to actors in earlier eras whose hair and make-up were more appropriate for a Broadway stage than an intimate close-up with a camera. The 70s were the decade of realism in film, but that realism began in the late 60s. (Midnight Cowboy is another example of a 60s movie with a very 70s feel, though it's not horror so it doesn't make my list.) Rosemary's Baby is dark, gritty, quiet, and, well, everything that made 70s horror so great. It just wasn't made in the 70s.
The Exorcist (1973) The first movie on my list that was actually filmed in the 70s. To me, this is the best horror movie ever made. I have no idea how many times I've seen it, but it still scares me every time. And I mean it scares me for days after I've watched it. The creepy thing about this movie is that, in the beginning, everything that's happening is completely mundane. A house makes weird noises at night. Objects get misplaced. A preteen girl exhibits odd behavior. Nothing seems out of the ordinary until well into the movie. Then when it's over, you walk through your house and you hear a weird noise and think, "Is that the devil?"
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) The 80s is the decade famous for slasher movies, but there were a few made in the 70s. The difference between 80s slasher movies and 70s slasher movies is that the ones from the 70s were actually good. They were more creepy than gory and built the suspense to almost unbearable levels before the killing actually started. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has a few weird moments (the camera pointed at the girl's face for a ridiculously long time while she sits at the dining room table screaming) but it also has one of the coolest scenes in any horror movie ever. It's close to the beginning when they've just gone into the house, then the door in the back opens, the villain steps out and attacks one of our unsuspecting protagonists, and disappears again behind the door. It came out of nowhere and when I saw it I was like, "Whoa! What just happened?"
The Omen (1976) There are few things creepier in a movie than evil children. And when the evil child might actually be the devil himself, that's even worse. This movie is mysterious, creepy, suspenseful, and everything else that makes good horror good.
Halloween (1978) Another slasher movie. I saw this film for the first time in the late 90s. I was hesitant to watch it because I knew it had spawned a chain of really bad sequels and I thought the first in the series would be equally bad. It's now one of my favorite horror movies of all time, and definitely the best slasher movie I've ever seen. What makes it so scary is that Michael Myers waits a really long time before he starts killing people (unless, of course, you count the initial kill at the beginning). It seems that the point of the first half of the movie is to lull viewers into a false sense of security, making us think this guy might not be as bad as we think, then bam, the terror begins.
The Amityville Horror (1979) Okay, so the haunted house story has been done. And done. And done again. Almost to the point where it's not scary anymore. But this haunted house movie was made in the 70s, so it's got to be good, right? And it's the haunted house with those windows. You know the ones I'm talking about. The windows that became so famous the people who bought the house after the movie came out had them replaced in an attempt to deter people from coming to take pictures. (You can read more about the actual house here.)
The Shining (1980) Coming out of the seventies on the other side now. Chronologically, this movie is barely 80s. As far as the story and the mood are concerned, it's all 70s. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, whose style is, admittedly, not for everyone, this is one of his more palatable films. Well, if you're into horror it's palatable. If not then...but what am I saying? If you're reading this, you must like horror movies, so go watch this one.
The Evil Dead (1981) This movie barely made my list. Not only was it not made in the 70s, the over-the-top emphasis on gore during the last half places it more in the 80s genre than the 70s. But the beginning of the movie is all 70s. Mysterious. Creepy. Setting up a pretty good story before the bloodbath begins. The fact that it launched Sam Raimi's career, as well as Bruce Campbell's, should be enough reason to watch it. And it's actually pretty well-made, considering it had virtually no budget, a very inexperienced production team, and bunch of no-name actors. There's a reason this one is considered a cult classic.
Poltergeist (1982) This is another one whose inclusion on my list is questionable. Made in 1982, its heavy reliance on special effects give it very much an 80s feel. But nevertheless the story unfolds in a very 70s fashion. Similar to The Exorcist, the first weird things that happen are pretty mundane. The suspense builds gradually and, like in Halloween, we're almost lulled into thinking these ghosts aren't so bad after all. Then, bam, the daughter gets sucked into her closet and the terror begins.
The 90s and Beyond
There are a few horror movies that came later which also have that creepy feel to them. The Sixth Sense (1999) is a good example. But it turns the usual horror format on its head by being terrifying at the beginning, until you realize at the end that the ghosts actually aren't evil. So the look and feel is 70s, but the story is something completely new. The Ring (2002) is right up there with the best of 70s horror in its ability to scare me, and continue scaring me long after the credits have rolled. The fact that it opens with the death of a teenager is straight out of the 80s, though.
So what are your thoughts? Are there any great 70s horror movies, or 70s-style horror movies, that I've missed? I'd love to hear about them in the comments.
And don't forget my new book, Primogénito: The Fuentes Legacy, is now available on Kindle.