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.
10. The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, UK, 1973)
Like Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, there’s an atmosphere prevalent in The Wicker Man that isn’t as tangible as that of say The Exorcist or Jaws but nonetheless evident. In other words, even though you can’t put your finger on what it is, the macabre shivers shooting up and down your spine are suitably unnerving. It’s that feeling of dread – you know something awful is going to happen but you don’t know what it is. Edward Woodward is great as the clueless but well-meaning police sergeant who is sent to the island of Summerisle in search of a missing child. When he gets there the locals claim she never existed. Pagan-practicing Christopher Lee is the perfect foil for Woodward’s Christian idealism, while Britt Ekland’s naked dance and the twisted conclusion will stay with you long after the credits have rolled.
9. Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, UK, 1973)
Similarly to The Wicker Man, Nicolas Roeg’s film has an ending that will shock, infuriate, and unnerve. Telling the story of a couple who have yet to recover from the mental trauma of losing their daughter to drowning, Laura (Julie Christie) and John (Donald Suhterland) have retreated to Europe while John works on the restoration of a church in Venice. Laura begins meeting a clairvoyant who claims to be in contact with their dead daughter. As Laura becomes more obsessed with the possibility of speaking to their child beyond the grave, John is distanced, disbelieving in such activity. But he keeps seeing a figure in a red coat who resembles his daughter. Questioning his own sanity the film climaxes with one of the most memorable final sequences in horror cinema. Roeg’s use of visual motifs and the Venetian backdrop make Don’t Look Now a visually spectacular horror movie, and one that, like all the films on this list, will stay with you for a very long time.
8. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, USA, 1974)
Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a tour-de-force of implied violence. It’s a film perceived as being gory but its physical violence is largely without the blood and guts of gore cinema’s most renowned entries. Nevertheless, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre takes no prisoners (well, apart from the unfortunate group who find their way into the cannibal family’s home). Uncompromising on violence, suffocating in its pace and sound design, unforgettable conclusion.
7. Carrie (Brian De Palma, USA, 1976)
Brian De Palma is well-known to casual film fans for The Untouchables and Scarface but his work in horror and Hitchcockian suspense should not be underestimated. Dressed To Kill is a love-letter to Hitchcock, and a brilliant one at that; Blow Out is a hugely underrated thriller that yet again highlights De Palma’s skills with camera movement, split-screen, mise-en-scene; Sisters and The Fury are as frightening as anything on this list. Just ahead of them all, however, is De Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s debut novel Carrie. The story, about a shy teenage girl who uses her newly found telekinetic skills to gain revenge against the bullies who humiliate her, is perfectly shot and edited with De Palma’s trademarks visuals. Sissy Spacek is excellent in the role of Carrie, but it’s her fanatically religious mother, played by Piper Laurie, who stands out. Laurie’s terrifying performance is only bettered by Linda Blair in The Exorcist for best female performance in an American horror movie.
6. Halloween (John Carpenter, USA, 1978)
John Carpenter’s hugely influential film became the blueprint for every slasher made since. Without Halloween there would be no Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street or Prom Night or My Bloody Valentine or Terror Train or April Fools Day or The House on Sorority Row or Sorority House Massacre or Sleepaway Camp or Scream or I Know What You Did Last Summer…to name just a few! Carpenter’s suggestive use of the killer’s point of view and exploitation of a promiscuous youth struck a chord with audiences at the time, especially young audiences, which lingers even today.
5. The Omen (Richard Donner, USA, 1976)
In some quarters Richard Donner’s 1976 film remains underrated, perhaps as an Exorcist-lite horror movie made in the wake of Friedkin’s masterpiece in order to cash-in on its success. But The Omen is a terrifically creepy film that manages to crawl under your skin and stay there. The story of a demonic child again brings the monster within the confines of the family and little Toby Stephens, who plays the Devil’s child, is undeniably frightening through Donner’s use of close-ups on his pale face and eyes that appear to burn through the screen. It’s all grounded in the authentic and powerful performance of Gregory Peck as the father. Some of the set-pieces such as David Warner’s meeting with a sheet of glass and the Nanny’s suicide at the birthday party are not easily forgotten. Neither is the brilliant use of distorted photographs to premise the impending doom. The Omen is, for me, one of the scariest films ever made.
