Horror film has always been at its best when representing in some form the genuine fears populating society at the time of release. Whether it be the cold-war fears of the 1950s or the feral youth of the 2000s, horror film has managed to tap into our base fears through the very real issues plaguing contemporary culture. Arguably, the genre has never been as powerful or influential as it was between the beginning of the American New Wave and the total commercialisation and high-concept era of the 1980s. In other words, the best horror films ever made appeared in the 12 years between 1967 and 1979.
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20. The Brood (David Cronenberg, Canada, 1978)
For my money this is David Cronenberg’s best work. It’s a captivating horror-drama with strong characterisation and some suitably odd yet significantly frightening sequences. Cronenberg maintains a cold, almost distant tone that mimics the frosty expanse of the Ontario locations. The film follows a sort of parental struggle between worried father Frank (Art Hindle) and institutionalised mother Nola (Samantha Edgar) as the care of their daughter comes under scrutiny given Nola’s unstable mental state and the fact she is currently undergoing a new but mysterious type of treatment from an unconventional psychotherapist played by Oliver Reed.
19. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, USA, 1978)
Donald Sutherland stars in this excellent remake of 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. He discovers that humans are being replaced by replicas and sets out to stop it.
18. The Devil Rides Out (Terence Fisher, UK, 1968)
Hammer brings Dennis Wheatley’s novel to the screen with this stylish film about the occult. Christopher Lee stars as a good guy, helping the son of a friend avoid being initiated into a coven of devil worshippers. Slick, creepy fun.
17. Suspiria (Dario Argento, Italy, 1977)
Dario Argento’s limited plot about a dance school being run by witches is overshadowed by his brilliant eye for detail, stylish camerawork, and inventive use of sound.
16. The Hills Have Eyes (Wes Craven, USA, 1977)
Wes Craven brought a little paranoia about nuclear fallout into the trappings of a 1970s slasher film with the brilliant The Hills Have Eyes. A whitebread family find themselves shit out of luck in the Nevada desert. Stalked by a feral, inbred group of flesh hungry cannibals, they must band together in order to survive away from their suburban comfort zone. It’s a great depiction of two very different warring families when the theme of the family unit was prevalent in American horror. In many cases it was the idea that the monster was within the family itself, here Craven muses on the idea that there was still some hope for suburban Mums and Dads and their 2.4 children.
15. The Devils (Ken Russell, UK, 1971)
Infamously banned in many countries on its release, Ken Russell’s disturbing film is partially based on Aldous Huxley’s novel The Devils of Loudon about a Priest executed for witchcraft following the supposed demonic possession of the Loudon nuns. Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave star in this captivating, haunting film.
14. Black Christmas (Bob Clark, Canada, 1974)
Pre-dating Halloween, Bob Clark’s Black Christmas could be argued as the first slasher film. It provided John Carpenter with a few ideas about point of view camerawork and the idea of a crazed killer stalking nubile college students. It’s a terrifically well-made film with Clark’s subjective camera placing the audience within the viewpoint of the killer.
13. Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, USA, 1978)
One of the best sequels of all time, George A. Romero followed up his revolutionary Night of the Living Dead with the equally intelligent and suitably gory Dawn of the Dead. The poster declared “When there’s no more room in hell the dead will walk the earth” or more precisely “the Mall” as Romero used the film to comment on American society’s gross commercialisation and the increasing dominance of consumerism.
12. Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves, UK, 1968)
Notorious at the time for its graphic depictions of torture, Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General has developed a cult following after being generally ignored or derided by critics on its release. The story, about a self-proclaimed witch-finder sent out to hunt and execute those believed to be practising black magic, is a grim, downbeat but engaging film that shows its influence in similarly haunting 1970s movies such as Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man.
11. Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, USA, 1968)
George A. Romero’s hugely influential 1968 horror film not only ushered in a new dawn for the zombie film, it paved the way to gore cinema and low-budget exploitation. The slasher films of the 1970s wouldn’t have been made without Night of the Living Dead. Romero also comments on American society of the 1960s with the fate of protagonist Ben (Duane Jones).
Onward to Part 3: