In Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), there’s a scene where Rosemary (Mia Farrow) picks up an issue of Time magazine that bears the incendiary headline “Is God Dead?” This question came to inform many of the horror films of the 1970’s, which represent the grim social developments and cultural downturn of the decade following the revolutionary optimism of the 1960’s. By 1970, that optimism had been cut down with a cold dose of reality. The sexual liberation and civil rights movements had taken major leaps forward, then faltered. The Manson Family killed the California hippie dream during their night of Helter Skelter. The Beatles split. Janis and Jimi were dead. And as the decade wore on, it seemed as though things were going steadily, and rapidly, downhill. Watergate. The never-ending Vietnam conflict and all its horrific imagery shared on endless loop on the nightly news. Oil strikes and angry protests. Skyrocketing divorce rates and exponential increase in violent crime committed by strangers. And there in the midst of it all, the rise of “daytime sedatives” to cope with it all.
But when the world gets bad, horror gets good. In the 1970’s, horror made its way back into the cultural spotlight. Horror movies dealing with contemporary societal issues and addressing genuine psychological fears that hit close to home were massive hits during the decade. Religion, and the question of its place in modern America, became a major theme, threaded into other throughlines like the rise of second wave feminism and gender equality, the fear of children and domesticity, and environmental horror, wherein animals rose up and sought revenge against mankind for their inadequate shepherding of the Earth. All the while, the slasher was slowly coalescing into a recognizable sub-genre thanks to brave, burgeoning new directors, the Davids against big name Goliath directors who also lined up to produce horror properties with big studio budgets that would have made Herschell Gordon Lewis’s head explode. The decade’s early years saw The Exorcist (1973) nominated for ten Academy Awards–the first horror film nominated for Best Picture–winning two for Best Sound and Best Adapted Screenplay, and closed with the birth of horror’s first female action hero in Alien (1979).
In terms of output, the horror film was at its zenith in the 70’s. Arguably, it also reached an artistic peak unscaled since the early 1930’s. Though there were still a number of formulaic genre pieces and copycat efforts, the 70’s horror film by and large attracted ambitious and interesting filmmakers as well as play-it-safe schlockmeisters. As such, it was possible for work as unusual and diverse as Harry Kumel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971), John Hancock’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971), Gary Sherman’s Death Line/Raw Meat (1972), Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) to find their places in cinemas, exciting both critics and fans, perplexing and perhaps shocking those who’d turned up expecting something more traditional.
Night of the Living Dead‘s influence would eventually be all-pervasive, but at first it was more of a slow burn. AIP passed on distributing George A. Romero’s film, opting to make a hit out of another indie pick-up, Robert Kelljan’s Count Yorga, Vampire (1970). Originally planned as a “skinflick” (a horror/porno combo that became very common in the 70’s), Count Yorga was the first of a cycle of films which reintroduced classic monsters in contemporary settings. The Count (Robert Quarry), a waspish Dracula imitator, is air-freighted into California in his coffin and awakens to drain the life and blood of the local hippie students. The film draws on the edgy, up-to-the-moment feel that characterizes Romero’s film, including sudden bursts of shocking gore and a downer, ironic ending. A number of sequels and variations followed. Oddly feminist The Velvet Vampire (1971), blaxploitation cult classic Blacula (1972), Hammer’s desperately trendy Dracula AD 1972 (1972), gritty Grave of the Vampire (1972), and comedic Love at First Bite (1979) all follow Count Yorga to some extent, not to mention TV’s The Night Stalker (1974-1975) and the Stephen King-derived miniseries Salem’s Lot (1979), which find a way to bring horror’s first, most familiar icon into a recognizable world.
Traditional monsters were quite busy in the 70’s, in fact. They could often be found in self-aware efforts like Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein (1974) or Paul Morrissey’s Flesh for Frankenstein (1973) and Blood for Dracula (1974). There were even competing attempts to “go back to the original” such as Jesus Franco’s Count Dracula (1970), where Christopher Lee sports a white mustache, and the epic TV film Frankenstein: The True Story (1974). There was a whole slew of TV takes on Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, Oscar Wilde, and Henry James, in fact, many of them the projects of legendary TV producer Dan Curtis. Elsewhere, John Badham’s Dracula (1979) was a lush, romantic film starring Frank Langella that walks the line between revisionist and classicist yet is really just a more expensive Hammer film, sporting an eccentric Donald Pleasance performance. It’s not nearly as interested in sticking to Stoker as much as the BBC’s Count Dracula (1977) with Louis Jourdan, regarded as one of the most outstanding adaptations of the novel overall.
