Here we are on the fourth installment, and once again, a particular year provides too many delectable options to cram into one top five list, so for the first time in this series, I’m going to have to give a tip of the hat to a couple of honorable mentions before we get into the list proper. The two films that just barely got edged out were The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which I love, but I figured it wasn’t exactly a horror movie, despite having horror components), and the excellent made-for-TV anthology film Trilogy of Terror, directed by Dan Curtis and starring Karen Black, which is stellar all around but mostly iconic for its third segment with the Zuni warrior doll. Anyway, let’s get into my top five favorites from 1975.
Dario Argento’s fifth film as director (also known by its Italian title, Profondo Rosso) is widely considered one of the best giallo films ever made, and I absolutely concur with that assessment. Matter of fact, the office where I’m currently typing this has a framed Profondo Rosso poster hanging on a wall less than three feet away. All of Argento’s beloved signatures are here: the grotesquely beautiful and awesomely improbable kills, the lush, art nouveau interiors, the fluid camera movements, the amazing score by Goblin, the focus on childhood trauma, and the solution to the mystery predicated on remembering one small, forgotten detail.
At the beginning of the story, a German psychic named Helga (played by French actress Macha Méril) is giving a performance in a theater when she senses that someone in the audience is a murderer who is planning to kill again. Because she could identify the individual, the killer later pays her a visit and chops her up with a meat cleaver.
It so happens, though, that her upstairs neighbor, English pianist Marc Daly (played by David Hemmings) is out in the street, coming home after a night out, accompanied by his friend Carlo (Gabriele Lavia, who was also in a couple of other Argento movies, Inferno and Sleepless). Marc sees the murder in progress through the window and rushes up to help, but by the time he gets there, poor Helga is already dead. While looking out from the woman’s apartment, he sees a person in a brown raincoat walking away from the building, and surmises that this must be the killer.
A seemingly inconsequential detail keeps bothering him, though. When he saw the murder from the street, he could have sworn he saw a painting on the wall of the apartment, but when he went up there to help and to talk to the police, the painting he saw evidently isn’t there. Carlo later drunkenly hypothesizes that the painting was removed because it “represented something important,” and over the course of the film, Marc gets more and more obsessed with discovering the significance of what he saw and determining who the killer is, ably assisted by journalist Gianna Brezzi (played by Daria Nicolodi, who met Argento on this film and became romantically involved with him not long after; she would later co-write the screenplay for Argento’s classic Suspiria, and would appear in several more of his films, though they separated in 1985).
Of course the visuals of Deep Red are stunning, but the murder mystery here is also intriguing and pulls you right in, and the kills are gloriously over the top: one unfortunate victim has his teeth repeatedly bashed in on furniture corners before being stabbed in the neck; one is dragged behind a garbage truck for several blocks, his head bouncing off the curbs, before his skull is crushed beneath the wheels of an oncoming car; and one gets her head pulled off after her long necklace gets caught in the machinery of a descending elevator. It’s gruesome and gorgeous, with lots of fun, Freudian touches, and it’s the first Argento film that can legitimately be called a masterpiece.
How the fuck can anyone, anywhere on the planet, not love Jaws? Not only was it the first movie to establish the “summer blockbuster” model, in which a big, crowd-pleasing film was released simultaneously in thousands of theaters accompanied by an expensive marketing blitz (prior to this, most films were rolled out slowly in different markets, picking up support through word of mouth), but it’s also one of those rare, perfect movies that gets every single thing exactly right, from the characters to the pacing to the suspense to the special effects.
Directed, of course, by Steven Spielberg, Jaws had an immense cultural impact, spawning an entire industry of low-budget “killer shark” knockoffs that still continues to this day, and cementing catch-phrases like “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” “Smile, you son of a bitch,” and “lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes” into the public consciousness. Just the theme music alone (composed by Hollywood legend John Williams) is instantly recognizable to 99.99% of the human race. Jaws was also so effective as a straight-up scary monster movie that it made everyone (justifiably) afraid to go in the ocean for a long, long time (hell, I still won’t, and I first saw Jaws forty years ago), though it also (unfortunately) led to people being so terrified of sharks that fishermen had no qualms about killing them en masse, and conservation groups had a bitch of a time convincing people that sharks were worthy of protection and weren’t (usually) the man-munching horror-fish the movie portrayed.
