Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Top 10 Horror Films of the 1970s

I am a horror fan. Always have been. Always will be. I grew up on a steady diet of late night horror films in the bygone era of Friday and/or Saturday night horror hosts. I wanted to write a blog about my Top 10 Horror Films, but I had far too many favorites to choose from. Therefore, I plan to do a series of blogs dealing with specific decades. This time we will be visiting the 1970s.

In many ways the 1970s were my favorite decade of films. This was when I first started going to my neighborhood theater, The Arcade, alone. It was not a first run house. It didn't show highbrow films like Raging Bull and The Last Picture Show. Its fare was more plebeian. We got a steady diet of films like The Doberman Gang, My Name Is Trinity, The Legend of Boggy Creek, McQ, and, of course,  a seemingly endless stream of horror films. Although I had no way of knowing it, those afternoons I spent in the dark at the Arcade would decide what I would do for a living. You can expect a few sentimental favorites on this list.

Now I must define what I consider horror. Many people place The Silence of The Lambs on their lists of top horror films. I do not consider films about murderers or criminals to be horror films unless there is a supernatural aspect. The main problem with this distinction will come in the 1990s and beyond with the popularity of "torture porn" films, a genre that was birthed with this decade's Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave. However, since I generally do not enjoy those films, few would be considered for the list anyway.

I do include most sci-fi thrillers in the horror film genre, particularly if the protagonist(s) are menaced by an alien entity or man-made technological threat. I do not include films featuring unenhanced natural threats, like the shark in Jaws. Don't expect to see that film on this list!

With those limitations in mind, here's my list:

10. RACE WITH THE DEVIL, 1975
Directed by Jack Starrett
Written by Lee Frost & Wes Bishop

Two couples enjoying a camping vacation in the west witness a human sacrifice. After they report it to the police, they find themselves under assault from the shadowy cult.

This is not a great film. It definitely falls into the realm of a guilty pleasure. However, the film manages to combine a couple important themes of the early-70s. First, it had Satanism. Satan was really big after the success of Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist. It had motorcycles. What do you expect? They had Peter Fonda. I think some law required Peter Fonda to ride a motorcycle in every film (or at least race a car.) It was also drenched in paranoia. Paranoia was the common theme of many great films of the period, from The Conversation and The Parallax View to Three Days of The Condor and Marathon Man. Except in this film, it isn't the government that should be feared. It's normal people. Anyone could be in the satanic cult.

Although this was a low-budget B-movie, I find it much more exciting than the higher budget films of today. There are number of car chases in this film. Today, most of the stunt work would be computer generated. However, nothing compares to seeing real people doing real stunts in real cars. It is definitely more thrilling when real people are in real danger.

***Spoilers***

On the negative side, the film ends too abruptly. If you were following normal screenplay structure, the Big Gloom that normally ends the second act is where this film ends. The previously chase that the couples survived really didn't supply that all is lost moment you need to end an act. That said, I am willing to cut this film some slack. When a film ends tragically, it is hard to build an all is lost moment. You can't go from all is lost to EVEN MORE is lost.

9. HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS, 1970
Directed by Dan Curtis
Written by Sam Hall and Gordon Russell

The tale of daytime TV's favorite vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) is told in this big screen spin-off from the noted soap opera.

Man, oh man. I used to love me some Dark Shadows. I would race home from grade school to watch ABC-TV's Gothic horror soap opera. I had the soundtrack album. I even got a book of vampire jokes by Jonathan Frid. That said, sometimes it is best to leave the past in the past. I recently got a DVD of the show itself. I found it sadly unwatchable. This movie, however, is terrific. People unfamiliar with the original series might be at a slight loss because of the shorthand Curtis uses to set up the characters, but, once the film gets moving, it keeps moving. It is well-directed and shot with the same kind of lurid palate you would find in a Hammer horror film. Definitely worth checking out. However, I am not as fond of the second film Night of Dark Shadows.


8. THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, 1973
Directed by John Hough
Screenplay by Richard Matheson from his novel.

Reprint of an earlier blog:

The Legend of Hell House is a guilty pleasure from 1973. I remember seeing the rather lurid trailer at my local movie house, The Arcade Theater, and knew I had to see the film. Considering the violence, and somewhat tasteful nudity, I am surprised the film was merely rated PG at the time of its release and I was able to see the film unescorted by an adult.

I liked the film, but I must admit I was a little disappointed initially. First, I remember thinking that I had already seen all of the scary moments in the trailer. More importantly, I felt the film was an amped-up ripoff of Robert Wise's 1963 masterpiece The Haunting. At the time I considered "The Haunting" the best ghost movie ever made. Still do. I have had considerable experience with paranormal activity. Whenever someone asks me what it was like to live in a haunted house, I tell them to watch The Haunting. (Please, whatever you do, avoid the Jan De Bont's 1999 remake of the film. It is a travesty.)

