We’re back once again on this potentially endless series, as I break down my five favorite horror films released every year since I was born, and I have to say that even though we’re only three posts in, I’ve already hit something of a snag. While 1974 featured at least two iconic classics that will absolutely appear on this list (and I’m sure you can probably guess what they are), I was having a hard time choosing three more movies to round out the list; not because 1974 was an embarrassment of riches like 1973 was, but because I realized I either didn’t love or hadn’t seen a lot of the horror films that came out that year.
But because I am nothing if not persistent and committed to a premise, I persevered, and was able to choose five stellar examples of 1974 horror, though don’t hate if I didn’t pick one you think I should have (because I might not have got around to seeing it yet, so cut me some slack).
I’ve never made any secret of my love of 1970s made-for-TV horror movies, and Bad Ronald is absolutely one of the best ones of the era, though I can’t really put my finger on why that is. Directed by Buzz Kulik, who was responsible for several great TV movies of the 70s like Brian’s Song, as well as a bunch of episodes of The Twilight Zone, Bad Ronald aired on ABC the week before Halloween in 1974, and has since gone on to amass a pretty substantial cult following. I will note, though, that it was based on a novel of the same name by Jack Vance, and the book goes much, much farther with the violence, so this adaptation is substantially softened for television audiences. Just a heads up.
The movie—more of a one-location thriller than straight horror, I guess—follows awkward teen Ronald Wilby (played by Scott Jacoby, who I recognized from the excellent 1976 film The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, also starring a young Jodie Foster), who lives with his ailing and overprotective mother in a gorgeous old Victorian house. Dear old Dad divorced Mom a decade ago, and doesn’t give a whiff of a shit about his son at all, having willingly cut off all contact in lieu of having to pay child support. Ronald seems like an okay kid, but he’s kinda geeky and really into fantasy, having created an entire fictional kingdom that he’s constantly drawing and expanding upon.
Early in the story, Ronald tries to chat up his pretty neighbor, but she and her friends shut down his dorky ass, and on his way back home, he happens to run into another little neighbor girl on her bike. The kid, whose name is Carol, also lets fly at Ronald about how lame he is, and an angry Ronald subsequently pushes her to the ground, but she ends up dying after she cracks open her head on a concrete block. In the book, she actually dies while he’s trying to rape her, but the movie pulls its punches on that, making it look a bit more “accidental.” Panicked, he decides to bury the girl’s body, because he believes (probably rightly so) that the cops won’t buy that he didn’t mean to kill her.
Back home, Ronald confesses what he did to his mom, and because she doesn’t want to lose him, she proposes hiding him in a small room/bathroom combo whose door she conceals behind some wallpaper. He can get in and out through a hidden panel in the pantry, so his mom can still bring him food and what not.
The police come to the house to investigate, and Mom pretends she doesn’t know what happened and that Ronald just ran away for some reason. Ronald left behind the jacket he’d been wearing when he killed Carol, which is torn and has blood on it, and also left a note saying he’d done something terrible and was skipping town. Mom acts devastated when the police tell her that Ronald probably killed a kid, but she’s adamant that she has no idea where he is. The investigators sort of buy it.
Everything goes fairly well for a while, though they have to be really careful because their neighbor Mrs. Schumacher is SUPER nosy and suspects something’s up. She actually sees Ronald one day through the screen door when he sneaks out of his hidey hole to grab something from the fridge, but the shock of it causes her to have a heart attack and fall down the steps, where she expires. A resigned Ronald, thinking they’ll probably blame her death on him, has to bury her too.
Not too long afterward, Ronald’s mom goes in for gall bladder surgery and unexpectedly dies, leaving Ronald in the house alone, creeping around behind the walls. Eventually, a new family move into the house, none the wiser, while Ronald spends his days retreating farther and farther into his fantasy world, showering less and less to avoid alerting the family to his presence, and poking holes in the walls so he can train his pervy eyes on the family’s three daughters, the oldest of which was played by Lisa Eilbacher, who most will recognize as Jenny from Beverly Hills Cop. Incidentally, her boyfriend in this movie was played by Teddy Eccles, who Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans will immediately remember from his unforgettable performance as Davey in the 1970 TV movie San Francisco International!
As TV movies go, this one is remembered fondly for a reason; though it’s not nearly as fucked up as the book, it’s got some good acting performances and is a really entertaining entry in the “creeper hiding in the house” subgenre.
