Horror movies of the 1970s: The Exorcist, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Jaws, The Stepford Wives, Alice, Sweet Alice, The Omen, Carrie, Halloween
Nightmare Decade: In Front of the Children
Horror movies of the 1970s reflect the grim mood of the decade. After the optimism of the 1960s, with its sexual and cultural revolutions, and the moon landings, the seventies were something of a disappointment. By 1970, the party was over; the Beatles split, Janis and Jimi died, and in many senses it was downhill all the way from there: Nixon, Nam, oil strikes, glam rock, feather haircuts, medallions... However, when society goes bad, horror films get good, and the 1970s marked a return to the big budget, respectable horror film, dealing with contemporary societal issues, addressing genuine psychological fears.
One consistent fear apparent in the horror films of the 1970s is the fear of children, and the fear of the messy, painful and often fatal process of childbirth. David J Skal, in The Monster Show, identifies this fear as stemming from the introduction of the contraceptive pill, and from the birth defect horrors forced on the western world by thalidomide. Once sex and conception have been separated, and sexual activity becomes primarily a pleasure, the by-products (ie children) become monstrous aberrations. Huxley covers it well in Brave New World (1932) with the grotesque reappearance of Linda:
"But I'm Linda, I'm Linda."' The laughter drowned her voice. "You made me have a baby," she screamed above the uproar. There was a sudden and appalling hush; eyes floated uncomfortably, not knowing where to look. The Director went suddenly pale, stopped struggling and stood, his hands on her wrists, staring down at her, horrified. "Yes, a babyand I was its mother." She flung the obscenity like a challenge into the outraged silence; then, suddenly breaking away from him, ashamed, ashamed, covered her face with her hands, sobbing. "It wasn't my fault, Tomakin. Because I always did my drill, didn't I? Didn't I? Always ...I don't know how...If you knew how awful, Tomakin..."
(Chapter 10 - you can find the whole e-text here)
Children are the focus of horror in many key 1960s films. At the outset of the decade, Village of The Damned (1960) reinforces that kids can be spooky. And unwanted. And do bad things to their parents. This theme continued into the 1970s where it came to dominate. The crumbling family unit becomes the source of much fear and mistrust. This time around 'the enemy within' is not a shapeshifting alien from another planet altogether. This time the enemy is to be found in your own home.
It's your Mum (Shivers). Your Dad (The Shining). Your brother (Halloween). Your sister (Alice Sweet Alice). Your husband (The Stepford Wives). Your little boy (The Omen). Your daughter (The Exorcist). It's the people you see so often you don't really see them any more (Carrie). The seventies were about deep-seated paranoia, and the fear that the moral shift of the 1960s had created a culture of monsters - the archetypal successors of the shuffling zombies in Night of The Living Dead. There is little humour in 1970s horror films. Gone are the OTT antics of the Hammer/Corman crew, along with the shoestring budgets, as horror once again returns to the mainstream.
The apotheosis of all this is, of course, The Exorcist.
The Exorcist (1973)
William Peter Blatty
Max Von Sydow,
The Exorcist has been voted 'the scariest movie of all time' (Total Film magazine October 1999) and is hugely significant to any study of the genre. It brought intellectual respectability back to horror movies (and a lot of people back to the church!). The special effects (created mechanically, on set, rather than added in post production) seem dazzling even by today's standards, and they are combined with deft cinematography and exemplary use of sound (awarded an Oscar). The film is a chilling experience because it, unusually for horror films, takes itself and its subject seriously. There is very little humour here, apart from odd touches of irony. The Exorcist is very much a 'grown-up' horror movie, and marks the beginning of a new part of a cycle in the genre.
Although the film is now an undisputed classic, and is considered a landmark of the genre, it was banned from video release in the UK until 1999. It caused outrage at the time of its release, and was described by the Daily Mail (who else?) as "the most shocking, sick-making and soul destroying work ever to emerge from filmland." Despite this, and its X rating, it was nominated for 10 Oscars - Linda Blair as Best Supporting Actress, Ellen Burstyn as Best Actress, Jason Miller as Best Supporting Actor, Best Art Direction and Best Picture - and won two (Best Sound, Best Adapted Screenplay). With the full support of a major movie studio (Warners), an Oscar-winning director at the peak of his career, and a heavyweight marketing campaign, this is a film which took itself very seriously indeed and is about as far from the B-movies of the 1950s as it is possible to go. This film made the genre worthy of serious consideration once more, and helped pave the way for many subsequent big studio investment in horror during the 1970s.
