Often imitated, never equalled, John Carpenter’s low budget ($325,000) masterpiece took the suspense and knife-wielding killer of Psycho and repackaged them in colour with teenage protagonists. Although credited with spawning the slash and gore pics of the 1980s, Halloween contains relatively little blood. Instead it relies on the unrelenting build up of suspense and shock/startle mechanisms. As is usual in the slasher subgenre, the premise is simple: a teenage babysitter tries to escape the attentions of a rampaging serial killer. However, Carpenter’s deft use of shadows and an atmospheric score (he composed it himself) made it horrifying and fresh. Unfortunately, subsequent over-use of key elements have turned them into clichés.
Carpenter includes many nods to Hitchcock, not least casting Jamie Lee Curtis (Janet Leigh’s daughter in her screen debut) in the main role. This iconic casting, coupled with the Herrmannesque string notes signalling 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) mean Halloween’s debt to Psycho never quite fades from the screen.
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From the very first seconds of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which expose the audience 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.
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 horror 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”.
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Peter Benchley’s novel, Jaws is pure (but extremely readable) pulp: a zeitgeisty cautionary tale about commercial interests vs. safety, the paranoia about environmental threats spiced with middle-aged sex scenes. Spielberg took what could have been turgid B-movie fare and turned out a masterclass in suspense. It was a 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.
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Writer-director Larry Cohen began his career creating television shows before he moved into low-budget genre movies (horror and Blaxploitation, mainly). By 1974, he was known for campy humor, wry social commentaries, and well-rounded characters facing dilemmas audiences actually cared about. It’s Alive certainly helped define the ‘Keep It In The Family’ vibe of horror in the mid-1970s.
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aka Communion, aka Holy Terror
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. It was the director, Alfred Sole’s first non-pornographic feature and he indulged a tendency towards quite brutal onscreen violence like he knew this would be his last chance. While it’s often overlooked in lists of the best 1970s horror movies, Alice, Sweet Alice rewards deeper examination. It has a lot going for it apart from Brooke Shields: the production design captures the intimate, often shabby details of New Jersey Catholicism and Rosemary Ritvo’s screenplay embraces the sheer ugliness of dealing with a death within the family that isn’t really equalled until 2018’s Hereditary.
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Shivers (1976) and Rabid (1977) established Canadian director David Cronenberg at the forefront of psychosexual body horror and The Brood (1979) caps off his 1970s work with a flourish. Within Cronenberg’s unique vision, human flesh is itself monstrous, capable of mutating, detaching, slithering, and destroying its progenitor. His movies of this decade burrow deep inside the human reproductive system and the urges that drive it, emerging drenched in blood and quite, quite demented. They refract male envy of pregnancy and childbirth by presenting alternative, non-sexual methods of reproduction. These narratives straddle the border between science fiction and horror, often including a cool, dispassionate doctor who, when consulted, regards the abominations of nature on display with only mild curiosity, as if they are the predictable consequences of human evolution: This is who we really are, this is what has always bubbled beneath our skin. Step across the threshold and embrace it.
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