On the second installment of this potentially very long-running series (the first installment is here), I’m discussing 1973, which was an absolutely cracking year for iconic horror movies. There was a treasure trove of amazing stuff to choose from, but honestly, my five favorite ones were a no-brainer, and took me literally less than two minutes to choose. Here they are, in no particular order (well, except alphabetical).
Don’t Look Now
Goddammit, I love this movie, and I would happily argue that it is not only one of the finest horror films of the 1970s, but one of the best horror films of all time. Adapted from a Daphne du Maurier short story, and innovatively directed by Nicholas Roeg, Don’t Look Now is generally classified as a thriller, but specifically has a great deal in common with Italian giallo movies of the period, down to its Venice setting, its heavy use of symbolism, its overt sexuality, and its murder mystery backdrop.
The story concerns a married couple, John and Laura Baxter (played by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie), who lose their daughter Christine to an accidental drowning on their property in England. Grief-stricken and wanting a change of scenery, John moves the couple to Venice, where he is working to restore a cathedral. While there, Laura is approached by a pair of sisters, one of whom is a blind psychic, who tell her that Christine’s spirit is nearby. Laura is overjoyed, but John is dismissive and wishes Laura would just accept the reality that their daughter is gone.
John himself, though, soon begins to experience some weird shit of his own. He keeps seeing what he thinks is a child in a red raincoat running through the Venice streets; it’s the same red raincoat Christine was wearing when she died. He also starts having what appear to be visions, though whether they’re of the past, the present, or the future, he’s not entirely certain. Oh, and to top it all off, there’s also a serial killer running around loose in the city.
Don’t Look Now is an “art film” for sure, and its fractured, confusing narrative and its obsessive repetition of themes might not be for everyone. I adore its unsettling, subtly surrealistic vibe, though, and that ending is creepy and bleak as fuck.
I feel like it’s probably the law at this point that any discussion of the best horror movies from the 1970s must include William Friedkin’s seminal classic. Good thing that I don’t need there to be a law, because I concede that this is another one of the greatest horror films ever made. In fact, even though the movie was adapted for the screen by William Peter Blatty, who wrote the best-selling novel, in my opinion this is one of the very rare cases when the film far outshined the book.
Because The Exorcist is such a cultural milestone and has been analyzed to death as well as parodied endlessly in pop culture, I think it’s difficult nowadays to really grasp the impact that this movie had at the time it came out. Its frank and graphic depiction of an innocent young girl who becomes possessed by a demon (complete with pea soup vomit and crucifix masturbation) was quite shocking for the time, and the stories about the dire goings-on behind the scenes—such as a fire destroying most of the set and the long-term injuries suffered by stars Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair—gave the film an added mystique, as though the whole enterprise was cursed from the beginning.
Aside from all of the baggage attached to the franchise nowadays, I feel it’s worth reiterating that The Exorcist is just a damn good horror movie: the acting is impeccable, the characters are nuanced and sympathetic, the shot compositions are beautiful, and there are some fantastically frightening sequences. Most of my favorite scary scenes in The Exorcist, as a matter of fact, aren’t even the more “showy” ones that take place once the possession really starts rolling; for my money, the most disquieting shit here is Father Karras dreaming of his mother sitting on her bed or slowly descending down the subway stairs, or the flat affect of Regan MacNeil’s voice as she tells that astronaut that “he’s gonna die up there.” A masterful slice of horror art that never gets old for me, no matter how many times I see it.
The Legend of Hell House
Another case of a great horror author—Richard Matheson in this instance—adapting his own outstanding novel into a screenplay, The Legend of Hell House (the 1971 book was just called Hell House, by the way) is a stone-cold classic of the “ghostbusters investigate haunted house” subgenre, of which I am an ardent fan. The movie was directed by John Hough, who did some work with Hammer Studios and also helmed some other horror films in the 80s as well as a shit-ton of British TV.
Hell House takes several dollops of inspiration from Shirley Jackson’s quintessential 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, but increases the lurid and gruesome factor considerably and adds a more scientific framework to the proceedings, essentially pitting a materialist researcher against two mediums who absolutely believe in the reality of the supernatural.
The tale centers around a physicist named Dr. Lionel Barrett (played by Clive Revill), who is convinced he can “solve” hauntings with a machine of his own design, which purports to dispel the electromagnetic energy in a haunted house that is causing the manifestations. He gets recruited by a dying millionaire to see if he can prove or disprove the existence of an afterlife by conducting an investigation at an eerie and supposedly haunted old mansion once owned by a wealthy sadist and murderer named Emeric Belasco.