Screenwriter William Peter Blatty was searching for a bestselling novel idea, and dredged up a story he remembered from his college days. He wanted to write something serious, something which reflected the anxieties of America as he saw them. He altered the details from the original 'possession' case, making the victim a girl rather than a boy, and transporting the action to uptown Washington. His purpose in writing the novel was to shock and provoke people into questioning their faith, or lack of it. Although, as major theologians have been saying for years, it is easier to make people believe in the Devil than believe in God.
- On William Peter Blatty, author & screenwriter
- On Robert Doe, the boy whose case provided the basis for the story
- Definitely readThe Exorcist by Mark Kermode (BFI Classics 1998)
- LURID: Bedeviled - The Exorcist And Other Stories of Demonic Possession
The Exorcist II (1977) isn't great, despite a starry cast and John Boorman as director. But The Exorcist III(1990), written & directed by Blatty, is an effective revisiting of the themes, and has the spookiest hospital sequence ever commited to film. Exorcist: The Beginning (2004) had a tortuous genesis, after the originally hired Paul Schrader's allegedly more subtle version was axed by the studio to make way for Renny Harlin's CGI-fest. Perhaps they just can't make good horror films any more?
The Stepford Wives (1975)
Ira Levin (novel)
William Goldman (screenplay)
The first movie adaptation of Ira Levin's 1972 novel (he also penned Rosemary's Baby) is a chilling affair. Best described as a satirical thriller, it channels both pro- and anti-feminist sensibilities of the time, as well as tapping into the humans-as-robots sci fi trope explored by Westworld. "Stepford Wife" has entered our language as a term to describe any woman who is spookily submissive, and "Stepford" is a derisory term for any suburb that is stultifyingly bland. The film has stood the test of time – worryingly so – and still has the power to chill the bones of any woman who has been told to "be nice", "behave" and "stay out of the men's way".
Joanna Eberhart (Katharine Ross) is living the dream in the dynamic heart of 1970s New York, with two lovely children, and a husband, Walter (Peter Masterson) who seems supportive of her fledgling career as a photographer. She's part of a generation of women who have expectations far beyond motherhood and wifedom, and she wants it all. However, when Walter announces that they must relocate to Stepford, Connecticut, Joanna has no choice but to follow — it's 1975.
Stepford is idyllic: large houses populate leafy lanes, occupied exclusively by the white, middle-class, cheerful and content. The women of Stepford possess bovine calm, are immaculately turned out, and dedicate themselves to the needs of their husbands and children. Joanna thinks she's going to be bored, until she starts hanging out with fellow new arrival Bobbie (Paula Prentiss), slurping down cocktails and giggling at the bedroom habits of their neighbours.
Meanwhile, Walter has joined the Men's Association. The local patriarchs meet in a sinister old house every evening to drink brandy, smoke cigars and compare notes on their pre-Stepford careers as engineers, sculptors and robot designers. Walter seems like a nice enough guy, but he shares his new friends' concerns about the disintegration of family life – thanks to those raucous feminists who think husbands should do more of the washing up – and he becomes a fully paid-up member of the club, although he sheds a few tears en route.
Joanna and Bobbie can't quite believe how brainless their new female friends are, especially as the most cursory amount of research (in those days, that involved looking in newspapers) reveals that they used to be career women and activists. When they try to organize a 'Consciousness Raising Session' the discussion gets bogged down in the merits of various cleaning products. Bobbie worries that there's something in the water, but her investigation with the EPA comes to an abrupt halt when she too becomes Stepfordized. In one seminal scene, Joanna goes looking for her kids at Bobbie's house, and has to confront the full horror of what's been done to her friend.
