The huge horror boom of the late ’60s and early ’70s had seen an unparalleled diversity (and quantity) of productions burrowing out of the woodwork from every corner of the then cinematically galvanized globe. The sheer mass of productions left financiers and filmmakers alike squirming to push the genre ever further into heretofore unexplored depths of depravity, gore, madness, and exploitation, gloriously punctuated by a now requisite parade of naked nubile flesh (for which we are forever grateful) all in order to rise out of the sea of sameness which had plagued the progression of the genre for years and, of course, to rake in an ever more demanding audiences dollars. The continued (and damning) success of the televised medium also gave rise to an expectation amongst audiences and producers alike that theatrical releases had to be bigger, badder, bolder and bloodier in order to convince the growing population of agoraphobic couch potatoes to leave the comfortable confines of their battle-damaged lazy-boys and wander starry-eyed into their local (and newly-built) cineplex. The culmination of this burgeoning trend came with a little film released in 1975 called Jaws (maybe you’ve heard of it?). With its huge financial and critical success, Jaws once again caused the rules to be rewritten, forcing the film industry even further into the red to finance even more grandiose (but often, much worse) spectacles and paving the way toward the distended summer blockbuster which vogues on even more formidably today.
While this new development did give us some entertaining highs (Star Wars, Alien, and Dawn of the Dead, to name but a few) it also spelled the end for many independent production companies who found it difficult to distribute their pictures in a market overrun by ostentatious extravaganzas with prohibitively costly explosions every five minutes. Fortunately, a new outlet for exhibition was looming on the twilit horizon, one that would set the bar even higher (or lower) on the requisites of exploitation, but in the bicentennial year of 1976 the VHS phenomenon was still no more than a rumbling of distant thunder. In an encapsulation of the morphing and still nebulous (to producers, anyway) audience demands of the times, the once-great Hammer studios released its bittersweet swan song to an indifferent public and lapsed into despondent catatonia, Dan Curtis and Bert I. Gordon offered up some outmoded (and frankly, brilliant) last gasps that sealed their own doom, and the great Hombre-Lobo (Jacinto Molina, a.k.a.: Paul Naschy) was financing the last of his films with Spanish pesetas as his native film industry crumbled around his forlorn ears. Our pasta-partaking pals across the pond (Italy, for the dim) were still delivering the odd intelligent and painterly thrills, but their market was in a spiraling downturn which would only be intermittently revivified by way of major contributions from names like Argento, Fulci, and Deodato in the coming years. The U.S. was witnessing (and in its own way, causing) the global film industry to withdraw more and more unto itself and opportunistically upping the ante while filling the void with more internationally marketable product. Gone were the days of the period-piece gothic chiller, giant irradiated monsters (for the most part) and loafing hippies, only to be replaced by Antichrists, bad LSD, Apple computers (that one’s for you, Matt!) and budding yuppies. 1976 was indeed a banner year for horror, when the girls were racier, the pictures deadlier, and the rough beast finally slouched towards Bethlehem to be born (yes, I made my grand entrance this year!).
1976 [in my best Shatner impersonation] “… it was… a very good year!”
(It should be noted that the films included below finished their productions in 1976, but were not necessarily released theatrically in the same year)
Alice Sweet Alice (Communion) – USA
This is the film that introduced us to that unassailable bastion of uni-browed moral rectitude, Brooke Shields, but it is (on the redemptive side) also one of the best Giallos ever made, inside or outside of Cannoli-Land. Like a clever riff on The Bad Seed coupled with some of the more salient tropes of the Giallo and nascent slasher films, Alice Sweet Alice is defiantly ambiguous with its morality and features a host of sleazy characters, dubious motives, red herrings and Catholic disrespects, all of which are just swell with me! If only more first communions ended the way they do in this film, Catholic pews would be bustling with enough jaded and fervent terror-fiends to burst their cash-starved coffers and usher in a golden age of priestlessness. If only…
Blue Sunshine – USA
You saw it here first kiddies, bad LSD will leave you frantically homicidal (which I could live with), incoherent (the onerous condition of drunks and southerners) and entirely bald (quite a fetching look for many). So what’s to be frightened of here, thou may asketh? How about lead actor Zalman King’s future production credits (egad!) and the fact that uber-talented director Lieberman was (I would surmise) later held at gunpoint and forced to write the offal script for The Neverending Story… part fucking 3! In all seriousness though, Jeff Lieberman should be heralded as one of the finest directors ever to be effectively bounced out of the profession by idiotic money-men, simply by dint of his contributions to this film, Squirm (see below), and his delirious slasher coup-de-grace, Just Before Dawn. Probably the best intervention possible for that junkie of a cousin your family has hidden away, Blue Sunshine is a timeless stroke of unmitigated genius and one helluva trip!
