The 1970s was a watershed decade for horror: the grim mood and tumultuous events of the time, coupled with an overall burst of director creativity, led to some seminal movies, and horror benefited tremendously. Here I list my personal favorites.
Black Christmas (1974)
Though it’s fairly well known that this wicked little slasher film predated Halloween and Friday the 13th in laying out the subgenre’s template, Bob Clark’s movie deserves recognition on its own merits. Before he made A Christmas Story, Clark crafted this darkly comedic, oddly cozy, and gripping tale of a sorority house besieged by ominous phone calls and one of the most insane killers in all of cinema (who’s barely seen, making him all the scarier). It all sounds hoary and clichéd now, but Black Christmas did it first, and did it tremendously well.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Tobe Hooper’s movie is less gory than its reputation and surprisingly artful for a demented horror flick. Daniel Pearl’s gorgeous cinematography perfectly captures this wholly original nightmare. All the sequels and remakes in the world can’t diminish the power of this ghoulishly brilliant masterpiece.
The Omen (1976)
The Exorcist is more esteemed, but this Devil-ish horror flick has always been my favorite. Gregory Peck and Lee Remick are perfectly overwrought as the unwitting parents of the Anti-Christ, in an ultra-stylized feature that’s cheesily compelling. Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar winning music and a string of indelible setpieces—the nanny! The zoo! The decapitation!—cement Richard Donner’s film as a gripping piece of entertainment.
The Sentinel (1977)
Michael Winner’s Rosemary’s Baby knockoff is notorious for using real “freaks” in its finale, and there’s no denying its trashiness and lack of taste. That doesn’t mean it isn’t damn effective. A bland Cristina Raines (aka the poor man’s Kate Jackson) is a naïve model with a sordid family history who moves into a spooky Brooklyn brownstone. There she encounters sinister, neighbors like Burgess Meredith’s eccentric pet lover and creepy lesbians Gerde (Sylvia Miles) and Sandra (Beverly D’Angelo); “We fondle each other” may be one of my favorite movie lines of all time. Chris Sarandon is particularly inspired as the sleazy boyfriend who uncovers the building’s Awful Secret. Nasty, over the top, and full of lurid shocks, The Sentinel deserves to be a cult classic.
This is one of my favorite films of all time; it’s another watershed movie that should stand apart from its impact. Audiences may find it slow moving or corny today, but John Carpenter’s dirt cheap indie is beautifully shot, perfectly scored, and smartly written to imbue a now archetypal plot (masked maniac stalks babysitters!) with moody pathos and slice of life reality.
Ridley Scott’s game changer was the perfect capper to the decade. It ripped a hole through the fun loving spectacle of Star Wars by rendering the technology drab—is there anything more depressing than blue collar space grunts?—and the aliens not the least bit friendly. H.R. Giger’s freakishly unforgettable designs coupled with the script’s slow burn grimness made this more than a “haunted house movie in space” (as it’s often been called). It’s one of the few films to successfully combine horror and science fiction and an outstanding example of both.