Jaws is also, in my humble opinion, one of the handful of films where the movie adaptation was miles better than the source novel. Peter Benchley’s book is fine, but contains a pointless and awkwardly graphic subplot about Ellen Brody carrying on an extramarital affair with Matt Hooper, and some stuff about the mayor of Amity having Mafia ties. The movie wisely trims out all the fat in order to focus on the main conflict, which of course is the three principal characters—Roy Scheider’s harried, everyman police chief Martin Brody; Richard Dreyfuss’s enthusiastic oceanographer Matt Hooper; and most famously, Robert Shaw’s grizzled old shark hunter Quint—tracking down and killing the enormous great white that has already snacked on a number of tourists and townsfolk prior to the July 4th weekend.
One of the most amazing aspects of Jaws, for me, was that its unshakeable status as the quintessential and universally beloved thrill ride of 70s cinema occurred in spite of its notoriously troubled production, in which pretty much everything that could go wrong absolutely did. The film ended up going way over budget and way past its allotted deadline; Spielberg’s insistence on shooting in the actual ocean caused a number of delays and technical problems; actor Robert Shaw was drunk much of the time and didn’t get along with Richard Dreyfuss; and most notably, the three state-of-the-art mechanical sharks built for the film barely worked in the salt water, forcing Spielberg to keep the main monster off screen and only implied for much of the film’s runtime. This last disaster, however, ended up having a silver lining, as showing the shark less ended up generating much more suspense, and making the scenes where it did appear that much more impactful.
While it could be said that Jaws made lemonade from lemons or caught lightning in a bottle (both of which are true, as far as it goes), I think a great deal of credit for the film’s success can be attributed to Spielberg’s confident and creative way of working around all the problems to produce something truly special. Big props also have to be extended to the three main actors in the film, who brought such a fantastic dynamic to their character interactions and made even the scenes without the shark endlessly entertaining. A classic, and a movie that everyone needs to see at least once.
Picnic at Hanging Rock
One of the preeminent works of the 1970s Australian New Wave, Peter Weir’s eerie, dreamlike film is an enticing mystery that refuses to be solved, an inscrutable enigma that defies easy analysis. Based on a similarly cryptic 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay, Picnic at Hanging Rock is haunting precisely because it’s so ambiguous and open to interpretation, and its critical and commercial success, as well as its lingering legacy (the movie profoundly influenced other filmmakers like Sofia Coppola, and got a reboot in 2018 in the form of a six-episode miniseries) just goes to show that horror doesn’t need to be overt to get under your skin.
The movie, as the novel did before it, hints that it was based on true events, though subsequent investigation has shown this to be highly unlikely. Set in 1900, in Victoria, Australia, the story follows a group of young women at a boarding school called Appleyard College, a sort of finishing school for proper young ladies. It’s Valentine’s Day, and the stern headmistress of the institution has planned a day’s outing for the students: a pleasant afternoon picnic at a nearby geological formation. Most of the girls go on the trip—though one troublemaker named Sara is forced to stay behind—and they are chaperoned by two other teachers.
Nothing much seems amiss at first, though math teacher Miss McCraw and buggy driver Ben Hussey both note that their watches have inexplicably stopped at 12 o’clock, hinting at some possibly paranormal shenanigans. Other than that, the day passes languidly enough until four of the girls—Miranda, Marion, Irma, and Edith—decide to explore Hanging Rock. Two men who are also spending the afternoon at the site—Michael Fitzhubert and his friend Albert—see the girls as they cross the stream on the way to the monolith.