Subsequent viewing, however, have allowed me to enjoy The Legend of Hell House on its own level. The plot is simple. A dying millionaire sends a physicist, Clive Reville, and his wife, Gayle Hunnicutt, and two mediums, the tasty Pamela Franklin and Roddy McDowall to the Belasco House, described as "the Mount Everest of haunted houses," to prove or disprove the survival of personality after death. Two other psychic expeditions into the house ended in disaster. Roddy McDowall's character is the sole sane survivor of the second expedition. Needless to say, madness and bloodshed ensue before the riddle of the Belasco House is finally solved.

The real strength of the film is the script by Richard Matheson which was based on his own novel. Matheson is one of the most interesting horror/sci-fi screenwriters of his time. His credits included films like The Incredible Shrinking Man to The Night Stalker and numerous episodes of The Twilight Zone. This film itself is reminiscent thematically of Matheson's classic novel I Am Legend, in that it explores the boundary between scientific knowledge and the supernatural. Matheson always likes to have his cake and eat it, too. He accepts and celebrates the supernatural, but he always provides it with an acceptable scientific explanation.

The film is moody and atmospheric, but it might be too slowly paced for MTV-generation. The performances of the four leads are generally solid. That said, I do sometimes waver in my opinion as to whether McDowall is brilliant or hopelessly over the top in the film. It's definitely worth a look.


7. THE NIGHT STALKER, 1972
Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey
Teleplay by Richard Matheson.  Story by Jeff Rice.

A cynical newsman named Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) begins to believe that a series of killings in Las Vegas are the result of a vampire much to the consternation of his hot-headed editor Vincenzo (Simon Oakland) in this made-for-TV film.

With the possible exception of Steven Spielberg's masterful Duel, this film the best made-for-TV film of the 1970s. I credit the success of the film mainly with the taut and literate script by the always fabulous Richard Matheson. He situates the vampire myth in a realistic, modern environment. The film plays more like a crime drama than a horror movie. The Kolchak character, expertly played by McGavin, provides the perfect mixture of concern and cynicism. This film is perhaps my favorite modern vampire film, and an influence on my own writing. It was followed by a decent sequel and a hit-or-miss series.

I couldn't find a trailer online, but here's the whole movie:


6. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, 1978
Directed by Philip Kaufman
Screenplay by W.D. Richter.   Novel by Jack Finney.

Friends Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) and Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) discover that people around them are being duplicated and replaced by an alien life form in this paranoid thriller.

This is the second go around for Jack Finney's novel and the results were just as impressive as they were in the storied 1956 version directed by Don Siegel.  Director Abel Ferrara would provide yet another excellent version with 1993's Body Snatchers. The paranoid thriller setup seems ideally malleable for any age. I thought the narrative framework was indestructible until I saw the 2007 version The Invasion. (A happy ending? Really?)

Philip Kaufman tells the tale with a stylish, inventive eye. He also benefits from an excellent cast. Aside from the aforementioned Sutherland and Adams, the film also benefits from great performances from Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright and Leonard Nimoy. A must see, like every other version of this story (except the 2007 one.)


5. PHANTASM, 1979
Written and Directed by Don Coscarelli

A teenager named Mike (Michael Baldwin), who recently lost his parents, tries to convince his older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) and their friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister) that something very suspicious is going on at the nearby cemetery/funeral home run by an ominous Tall Man.

I love this film, but structurally it's a mess. It really is. The story is often illogical. The last couple scenes throw everything that happened before them out the window. Was it all a dream? Or a dream within a dream? Or maybe a dream within a dream within a dream? Who knows? Who cares? To me, coherence takes a backseat to mood. I believe Coscarelli, perhaps unconsciously, taps into a primordial adolescent fear of death and the things of death. There is foundational truth in Mike's performance, and the relationship between the brothers always feels real to me. Additionally, Coscarelli created a great villain in The Tall Man, played by Angus Scrimm. The flying orbs that roam the mausoleum are also a great touch.

Coscarelli followed this film with a number of sequels that expanded the universe he began in this film. Phantasm II is probably the best of them. It is a much more conventional film, and I enjoy it, but it lacks the undefined magic of the original.


4. ALIEN, 1979
Directed by Ridley Scott
Screenplay by Dan O'Bannon. Story by Ronald Shusett & Dan O'Bannon.

A large merchant spaceship answering an interplanetary distress call finds itself invaded by an unknown life form intent on killing the entire crew.

Some say that this film starts off a little too slowly for the millennial generation. If that is true, I pity those millennials who won't give this film the time to grow on them. It is a well-written and masterfully-directed piece of suspense. And the cast: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright (making her second appearance on this list), John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto and the always fabulous Harry Dean Stanton. In its own way, the sequel Aliens, which made myTop Horror Films of the 1980s list, is equally as good in its own right. However, although some of the ensuing sequels are interesting, none of them reaches of the heights of the first two films.


3. HALLOWEEN, 1978
Directed  by John Carpenter
Screenplay by John Carpenter and Debra Hill

Michael Myers escapes from a mental institution and returns to his hometown to murder teenagers on Halloween, eventually focusing on the ultimate scream queen Jamie Leigh Curtis.