Burnt Offerings – USA
Karen Black disturbs me. The close-set eyes, wild hair and dagger-like fingernails exude psychotic mass-murdersome bitch. Well, to me anyway. Perhaps that is why I am such a huge fan of her contributions to horror (which are numerous) laying near the top of which is this fine exercise in the haunted house/diabolic possession milieus. Directed by the great (and on his way out) Dan Curtis and starring barrel-chested manly man Oliver Reed, Burnt Offerings features one of the great genre catches with its moldering haunted house that rejuvenates itself with every drop of blood it causes to be spilt. The ending is utterly terrifying, with Curtis and Black revisiting (and outdoing) the glorious ending to their inspired Trilogy of Terror, while a horror-stricken Ollie Reed gasps in paralyzed dread. This film, ladies and gentlemen, is the epitome of terror.
Carrie – USA
Without wanting to sound curt, I would suggest you visit Episode 9 of our podcast for the full skinny on the wonders to be had with this film (and Sissy Spacek’s boobs). This was Stephen King’s writing’s most fortuitous introduction to feature films (which would regularly stymie his works in the far-flung future) and remains one of the best films ever made featuring the now-ubiquitous avenging social misfit. Brian DePalma could still direct, Piper Laurie pontificates, PJ Soles jeers, Nancy Allen gets nekked and John Travolta burns to death. What’s not to love?
Dogs – USA
“Holy flying chihuahuas, Batman, why is this piece of $#!T [edited for fucking content] on this otherwise comprehensive and remarkably awesome list?”
“Because it’s MY list and if you don’t like it you can grease up my Batpole and take the fucking plunge, Sparrow-Whelp!”
“Oooo, Master-Bat(e), I had no idea you felt this way… where’s that Bat-lotion gotten to now? Ace? C’mere boy! Did you hide dadsy wadsy’s lubricant again? What’s the matter, Ace? Why are you looking at me that way? Ace? Ace… NOOOOOOO! Eeeeeaaaaarrrrrrgggghhhhhh…!”
[Coughing up a river of blood, Sparrow-Whelp expires in the vice-like maw of a rabid Ace the Bat-Hound, much to the relief of a formerly exasperated Batman]
Sorry for that brief interlude of homo-erotic preoccupation, but in a perverse nutshell, it is exactly why I love this film (the pet attack, not the gay stuff, Princess. Now get off my fucking lawn!). Turning the idiom of “man’s best friend” slickly on its ear, Dogs is one of the great misanthropic exercises in the “revenge of a despoiled nature” genre of films that appeared with great frequency throughout the “return to nature, but armed with an aerosol can” ’70s. Being a confirmed misanthrope myself (like any self-respecting horror fan), I take great pleasure in viewing the collegiate hoi polloi in this film being rent limb from galling limb by their erstwhile domestic companions. Sure to appeal to paranoids, mailmen, paranoid mailmen, and those who seek their thrills vicariously through the suffering of vexing idiots and dastardly conspirators alike, Dogs is like a grotesque Sunday stroll through a doggy-doo hazarded park. That is, leisurely and rather bizarre, but quaintly entertaining until you hit the occasional fecal land mine. But that’s nothing a good shower and that aerosol can won’t fix!