Joanna is left alone to deal with the truth about what's happening to women in the old house on the hill, and what her inevitable fate will be. The final irony is that her maternal concern for the safety of her children seals her doom: she has the chance to flee, but won't leave without them.
William Goldman's smart script is light on the sci-fi aspects of the original novel, heavy on the gender politics of the era, and captures the zeitgest perfectly. This is a true suburban horror story, shot through with a sly, cruel sense of humour. While the Men's Association mansion is wreathed in darkness and thunderstorms, as befits the nefarious activities that take place within its walls, some of the most horrific things happen in serene suburban sunlight (Carol Van Sant's car accident, Charmaine's submission, Joanna finding her children gone). The Men's Association might be crude caricatures of the male WASP establishment, but they're definitely the winners here — and they continue to win to this day. There's no last minute reprieve for Joanna, no final triumph of the underdog. She must submit to the hegemony, become the epitome of what the men on the hill think a woman should be.
There are three nondescript sequels that revisit the premise: Revenge of the Stepford Wives (1980), The Stepford Children (1987) and The Stepford Husbands (1996). Perhaps the most chilling aspect of the 2004 remake, starring Nicole Kidman, was that it was supposedly a comedy, with an evil Glenn Close masterminding the robot replacements. In a truly post feminist world, where equal pay and opportunities are a global matter of course, and childrearing and household care are a matter of choice, not gender, then yes, it could be funny. Not until then.
Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)
(aka Communion, Holy Terror)
Paula E. Sheppard
“Parents so often don't know their children as well as they presume”—Dr. Whitman (Louisa Horton)
Alice, Sweet Alice begins with a vicious case of sibling rivalry and explodes into a critique of all levels of family ties — drenched in Roman Catholic ideology, iconography and guilt. A tiny Brooke Shields plays Karen, the 'good sister', preparing for her First Communion under the jealous gaze of her older, stranger, sister Alice (Paula Sheppard). Alice, already earmarked as a "troubled" child by the Mother Superior at her Catholic school, lashes out spitefully at her younger sibling, stealing her favorite doll, tampering with her communion veil, and luring her into an abandoned building where (in a classic movie startle moment) she terrifies Karen and tells her that worse is to come if she ever tells.
Worse is indeed in store for poor Karen. While her mother (Linda Miller) and Aunt Annie (Jane Lowry) admire the line of white-veiled girls receiving the sacrament for the first time, she is rudely attacked by a masked, yellow-raincoated killer at the First Communion service, strangled, dumped inside a wooden box bench, and set on fire. Her smoldering corpse is discovered by a nun curious about the source of the smoke drifting through the church. Cue mass hysteria in the congregation, and Alice's presence at the altar, wearing Karen's veil (which she claims to have found on the floor) and demanding Communion out of turn, is a cause of concern for her mother and aunt.
A spate of vicious killings ensues, with Alice apparently at the epicenter — a masked, yellow-raincoated killer is seen committing every crime. Everyone, from psychiatrists to police to Aunt Annie seems to believe that this sullen little girl is capable of brutal murder. Only her mother, Catherine, speaks in her defence, despite her oft-expressed exasperation with her first-born.
Alice's sociopathic behavior is attributed to a range of causes, the usual suspects where teenage misdemeanors are concerned. Her parents are divorced, her father remarried, despite the family's entrenched Catholicism. Mom still feels guilty about sex before marriage (leading to her pregnancy with Alice), which may explain her conflicted attitude towards her oldest child. Mom's relationship with her own sister is volatile, especially when Annie starts hurling accusations about her being a shoddy Catholic (and, by implication, a bad mother). It's easy to see where Alice has learned her hostility.
Then, there's puberty, which seems to be hitting Alice early and hard. The man who administers a polygraph test to Alice comments to the detective "Did you see her tits?" We witness Alice wriggling free from the clutches of her creepy, obese, cat-hoarding neighbor, Mr. Alphonso (Alphonso DeNoble), but there's no telling how many times he's pawed her before. The examining psychiatrist, Dr. Whitman (Louisa Horton) discovers that Alice has begun menstruating but hasn't informed her mother of the fact. Alice may only be twelve years old, but other people are afraid of her, and the movie narrative exploits that fear. She's around the same age as Regan in The Exorcist, on the same proverbial 'cusp of womanhood' and with the same power to disturb her mother and the Catholic authorities, along with the audience. Alice could also be Carrie's little sister (see below) — Brian De Palma's movie was released the same year to much greater fanfare.
