My Favorite Horror Movies from Every Year Since I Was Born: 1976

The year of 1976 has provided my biggest challenge yet, as far as winnowing my favorites down to just five; seriously, just a cursory glance of the horror films released that year produced an easy eight, and several more that might also make the cut if I was in a particular mood that day. But since I don’t want to make even more work for myself than I already have, I’m going to ruthlessly pare the list down, though as I did in my 1975 entry, I’ll throw in a few honorable mentions. Not quite making the list but still among my very favorite movies from 1976 were Larry Cohen’s bizarre scifi horror God Told Me To; Pupi Avati’s spooky giallo The House With Laughing Windows; and the tense, Nicolas Gessner-directed thriller The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, starring a young Jodie Foster. Now on to the main event.

Alice, Sweet Alice

Classified as a slasher film, but coming across more like an American-set giallo film with the dreamlike European sensibilities of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, Alfred Sole’s Alice, Sweet Alice (aka Communion) got decent critical reviews at the time of its release, though it was also harshly criticized for its violence perpetrated by and against children, and its seemingly anti-Catholic message. It was even caught up in the whole silly video nasty panic in the UK, though the film itself was never prosecuted for obscenity, just confiscated by the authorities.

The story follows a single mother in 1961 New Jersey, who is raising two daughters on her own: perfect, nine-year-old angel Karen (played by Brooke Shields), and jealous troublemaker Alice, who is twelve (and played by Paula Sheppard). Very early on in the film, Karen is strangled to death and stuffed into a cabinet at the church during her First Communion. Because we’ve seen her older sister terrorizing her, and doing so in particular wearing a distinctive yellow raincoat and a really creepy translucent mask over her face, we’re almost led to believe that Alice killed Karen out of envy, and to be honest, Alice’s troubled and troubling behavior doesn’t do much to dissuade anyone from this hypothesis.

As the bodies pile up and more suspicion is cast upon Alice, it becomes clear that there may be something more insidious at work, and indeed, the reason this film was so often plagued with censorship issues was its portrayal of the Catholic church as essentially enablers of the violence we see unfolding; the tenets of the religion are characterized as exacerbating the very problems they’re supposedly meant to alleviate. This is a somewhat deep reading of a film that can absolutely be enjoyed as an excellent and fairly straightforward slasher, sure, but all of the layers are there if you want to explore them.

Excellently realized on a very small budget and packed with eerie set pieces, Alice, Sweet Alice is a definite 70s classic, and has nowadays (thankfully) achieved the cult status it so richly deserves.

Burnt Offerings

I feel like I’ve already talked about this movie a lot on this site (such as here), but it really is one of the best horror films of the 1970s, and one of my favorite haunted house movies of all time, so it’s difficult to keep from repeating myself, but sometimes those are the sacrifices we have to make.

The pedigree behind this one is impressive: based on an outstanding novel by Robert Marasco, adapted for the screen by William F. Nolan and Dan Curtis, directed by Dan Curtis, and featuring an amazing cast that includes Oliver Reed, Karen Black, Bette Davis, and Burgess Meredith, Burnt Offerings is not only a fairly faithful and effective adaptation of the book, but is also a goddamn scary film on its own terms.

It tells the story of the Rolf family, who get what they think is an unbelievable deal on a summer rental place; the house is basically a mansion on a massive piece of land, and though it’s a little bit run down, the price is so good that they’d be stupid to pass it up.

Of course, there’s a catch, because there always is. The brother and sister who own the place inform the Rolfs that their elderly mother, Mrs. Allardyce, will be staying in the house with them over the summer, but that she stays in her room all the time and won’t cause them any trouble. They probably won’t even see her, in fact.

And, as it turns out, they don’t, but a whole bunch of other weird shit starts going on: Marian Rolf begins to spend all of her time fixing the place up or mooning around in Mrs. Allardyce’s sitting room; Ben Rolf starts to develop something of a rage problem; and spry old Aunt Elizabeth, who came along with them, has the vitality sucked right out of her. It starts to become clear that the house is something like a living organism, feeding on the weaknesses and life forces of the people within it.

Burnt Offerings is well-acted and has some really unsettling scenes, many of them revolving around a creepy-ass chauffeur who Ben dreams about sometimes. This is a movie I absolutely never get tired of; I’ve seen it dozens of times, and would happily watch it again anytime you asked me to.


This seems like another no-brainer, as it’s easily one of the best Stephen King adaptations ever, and also one of Brian De Palma’s best films. The movie is elevated immensely by the exceptional performances of Sissy Spacek as the downtrodden Carrie White, who discovers a hidden power and uses it to turn the tables on her tormentors; and Piper Laurie, who goes all in as Carrie’s religious wackjob of a mother and becomes one of the most terrifying villains in 70s horror as a result. Both women, by the way, were nominated for Oscars for their roles, and rightly so.

I should also note that the supporting cast is also unanimously great: Amy Irving is perfect as the sympathetic Sue Snell, while Nancy Allen looks to be having a blast as the unrepentant megabitch Chris Hargensen. Those two women are opposite sides of the same coin, and their dynamic is mirrored somewhat by the male dichotomy of laid-back good guy Tommy Ross (played by William Katt) and dimbulb thug Bill Nolan (played by John Travolta).

I feel as though Carrie has so penetrated the zeitgeist at this point that a synopsis of the plot isn’t necessary, but in short, it follows a high school girl who has been abused and isolated by her fundamentalist mother, and is subsequently bullied by her teenage peers at school. After she gets her first period (very late, I might add, and so sheltered that she has no idea what’s happening to her), she begins to develop telekinetic powers, which she uses to ultimately take revenge on everyone who made her life hell. It sounds like a lurid premise, and I suppose it is, but the movie plays more like a drama through most of its runtime, only erupting into outright horror for the show-stopping and iconic finale.