Eaten Alive (Horror Hotel, Slaughter Hotel) – USA
Why does this mini-masterpiece get so much bad press? There are two kinds of modern horror fan in this world, those who appreciate Eaten Alive for its deranged glee and southern-gothicized claustrophobia and therefore love the film, and those who can never properly understand that, “My name is Buck, and I like to fuck!” Critics and self-appointed pundits the world around get this film wrong and do it a gross injustice by comparing it to its imposing partner and precursor, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a film which dwarfs most subsequent horror offerings by reputation alone. Neville Brand is brilliant as the psychopathic, killer crocodile-keeping Judd, the future Freddy oozes his unctuous best, Marilyn Burns screams, not to mention Mel Ferrer and Morticia Ad… er, Carolyn Jones. The standout performance is that of the director, Tobe Hooper, who captures and conveys a delightfully eerie excursion into southern-fried psychosis. Give Buck another chance, guys and dolls (especially dolls), there’s a lot to love here!
Eraserhead – USA
David Lynch’s autobiographical nightmare as if seen through the skewed lens of a Bunuel/Dali filmed Metropolis (just picture that!), Eraserhead is a perfectly evoked nightmare cobbled together by a genius and probably deserves a genre entirely unto itself. Impressexpressavantegardetotallyawesomeism. Fuck you for laughing, just see the film and make up your own damn ism!
The Food of the Gods – USA
Yep, I think they killed a lot of rats for this one. I absolutely cannot condone the haphazard mutilation of defenseless animals for monetary gain (and that includes you, Ronald fuckin’ MacDonald), but I would be remiss not to include this rather farcical and fun gem-of-a-film based on my inclement predispositions. So, for those who share my sturdy stance on this matter, you know where not to devote your dollars. Back on planet Not-An-Empathetic-And-Rather-Handsome-Loser, this one has the great Ida Lupino battling giant rats and huge chickens (don’t ask, just watch) from a story by HG Wells. Mr. B.I.G., Bert I. Gordon, quietly shrank into tiny obscurity after this one and 1977’s Empire of the Ants, but not before bringing us 20+ years and memories full of tormenting giants and silly/spooky fun. Belinda Balaski (hubba hubba), Ralph Meeker and Pamela Franklin co-star in what is sure to please somewhat forgiving fans of former-day horror glories, but probably not the ASPCA or Willard Stiles.
The House With the Laughing Windows (La casa dalle finestre che ridono) – Italy
Very, very creepy is this little film, and for those who are able to practice a little virtuous patience, quite rewarding. While it marginally belongs to the Giallo genre, this slow-building exercise in suspense brilliantly combines elements of the old-dark-house and small-town-with-a-dark-secret models and ends up as one of the most unsettling Spaghetti-splatters of the ’70s. Pupi Avati directs (with a touch of Hitchcockian flair) what is a disarmingly simplistic story revolving around a painter who is commissioned to touch up a religious fresco, only to find himself drawn into a spiraling mystery surrounding the shocking image buried underneath its iconography, and its horrific implications. Symbolic, beautiful, atmospherically languid and entirely deranged, this one is sure to be appreciated by fans of suspense thrillers and cerebral horror, as well as anyone totally creeped out by that seemingly innocuous little-old-lady next door.
King Kong – USA
Here is another one that so many people like to undeservedly lump into the “kernel-corn shit-burger” category, and while it is a rather heavy-handed “eco-horror,” that fading heartbeat wells me up every time. Rick Baker does his best with the (well-realized) monkey suit get-up, but no matter what he accomplished he would have been looming in the shadow of the great Willis O’Brien. As it stands, the tender relationship between Jessica Lange’s supple stems and King Kong is palpable and utterly heartbreaking, Jeff Bridges’ beard is amazing, the special effects are (for their time) riveting, and this film really does justice to the original by effectively capturing its overriding spirit of romantic tragedy. Miles better than Peter Jackson’s overblown atrocity (but so is that Super-8 Lord of the Rings you shot with your action figures), this is for all of those who actually like a little corn with their sentimentality.
