I only turned five years old in September of 1977, so I wasn’t really aware until later of all of the horror awesomeness that was unleashed in that watershed year. It was the year of amazingly cheesy, nature-run-amok movies (Day of the Animals, Empire of the Ants, Kingdom of the Spiders, Orca: The Killer Whale, AND Tentacles all came out in 1977, which kinda blows my mind a little bit), and also the year of possessed vehicles (The Car), demonic high schoolers (Satan’s Cheerleaders), and voracious king-sizes (Death Bed: The Bed That Eats). None of those movies are going to be appearing in my top five (although I do have some measure of affection for all of them, other than Death Bed, which mostly wasted its utterly incredible premise by sadly being really boring), but just as in my last year’s wrap-up, there are a handful that only just missed the coveted top spots. I actually have five honorable mentions for 1977, which means that if I wanted to make even more work for myself, I could have made this a top ten list, but since I don’t, I’ll just give them each a brief shout-out: Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed; Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes; Michael Winner’s The Sentinel; Mario Bava’s Shock; and Gordon Hessler’s TV movie The Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver (which I actually talked about at length here). Now, on to the main event, in no particular order other than alphabetical.
I adore David Lynch’s work; as I mentioned in my previous discussion of the Winkie’s Diner scene, his films, at least to me, feel like the closest thing to experiencing a waking nightmare, and Eraserhead is probably the best example of that. Inspired by a couple of surrealist short stories—Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose”—Lynch places his passive, everyman protagonist Henry Spencer (played by Jack Nance) into a bleak industrial hellscape that hums with unsettling, groaning noise, highlighting the fact that he’s nothing more than a cog in a massive machine that’s completely out of his control. The sound design, in fact, is one of the things that makes Eraserhead so disquieting, and Lynch used similar soundscapes in subsequent films to cause unease in the viewer.
There isn’t exactly a coherent story as such, other than the high-haired Henry getting his girlfriend Mary X pregnant and then having to deal with the constantly squalling…thing…that she birthed, but that doesn’t mean the film is simply weird for weirdness’s sake. There’s a great deal to unpack here in terms of young men’s ambivalence and perhaps even abject fear towards fatherhood and settling into domestic life. Eraserhead frames what is seemingly a natural proclivity toward reproduction in terms of utter grotesquerie, making the familiar seem ghastly. Famously, Lynch kept the makeup and construction of the monstrous infant prop a secret, though many have speculated that it was fashioned out of a skinned rabbit or some other fetal animal. It’s freaky, for sure, no matter what it was made of.
Eraserhead is one of those movies that you have to see at least once in your life if you care anything about film as an art form. It’s also a movie that needs to be seen to be experienced; talking or writing about it doesn’t really do it justice.
Full Circle (aka The Haunting of Julia)
I talked about this film extensively here, and I realize that it might be an offbeat choice for a top five movie, but fuck it. I love this film, and I feel like it doesn’t get much love from the horror community. It’s restrained, for sure, and some might even call it sedate, but there’s something about its eerie, ghost story vibes and murder mystery backdrop that really speaks to me. It even features a séance, which is always a plus in my book.
Directed by Richard Loncraine (who also did Brimstone & Treacle, which I talked about here) and based on the 1975 novel Julia by Peter Straub, Full Circle stars Mia Farrow as a woman named Julia Lofting whose daughter Kate chokes to death at the beginning of the story, though it’s unclear whether Julia’s attempted kitchen-table tracheotomy was actually responsible for her death.
Following a stint in a sanitarium and a separation from her husband Magnus (played by Kier Dullea), Julia buys her own house, but soon starts to suspect that the spirit of her daughter Kate might be trying to communicate with her. It turns out, though, that this ghost might not be as harmless at Julia thinks.
I just really like the whole atmosphere of this film; the acting performances are great, the score is very somber and adds to the whole mood, and it’s got some subtly spooky moments that have really stuck with me over the years. It might be an unorthodox pick, but I’m sticking by it.
The Psychic (aka Sette Note in Nero)
This is another film that I’ve done a whole post about, so I’ll try not to repeat myself too much here. Although Lucio Fulci is best known in the English-speaking world for his gory zombie flicks, his giallo movies are pretty rad too, and in my opinion, this is his best one, and easily one of his most underrated.