The movie also makes great use of De Palma’s beloved split-screen effects, particularly in the epic prom bloodbath that closes out the tale, and the dark humor in the film is really effective in accentuating the horror, rather than detracting from it. An absolute classic.

The Omen

This is another film that I must have seen at least a hundred times, and one that I never tire of, even though at this stage I have large chunks of it memorized. I remember seeing it multiple times as a kid and being traumatized anew every time I saw David Warner’s head get sliced off by that pane of glass; despite my dismay, however, I kept returning to the film again and again.

Directed by the great Richard Donner and boasting an impossibly classy cast that featured not only the aforementioned David Warner, but also Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, and Billie Whitelaw, The Omen took a quasi-Biblical story about the birth of the prophesied Antichrist and turned it into an absolutely cracking mystery thriller with some amazingly horrific deaths.

Again, The Omen is one of those movies that almost needs no introduction, and the character of Damien (played spookily by Harvey Spencer Stephens, who was only in two other films) has become a meme unto himself. But basically, there’s apparently a secretive bunch of seeming Catholics who conspire to place the newly-born Antichrist—father was Satan presumably, mother was a jackal—with the American diplomat to Rome, Robert Thorn, and his wife Kathy, whose real baby supposedly died of natural causes shortly after birth.

As the kid grows up, Kathy becomes more and more convinced that the kid isn’t hers, though no one really believes her, and meanwhile, all kinds of weird shit starts happening around the little tyke, including the bizarre suicide of the nanny at Damien’s fifth birthday party (one of the film’s best scenes, in my opinion) and the arrival of an intimidating black dog and another nanny named Mrs. Baylock, both of whom seem to be protecting the kid. At some point, as well, Damien seems to “accidentally” try to kill his mom by making her tumble off a high staircase railing.

A reporter named Keith Jennings (David Warner) thinks he knows what’s up, and he tries to convince Robert Thorn that his kid is the Antichrist and must be destroyed, showing him as evidence some pictures he took of people that have strange black smudges in them that seem to predict how they subsequently died. Thorn of course dismisses all of this happy horseshit, at least at first, but there comes a point where he can no longer deny what’s going on, and must come to terms with the fact that he’s going to have to kill his son in order to save the world.

Although the famous “prophecy” about the birth of the Antichrist that turns up in the film and all the rules about how he has to be destroyed isn’t really in the Bible, the seriousness of the film makes you totally buy into its premise, and you just go along for the ride as Thorn tries to get to the bottom of the enigma. The movie has so many excellent scenes: the aforementioned glass beheading and nanny hanging, the priest impaled by the falling pole, the discovery of the jackal and the murdered child in the creepy Italian graveyard; hell, even the bit where Robert Thorn finds the little 666 birthmark underneath his son’s hair, thus verifying all of the crazy shit he’d been hearing from Jennings, is wonderfully eerie. I think my favorite thing about the film, though, is that it takes an outlandish concept and plays it completely straight, with all the actors taking it utterly seriously, and it’s effective to such a degree that even my atheist ass got totally invested. I’ll mention as well that both sequels—Damien: Omen II and Omen III: The Final Conflict—are absolutely worth watching, although they’re not quite as good as the original.

The Tenant

I’ve talked about this movie several times before as well (such as here), but again, it’s such a favorite that I’d be an asshole not to include it. Directed by Roman Polanski, The Tenant is regarded as the third film of his unconnected “apartment trilogy,” the other two being Repulsion from 1965, and Rosemary’s Baby from 1968, all of which centered around apartment buildings and focused on paranoia and unraveling sanity.

Polanski himself stars in The Tenant, as a Polish man known only as Trelkovsky, who is living in Paris. He gets a good deal on a flat whose previous tenant—an Egyptologist by the name of Simone Choule­—leaped from the window in an apparent suicide attempt. She didn’t die, but is laid up in the hospital, covered with bandages from head to toe, and evidently won’t be needing her apartment anymore, or so reasons the landlord. All of her stuff is still there, though, which is a bit disquieting.

Trelkovsky feels sort of bad that he so benefited from someone else’s misfortune, so he decides to visit Simone in the hospital to alleviate some of his guilt. While there, he meets a beautiful friend of hers named Stella, played by Isabelle Adjani, and the two of them become entangled.

Back at the apartment, though, things are taking a turn for the nightmarish. The other tenants and the landlord are constantly looking at him with seeming hostility, and blaming him for making a bunch of noise, even when he isn’t. He also finds a tooth in a hole in the wall that looks like someone pulled it out of their own mouth (or had someone else pull it out). There’s also the strange matter of the person in the bathroom across the way, who always seems to be standing at the window staring at him, and sometimes appears to BE him. Creepier still, the walls of the bathroom are inexplicably covered with hieroglyphics.

After Trelkovsky finds out that Simone has died in the hospital, he apparently begins to become her, waking up to find himself wearing her clothes and makeup, and things of that nature. The whole film has the ominous vibe of a bad dream you can’t wake up from, and the outcome leaves the story ambiguous enough for multiple interpretations: was Trelkovsky driven mad by the sinister intentions of his conspiratorial neighbors, who engineered a campaign of terror against him because he was foreign? Or did he succumb to worsening delusions due to his drinking and his guilt over the way he obtained the apartment, and subsequently imagined the persecution directed against him? It’s a brilliant psychological mindfuck, with some of the most uncanny scenes and imagery in horror.

That’s another year wrapped up, so be sure to keep watching this space for the next installment. And until then, keep it creepy, my friends.

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