Ultimately, Alice, Sweet Alice steers clear of any supernatural shenanigans (other than those embodied in the Catholic rituals that form a backdrop to so many key scenes). Instead, it focuses on the disruptive powers of a barely-teenage girl, who manages to fracture seemingly inviolable institutions such as church and family with alarming ease. Alice is simply a sign of the times. Paula Sheppard (who was 19 at the time of filming) captures the nuances of the aggrieved and misunderstood Alice, maintaining her surly disposition —and, along with it, lingering doubts about what she might be capable of — until the final frame. The director, Alfred Sole, draws upon the vivid technicolor of gialli, in terms of both his visual palette and heightened emotional drama. Gialli is also an influence on the lurid psychological elements of the narrative. The identity of the killer is revealed before the end of Act Two, leaving the director to provide closure with the "why" rather than the "who" of the mystery.
Spookier and more sophisticated than the average slasher flick, this underrated movie deserves a second look. It failed to gain much traction on initial release (in 1976, as Communion) but gained a wider audience a couple of years later after Brooke Shields hit big with Pretty Baby in 1978. Alice, Sweet Alice fits into the 1970s zeitgeist and can be distilled down to the maxim "Lock up your daughter"— for your protection, rather than hers.
Carrie (1976) - Teen Romance turns to Terror
Brian De Palma
Stephen King (novel)
Lawrence D. Cohen (screenplay)
The casual viewer of the first hour or so of Brian De Palma's Carrie(1976) might be forgiven for thinking they are watching some variation of the 'teen makeover romance' subgenre, where the ugliest girl in the school only needs a new dress and a visit to the beauty salon to suddenly date the prom king and find out her high school isn't such a bad place after all ("She's All That" and "The Princess Diaries" being recent entries).
After a voyeuristic opening, where terminal misfit Carrie White find herself naked, in the shower, menstruating for the first time, being pelted with tampons by her classmates shouting "Plug it UP! Plug it UP!", the film takes us through the familiar territory of the headmaster's office, the ballpark, the classroom, the suburban living room and the all-important question of a teenage girl's career:"Who shall take me to the Prom?" Carrie's world isn't really so weird - her telekinetic powers mean she is able to knock an ashtray off a desk and an irritating brat off his bike. Big Deal - but really she just wants to be loved. Sure her Mom is an embarrassing nutcase who stalks the sidelines flashing fire and belching brimstone, but then whose Mom doesn't?
In the opinion of sickly-sweet Sue (Amy Irving), and good-hearted PE teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley), all Carrie needs is a decent haircut and the sanction of top jock Tommy. In the opinion of our binary opposite Chris (Nancy Allen) and her greasy sidekick, JD-wannabe Billy Nolan (John Travolta) what Carrie needs is public, gruesome and spectacular humiliation. Let the conflict begin. It seems like Sue & Miss Collins might triumph, as Carrie brushes up well and gets to go to the prom with angel-haired Tommy Ross. They even get elected prom king and queen. For one moment it looks as though Carrie might put her weird background behind her but just when it's all got too romantic and soppy for words, Chris and Billy disrupt the carefully laid genre paradigms of high school romance with a well placed (on Carrie's head) bucket of pig's blood.
The final third of the film is grotesque to the extreme - gallons of blood, fire, destruction of ALL characters (even the ones we thought were quite nice), chaos, flying knives and of course the oft-copied-never-equalled final shot. It's a film where you can't really hate the monster, where you want the underdog to come out on top, and where the cataclysmic closure provides little satisfaction for the viewer. It's a very brutal film, made to seem more so by De Palma's use of split screen to extend action sequences, tracking shots to create uneasiness and the VERY seventies red filters to symbolise blood. It owes a great debt to Psycho, and together with Hallowe'en marks the genesis of the teen slasher movie.
