The 1970s was an era that gave us a vast scope of horror films. The “slasher” subgenre had its birth, with films like Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and their progeny barraging the audience with a torrent of violence by seemingly indestructible brutes (a storm that would eventually, and unfortunately, take over the genre for much of the ’80s and ’90s). The 1970s featured other trajectories of the horror genre, however, including a surprisingly direct approach to spiritual warfare shown in now legendary pictures like The Exorcist, The Omen, and The Amityville Horror.
An unsettling mystery on a remote British island where the old Pagan religion is still practiced turns toward a terrifying conclusion. This is a very different kind of film, one that does not, early on, seem to be a horror film at all. Edward Woodward stars as Sergeant Howie, a detective sent to investigate a disappearance on a remote island off the coast of Scotland, Summerisle. A virgin and devout Christian, the detective is instantly put off by the peculiarly uncooperative residents of the village, particularly the fact that they are bluntly open about their sexuality and, as he later learns, have replaced Christianity with the “old religion,” or Paganism, led by their master, Lord Summerisle (the always powerful Christopher Lee). The film boasts a setting in a pleasant Scottish village filled with bright colors and pastels, accompanied by a soundtrack of celtic fold tunes, drastically different than most films of the genre. This makes the sharply contrasted sacrifice rituals of the people even the more disturbing. Culminating in a chillingly brilliant and savage twist, the film is an indispensable entry in the cannon of most important horror films.
There are two versions of this film in existence, the theatrical release and the harder-to-find, 11 minute-longer director’s cut featuring footage preserved on tape, of lower quality but adding to the overall plot. Either is worth watching, but seek out the director’s cut for a slightly more developed storyline, including more background on Sergeant Howie.
Many have hailed this the scariest film of all time. While that is a hard title to pin on one film, The Exorcist stands in the chronology of film history as the moment demon possession entered the language of the art and, with it, the enactment of explicit spiritual warfare on film. Loosely inspired by an actual exorcism of a young boy, this is the tale of a girl, Regan (Linda Blair), who become possessed after she plays with a Ouija board. The spiritual warfare does not, however, wholly settle on Regan. While her story is at the forefront, all the while exists the struggle of Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a Jesuit priest and psychologist who is struggling to hold onto his faith, particularly after the death of his mother. The posession scenes may seem overplayed now because they use all the familiar elements now associated with such, however one must only think to realize that this film created those now familiar elements to appreciate the impact this film had on the genre. Filled with chilling imagery, compelling performances, and brilliantly potent dialog, The Exorcist stands as not only one of the most important horror films, but one of the most important films in cinema history.
If Rosemary’s Baby didn’t give Satan enough children, he bears an heir in The Omen. Adopted by American diplomat Robert Thorn and his wife Katherine, the young Damien raises eyebrows early on. Animals, with the exception of large dogs, are terrified of the child. The child’s nanny publicly hangs herself at his birthday party. As bizarre, tragic events begin to occur, a plot is revealed that a satanist cult plans to raise the boy as the legitimate Antichrist. Featuring exceptional performances by Gregory Peck (always the consummate actor) as Robert Thorn and David Warner as investigative photographer Keith Jennings, amongst others, this film is yet another chapter in the 1970s’ seeming film obsession with the devil.
One name may rise above the rest when it comes to horror in the 20th Century: Stephen King; Carrie is the story that made King a household name. Highlighted by Sissy Spacek’s performance as Carrie and Piper Laurie as her overbearing, fundamentalist mother, this story of teenage angst manifest in telekinetic abilities is an exercise in memorable imagery, a trademark of De Palma. The climactic sequence at the school prom, where pig’s blood is dumped on top of Carrie, followed by her wrath. Critically acclaimed even at the time, the film still holds up as a unique landmark in horror history.
Based on an allegedly true story (of which there has been much debate over the decades since), The Amityville Horror was incredibly successful upon its release. While not the remarkable work of art that the above-mentioned pictures could claim to be, The Amityville Horror boasts a particularly good performance by Margot Kidder, who was starring most notably in the Superman franchise at the time, and the score by Lalo Schifrin is incredibly chilling and memorable. As the real start of the “based on a true story” brand of horror films, this picture set off a chain of events that, ultimately, could be seen as leading to the popularity of the ghost hunting craze (and the dozens of TV series and specials dedicated to the topic). In this sense, the film may be more culturally impactful than all the above, save perhaps The Exorcist.
This film will make you hate flies even more than you already do.
(Cover image: a still from The Exorcist)