1979 was another hell of a year for amazing horror, giving us everything from what is easily one of the best sci-fi horror movies ever made to a bizarre and original new franchise starter; from a coldly grotesque body horror epic to a gut-munching gore masterpiece; from two stellar but very different adaptations of the same classic novel to an OG “based on a true story” haunted house tale.
Because I once again had trouble narrowing down my favorites to just five, my honorable mentions include John Badham’s elegantly gothic Dracula; Werner Herzog’s much creepier and disease-ridden take on the famous bloodsucker, Nosferatu the Vampyre; Abel Ferrara’s gritty and blackly comic psychological slasher The Driller Killer (which I discussed at length here); the underrated and supremely unsettling supernatural slasher Tourist Trap (which, yep, I also wrote a bunch about here); and the iconic psychological thriller/police procedural mashup based on an urban legend, When a Stranger Calls. All are very worthy entries, but now let’s get into my top five.
Not only one of the best horror movies ever made, but also one of the best movies ever made, period, Ridley Scott’s terrifying classic kicked off a franchise that has metastasized across all entertainment media and spawned one of the most recognizable monsters in popular culture, which of course was conceived and designed by artist H.R. Giger. The design of that alien, incidentally, was probably a big part of what made this movie have such a massive cultural impact; no one had seen anything that looked like that xenomorph before, and it featured the perfect balance of terrifying and realistic. In other words, it was clearly monstrous, but you could easily believe that this was an actual creature that had evolved to take advantage of its unique environment.
The characters in Alien are also one of my very favorite things about it: Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley is an utter badass and was hugely influential in regards to strong female protagonists going forward, but it was also great that she was compassionate enough to go back and save the ship’s cat, Jones, which is totally something I would have done too, alien or no.
But it wasn’t just Ripley; the whole ensemble here is fantastic. Everyone is so natural, and their interactions are so organic, lending credence to the idea that these are just a group of working stiffs shooting the shit on yet another routine mission that they think is going to be like all the others. The whole concept of working-class people in space, by the way, was also something of a new concept, and informed many subsequent science fiction films; prior to Alien, most sci-fi was…well, futuristic, with brave astronauts, cutting-edge technology, and sterile spaces comprised of slick, clean lines. Making a sci-fi film with the equivalent of a crew of long-haul truckers was really refreshing, and made the film much more relatable (and therefore scarier) to the average person.
And have I mentioned that Alien is also frightening as shit? Everything about it is perfectly realized: the creepy, darkened corridors of the Nostromo, the spooky contours of the alien world they land on, the way information is slowly doled out and never overexplained. Everything about Alien is a masterpiece, and while a completely legitimate argument could be made for saying that 1986’s Aliens is the better film, for my money, the OG Alien is the clear winner: an effective, haunted house style movie set in space with an absolutely horrifying and iconic monster.
The Amityville Horror
I think I first saw this movie—directed by Stuart Rosenberg of Cool Hand Luke fame—when I was eight or nine years old, and it scared the absolute bejesus out of me, especially the bits with Jody, the pig creature whose red eyes can occasionally be seen outside the window. That whole nightmare that Kathy Lutz has about her husband axing her to death always freaked me the fuck out too, and gave me weeks of nightmares after I first saw it. Though the movie doesn’t scare me anymore (I mean, it would be pretty weird if it did…), and some parts of it seem ever so slightly cheesy nowadays, I still adore this movie and never tire of rewatching it; it has a real eerie yet comforting feel to it that reminds me of curling up in my sleeping bag in the darkened living room as a kid and happily terrifying the piss out of myself.
Probably most people are aware of this, but the original Amityville Horror movie was allegedly based on a true story; or rather, the book it was based on, by Jay Anson, was supposedly based on a true story. Aspects of the case are of course unquestionably true: Ronald DeFeo, for example, absolutely did murder his entire family—mom, dad, two brothers, and two sisters—with a shotgun in November of 1974 at their house in Amityville, Long Island, New York. He absolutely did claim at his later trial that voices had told him to do it, though it isn’t clear if he just said this in order to bolster his insanity defense. Whatever the case, it didn’t work; DeFeo was convicted, and died in prison in 2021.
It’s also true that the Lutz family moved into the same house in December of 1975, and apparently fled from it after 28 days, later claiming that they had been plagued with violent paranormal activity almost from the moment they moved in.