Carrie was a great success at the box office, tapping in to teenage fears about what happens when you don't fit in with the in crowd, and more adult preoccupations with What Regan Might Do at senior prom. Like The Exorcist before it, Carrie garnered Oscar nominations (for Spacek and Laurie) and Spacek won the Golden Globe for her iconoclastic portrayal of an unwilling and very female monster. Horror seemed to be back at the forefront of popular consciousness.
- Myth & Magic in DePalma's Carrie ***
- Slant Magazine
- Carrie - Ragtime: The Horror of Growing Up Female - Serafina Kent Bathrick in Jump Cut
There is a sequel, Carrie 2: The Rage (1999), directed by Katt Shea, and a remake, starring Chloe Moretz and directed by Kimberly Peirce headed for cinemas late 2013.
The Omen (1976)
The Omen is another glossy, big budget horror film which deals with a demonic child, this time a little boy who is able to use supernatural powers to subvert the power dynamic and render adults helpless to the point of death.
Following the success of The Exorcist, it was inevitable that the other movie studios would come up with their own variations on a theme. The Omen is often compared to The Exorcist, and usually comes off worse.
It is not a bad film in and of itself; well acted, directed, paced, with an unforgettable score and a chilling central depiction of evil. There are strong performances from Gregory Peck as the father who can no longer ignore the truth about his only child, and David Warner as the suspicious journalist who meets a grisly end. His final decapitation is one of the stunning special effects moments of the film. Other moments of shock are well-delivered (Damien's nanny crashing, rope around neck through a top floor window in the middle of a child's birthday party, the impalement of a priest by a lightning rod), providing the gory punchline to passages of suspense.
It is not as innovative nor as intelligent as The Exorcist, and because it follows more usual conventions, it has not aged well. However, the apocalyptic theme is chilling enough, and the pudgy, blank yet incredibly malicious face of young Damien as he watches those around him die will stay in the mind long after the strident musical chords have faded from the ear.
There are two sequels which chart Damien Thorn's progress through life, from teenage schoolboy (Damien: Omen II, 1978) to CEO of a huge multinational (The Final Conflict: Omen III, 1981), neither of which have the power or impact of the original. There is also a TVM (Omen IV: The Awakening) about a female antichrist made in 1991, which proves that that studio still felt there was power in the brand name. Needless to say, it's Not Very Good. The 2006 remake, starring Julia Stiles and Liev Schrieber capitalised on a 6/6/06 release date, and had high production values, but adds nothing to the original.
- RottenTomatoes - the usual roundup
The New Wave
Not all 1970s horror movies are about children and fractured family relationships. The 1970s is also the decade when the first so called movie brats (the first generation to grow up with television and the level of visual literacy that brings) leave film school and let loose on their own movies (Spielberg, Scorsese, Lucas, de Palma et al). Also, writer Stephen King hits the bestseller lists with his 1974 debut, Carrie. These are people who grew up (as King vividly recalls in his horrorography, Danse Macabre) watching the Universal horror classics and The Addams Family on TV and playing with their Aurora Monster kits. This new breed of creatives were well versed in the genre paradigms and steeped in genre history. They knew intimately how a horror film should look and how a monster should behave - and how a skilled director might start playing variations on the well worn themes.
In his first feature, the ABC movie-of-the-week Duel (1971) , Steven Spielberg proved he could effectively handle suspense and menace. Shot and edited in 23 days, this simple David and Goliath story concerns a truck tailgating a businessman on a two lane highway. That's pretty much it. Spielberg ratchets up the tension by never letting the audience see who is driving the truck. By the end of the movie, the threat posed by the driver has reached nightmare level — he keeps coming, he seems superhuman, and absolutely deadly. The TV movie caused quite a stir and is largely responsible for kickstarting the mogul's career. He returned to the idea of an unseen menace, combined it with the monster movies he had revelled in as a child, and produced the sublime Jaws (1975), proving his worth as a director even with a budget of $12M.