In time, there were many direct imitations of Night of the Living Dead, but only a few had meat of their own, like Jorge Grau’s The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (1974). Night‘s true and most lasting influence was in encouraging other distinctive filmmakers to make horror films that were at once unprecedentedly gruesome and ferociously intelligent. Romero, who eventually followed up with his own vampire variant Martin (1977) and a Living Dead sequel which was equally, if not more, influential, Dawn of the Dead (1978), was the first of the genre auteurs. James Whale, Terence Fisher, Mario Bava, and even Val Lewton had worked within the studio system, lobbying for assignments and taking what came their way. After Romero, there would be many more writer-directors and director-producers in the field. Among the names to make first impressions in the 70’s were Dario Argento with The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970) and Suspiria (1977), Wes Craven with The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), John Waters with Pink Flamingoes (1973) and Female Trouble (1974), Paul Bartel with Private Parts (1972) and Death Race 2000 (1974), Tobe Hooper with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Death Trap (1976), Bob Clark with Deathdream/Dead of Night (1974), Black Christmas (1974), and Murder By Decree (1979), David Cronenberg with Shivers (1975), Rabid (1976), and The Brood (1979), Peter Weir with The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Brian De Palma with Sisters (1973) and Carrie (1976), Larry Cohen with It’s Alive (1974) and God Told Me To (1976), David Lynch with Eraserhead (1977), and John Carpenter with Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and Halloween (1978).
Not all of these filmmakers stayed in horror for the long haul, and most had or are having dry spells and/or drastic career slides, but back in the 70’s they made the genre exciting, overlaying familiar stories with their own personalities and interests. An astonishingly high proportion of these films and directors founded franchises, sub-genres, and mappable cycles in film. Many have also been treated to largely inferior remakes after the turn-of-the-century, a strange accolade in its own right. The message of Night of the Living Dead and the auteur films was that there was something very wrong with America. Earlier horror movies tended to be normative, with monsters who represented an alien threat and would be banished (until the sequel) by a happy ending. Psycho (1960) cracked this convention– a psychiatrist “explains” Norman Bates but the film has no idea what to do with him. The bullet that takes down Duane Jones at the end of NOTLD suggested that in an era of Attica and Kent State, it was time to worry more about Dr. Van Helsing than Dracula. America was being eaten away from within. Canada too, in the case of most of Cronenberg’s work. This monstrousness that was consuming us tended to rise from strife in the family (evil children, murderous parents, monster babies), society (lingering injustices, economically dispossessed backwoods, mutagenic plagues, bigotries, war-mongering), or a world of the familiar turned threatening (suddenly sentient and malign wildlife, possessed motor vehicles). While Romero, Hooper, and Craven explored the rusting, bone-littered, overlooked corners of America, two films from an Englishman in America (John Boorman) and an American in England (Sam Peckinpah) had much to say about inbred, strife-ridden communities, murderous families, and heroes who find themselves with a disturbing capacity for violence. Both Deliverance (1972, Boorman) and Straw Dogs (1971, Peckinpah) were perceived as horror films at the time, likely due to their strong Western influences, but both have come to be regarded as stealth terror films that show a deep awareness of what was going on in the genre and have each had a lasting influence.
At this time, interesting horror films were being made all over the world. Italy had a boom thanks to Argento and Mario Bava’s late-career masterpieces Lisa and the Devil (1973) and Shock (1978). The U.K. produced both gory, grim features like Pete Walker’s House of Whipcord (1974) and Frightmare (1974) and despairing Hammer efforts like Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb (1970), Demons of the Mind (1972), and Terence Fisher’s Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell (1973). As small-scale British horror began to collapse in on itself, a few gems still shone. Freddie Francis directed Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly (1970) and The Creeping Flesh (1972), while Don Sharp released both Psychomania (1970) and The Corpse (1971), a rip-off of Les Diaboliques (1955) that featured a nasty, nightmarish performance from Michael Gough. Meanwhile, Norman J. Warren’s Prey (1978) featured a lesbian couple that takes in a vagabond only to discover that he’s a werewolf from outer space. But the best-known product of the British collapse is Robin Hardy’s folk horror masterpiece The Wicker Man (1973), which remains one of the most studied and written about films of the genre to this day.
As for Hollywood, they turned their attention and their pocketbooks back to horror after the success of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, based on the semi-factual novel by William Peter Blatty. The number of taboo-breaking moments in the film was truly shocking for the time, something that until then never would have been found in a Warner Brothers film. The Exorcist was “New Hollywood,” a movement of cinema that combined the grim and realism of French New Wave from the 60’s with classic American film and featuring nuanced performances from no-name players who were more “authentic” than megastars of the era like Robert Redford or Shirley MacLaine. New Hollywood films played fast and low, unconcerned with spelling out every story beat. The Exorcist is at once timeless and of its time, a film that straddles competing styles of horror in a way that few, if any, other films have been able to do, especially the film’s own sequels. It kickstarted a massive wave of imitators, from a Black version (Abby, 1974) to a slew of Italian versions, but none could compare. Its most notable successor was Richard Donner’s solemn The Omen (1976), which combines the bizarre body count format of Price vehicles like The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and Theater of Blood (1973) with the seeping paranoia of Rosemary’s Baby to bring the Antichrist into a terrifying post-Watergate corridors of power rather than a cozy coven.
The Exorcist was the first horror film to break into the elite upper tier of box office champs, hitherto reserved for the likes of grand epic spectacles like Gone with the Wind (1939) and The Sound of Music (1965) and soon to be the province of Star Wars (1977) and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1981). Friedkin’s film was followed by another throwback cleverly disguised in contemporary gear, Steven Spielberg’s runaway hit and inaugural blockbuster Jaws (1975), based on Peter Benchley’s bestseller about a great white shark terrorizing a coastal community. Spielberg had done well with his TV horror movie Duel (1972), written by Richard Matheson, in which a lone motorist (Dennis Weaver) is persecuted by a grimy truck, but Jaws was a straight-for-the-throat pared-to-the-bone monster movie. If Nosferatu enjoys the subtitle “a symphony of shadows,” then Jaws must be given “a concerto for shocks.” The film is keyed precisely with its memorable and iconic musical theme, much like Carpenter’s Halloween was a few years later, and prunes away any significance that distracts from the suspense. Earlier eco-horror films, from The Birds (1963) to the rat/revenge gothic Willard (1970) to the goofy Frogs (1972) suggest the animal attacks are our fault for being complacent, twisted, cruel, or ecologically unsound. In Jaws, the shark bites because that is what sharks do, and the conflict of the film revolves around what the heroes can and can’t do about that. The shark is the Creature From the Black Lagoon without libidinal urges–it chomps a naked swimmer without lingering to leer as the Gill-Man did–or Godzilla stripped of any stature as a punishment for man’s hubris. This idea of a nigh-unstoppable, inherently dangerous vessel of terror would carry on to Halloween, another masterpiece of pure horror in which a masked, mad killer isn’t the product of a family or society that has warped him like Norman Bates or the Sawyer clan, but is a shark who happens to have been born in human skin.
The re-emergence of horror into the mainstream was helped along by a slew of show and made-for-TV films in the early years of the decade in both American and Britain. Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (1972) drew huge numbers for the BBC, as did anthology series like Night Gallery (1970-1973), Thriller (1973-1976), and Dead of Night (1972). A number of these titles created such a cultural impression they remain cult classics to this day, often referred to as the “What was the One Where…?” movies. Whether it was Karen Black being terrorized by a fetish doll in Trilogy of Terror (1975), imps invading Kim Darby’s basement in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973), Salem witches in the Old West in Black Noon (1971), or the incessantly creepy crying child in Crowhaven Farm (1970), pop culture took notice, and so did regular television. Starsky and Hutch tracked down a real vampire (John Saxon) in an episode directed by Robert Kelljan of the Yorga films. Ironside investigated a twelve-year old witch played by Jodie Foster. Doctor Who took on Frankenstein, Dracula, and the mummy’s curse while McMillan & Wife (1971-1977) tangled with a Satanic cult and The Snoop Sisters (1973-1974) solved mysteries involving a horror movie star played by Vincent Price.
Meanwhile, more horror novelists were following Ira Levin and William Peter Blatty into the ranks of brand-name authors. Former actor Thomas Tryon wrote The Other (1971) and Harvest Home (1973), adapted for film and TV. Both were notable and early instances of the emerging “imaginary friend” and “sinister community” sub-genres of horror. Englishman James Herbert turned out a run of what became known as “paperback nasties,” titles like The Rats (1974), Lair (1979), and The Fog (1975, completely unrelated to Carpenter’s film). These paperbacks became an underground phenomenon and right of passage for many budding horror fans, passed around the playground like the literary equivalent of contemporary films like Night of the Lepus (1972) and The Giant Spider Invasion (1974). The most important new writer on the scene, however, was Stephen King, whose debut novel Carrie (1974) became an instant bestseller and invented an entire new sub-genre of high school horror.