The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane – Canada/USA/France
I’m convinced that Jodie Foster has exuded arch-bitch since she was in diapers, so putting her in the role of a precocious teen hiding a growing pile of decaying corpses is not any kind of stretch in my eyes. This macabre twist on the “child menaced by pedophiliac predator” formula is pensive, involving and probably functions as a bizarre meditation on budding sexuality, the absence of authority and the inimical indifference adults can exhibit towards children. Or maybe it’s just a femme flick, I can’t tell. I usually leave my metaphorical philosophizing for the bedroom. Either way, Martin Sheen will make your skin crawl, Jodie Foster delivers a landmark performance (and will make your skin crawl), and Nicolas Gessner deftly handles this provocative thriller without sinking his ship under a sea of outre violence and crass exploitation. One of the best.
Nightmare in Blood – USA
Finally, someone does in a vampire with the Star of fucking David! Self-acknowledged geek and horror film host John Stanley (Creature Features) directs this slice of satirical fun that sees Jerry Walter as Malakai, the eccentric guest of honor at a weekend horror film convention who also happens to be a real vampire with a taste for film dorks. An unlikely enclave of makeshift vampire hunters (made up of a horror writer, a comic-book guru, and an Israeli Nazi-hunter!) track down Malakai and his heinous cohorts, Burke and Hare (I’m not kidding) leading to a grand climax that pits ages-old vampire versus hirsute mad-Zionist. Rife with pop culture in-jokes, this film is full of Stanley’s insight into obscure horror arcana and works for the veteran horror fan because of its nerd factor and impecunious charm, not in spite of them.
The Omen – USA
Gregory Peck only wanted to do this film because of his belief that director Richard Donner was going to show a certain amount of restrained ambiguity as to Damien’s implied connections with a devilish host. Well, they certainly anal-blasted that idea right out the fucking window and into traffic, didn’t they? What we got was a film made more ghastly and unsettling by the certainty that this child was bad and he wanted to kill us in a most gloriously improbable way. This was also the film, more than any other before, that introduced U.S. audiences to the death-dealing money-shot, and several on display here have never been equaled hence. The next two sequels have their merits, but this film epitomizes the genre and, with its dusky pulchritude and old-world charm, remains unsurpassed.
The People Who Own the Dark (Ultimo deseo) – Spain
With an introduction that prepares us for a sado-sexual spin through 120 days of Sodom (think Salo, only with Paul Naschy!), this cynical obscurity surprises us by stirring in delicious elements from The Last Man on Earth, Day of the Triffids, and Panic in the Year Zero, and sports one of the greatest fatalistic endings in cinema history. The great Leon Klimovsky establishes a brisk pace early on (atypical for Spanish horror of the era, especially his own) and leads us urgently down twisting corridors, through gripping developments and on towards a powerful and stunning climax. Naschy is just one of an ensemble cast (led by the ubiquitous Alberto de Mendoza) but he plays his unsympathetic character with great aplomb and, as always, ends up being one of the film’s greatest assets. If you can find a copy, I urge you to gobble it up Salo-style and without hesitation.
Rabid – Canada
I find Marilyn Chambers to be one of the most bedazzling women ever to have taken her clothes off (squirming underarm parasite or not), so picture my deranged glee when I discovered that she had made a horror pic with the rightly revered David Cronenberg! Okay, so she leaves her clothes on almost entirely throughout this one, but I can always spin my copy of Behind the Green Door when nature calls, as it is frequently wont to do (my Kleenex bills are daunting). So what about the rest of the pic, you may ask? It’s David frickin’ Cronenberg, people, and he deserves his recognition as one of cinema’s Grand Masters! In fact, he probably deserves the title to your house and conjugal visitation rights with your spouse as well, just by merit of his consistently amazing output and those convincing horn-rimmed glasses. Rabid is starkly lyrical and haunting, solidly standing alongside any of the director’s work, before or aft, and is as good an end-of-the-world “zombie” film as you are likely to see. Play it back to back with any of Chambers’ nudie-cutie films to truly appreciate her “flowering talents” as an actress, but I recommend obtaining a box of Puffs-Plus-Lotion beforehand. Neatness counts.