Jaws was based on the bestselling novel of the same name, written by Peter Benchley. Young director Steven Spielberg took what was classic B-movie fare (big shark chews up skinny-dipping teenagers who scream alot, the adults trying to solve the problem start having affairs with each other) and turned out a masterclass in suspense. It was a massive massive success - from a budget of $12M US its total gross was well over $400M - and began the era of the modern Hollywood blockbuster. It was the first film to exceed $100M in box office receipts. Jaws built on the mainstream appetite for horror created by films such as The Exorcist, but gave us a monster that was, uniquely, neither human nor supernatural nor the result of mutation. Sharks are real. They're out there, swimming around, snacking on swimmers, right now. The movie's success is rooted in this terrifying premise, as well as in the inspiration taken, in terms of marketing and distribution as well as content, from the big monster movies of the 1950s.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
From the very first seconds of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, where we are exposed to flashed images of decomposing flesh, to the subsequent news report detailing grave-robbing in rural Texas, followed by the oozing red sunspots of the title sequence, and the opening narrative shot of armadillo roadkill, the viewer is transported to a nightmare zone where usual moral parameters are null and void. That's just the first five minutes. The rest of the movie involves a slow, measured descent into the madness of the Sawyer family, and culminates in a final ten minutes of torture and terror, largely round the dinner table. Domestic violence gets extreme.
The premise is simple. A Scooby Doo-esque van of longhairs (Jerry, Kirk, wheelchair bound Franklin, his sister Sally and bare-backed, micro-shorted Pam) goes to investigate the aforementioned graverobbings to see if Grandfather has been affected. He hasn't. On the way home they start to ignore some dire warnings in the astrology magazines that Pam is set on believing. Franklin's horoscope predicts "a difficult and disturbing day" whilst Sally's reveals that "There are moments when we cannot believe what is happening is really true. Pinch yourself and you may find out that it is". Other warnings come from the more traditional horror genre source of a mad old drunk in the cemetery ("Things happen hereabout they'll tell about") and the gas station attendant ("You boys don't wanna go messing round no old house. Those things is dangerous, you're liable to get hurt.") but all are ignored. When the gas station is out of gas, the hapless hippies fill up on barbecue instead and decide to hang out at the old house until the fuel truck arrives to make a delivery. A fatal choice.
Jamie Lee Curtis,
Often imitated, never equalled, this low budget ($325,000) masterpiece took all the suspense of Psycho and repackaged it in colour with teenage protagonists - a knowing nod to the market. Although credited with spawning the slash and gore pics of the 1980s, it contains relatively little blood, instead relying on shock and the unrelenting build up of suspense. Once again, the premise is simple – teenage babysitter tries to escape the attentions of a rampaging serial killer – but Carpenter's deft use of shadows and score (he composed it himself) made it horrifying and fresh, although subsequent over-use of its elements have turned them into clichés. There are many nods to Hitchcock, not least the casting of Jamie Lee Curtis (Janet Leigh's daughter in her screen debut) in the main role, coupled with the Herrmannesque string notes which signal the fatal blows of the killer's hand, and the sonorous explanations of Dr Loomis (Donald Pleasance), who is named after Sam Loomis, Marion Crane's lover.
One of the great horror icons, Michael Myers is as primal and unreasoning a killer as Hitchcock's Birds, and just as deadly and inhuman. His white-masked face emerges from the shadows only slowly; he lurks (in the widescreen, DON'T watch the Pan & scan, he's missing half the time) on the edges, appearing as a shoulder, the back of a head, a half-glimpsed white flash until we have enough information about his past behaviour to be truly terrified for the characters onscreen. Those who are still left alive.
What is the best horror film of the 1970s?
- Seventies Horror Films - Great overview of the decade, with an invaluable A-Z listing of movies.
- Stained Lens: Style as Cultural Signifier in Seventies Horror Films - lengthy, well-written essay on Last House on the Left, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Hallowe'en
- Men, Women and Chainsaws - Carol J Clover (Princeton University Press, 1993)
- Critique of the above - Branislav L. Slantchev
- Women and Horror Movies - Donato Torato
- The Baying of Pigs: Reflections on the New American Horror Movie - Jack Sargeant in Senses of Cinema