4. Alien (Scott, USA/UK, 1979)
Ridley Scott revolutionised the science-fiction genre with this grimy, monster-movie-in-space. There aren’t many monsters as terrifying or beautifully and nightmarishly conceived as H.R. Giger’s phallic alien creation. Alien is blessed with a strong cast but it’s Sigourney Weaver who stands out in what would become a defining moment for female characters in horror cinema.
3. Jaws (Steven Spielberg, USA, 1975)
The horror film that worked for children and adults. That’s a big reason it became the first blockbuster. Everyone went to see it – twice! Steven Spielberg’s film about a seaside town terrorised by a huge Great White shark is a lesson in how to construct suspense and paved the way for Spielberg to take over Hollywood. The shark is one of the most iconic monsters in cinema and because of its basis in reality it gave people second thoughts about venturing into the sea. Three terrific performances from three very different actors propelled the film beyond being just another monster movie and Spielberg’s direction is unequivocal proof of his genius behind the camera. See more on Steven Spielberg HERE
2. Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, USA, 1968)
Roman Polanski brings Ira Levin’s bestselling 1967 novel to the screen with a beautifully realised foreboding atmosphere and an understated, fragile performance from Mia Farrow. The story tells of a struggling actor who befriends an odd couple who practice the art of witchcraft. In return for his wife, unknowingly, having the Devil’s child they will ensure his acting career takes off. It’s a chilling premise and one that we are not aware of immediately as Polanski allows the mystery to slow-burn until the chilling climax. Ruth Gordon is great as the bubbly but conniving witch. What makes Rosemary’s Baby stand out is how it drops references to the gothic, which is definitely a precursor to contemporary horror films of the 1970s, which were set in present day, realistic, everyday settings.
1. The Exorcist (William Friedkin, USA, 1973)
The daddy of them all. The greatest horror film ever made. William Friedkin’s The Exorcist terrified audiences so much some left the theatre. Infamously unavailable in the UK because of the “Video Nasty” scare, the film, which already had a huge following after its initial theatrical run, grew in mystique throughout its hiatus from British viewing screens. I remember distinctly the television trailers for its first UK TV showing some 25 years after its original release. Every time the TV spot played it was an event. Finally, this film – dubbed the scariest film ever made – could be seen by those of us either not around in 1973 or not old enough to see it on its theatrical re-release.
Based on a true story, The Exorcist tells of a pre-pubescent girl (Linda Blair) who becomes possessed by an evil spirit. Science does not have an answer for her troubles so the girl’s desperate mother (Elllen Bustyn) turns to the church for help. Father Karras (Jason Miller), struggling with his own faith after the death of his mother, meets with the possessed child to determine if she can be helped by the church. Unable to exorcise the demon himself he calls on the experienced hand of Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) and in doing so restores his own belief in God.
The Exorcist is an amazing film – Spielberg calls Lawrence of Arabia a ‘miracle’, so too is The Exorcist. It is terribly affecting through Friedkin’s cold, distant tone and foreboding ambience as well as its depiction of a child’s suffering and her mother’s inability to help. The special make-up effects are the most effective I’ve ever seen – Linda Blair is unrecognisable as the demonic creature that takes over her body shows itself in ghastly glory all across her face. Seeing the animalistic embodiment of the demon imprinted on a once pale, innocent and feminine face is the most horrifying image I have ever seen on film. It is at once wonderful in its ability to affect the viewer with such tangible menace and punishing in the way it unsettles. It is an unforgettable image in an unforgettable film.
See more great horror films of the 1960s and 1970s: Here