King’s smash first novel was then spectacularly filmed by Brian De Palma in his own breakthrough film. Carrie (1976) the film was a mainstream hit, an all-over horror show featuring a delicate, heartbreaking performance from Sissy Spacek as the abused, telekinetic teen. The film is at times gratuitous, shocking, endearing, and earnest, and features one of the greatest and well-executed jumps scares in movie history. Carrie also began a wave of psychic/telekinetic horror, including De Palma’s own follow-up The Fury (1978) as well as Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981), Patrick (1978), The Sender (1982), the Carpenter-scripted The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), and another King adaptation, Firestarter (1984). With Halloween following Carrie, American teenagers increasingly became lead characters in horror films, often marked for death. De Palma’s catch-all approach, typical of the “movie brat” generation, was more often used by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, but something of the dream logic of Carrie can be found in both of Dario Argento’s masterpieces, Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980). Like De Palma, Argento had come up making Hitchcockian suspense thrillers, gradually adding supernatural overtones until he was liberated in the late 70’s to be fully fantastical. His “Three Mothers” films tend to lack narrative cohesion but deliver on effect through imagery, music, editing, high style, beautiful faces, surreal lighting, monumental architecture, and a king of elegant nastiness. Argento himself has never quite matched the potency of these films, and few others have dared to try.
King followed Carrie with Salem’s Lot (1975), a vampire novel, and The Shining (1977), a ghost story. Both were quickly adapted, with Salem’s Lot (1979) being the first King project mounted for television and directed by Tobe Hooper, who was attempting to “go straight” after the backlash surrounding The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Meanwhile, The Shining (1980) adaptation opened the 80’s with a vision from controversial visitor to the genre Stanley Kubrick. King had lots left in the pipeline, and by the end of the 80’s it seemed everyone with a track record in horror had filmed one of his stories. In the meantime, there were plenty of other literary fish to fry. Richard Matheson’s novel Hell House (1971) became John Hough’s The Legend of Hell House (1973). Robert Marasco’s Burnt Offerings (1973), a King-acknowledged influence on The Shining), was adpated by Dan Curtis in 1976, while Peter Straub’s Julia (1975) became Richard Loncraine’s Full Circle (1976). Dean Koontz’s Demon Seed (1973) was overhauled by Donald Cammell for the 1977 film, a rare adaptation that improves on the source material. Frank DeFelitta’s Audrey Rose (1975) became Robert Wise’s horror swansong in 1977 and Jeffrey Kovitz’s The Sentinel (1974) found its way to the big screen in Michael Winner’s 1977 film. The Amityville Horror (1977), a supposedly true account of a haunting ascribed to Jay Anson (who may or may not have written it) became a middling but commercially successful 1979 film and launched its own mini-franchise of entirely made-up sequels and prequels.
Just as the 70’s began with a boom triggered by Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), so it ended with another boom triggered by Romero’s sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978). If Night was informed by Vietnam and the counterculture, Dawn was about conformism, consumerism, and American selfishness. It was so gripping, Lucio Fulci even tried to position his film Zombi 2 (1979) as a sequel to Dawn (which was released in Italy as Zombi), but its more a mix-up of 30’s style voodoo island shenanigans and splatter film tactics. Dawn was all about disenchantment with urban life, and it was only the beginning of such films. Philip Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) turned the ennui up a notch, with inhuman duplicates pointing and shrieking at the few surviving individuals, while Coma (1978), directed and paid for by technological paranoid Michael Crichton, was Frankenstein mad science in an era of corporate profit and the industrialization of health care. All this led to the last big horror hit of the decade, perhaps the ultimate co-option of B-movie ideas by A-movie makers. Not far off from a Roger Corman feature, Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) became so much more in the telling. Scott’s direction, combined with a cannily assembled cast of British and American semi-names and the fully-realized creature designs of artist H.R. Giger, created instant movie magic. And chills. Alien is a simple film, the story of astronauts killed one by one by a constantly evolving creature. But, like Jaws and Halloween before it, it’s a relentless suspense machine with a high degree of visual sophistication. It also benefited, as wold more and more successful Hollywood horrors, from an outstanding ad campaign, coining the phrase on everyone’s lips at the turn of the decade: “in space, no one can hear you scream.” Those screams would eventually wither to whimpers by the end of the 80’s, but not without a few good scares first…
Next up, body horror, sequels, and more dead teenagers than you can count take the genre on a rollercoaster during the 1980’s
Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know about Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, An Imprint of Hal Leonard Corporation, 2013.
Newman, Kim, and James Marriott. Horror!: The Definitive Companion to the Most Terrifying Movies Ever Made. Carlton Books, 2013.
Wilson, Karina. “Horror Movies: Our Shared Nightmares.” Horror Film History, WordPress, 7 Jan. 2020, https://horrorfilmhistory.com/wp/.