The horror genre has existed in cinema for over a century—in other words, horror films have been around about as long as motion pictures themselves. From the earliest Horror short films directed by Georges Méliès in the 1890s to the faceted, robust production industry that propels the genre today, horror movies have always served us by enabling us to project our forbidden desires and secret fears while formalistically stretching cultural boundaries. Our Horror Through the Decades series examines definitive qualities of the horror genre in each decade from the 1940s through the 2010s.
This week, Laura Stewart explores new distinct styles that emerged in horror cinema in the 1970s.
I think it’s fair to say that the 1970s gave us the greatest horror movies of all time, with Top 10/50/100 lists choc-full of films from the decade that still frighten us to the core today. What happened to allow horror to take a massive step from the typical suspense or monster movies from the earlier decades into truly terrifying tales?
The world was changing rapidly. The ’60s brought both cultural and sexual revolution, but the party was brought to grinding halt by Charles Manson and his Family. Peace and love were swapped for chaos and hatred when the Sharon Tate and La Bianca murders were committed. And the perpetrators were young, free men and women, blinded by devotion to their God-like cult leader. This horror was very real, more gruesome and cruel than anything seen on film, and it could happen to anyone. Footage of the Vietnam War was shown on news channels across the world, and particularly in the USA where viewers were far more horrified about what was really going on in the world to be scared of what might go bump in the night. People were no longer moved to terror by gothic imagery, classic monsters, or character portraits of the damaged and insane. The monsters were no longer fantasy creatures; they were us.
Luckily for film fans, when society takes a plummet in a grim direction, it tends to bring out the best in the creatives, storytellers, and artists. And so horror in the ’70s began dealing with contemporary issues and addressing genuine psychological fears, which thrust the genre back into the limelight, and in doing so, attracted some of the greatest filmmakers and big studio budgets.
So what did all the big budgets get spent on? Well, three themes in ’70s horror stand out: 1) Creepy Kids and birth control, which often but not always, merge with 2) Religion/Cults and 3) the rise of the Slasher genre, and with it the birth of the ‘Final Girl’, all of which tip their hat to the rise of the feminist. Let’s put the kids first.
Little Devils and Mothers’ Guilt
Riding on the coattails of the success of Rosemary’s Baby in 1968, a long line of films about the Devil’s spawn and those born pure evil hit the silver screen. But why the sudden fear of cute little kids?
The oral contraceptive was introduced in 1967 and its popularity was soaring by the mid-’70s. In the UK you no longer had to be a married woman to be allowed birth control. This prompted fears that women would become promiscuous (i.e. like men). In reality, women could finally exercise control over their own bodies, plan their families, and start professional careers. In addition, the debate raging around abortion loomed large in cultural consciousness and became legal in many places in the 1970s. Along with widely prescribed birth control pills, pregnancy was no longer a matter of luck or divine favour (or retribution). In theory, this meant no more unwanted children.
In the Western world, families were still reeling after the thalidomide scandal which arose in 1961. Pregnant mothers had been prescribed the drug early on in the pregnancy to help with morning sickness. It soon became clear that the drug was causing congenital disabilities, and approximately 10,000 babies were born with deformities worldwide in the short time the drug was on the market. Many babies did not survive, and those that did were often severely disabled.
These three cultural issues combined may well have spawned the killer kids theme, and none more obviously than in the 1974 film It’s Alive! which portrays a couple expecting their second child. The mother had taken the pill after her first child was born, which led to difficulties conceiving a second time, and so she took inadequately tested fertility drugs. When her new baby is born, it is a mutant with fangs that chews off its own umbilical cord and kills every doctor and nurse in sight. By the end, it becomes clear that the child is just frightened and doesn’t want to die. It’s shot to death anyway, of course, but there are more mutant babies out there. I imagine that Larry Cohen who wrote and directed It’s Alive! (and its sequel It Lives Again in 1978) was not a fan of planned parenthood, or perhaps he just knew that this would sell well as it preyed on the fears of many young people.