Also in the mix are Ben Fischer (played by an awesome Roddy McDowall), a physical medium who is the sole survivor of the last investigation of the Belasco House; Florence Tanner (played by Pamela Franklin), a waif-like mental medium who is convinced she is communicating with several spirits inside the mansion; and Lionel’s wife Ann (played by Gayle Hunnicutt), who is kinda just along for the ride.
This is another film that I never tire of, as there’s something sort of comforting about its “old dark house” atmosphere and the entertaining interplay of its characters. The resolution of the haunting is a tad bizarre, but that’s all just part of the movie’s enduring charm for me, and I would gladly sit down and watch it every few weeks or so for the rest of my life.
Scream Blacula Scream
I covered 1972’s Blacula in the last list, and I may have mentioned there that if anything, I liked the sequel a little bit better, so here it is, just as promised. I think what pushes this film ever so slightly ahead of the original for me is the whole voodoo angle, because I also love voodoo movies.
Since Mamuwalde (played again here by the excellent William Marshall) got super dead at the end of the first movie, there had to be a way to bring him back, and I think the writers came up with something pretty great: a guy named Willis (played by Richard Lawson in his film debut; he would later go on to play Ryan in Poltergeist), who is jealous that his voodoo queen mom selected her apprentice to succeed her rather than him, obtains Mamuwalde’s bones and does a ritual to bring him back to kick some ass on his behalf. Blacula, though, isn’t about that lackey life, and immediately bites Willis, turning him into his vampire slave.
Subsequently, Mamuwalde and his ever-growing vampire horde start killing more people, but Blacula also befriends new voodoo queen Lisa Fortier (played by Pam Grier), hoping she’ll be able to cure him of his vampirism, thus lending him that sympathetic angle that so endeared his character to audiences in the first film.
Scream Blacula Scream, incidentally, was directed by Bob Kelljan, also the man responsible for the fun early 70s flicks Count Yorga, Vampire and The Return of Count Yorga (as well as lots of episodes of 70s and 80s TV shows like Wonder Woman, Starsky and Hutch, The Dukes of Hazzard, Charlie’s Angels, Fame, and Hill Street Blues). Sadly, he died of cancer in 1982 at the young age of 52, but because of Scream Blacula Scream, he’ll live forever in my mind, just like Mamuwalde himself.
The Wicker Man
See what I mean about 1973 being a banner year for horror classics? Robin Hardy’s delightfully sinister folk horror film The Wicker Man dispensed with the more sensational violence common in the horror films of the period in order to focus on something more “literate” and subdued, but every bit as chilling.
Somewhat loosely based on David Pinner’s 1967 novel Ritual, The Wicker Man tells the story of a devoutly religious and exceedingly uptight police sergeant named Neil Howie (played by Edward Woodward at his puritanical best), who is sent to a remote island in the Hebrides to look into the alleged disappearance of a young girl named Rowan Morrison.
Once there, his strict Christian beliefs are challenged at every turn, as it becomes clear that the inhabitants of Summerisle are unabashed pagans whose adulation of their ancient Celtic deities and faith in the efficacy of sacrifice are every bit as sincere and fervent as Howie’s own Christian ideology.
Another thing that becomes very obvious as the story goes on is that the people of Summerisle are playing some kind of ominous game with Howie, seeming to take great pleasure in subverting his Christian sensibilities and trying to tempt him into “sin.” The great thing about the movie, though, is that the pagans, while ultimately the “villains” of the piece, are completely relatable, understandable, even likable, whereas “hero” Howie comes across as a bit of a sourpuss and an unrepentant stick in the mud. His scandalized conversations with the “ruler” of the island, Lord Summerisle (played by the always magnificent Christopher Lee in what he always maintained was one of his favorite roles), particularly demonstrate the way the pagans come off as much more logical and sincere than Howie, even while the pagans are basically plotting to sacrifice him to ensure a good harvest.
The 2006 remake of The Wicker Man, directed by Neil LaBute and starring Nicholas Cage in one of his most memed performances, was infamously bad, and became one of those films that was celebrated internet-wide for its very ridiculousness. While it makes me sort of sad that the remake was such a shit-show and became a complete laughingstock around the globe, I can’t deny that the thing was wildly entertaining (albeit not for the reasons the filmmakers probably intended), and hey, if it got just a few more people to go back and watch the original, then it’s all for the good.
I’m always down for a great folk horror movie, and 1973’s The Wicker Man is one of the towering giants of the subgenre, complete with creepy animal masks, maypoles, hands of glory, and a heaping helping of good old-fashioned burning alive.
Until next time (when we talk about my five favorite flicks from 1974), keep it creepy, my friends.