Whether the Lutz’s account is accurate or not (and I’m inclined to think the whole thing was a cynical hoax to rake in some dough) is immaterial, though, because the movie is very effectively eerie in a way that only a late 1970s haunted house movie can be. Some of the performances are over the top (such as Rod Steiger as Father Delaney) and the whole affair does have something of a TV movie vibe to it, but for some reason, this only makes it more endearing to me, and I would argue that some of the sequences—the aforementioned Jody situation, the axe murder dream, the discovery of the “red room” behind the wall in the basement, the flashbacks to the DeFeo murders, George Lutz’s disturbing change of personality—are still pretty scary, and I think the movie works as well as it does to this day because it didn’t overly rely on special effects, but kept most of the paranormal manifestations fairly low key and simple.
The formula obviously worked, because The Amityville Horror has spawned an entire sprawling franchise, though very few of the subsequent films had much to do with the actual house or the DeFeo case (other than Amityville II: The Possession, which was a loose retelling of the DeFeo murders with names and details changed). Hell, I didn’t even mind the 2005 remake starring Ryan Reynolds. But to be honest, I don’t think anyone else could hold a candle to James Brolin and Margot Kidder as the Lutzes, and the whole 70s gestalt of the story makes it especially relevant to me, as I was around the same age as the kids in the movie when I first saw this thing, and could easily put myself in their shoes.
David Cronenberg has of course appeared in this series before, but I’m gonna say that in my opinion, 1979’s The Brood is the first really fully-realized Cronenberg film, and is still to this day one of my favorites.
Inspired by his then-recent and very acrimonious divorce, Cronenberg spins a painfully Cronenbergian and off-puttingly clinical tale about a shady mental health facility with the fabulous name of the Somafree Institute of Psychoplasmics, run by a psychotherapist named Hal Raglan (played by the always awesome Oliver Reed), whose methods are, shall we say, a tad unorthodox. The Institute’s mission statement involves purging people of their suppressed emotions by encouraging them to manifest said emotions physiologically, which is just as bizarre as it sounds; the whole concept seems a sly parody of the various wacky, sometimes questionable, and usually navel-gazing self-help theories littering the landscape during the so-called “Me Decade” of the 1970s.
At the heart of the story is a divorcing couple called Frank and Nola (played by Art Hindle and Samantha Eggar, respectively), who are going through a prolonged custody battle over their daughter Candice (who was in several other subsequent horror movies as a kid, including Deadline from 1980, and The Dead Zone from 1983, which was also directed by David Cronenberg and based on Stephen King’s novel).
After Nola’s mother Juliana and a couple other people are savagely murdered by a small child or a dwarf, it’s eventually revealed that while undergoing therapy sessions, Nola has channeled all of her trauma from her abusive childhood into birthing literal babies, otherwise known as “children of rage,” all of whom were borne parthenogenetically and basically go after and kill anyone who Nola is mad at, without Nola knowing much of anything about what they’re up to.
It’s such a weird premise (we are talking about David Cronenberg, after all), and the film is overall pretty grotesque and unpleasant, but it’s exceptionally well-made, absorbing, and has a streak of black humor that always made me chuckle; besides that, I’ve always been a bit of a sucker for killer-kid type movies. That iconic scene with Samantha Eggar licking the afterbirth off the squirming infants is the stuff of legend, and although the film was lambasted pretty soundly upon its release for being morally reprehensible and sickening (which…yeah), time has been very kind to it, and its underlying themes of repression, bogus mental health treatments, and the fear of parenthood are still as relevant as ever.
Another completely bizarro concept that somehow not only worked like gangbusters, but also (somewhat surprisingly) spawned a long-running (and almost uniformly excellent) franchise, Don Coscarelli’s ultra-indie Phantasm was the rare case of a new mythology springing fully-formed from the mind of its creator and almost immediately worming its way into the hearts of horror fans everywhere.
Costing only about three hundred grand and admittedly rough around the edges, Phantasm placed a handful of regular, very likeable characters into a surreal nightmare world of interdimensional beings that were all that much more terrifying for their inscrutability. The concept for the movie came about when Coscarelli was contemplating different cultures’ ways of dealing with death, particularly the practice of embalming; he was also influenced quite a bit by the dreamlike narrative of Dario Argento’s Suspiria, and also by the idea of a young boy being unable to convince adults that what he feared was real, as seen in the 1953 sci-fi flick Invaders From Mars, and the classic Ray Bradbury novel Something Wicked This Way Comes.