This Canadian classic was undoubtedly a massive influence on John Carpenter’s Halloween, and thus on the slasher subgenre as a whole; though I wouldn’t call Black Christmas the first slasher movie (I might give that crown to Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood aka Twitch of the Death Nerve, though I wouldn’t be mad if someone wanted to argue otherwise), it was the first film to codify many of the tropes that would define the genre in the 1980s, and was likely the first widely-seen holiday slasher as well. Not bad for a movie that cost only about six-hundred-thousand bucks to make.
Directed by Bob Clark (who would later go on to helm another, less murdery Yuletide classic, 1983’s A Christmas Story), Black Christmas makes sumptuous use of its holiday setting, with many of the night shots illuminated by colorful, twinkling Christmas lights reflecting off sparkling banks of snow. It’s also a master class in not only the effective building of suspense, but also a textbook example of how to do characterization in a slasher movie right, a lesson which later producers of cheap direct-to-video schlock probably should have heeded. There are lots of cannon-fodder characters in Black Christmas, as in most slashers, but they’re all distinct personalities, and you actually give a damn about them and don’t want to see them get killed.
Olivia Hussey, internationally lauded for her 1968 performance in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, plays main character Jess Bradford, an independent and intelligent college student who lives in the Pi Kappa Sig sorority house with several other young women, including the scene-stealing, foul-mouthed drunk Barb (played indelibly by Margot Kidder), the bookish and wisecracking Phyl (played by SCTV alum Andrea Martin), and the young and naïve Clare (played by Lynne Griffin), who actually ends up being the first one to fall victim to the mysterious killer.
The sorority sisters begin to receive a series of exceedingly disturbing obscene phone calls from a guy who screams and moans and says all kinds of crazy shit, before finally threatening to kill them. Clare gets suffocated with a garment bag and stashed in the attic, but the other girls don’t realize anything has happened to her because they thought she headed home for the holiday break. The house mother Mrs. MacHenry (Marian Waldman) also gets hanged on a hook in the attic when she discovers Clare’s body eerily sitting in an old rocking chair.
One by one, the other women start to get picked off; meanwhile, a red herring is introduced in the form of Jess’s boyfriend Peter (played by Keir Dullea, probably best known from 2001: A Space Odyssey), who starts acting an ass after Jess tells him that she’s pregnant and wants to get an abortion. Peter wants to keep the baby and marry Jess, but Jess wants to finish college and have a career; she’s not about that traditional feminine life, and Peter gets all kinds of butthurt about it, so much so that Jess comes to believe that he might actually be the killer.
It turns out, though, just like that classic urban legend about the babysitter and the man upstairs, the obscene phone calls have been coming from inside the house this whole time; the murderer, known only as Billy and never shown except for one creepy eye peeking through a partially opened door, has been living in the attic of the sorority house for some time. No motive is ever given for the crimes, and Billy is never given a back story, which is actually one of my favorite things about the movie; much like in the later Halloween (the 1978 original, obviously), the killer is much scarier when you don’t know much about him or why he’s doing what he’s doing.
Black Christmas was remade twice (in 2006 and 2019), but the 1974 OG is difficult to top, and though it got mixed reviews at the time of its release, it has since gone on to be recognized as one of the quintessential horror films of the 1970s, and easily one of the most influential.
It might be weird to say this, but American murderer and grave robber Ed Gein is like the gift that keeps on giving to creators of horror media. The dude was the loose inspiration for Norman Bates in Robert Bloch’s Psycho (obviously adapted into Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece); for Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; and for Buffalo Bill in Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs (adapted into the Oscar-winning 1990 film of the same name). There was also a black comedy starring Steve Buscemi called Ed and His Dead Mother that came out in 1993, and one could argue that the killer in the 1972 grindhouse picture Three on a Meathook was also partially based on the mild-mannered, mother-loving Wisconsin weirdo.
But amid all of these noteworthy films, one seems to usually get lost in the shuffle, and oddly enough, this largely forgotten relic was—at least at the time of its release—the most accurate account of Ed Gein’s actual crimes, though of course some artistic license was taken. The movie I’m talking about is 1974’s Deranged.