The girls shuck off their shoes and stockings and climb up on the rock, but begin to experience odd phenomena, falling into a sort of trancelike sleep near the summit. Not long after awakening, three of the girls wander into a crevice in the rock, and are thereafter never seen again. Edith, terrified, runs down to tell the others of the three girls’ disappearance, and after the party arrives back at the school, it’s discovered that Miss McCraw has also vanished, though Edith remembers seeing her climbing the rock clad only in her underwear, and also recalls seeing a weird reddish cloud.
The rest of the film basically details the aftermath of the bizarre disappearance, both in regards to Mrs. Appleyard and the other girls at the school, and the obsession that develops with Michael Fitzhubert, as he becomes determined to figure out what happened up there. Through his efforts, one of the girls, Irma, is eventually found alive, but she can’t remember anything and thus can’t be any help in the investigation.
The film leaves the mystery of what happened at Hanging Rock and where the girls went completely unresolved, which frustrates some viewers to this day, but to my mind, the ambiguity only makes the whole thing creepier, as despite the ethereal unreality of the film as a whole, many real-life disappearances end up just like this, with people seemingly vanishing without a trace and no clue to their whereabouts ever being found. The film does give tantalizing hints that the girls may have wandered into some sort of alternate dimension or time rift, and there are some thematic elements suggesting a conflict between the buttoned-up sexuality of the girls and the unpredictable wildness of nature (which mirrors the conflict between the largely colonialist British characters and the indigenous myths surrounding the rock), but these are merely wisps that are waved before the viewer. The point of the puzzle in this case isn’t to solve it, but to bask in its unknowability.
I will note, though, that the novel actually did originally contain a final chapter that made the supernatural time rift scenario much more explicit (and also featured a character transforming into an animal), though at the publisher’s request, it was left out of the original printing, and only saw the light of day in 1987 as a stand-alone book called The Secret of Hanging Rock; the book also contains several contributions by other authors commenting on the text and the subsequent theories that sprung up in the wake of the original novel and its film adaptation.
In a 1996 poll of filmmakers, film scholars, and other industry professionals, incidentally, Picnic at Hanging Rock was voted as the best Australian film of all time.
I’ve always been a big fan of David Cronenberg’s particular brand of filmmaking, which deftly juxtaposes a clinical, soulless corporate framework against the most grotesque and squishy body horror imaginable. Though in my estimation he didn’t really hit his stride until 1979’s The Brood (which will probably turn up on that year’s favorites list, now that I’m thinking about it), his 1975 film Shivers (aka They Came From Within, aka The Parasite Murders) is outstanding nonetheless, and demonstrates what a distinct and singular vision Cronenberg had, even in his earliest days as an artist.
Set in a swanky Montreal apartment building, Shivers deals with a couple of doctors who were at first attempting to perfect a parasite that could essentially be inserted into a human body to take over the function of a failed organ. One of the doctors, however, decided that humans were getting too cerebral for their own good, and sought to develop something more akin to an aphrodisiac/venereal disease, that would spread from person to person and revert humans back to their simple, primal state, essentially rendering people too into fuckin’ and fightin’ for any of that highfalutin “thinking” jazz.
Not surprisingly, the parasite ends up getting loose and goes on to infect several other residents and employees of the apartment complex, soon turning the building into a tumultuous orgy of sex and violence. The parasite itself, looking uncomfortably like an emancipated penis just going about its wild weenie ways all footloose and fancy-free, inserts itself into people’s mouths and other orifices (most memorably swimming up Barbara Steele’s squish mitten while she’s chilling in the bathtub), providing some entertainingly revolting visuals that very clearly inspired James Gunn’s 2006 horror comedy Slither.