Phantasm follows the saga of a thirteen-year-old boy named Mike (A. Michael Baldwin), who starts to suspect that something mighty strange is going on at the local Morningside mortuary after the death of a friend of his older brother. The deceased, Tommy, was actually stabbed by a woman in the cemetery, but everyone believes he committed suicide.
As Mike continues his investigation, following his brother Jody around and seeing the same mysterious woman luring his brother to the cemetery as well, it’s revealed that the mortician, known only as the Tall Man (played by the incredible Angus Scrimm, who is pants-shittingly frightening and who absolutely killed this role), is actually some type of supernatural and perhaps extraterrestrial being who pilfers dead bodies, shrinks them down to dwarf size, then sends them to his home planet via a dimensional portal, where they’re put to work as slaves. It sounds dumb as hell if you haven’t seen the movie, but holy shit, is it REALLY not dumb or cheesy at all when you’re actually watching it; the dreamlike way it’s shot and the incongruity of the imagery just make the whole thing feel like a very, very unpleasant acid trip that you can never quite escape from.
From the sparse and unsettling interiors of the mortuary itself to all the other peculiarly freakish touches—the hooded dwarves, the bright yellow embalming fluid, those flying spheres with the spikes and drills inside—Phantasm really has to be experienced to be believed, and the creativity of it still takes my breath away, even all these years later.
I have to also give a shout-out to the incredible character work here; not only is Angus Scrimm an absolute legend, which goes without saying, but ass-kicking ice cream man and unrepentant chick magnet Reggie Bannister (playing a character named Reggie who is actually based almost entirely on the real guy playing him) is a delight, and it was absolutely the right call to have the rest of the films in the series (which number five in total as of this writing) revolve around him and his lovable, goofy awesomeness.
Sometimes you just want to sit down in front of a movie and watch people’s faces get munched off in the most disgusting, graphic way possible, and for those types of moods, Lucio Fulci is always going to have your back.
Technically titled Zombi 2 (and also going under numerous other names, like Zombie Flesh Eaters, Nightmare Island, and The Island of the Living Dead) and made as an unauthorized sequel to George Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead, Fulci’s gore masterpiece takes the zombie concept back to its voodoo roots somewhat. In the story, a woman named Anne Bowles (played by Mia’s sister Tisa Farrow) travels to a fictional Caribbean island called Matul to check on her father, who was doing some kind of research down there and has apparently fallen ill with an unknown malady.
Accompanied by a journalist named Peter (played by Ian McCulloch, and no, not the lead singer of Echo and the Bunnymen) and a couple of guides, Anne arrives on Matul, only to find that this illness everyone’s talking about is zombification; in other words, the dead are reanimating, baby.
From there, things go about as well as you’d expect…people get devoured by the zombies left and right, and at the end, it’s implied that the zombie outbreak is headed right for the heart of New York City via the boat the survivors used to escape.
While Zombie does have some slow parts, it is an absolute classic of the zombie subgenre, featuring some of the best undead makeup and gruesome kills of any zombie film you’re likely to see. The scene with Olga Karlatos getting her eyeball graphically gouged out with a splinter is notorious and deliciously icky, and how many movies can boast of having an epic underwater sequence where a zombie actually fights a shark? Only this one, kids. It’s probably fair to say that Zombie is basically just a few outstanding scenes linked together with sinews of less interesting filler, but that’s not even much of a criticism when the iconic scenes in question are this gooey, fucked up, and enjoyable.
Although I feel like Lucio Fulci, particularly in the US, is beloved for his gore films more than anything, and therefore generally perceived almost exclusively through that lens, I think people forget that he was actually a very accomplished director in many different genres, and his shot compositions are sometimes quite beautiful, amplifying the horror to a great degree and giving his films—even when they’re at their most grisly—a surprising amount of artistry. Definitely worth seeing if you’re a fan of zombie films, Italian horror, or just gory horror movies in general, really.
Well, the 1970s have come to an end, so we’ll be plunging into a new decade whenever I get around to doing the next post in the series. Hopefully you guys are enjoying these, and until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.
2 thoughts on “My Favorite Horror Movies from Every Year Since I Was Born: 1979”
I got to see Alien in the theatres when I was a kid (I think I was ten or eleven–hmm, if I do the math, I was…nine? Maybe?) I was hooked on horror from then on!
…and a Sigourney Weaver fan for sure!