Funded by an American production company but shot in Ontario, Canada with a mostly Canadian crew, Deranged was released nearly seven months before Tobe Hooper’s seminal Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and got surprisingly decent reviews for a movie of its ilk. Also marketed under the longer and slightly misleading title Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile, the film also ran into trouble with the censors, leading to one particularly gruesome sequence (of the murderer spooning out a victim’s eyeballs before sawing off the top of her head and scooping out her brains) being excised entirely.
For whatever reason, the movie seemed to vanish off the face of the earth shortly after its release, which might go a long way toward explaining why not that many people remember it. Deranged wasn’t rediscovered until 1994, when it turned up in Florida and was subsequently released on VHS by MGM.
Deranged was directed by Jeff Gillen and special effects artist Alan Ormsby. Ormsby had gotten his start writing, doing the special effects for, and starring in the low-budget 1972 drive-in classic Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things, which was directed by Bob Clark (of Black Christmas, Porky’s, and A Christmas Story fame). Ormsby did the effects on Deranged as well, and the corpse designs in particular are pretty spectacular; it probably helped that his assistant on the picture was some young nobody by the name of Tom Fuckin’ Savini. The special effects in this are so effective, in fact, that it’s hard to believe the film was made for only about two-hundred grand.
While the special effects of Deranged are a definite standout, the hands-down star of the show is character actor Roberts Blossom, starring as “Ezra Cobb,” the movie’s Ed Gein stand-in. While I immediately recognized Blossom as George LeBay from John Carpenter’s 1983 adaptation of Stephen King’s Christine, I feel as though his most prominent role was as Old Man Marley in 1990’s Home Alone. Blossom inhabits the role of the murderous ghoul Ezra Cobb so completely that there were times I forgot I was watching an actor; it’s an amazingly subtle and skin-crawling performance in a movie that you wouldn’t necessarily look to for powerhouse acting.
The film opens with a narrator warning the viewer that the story you are about to see is true, that the details are not for the squeamish, and so forth. This narrator pops in at various points in the movie to clarify details, walking into the scenes as they’re playing out and addressing the audience directly. I noticed that among horror fans who have seen Deranged, the presence of the narrator was a sticking point, as many viewers felt his frequent, fourth-wall-breaking appearances distracted from the story, but I didn’t really mind it, as I thought it gave the film a kind of eerie, In Search Of… quality.
We’re then introduced to our Ed Gein surrogate, Ezra Cobb, taking care of his dying mother. Mom fills Ezra’s head with all sorts of fun ideas about women, namely that they’re all whores and just chock full of disease, though she does concede that there’s only one woman on earth that she trusts, a friend named Maureen Selby, who is automatically trustworthy because she’s fat. Mom tells Ezra to go see Maureen after she (that is, Mom) pops her clogs, but Ezra is in complete denial about his beloved mother getting ready to go to that big hog farm in the sky.
She does, though, and Ezra slowly starts to lose his marbles, insisting to his neighbors at the funeral that Mom’s not dead, just sleeping, and acting as though she’s just away on a trip that she’ll be returning from at any time. A year passes, and finally Ezra has succumbed to the crazy so much that he believes he has to go dig up his mother and bring her back to the homestead to continue caring for her. Now, as I said, the movie does take some artistic license with the real story of Ed Gein, and here is a prime example: Gein never did dig up his mom, though he did dig up a bunch of other people, so it’s not really much of a stretch.
Once Mom is installed back in her bed, the none-too-bright Ezra stumbles upon the idea to dig up other people’s corpses in order to retrieve spare parts to fix up his mom, who isn’t looking too spiffy after spending more than a year in her coffin. The hilarious thing is that Ezra—much like his real-life counterpart—is too dim to really understand that what he’s doing is strange, and he simply blurts out his plans about digging for extra parts to his neighbors. Of course, they just think good old Ezra is making a weird joke, and brush the whole thing off.
Shortly afterward, Ezra has cultivated quite a collection of bodies in his home. His neighbors, worried that he’s always cooped up in his house all alone (little do they know), suggest that he go out and find a nice woman to look after him. He then takes the advice of his mother and goes to see Maureen Selby, who vibes with Ezra because she also talks to her dead loved one—in her case, her deceased husband. In a grimly humorous scene, Maureen ropes a clueless Ezra into a séance that she has specifically engineered to get into Ezra’s sexy coveralls. The séance doesn’t end up going too well, at least for Maureen, and Ezra racks up his first kill. This is another juncture where the fiction deviates from reality, as Maureen is not based on one of Ed Gein’s victims, but is a completely fanciful creation.