This might not have been the first slasher horror film, but it is unquestionably the best of them and defined the parameters of the genre. (To learn more about the rules, watch the film Scream, which I suspect will make my 1990s list.) Carpenter made truly excellent use of subjective camera, and provided a nifty little musical theme in addition to making a star of Jamie Leigh Curtis. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of horrible copycats would try to mine the success of this film (including many of its sequels), but we shouldn't blame this film for them. This movie remains a horror masterpiece.


2. DAWN OF THE DEAD, 1978
Written and Directed by George A. Romero

A group of four survivors of a growing zombie holocaust take refugee in a large suburban mall, but will the lure of consumerism be their downfall?

Director George A. Romero invented the modern zombie genre with 1968's Night of the Living Dead. That film had a black & white, documentary vibe and state of the art gore. Ten years later, Romero upped the ante with this film. Now the blood is red and the level of gore has grown exponentially. (He would up the gore ante again in the third film of the official canon, Day of the Dead, but, story-wise, it wasn't as good a film as the first two.) The violence in this film is often so over-the-top that it inspires as many laughs and high-fives as it does screams.

The film is also enhanced by the anti-consumerism subtext that grew naturally out of the setting. My problem with later Romero films is that he tended to make socio-economic statements the text rather than the subtext. The worst example is 2005's otherwise worthy Land of the Dead. In that film, the bad guys seem obsessed with money -- by that I mean cash.  Literal cash. In a post-apocalyptic world, paper money would be worthless. The characters illogical obsession with it undermines the story's credibility. Message definitely held sway over narrative in this film. (As the writer of many faith-based films, I must confess I allowed that to happen, too.)

This film is also a sentimental favorite for me because I took a girl to the Golden Ring Mall to see it for our first date. I invited her to go without even considering the fact that I didn't have a car (or even a drivers license) to get us there.  Fortunately, she could drive.

BTW, the 2004 remake was pretty good on its own terms.


1. THE EXORCIST, 1973
Directed by William Freidkin
Screenplay by William Peter Blatty, based on his book.

A desperate mother (Ellen Burstyn) turns to a disillusioned priest (playwright Jason Miller) to save her increasingly disturbed daughter (Linda Blair) after modern medicine and psychiatry prove useless.

Director William Freidkin elevated this film by addressing the subject matter with a deadly degree of seriousness (and budget). He was also aided by a literate scripts and excellent performances from all of the leads, particularly the determined Ellen Burstyn, the soulful Jason Miller and the no nonsense Max von Sydow. And Linda Blair....  As a filmmaker I don't think I could ask a child to deliver such a performance.

Audiences of the time had never seen anything like it. It was a cultural sensation. People were fainting and running out of theaters screaming. I, of course, was too young to see the film during its initial release. I only saw lame, truncated versions on television until I finally saw a theatrical revival in the 1990s.

This film usually tops internet lists of the scariest horror films, but I was actually quite dismissive of it for many years. I felt it relied too heavily on shock effects. I was wrong. As time slowly takes more and more of my loved ones, this tale of a priest who loses his faith because of his inability to save his mother and a desperate woman willing to do anything to save her daughter resonates more deeply with me long after the effects lose their ability to shock.

The best horror film of all time?  Yeah, probably.


Honorable Mention:

THE OMEN, 1976. A good film about the budding antichrist, but a little too Hollywood. Not transgressive enough for this list. THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, 1974. A pivotal horror film with some strong moments, but I found some of the acting sketchy. CARRIE, 1976. Stephen King makes it to the big screen. Great performance by Sissy Spacek. The film hovers just below the Top Ten. JAWS, 1975. An undeniably great film.  It's scary, but it's not a horror movie. It's a maritime adventure. SUSPIRIA, 1977. Many people consider this Dario Argento film one of the scariest ever made. I like it, but I think it is overrated. COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE, 1970. Modern day vampire films are always a guilty pleasure for me and this is the most California of them all.  EQUINOX, 1970. Cool little indie with great effects for the budget. THE MEPHISTO WALTZ, 1971. A pre-MASH Alan Alda plays a pianist with a soul to sell in this little Satanic film. SALEM'S LOT, 1979.  I originally loved this mini-series, based on one of my favorite King novels, but I think the 2005 version surpassed it.

If you like horror, you should check out these sample chapters of my novel Chapel Street:

Prologue - My Mother
Chapter 1 - RestingPlace.com
Chapter 2 - Elisabetta
Chapter 3 - The Upload
Chapter 4 - The Kobayashi Maru
Chapter 5 - Gina
Chapter 6 - Tombstone Teri
Chapter 7 - The Holy Redeemer Lonely Hearts Club
Chapter 8 - A Mourner
Chapter 9 - War Is Declared
Chapter 10 - The Motorcycle

Learn more about the book, click Here.

Other Lists:
Top 10 Horror Films of the 2000s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 1990s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 1980s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 1970s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 1960s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 1950s
Top 15 Horror Films of the 1930s and 1940s
7 Guy Films
My 5 Favorite Westerns
20 Films, or Confessions of a Misspent Youth
My 20 Favorite Beatles Songs
My 5 Least Favorite Beatles Songs
My 5 Favorite Dylan Albums
Halloween Recommends

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