Schizo – UK
Oh, Pete Walker, where hast thou gone? This man singlehandedly upped the smut quotient for the entire British film industry by way of his wild and crazy bloodbaths of the ’70s with wonderful titles like The Flesh and Blood Show, House of Whipcord and Frightmare, only to drop out of sight after his last foray into the fold, 1983’s House of the Long Shadows. His oeuvre stands solidly and defiantly alongside any of his concurrent film peers and should be appreciated as boldly trailblazing and highly influential to the subsequent genre (especially the body count friendly ’80s). This little slice of madness has newlywed Samantha adjusting to her new life as homemaking adjutant when she notices herself being shadowed by a familiar face from her traumatic past. Said face belongs to William Haskins, her mom’s ex-lover and murderous hobo of a madman, and as the bodies mount up, Sam and her dwindling circle of confidantes are forced to confront her shadowy past before they end up next on the grisly hit-list. There’s lots to love here, but I might almost suggest that newcomers ease into the glory that is Pete Walker with a sampling of his earlier efforts before taking this schizophrenic plunge.
The Sentinel – USA
No doubt, this film plods along in places, but the choking otherworldly atmosphere would have made even the great H.P. Lovecraft proud and one of the best jump scares EVER FILMED is here for the more forbearing apples in the horror tree. The plot is simple and inspired, with a young (and suicidal) model named Alison moving into an apartment in a grand old edifice in Brooklyn Heights. Turns out she needs a new realtor, as the building is the nexus between this world and the underworld, protected solely by the blind priest upstairs (John Carradine) who is rapidly on his way out and searching for the next tenant to preside over the gate and keep the worlds apart. However, much to Alison’s chagrin (and our delight), several creepy things manage to force their way through the rift to roam the near-empty building. The gathered cast is unbelievable, featuring names like Ava Gardner, Arthur Kennedy, Burgess Meredith, Christopher Walken, Jose Ferrer, Martin Balsam, Chris Sarandon (okay, he kind of sucks, but he’s familiar!) and Beverly D’Angelo, to name but a few. This is the perfect film for a dark and stormy night and is not to be missed by any self-respecting apple.
Shock Waves – USA
Probably my favorite zombie movie ever made (with an apologetic curtsy to the also-rans). I first saw this on VHS when I was knee-high to a circus midget and it has deeply influenced my horror predilections ever since. Peter Cushing as an hermitic SS commander, a remote island deserted save for a gaggle of stranded tourists, sub-aquatic (and pissed off) Nazi-zombies who rise out of the sea in stoic unison, and John Carradine through a glass-bottomed boat! ‘Nuff said!
Squirm – USA
Hello again, Jeff Lieberman! Not content to furnish us with just one of the better horror offerings of the era, Jeff saw fit to double-dose us in ’76, and boy am I grateful! Anyone who has ever seen this film has that worm-in-face boat scene indelibly etched into their (now scarred) memory banks. And that, quite simply, is why you should see it too. Those of you who have read this far obviously have a taste for such things and have most likely seen a sampling of the “humans versus creepy-crawlers” gamut of films, so let it be known that this is one of the best in a stretched category. This time we are treated to… wait for it… killer worms! Genius! Rob Halford said it best, “Nightcrawler, Beware the beast in black, Nightcrawler, You know he’s comin’ back, Nightcrawlerrrrrrrr!”