From there, though, the movie follows the real timeline of the crimes fairly closely, the only major deviation being the choice to make the two subsequent victims much younger than they were in real life. The murder of the final victim, Sallie Mae (based on real-life victim Bernice Worden), is also extended significantly from the real crime, with Sallie escaping Ezra’s clutches for a time before being recaptured and butchered. I will note as well that despite the movie’s claims to veracity, if anything it downplays the extent of Ed Gein’s grave robbing, though it does feature skull bowls, a violin with catgut strings that ain’t catgut, and a cane fashioned from a human femur. No nipple belts or boxes of vulvas, though.
Deranged was actually a pleasant surprise for me when I watched it; I think I was expecting some horribly cheap, exploitative trash, but the film had a lot more going for it than that. Though its low budget was fairly apparent and some of the acting wasn’t quite up to snuff, the movie was elevated significantly by the flawless special effects work of Alan Ormsby and Tom Savini, the presence of several genuinely ominous sequences, and the absolute revelation of a lead performance by Roberts Blossom. The film also benefited greatly from a streak of pitch-black humor, and though it was a bit slow to get started, once Ezra’s mother kicked the bucket, the movie was off to the races, and was entertaining all the way through. It’s not quite the classic that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is, but it’s definitely worth watching, and deserves a much wider audience.
It’s difficult not to love a movie about a killer mutant baby, and director Larry Cohen (God Told Me To, The Stuff) made the definitive one back in 1974; as far as I know, there hasn’t been a better one since. Like much of Cohen’s output, It’s Alive is fairly low-budget, and given its premise, has the potential to be really tasteless, but is actually miles better than it has any right to be, with a satirical edge featuring some pointed social commentary, awesome creature effects by horror legend Rick Baker, and an outstanding lead performance by John P. Ryan as the murder-baby’s father. Seriously, if they gave Oscars specifically for horror movies, Ryan’s tortured, nuanced performance should have absolutely got one.
The story follows Frank and Lenore Davis, a regular, middle-class couple in Los Angeles, who already have one eleven-year-old son named Chris and now have another kid on the way. We find out that there was some indecision whether they wanted to keep the baby at first, but now they both seemed pleased as punch, and happily drive off to the hospital when Lenore begins to go into labor.
Frank is confident everything is going to be all right, breezily telling his son that having a baby is “a trick she does every eleven years,” and reassuring him that women used to die in childbirth back in the bad old days, but not anymore. Chris is sent off to stay with family friend (uncle?) Charlie while the baby is being born.
Once they arrive at the hospital, everything appears to be going by the book, and Frank spends time in the lounge with the other expectant fathers, their discussion significantly touching on air pollution and pesticides. In the labor room, however, Lenore is having a hard time, and repeatedly tells the doctor that something is wrong, but he keeps dismissing her fears, though he casually comments to the other medical personnel in the room about how enormous the baby’s head is, talking as though Lenore isn’t even there.
The kid evidently pops out of the womb a wee bit cranky, because he gruesomely kills everyone in the birthing room except for Lenore, and then escapes the hospital through a broken skylight and goes on a tiny baby rampage. Though the audience doesn’t actually see the baby in all its glory until later in the movie, we get hints of its monstrous form through witness descriptions and brief glimpses of it scuttling about in the shrubbery or attacking a milkman in his truck.
From there, the film becomes a taut cat-and-mouse game as police attempt to wrangle the lethal infant; meanwhile, the baby leaves a trail of destruction in its wake as it instinctually tries to make its way back home. Franks gets fired from his job at a PR firm because of the bad publicity surrounding the mutated child, and the media jump all over Frank and Lenore, essentially blaming their fucked-up genes for producing such a horror, as though they had any control in the matter. One of my favorite things about the film, in fact, is the sly way that it satirizes the idea that although the mutant baby is implied to have been caused by environmental factors, everyone blames the individual parents rather than the larger forces at play.
Both Frank and Lenore react a bit differently to the entire situation, with Lenore basically dissociating and pretending that everything is fine, and Frank completely shutting off his emotions, referring to the baby as a monster and claiming that he doesn’t care what happens to it. He even signs away the body of the thing—whenever it’s killed—to the university for study. As the story goes on, though, he begins to feel more of a personal responsibility toward the child—a remark he makes about Frankenstein is relevant here—and becomes convinced that he’s the one who must destroy it.