The king of body horror, David Cronenberg, produced four films in the ’70s. The first was Crimes of the Future (1970), the tale of a dermatologist searching for his mentor who has disappeared following a catastrophic plague resulting from cosmetic products, which has killed the entire population of sexually mature women. Men now have to find a way to keep humanity alive without women and resort to some hideous experiments to do so. One man parodies childbirth by continually growing new organs that are removed from his body. This film represents the fear that women would choose personal identity over reproduction, leading humanity to the brink of extinction. I guess that means that men thought being a mother was so awful a responsibility that, if women were given a choice, they just wouldn’t do it.
In Shivers (1975) a parasite infects the population, turning them into sex maniacs—quite likely inspired by fears of promiscuity and sexually transmitted diseases now that women were able to have sex without getting pregnant. Rabid (1977) further develops the idea of STDs killing people. Then, The Brood (1979) perhaps took the pro stance on birth control. It depicts a mentally disturbed woman who psychoplasmically creates a brood of murderous dwarf children, conjured by remembering traumatic events of her childhood during therapy. It suggests that those who are mentally unwell should not procreate for fear of passing their defective genes on to their children.
While more of a satirical horror than outright scary, The Stepford Wives (1975) further explores male fears of women finding their own identity and talents and becoming more than just homemakers and mothers. Based on the book by Ira Levin, the story is both pro- and anti-feminist; its dark humour pokes fun at both the Men’s Association who are threatened by their wives’ intellect and also at women who ‘want it all’. Unfortunately, it is the men who are victorious in the end, having murdered their wives and replaced them with flawless, vacant minded, cleaning obsessed fembots. Sigh. Probably Donald Trump’s favourite film. Are we sure Melania is human?
A Crisis of Faith
The Devil Child theme emerges here with a more specific focus on religion. After the post-war baby boom of the 1950s, the ’60s and ’70s saw a dramatic decline in followers of all religions but particularly of Christianity, which put a crisis of faith on the cultural agenda. Yet The Devil seemed very keen on proving that he did exist, even if God didn’t.
In 1968, after several years of minimal enforcement, the Motion Picture Production Code was replaced by the MPAA film rating system. Now that “Ridicule of the Clergy” was no longer forbidden, literally hundreds of films were made about cults, devil worshippers, white-robed virgins, possessed children, sex-starved covens and evil clergymen. Nunsploitation was even a thing. The subgenre went hand in hand with the new mood of sexual open-mindedness and the freedom to have sex for pleasure and not procreation. Throughout history, the church had forbidden such a thing, and so naturally, the Devil would be to blame for all the fun people were having.
But it wasn’t all kitschy witch orgies; there were seriously scary movies being made—in fact, possibly the most famous horror movie of all time: The Exorcist (1973).
Try as they might, no director has ever accomplished what William Friedkin did with this story of a 12-year-old girl’s battle with the Devil that is possessing her. No one had seen anything like this before, and reports of people fainting or throwing up in the cinema aisles were not fabricated. The special effects which were created mechanically on-set were very realistic and still shock viewers today. However, it isn’t just what you see that makes the film terrifying; it’s the slow-burning narrative that invests you so deeply in these characters that makes the climactic showdown with the Devil all the more horrifying. Watching the sweet little Regan (Linda Blair) slowly transform into a grotesque creature that levitates, spouts vulgarities at the clergy, projectile vomits and can spin her head 360 degrees, raised the bar for filmmakers. Critics began to take the horror genre seriously. The Exorcist was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won two.
In 1976, The Omen was released, following in The Exorcist’s Catholic footsteps. This time, it was the antichrist which terrorised us. The antichrist appears in the form of an angry, spoiled boy. 20th Century Fox threw everything they had at The Omen. It was filmed in various international locations, starred big-name actors Gregory Peck and Lee Remich, and featured incredible stunts and spectacular special effects that wowed audiences.
Alice, Sweet Alice (1976), which stars a very young Brooke Shields as Karen, is immersed in Roman Catholic ideology and guilt. It begins with a sibling rivalry that goes too far, leading to older sister Alice (Paula Sheppard), aged 12, apparently murdering her little sister in a particularly vicious manner. Alice, who has always been told she was ‘trouble’ by the Mother Superior at her Catholic School, is the by-product of all that was deemed immoral by the Catholic church. She was conceived out of wedlock, her parents are divorced and her father has remarried. Her mother feels so guilty about having sex before marriage that she has conflicted feelings about her firstborn daughter. Alice bears the weight of being labelled the bad seed from the moment she was born and appears to become what everyone expects from her: a prolific killer, who dons a yellow raincoat and creepy doll mask to carry out the murders.