Shivers has a strangely cold, alien sort of vibe to it that makes it sort of uncomfortable to watch, as though the movie is keeping the viewer at one remove, but for me that just adds to the entire experience, as does the obviously low budget. The parasite angle is interestingly equivocal; though in some situations it appears to be a positive thing, loosening unnecessary repressions and fostering more sexual openness between people already infected, it also leads to some horrific consequences, as infected people have no compunctions about raping the non-infected, even if they’re members of their own family. The whole enterprise is further laced with black humor, with Cronenberg seemingly satirizing the way our civilized veneers of respectability have always masked our primal, brutish selves; the parasites, he seems to be saying, are just forcing us to be honest about the dark desires that we’ve hitherto tried to keep hidden.
The Stepford Wives
Speaking of satire, here’s another movie that uses black humor to get its point across, while also being subtly terrifying at the same time. Based on the excellent 1972 novel by Ira Levin (who also, of course, wrote Rosemary’s Baby) and adapted for the screen by William Goldman (who won Oscars for the screenplays of All the President’s Men and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; he also wrote Marathon Man, and the 1973 source novel as well as the screenplay for the beloved 1987 film The Princess Bride), The Stepford Wives is a film that has seeped so far into the cultural fabric that even people who have never read the book or seen the movie are almost guaranteed to know what you mean when you compare someone to a Stepford wife.
While some critics at the time of its release decried the film for “making fun” of the women’s liberation movement, in my view, the film was doing no such thing, and in fact was doing just the opposite. If anything, The Stepford Wives is satirizing the men of the piece, who are so frightened and emasculated by their “liberated” wives being on equal footing that they will go so far as to kill them and replace them with sex-bots that will only look and act exactly as the men want them to. This is a horror story, after all, and the scares come from the audience sympathizing with the women as their identities are brutally snatched away from them because the men in their lives can’t stand for them to have interests or thoughts of their own.
The story centers on a woman named Joanna (played by Katherine Ross), an aspiring photographer with a husband named Walter and a couple of kids. At Walter’s urging, the family moves from Manhattan to an idyllic-seeming enclave called Stepford in Connecticut; Joanna isn’t all that enthused about leaving her life in the city, but she’s willing to give suburban life a go.
Once she gets there, however, she finds she has little in common with the women of Stepford. They all look June-Cleaver-perfect at all times, for one thing, and none of them seem to have a single interesting thing to say; their sole topics of conversation revolve around children, housework, cooking, and grocery shopping. Joanna is understandably weirded out, but Walter encourages her to try to fit in.
Thankfully, Joanna soon meets another recent transplant to the community, a lovable tomboy named Bobbie, who shares Joanna’s passion for liberal politics and the arts. While their friendship is blossoming, Walter also seems to be settling in well, joining the town’s Men’s Association over Joanna’s misgivings (since they don’t allow women to join). Some of the men come over for a meeting, and while there, one of the members draws a detailed sketch of Joanna; later, another member recruits her into some purported linguistics project which entails her recording herself saying a bunch of different words and phonemes.
To Joanna’s horror, her previously awesome best friend Bobbie starts to act all submissive and boring after a supposed “romantic weekend away” with her husband, and as the story goes on, Joanna begins to suspect that the Men’s Association is doing something to the women of Stepford in order to make them more compliant and closer to the mythical 1950s housewife ideal. Of course no one believes her, and Walter gaslights the shit out of her, but it turns out it’s even worse than she imagined: the men aren’t giving their wives some drug to make them more obedient; they’re straight up murdering them and building lifelike robots of them as replacements.
Although the film is funny, the humor is very dark and only serves to emphasize the chilling nature of the premise. Besides that, the fact that (spoiler alert) Joanna doesn’t escape and is assimilated into Stepford in spite of her best efforts, makes a devastating statement about the difficulty of fighting against these kinds of retrograde attitudes. Perhaps The Stepford Wives is generally scarier to women than it is to men, but for my money, it’s one of the most unsettling films of the 1970s. I would advise skipping the 2004 remake, though; it seemed to have missed the point of the entire story and was neither scary nor funny, but just a big, dumb, empty spectacle with nothing substantive about it.
Thanks for coming along on this next step of the journey! Hopefully you’re enjoying the ride; if you are, please stay tuned for the next post, which of course will cover 1976. And until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.