When he finally comes face to face with his offspring, however, his protective parental impulses kick in, much like the end of Rosemary’s Baby; unlike Rosemary’s Baby, though, It’s Alive does end with the baby destroyed, but as Frank and Lenore are being driven away from the scene, the police get the news that another mutated kid has been born in Seattle, thus hinting at a potential ecological disaster on the horizon, and also neatly setting up the sequels.
Despite its schlocky-sounding premise, It’s Alive is actually played pretty straight, and I think it’s all the better for it. Not only is it an effectively scary creature feature with top-notch acting and a great monster, it’s also an entertaining and intelligent commentary on parental responsibility, the American for-profit healthcare system, the over-reliance on prescription drugs, and the general ambivalence of the larger system toward the welfare of children.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Ed Gein makes another appearance in the list (sort of), but this time filtered through the unforgiving lens of horror master Tobe Hooper. It’s hard to say anything about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre that hasn’t already been said, since it’s one of those movies that’s been permanently carved onto the horror Mount Rushmore, and spawned an entire franchise that’s still continuing nearly half a century later.
While the opening narration claiming that the film is based on true events is…well, not really true (which Tobe Hooper has stated he did on purpose to make a comment about how audiences in the 1970s were becoming less inclined to believe what they were told by those in power), the way the film is shot gives it an uncomfortably scuzzy verisimilitude, making you feel as though you’re watching a snuff film. Everything is sun-bleached and rotten and sweaty and flyspecked, and you can almost smell the decay boiling off the roadkill in the blistering heat of central Texas. The movie was shot quickly on a low budget, with little heed paid to the comfort of the actors, and this definitely works to the film’s advantage, especially in the movie’s infamously harrowing third act, which looks like nothing so much as a bloody, meaty, leering, screeching descent into utter madness.
The story of TCM is so simple, but so effective, following the rough formula of a slasher but adding its own grimy, squalid veneer. Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns), her paraplegic brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain), and a couple of their friends are driving in their Scooby van to check on their grandfather’s grave, since the cemetery where he’s buried has seen some bizarre and grotesque vandalism. They stop for gas and the station’s temporarily out, so while they’re waiting, they decide to go check out the old Hardesty homestead, which is now abandoned.
Along the way, in a brilliant bellwether of the horror to come, they pick up a hitchhiker, who seems just a little bit weird at first, but slowly reveals himself to be completely insane as he waxes nostalgic about the slaughterhouse where he used to work, cuts Franklin’s arm with a straight razor, then cuts open his own hand before being unceremoniously given the heave-ho by the wigged out gang. Thinking they’re out of danger, they end up hearing a generator running and go to the attached house for gas, subsequently falling prey to the cannibalistic Sawyer family, whose corpse-heavy decorating skills, it must be said, leave a little something to be desired.
I think my favorite thing about this film is not only how merciless and immersive it is, and how committed it is to its revolting aesthetic, but also how clever it is. Despite the lurid title and the reputation for violence and gore the movie still retains to this day, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is surprisingly restrained, and Hooper’s genius manifests itself in the way that he makes you think you saw a lot worse shit than what was actually there; in other words, he makes your imagination do the work. Yes, a woman gets hung on a meat hook and is forced to watch as her boyfriend is cut apart, but you see very little of it; it’s all suggestion and sound design. Same deal with Franklin’s death; he absolutely gets eviscerated at the end of Leatherface’s chainsaw, but it’s shot from the back, with only Franklin’s spasming body and the roar of the saw painting the picture in your head. It’s an extraordinary feat of misdirection and subtlety in a movie where you probably wouldn’t expect such finesse. I also have to say that the first appearance of Leatherface—quickly appearing from behind a sliding door and dispatching one of the gang with a mallet before just as swiftly closing the door while the victim’s legs kick erratically in his death throes—is one of the best villain introductions in all of horror.
TCM is an absolute viewing requirement for anyone who claims to be a horror fan, as it’s not only one of the most influential horror movies of the decade, but one of the best and most influential ever made.
Bes sure to keep watching this space for the next installment, where we’ll (obviously) be talking about some horror from the long-ago year of 1975. Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.
One thought on “My Favorite Horror Movies from Every Year Since I Was Born: 1974”
I saw It’s Alive on TV as a kid, I don’t remember much other than it terrified me at the time