Alice, Sweet Alice, along with Brian De Palma’s Carrie, also released in 1976, and The Exorcist all feature girls going through puberty. Carrie’s fanatically religious and abusive mother, played by the incredible Piper Laurie, sends her daughter to the tiny prayer cupboard to ask for forgiveness when she starts her period, for this means she has been having wicked thoughts. It is later revealed that Carrie (Sissy Spacek) was the result of a rape by her drunken father and that her mother enjoyed the experience. Her mother believes that sin never dies and stabs her daughter in the back. Carrie’s telekinetic powers prevent her mother from killing her by turning the knives on her.
What do the stories of Regan, Alice and Carrie tell us about society in the ’70s? Was this another example of society’s fear of girls growing into independent women who had autonomy over their bodies? The notoriously shocking scene in The Exorcist when Regan masturbates with a crucifix could represent how some people felt about the liberation of women and their sexual freedom. Perhaps God-fearing people worried that the decline in church attendance was going to lead to wicked women, touched by the Devil. As it turns out, Alice is not the killer in her story. When the truth is revealed you can really take stock at just how splintered the relationships between Alice and her sister and also between her mother and her aunt are. This fracturing is all down to the pressures of having to be the perfect Catholic.
More than anything, Alice, Sweet Alice embraces the trauma of dealing with the death of a child that isn’t really equalled until 2018’s Hereditary. Director Alfred Sole was inspired by the 1973 film Don’t Look Now when he created Alice. There are many visual references to the film, most notably the raincoat, worn by the villains in both films. Don’t Look Now is not only one of the best psychological horrors ever made but also one of the best movies ever made, full stop. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are astonishing in their roles of grieving parents who relocate to Venice to work on the restoration of a Catholic church after the tragic death of their young daughter. The film is a meditation on grief, loss, and mortality and is emotionally devastating, haunting, and sensual. You will never find a classier horror movie than this.
It is not just Catholicism that was targeted by horror filmmakers in the ’70s, however. British horror film The Wicker Man (1973) focused on Paganism in a remote Scottish island village. Edward Woodward is the protagonist investigating the disappearance of a young girl. The cult-like islanders aren’t giving up any information, and the story slowly burns with tension and horror as it becomes apparent what grim fate awaits him. Christopher Lee plays the island’s ruler, Lord Summerisle, with perfect benevolence slowly twisting into malevolence. Now considered the Granddaddy of Folk Horror, there would be no Midsommar without The Wicker Man. Yet it was the third film of what is now considered the Holy Trinity of British Folk Horror along with Witchfinder General (1968) and The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971).
After the Tate/La Bianca murders, it is easy to see why films about cults and dysfunctional families would be both fascinating and terrifying to watch. Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977) both brought extreme horror to the top table with their brutal rape and murder scenes, carried out by twisted family or gang members with no supernatural powers—just pure evil. Knowing what The Manson Family had been capable of doing to others, horror took a turn from the almost glamorous death scenes of the ’50s and ’60s to seriously brutal, gory and realistic productions. Deliverance (1972), while not horror per se, shocked many with the ‘squeal like a pig, boy’ scene in which a local hillbilly man rapes Bobby (Ned Beatty).
Which leads us unpleasantly on to the next big thing: The Slasher film.
Rise of the Slasher and Birth of the Final Girl
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) was Tobe Hooper’s directorial debut. I don’t suppose he was ever expecting the film to do so well. Like The Hills Have Eyes, the story focused on an inbred cannibalistic family who wanted to kill and eat everyone very much indeed. The iconic look of Leatherface with his mask made of someone else’s skin and unwieldy brandishing of a chainsaw inspired the use of power tools as murder weapons and the characterisation of the killer as a large, hulking, silent, faceless figure in many Slasher films to come.
These faceless monsters also birthed the ‘Final Girl’. That’s not to say there weren’t final girls before the ’70s, but before the decade final girls were often damsels in distress who were saved by strong men. The trope evolved during the ’70s from the female survivors initially being portrayed as morally superior—they were good girls, virginal, didn’t do drugs or drink alcohol, whereas their more promiscuous friends were killed off one by one until there was only one woman left standing who either escapes or defeats the monster. Over the years, the requirement for the final girl to be sweet and innocent has all but disappeared.