It follows a woman named Virginia (played by Jennifer O’Neill), who has had psychic visions since childhood. She’s recently married a wealthy Italian man named Francesco (played by Gianni Garko), and decides to fix up an old palazzo he owns as a surprise. But on the way there, she has a disturbing vision, consisting of several seemingly random and unrelated images, that are nonetheless pretty chilling. Once she gets to the palazzo and sees that the furniture and layout of one of the rooms matches her vision, she begins an investigation into what she thinks is a past murder that occurred there. But as aspects of her vision start manifesting in real life, it becomes clear that the psychic revelation she received might be way more complicated than she realized.
Almost completely lacking the gnarly gore that Fulci is lauded for by horror fans, this one is still absolutely fantastic: I love the shot compositions, the acting is solid, and the script by Dardano Sacchetti is really suspenseful and masterfully constructed. If you’re into Fulci’s gore films and want to branch out and see what the Maestro could do in other genres, then I’d recommend this one wholeheartedly.
David Cronenberg is another one of my favorite directors, and while I feel like he didn’t hit his stride until 1979’s The Brood, Rabid is still a great flick, full of the auteur’s trademark freakish body horror and sly pokes at both the corporate world and the medical profession. Rabid was remade in 2019 by Jen and Sylvia Soska, but I admit I have yet to see that version.
In the original, Marilyn Chambers (a porn star best known for Behind the Green Door, who was here cast in her first “mainstream” film) plays a woman named Rose, who gets into a motorcycle accident with her boyfriend Hart. Hart isn’t injured all that badly, but Rose is pretty fucked up, comatose and badly burned. Luckily, there’s a medical facility nearby; unluckily, it’s an experimental plastic surgery joint run by a doctor with the dubious-sounding name of Dan Keloid.
Just for shits and giggles, the doc decides he’s going to try out a new skin-grafting procedure on Rose, but unsurprisingly, it goes oh so hideously wrong. Instead of the neutral skin grafts differentiating to repair the damaged skin and organs (kind of like stem cells, I guess), the technique somehow causes a sort of mouth/stinger situation to form in Rose’s armpit (man, I hate it when that happens). It also essentially turns her into a vampire, as she can now only subsist on human blood, which she obtains through her armpit mouth. Everyone she feeds on subsequently becomes infected, acting all zombie-like and spreading the contagion to others.
The movie ends up being basically an apocalypse story—with Rose as patient zero—as the infection spreads and martial law is declared in Montreal. It’s a weird, gross, grimy little film, but it’s a big step up from Cronenberg’s previous movie Shivers (which was also great, don’t get me wrong).
Yet another movie that I’ve talked about at length, I feel as though Dario Argento’s Suspiria is just one of those movies that’s completely embedded itself in my DNA. I decorated my old house based on its saturated color palette and art nouveau flourishes, and I even designed a board game partially inspired by it, called The Three Sorrows. While I actually really liked Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 reimagining of it, there’s no topping the 1977 classic, whose visuals alone would earn it a spot on the list, even if the story wasn’t any damn good. Thankfully, though, everything about Suspiria is incredible; it’s Dario Argento firing on all cylinders. It’s also the zenith of his collaboration with his then-girlfriend Daria Nicolodi, who co-wrote the screenplay.
Loosely based on Thomas De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis (Sighs from the Depths), and in particular on one essay therein entitled “Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow,” Suspiria centers on a young American ballet dancer named Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), who is selected to study at a prestigious dance academy in Freiburg, Germany. From the first moment she arrives, however, it’s evident that something is off about the place: she arrives in the middle of a howling storm, sees another woman apparently fleeing from the building in terror, and then is refused entry. Upon returning the next day, she’s allowed in with apologies, but the weird shit continues thick and fast, and Suzy soon begins to suspect that the school might be a front for a sinister coven of witches.
Everything about this movie rules, and it’s easily one of my favorite horror films of all time, not just of this particular year. It’s breathtakingly stunning to look at, the score is bombastic and exquisite, the murders are beautiful and disgusting and operatic. The set pieces don’t actually make much logical sense (one woman dies by falling into a room that’s inexplicably filled with razor wire, for example), but it matters not one whit, as this film is a sensory experience, akin to a nightmare or a fairy tale. A brilliant movie masterpiece that never gets old for me, Suspiria is definitely one for the ages.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.