The Tenant (Le locataire) – France
Functioning as a rumination on the obsessions and downfall of a lonely and socially awkward voyeur (your average horror-fan, but not you guys, right?) this one stars the multi-faceted Polanski as Trelkovsky, whose own sheltered mania sees him suffering an entirely credible loss of identity as he is swallowed up by the mystery surrounding his flats prior tenant, who committed suicide. One of the best treatises on paranoia ever made (alongside the director’s own Repulsion), this one is required viewing for anyone above the age of consent (which evidently depends upon your geographical location). 😉
The Town That Dreaded Sundown – USA
I should hope you fine folks are familiar with a quite singular little film known as The Legend of Boggy Creek? If not, continue no further! Thou shalt not pass! Unseat thyself and walk.. no, run to your local video store (or madly type your way to Netflix, as the case may be) and see the painful birth of the documentary horror genre! (Seriously, fiends, it is required viewing.) Returning to the docu-drama format that Charles B. Pierce used with relative affectation when he went up the crick, this one is about the real-life and unsolved “Texarkana Moonlight Murders” (think a southerly Son of Sam in a hood) that occurred in Arkansas, circa 1946. This spooky slice of history is relatively faithful to the facts, which only serves to make the whole thing a hugely uncomfortable and shocking ride. But therein lies the fun, eh? Another landmark in the evolution of the slasher/serial killer genre and, like ol’ Boggy, compulsory viewing.
To the Devil… A Daughter – UK/Germany
Okay, so the ending is a rush job and the plot was lifted britches and all from The Devil’s Daughter (or, considering source material, vice versa), but Nastassja Kinski is so damn alluring (Cat People!!!) and Christopher Lee issues his diabolical best whilst presiding over a Satanic High Mass. This is the third time that Hammer had adapted a Dennis Wheatley novel (with The Devil Rides Out and The Lost Continent) and certainly not their best job of it, but there is enough to love here to merit recommendation, especially for those who like to read between murky lines. Entertainingly perverse and most definitely irreverent, this is solid Sunday viewing whether in place of church or as a cinematic palate cleansing after the fact. Goodbye, Hammer, and thanks for the 40+ years and countless memories. In these tired times you are sorely missed.
Werewolf Woman (La lupa mannara) – Italy
This one takes first prize as the best “bad” movie of the year (whatever that means) with an abused and deranged woman imagining herself transformed into a werewolf for her midnight excursions into the glamorous worlds of sex and murder. Most definitely exploitation, but offering a solid glimpse into the psychological wherefores that precede said indelicateness, this is a cornucopia for lovers of the strange and alluring power of sleaze. And who knew that hairy tits could be such a good time? See it to believe, my fiends.
A Whisper in the Dark (Un sussurro nel buio) – Italy
Sweet little Martino has an imaginary friend named Luca. Martino’s mother, many moons ago, lost a child in infancy who was also named Luca. Anyone who is familiar with Tom Tryon’s The Other will see where this is going, but this Italo-gothic ghost story still proves to be a haunting and poignant ride into madness and the bitterness of loss. Aliprandi makes the most of his Venice locations (and a toad), Diabolik scores some serious nookie, and we learn that Joseph Cotten likes his vodka in the buff. Between this kid and Damien, I had a lot to aspire to while growing up. Recommended solely to the more discerning viewer (and by that I mean us!), this is a beautiful and excellently performed visit to that ghost at the top of the stairs.
The Witch Who Came From the Sea – USA
This one most probably did for feminists (those angry looking bespectacled women on the corner with placards and frocks) what the vulgar exploitation, I Spit On Your Grave, most certainly did not. This is also one of the most surreal and shocking pictures to come out of the most unapologetically excessive decades in the history of film, so kudos to it for its brashness, decisiveness and exploitative glee. Molly idolizes her now departed papa through the rose colored glasses of nostalgia and self-delusion. Turns out he was something of an incestuous pedophile whose relationship with poor Molly has caused her to go off the deep end and into an illusory world of homicidal rage and obsessive castration. The ending is absolutely heartbreaking and solidly places this film amongst the must-sees of the era, beginning for casual one-night-stands what AIDS would irrevocably finish a few years down the road. Not for the squeamish, but then again none of these really are, are they?
Honorable mentions go out to: Dark August; Death Steps in the Dark (Passi di morte perduti nel buio); Grizzly; The House on Straw Hill (Expose, Trauma); Inquisicion; In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no corrida); J.D.’s Revenge; Night of the Seagulls; The Oily Maniac (You gui zi) and Plot of Fear (… e tanta paura). Dishonorable mentions should go out to The Keeper, as it stinks!
Stay tuned for Part 3 (of 10)…1959!