Additionally, while these women survived, the fact that she is still alive at the end of the movie does not make her a victorious heroine. In many of these earlier movies, the ending is ambiguous, where the killer/entity is or might be still alive, leaving the future of the final girl uncertain. Notable examples being Mari Collingwood (Sandra Peabody) in Last House on the Left (1972) and Jess Bradford (Olivia Hussey) in 1974’s Black Christmas. Similarly, Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre rides off in the back of a truck at the end of the film with Leatherface famously silhouetted in the sunshine waving his chainsaw about. But she would surely be messed up for life, and who was driving the truck? I wouldn’t trust anyone in that neck of the woods after all that.
Black Christmas is one of the rare Slashers that treats its victims with respect, without overtly sexualising them or punishing them for their sexuality. In fact, Jess Bradford is not only openly sexually active, but she’s also struggling with her decision to have an abortion. And she’s never condemned for it. Likewise, her sister, played by Margot Kidder, is an endearing character despite being a drunk. Classy and subtle, Black Christmas is one of the most tasteful movies in the Slasher genre.
One of the most famous final girls ever is, of course, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). Her character developed throughout the franchise with her initially being meek and mild and requiring Dr. Sam Loomis to save her in the original film, to becoming a Sarah Connor type figure by Halloween 2018—armed to the teeth and tough as nails (and a little bit crazy, which is understandable considering the amount of trauma she’s been subjected to). She turns the tables on Michael Myers by becoming the hunter, along with her daughter and granddaughter, entrapping him in a blazing basement. The final girl is no longer a hapless victim, but a symbol of female empowerment.
Arguably, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in the Alien (1979) and its franchise is also a final girl, despite it not being a Slasher series. Where Ripley differs is that she was always a warrior, and over time the relationship between her and her hunter has evolved into something maternal and sympathetic.
Italians Do It Better
Meanwhile, in Italy, Dario Argento debuted his first giallo film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, in 1970. Then he released another two films, The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1972) which completed his Animal Trilogy. Later in 1975, he released Deep Red which is largely considered to be the best giallo ever made. But perhaps even more famous was 1977’s Suspiria—a lavish technicolour fever dream.
The film follows a young American ballet dancer abroad at a prestigious German dance academy where she uncovers an ancient coven of witches. Suspiria is famous for its extravagant, crazily violent kills and Goblin’s prog-rock score. As exquisite as it is obscene, it’s a visual and musical trip down a red and blue-tinted rabbit hole.
Talking of Goblin, in 1978, Argento collaborated with George A. Romero on Dawn of the Dead as a producer and also helped with the soundtrack for the zombie film. Argento oversaw the European release of the film, where it was titled Zombi, which was much shorter and featured more of the score written and performed by Goblin. Dawn of the Dead was the second film in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead series of zombie films and was bigger, bolder and bloodier than its predecessor. This time, the invasion of the undead took place in a shopping mall and provided a social commentary on American consumerism. Special effects legend Tom Savini took his experiences as a combat photographer in Vietnam to create some top-notch gore.
There are other films that don’t quite fit into the themes I have mentioned but are certainly worth noting for the effect they had on not just the horror genre but on cinema as a whole.
David Lynch released his debut feature film, Eraserhead, in 1977, and of course, he started as surreal as it gets. Lynch described the film as a ‘dream of dark and troubling things’, and those things are the fear of marriage, fatherhood, and the roles that you are expected to play in society. Phantasm (1979), the directorial debut of Don Coscarelli, was equally bananas. Another Donald Sutherland spectacular, the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers by director Phillip Kaufman was a reflection of the era but ultimately applies as much today if not more now in these times of far-right conservative rule in the West. Don’t be a pod-person. And last but by no means least, a new kid on the block, Steven Spielberg released his third feature film Jaws (1975), which would skyrocket him to superstardom.
So there we have it. The 1970s delivered some of the greatest and most experimental horror movies of all time. They are films that would influence the genre for decades by creating a fair few tropes, but they also managed to provide a social commentary of the decade that focused on the evil of humanity and led to some of the most frightening and memorable films ever created.