The 1970s saw a huge spike in horror and the supernatural–books, games, movies–but especially TV shows and made-for-TV movies.
When I set out to make this list, I thought about the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia. Do these movies really stand up after all these years? Would they still scare, or if not scare, at least give the same freaky vibe they had 3o-some-odd years ago?
So I watched them again, in my own 31 Days of Halloween–you know, since AMC’s “Fear Fest” is basically a bucket of chocolate ass-nuggets nowadays. (Seriously, do we need to see Halloween: H2O or Friday the 13th LXII: Jason Goes to Pluto, Only to Discover It’s Not Really a Planet Anymore?)
In the end, I think they do hold up, particularly certain moments within them, if not the entire movie. That’s the problem with horror movies you saw when you were a kid–you mostly remember the scariest bits. But that’s usually enough to guarantee serious mental instability as an adult or a career as a horror writer–both of which amount to about the same thing.
There are many, MANY others, but these are the five I remember as being scariest.
5.) DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK (1973)
This puppy was frightening for one reason–the little men whispering in the walls of the house.
LITTLE. MEN. IN. THE. WALLS.
You barely saw them, but when you did, they were malformed and indistinct. You never got an explanation as to what they were, where they came from, why they were IN. THE. WALLS. They just wanted to grab the protagonist and drag her down INTO. THE. WALLS. and make her like them. That premise alone gives me the runny poops.
And not-seeing/not-knowing the Full Monty is a good thing, storywise. As H.P. Lovecraft once wrote: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
See? Even 80 years ago, dude knew what was what about horror storytelling: sometimes (I would argue most times) what you don’t see is scarier. If you can’t put a face on the terror, you can’t get handle on it enough to rationalize or deal with it. That was the problem with Insidious–the movie was great until Darth Maul showed up. Then all that soul-sucking tension, that marrow-freezing faceless terror, fart-noised right out of the film like a punctured whoopee cushion.
Did I mention how terrified I am of little men in the walls? ‘Cause, damn.
4.) COUNT DRACULA (1977)
- To date, the best filmed version of Stoker’s novel. Period.
The script hewed closely to the mark, though mixing a few elements and characters and combining one or two events. All in all, it no one has been able to touch this adaptation for accuracy and sheer scariness since it aired on the BBC, then on PBS in America. I remember seeing this in high school a year or so after I’d read the novel the first time and thinking, Yeah–that’s the way an adaptation should be done–even though I was a teenager and had no idea about how a checkbook should be done, much less a screen adaptation. Louis Jordan as the Count was pretty creepy, and the scene where Harker sees him climbing the walls of the castle like a big black spider still creeps me out.
Snagged this gem as soon as it released on DVD a few years ago. Do the same. Now.
It’s not an exact replica of the book, but it’s super-close in terms of mood and story. And it’s better than turning the great material of the book into a giant, lost-love douche-fest.
Francis Ford Coppola, I’m looking in your direction…
3.) GARGOYLES (1972)
One of the scariest themes is the “accidental discovery of something we shouldn’t have accidentally discovered.”
Starring Cornel Wilde and a young Scott Glenn, an archaeologist finds a colony of living, breathing gargoyles in Nevada. They’re nearing the next 600-year cycle of hatching their young, and whenever this happens, they usually end up in another battle in the war with humankind. The gargoyles just want to be “left alone,” dammit. Why can’t modern science get this through its thick, knobbily-horned cranium?
Also, this little goodie was SFX and Makeup diva Stan Winston’s first job, for which he scored an Emmy. Soon after, he would give Styx–and the world– the Mr. Roboto mask. Domo arigato, indeed.
(Wait–did I just call Stan Winston a diva?)
2.) SALEM’S LOT (1979)
I know I’m not alone when I say this mini-series gave me nightmares for a month. I mean that literally–I had recurring nightmares about vampires in my own small town that looked just like the ones in Tobe Hooper’s classic scare-fest. I remember that they slept under mobile homes and in chimneys and even in the attic of our 100+ year-old farmhouse.
James Mason does a terrifically creepy turn as Richard Straker (“Your faith against the Master’s!”), one half of Straker and Barlow Antiques, and the ghoul to Barlow’s Nosferatu-inspired vampire lord, who is always on a “buying trip.”
The insidious notion of a small town being replaced one at a time by vampires, combined with a Peyton Place drama full of secrets, is a volatile mixture that doesn’t explode, but does a slow burn, keeping you on the edge of your seat until the bitter end.
‘Salem’s Lot is the first Stephen King book I ever read, and it was one of his best. I read it in high school, and even after all those years, I couldn’t see anything but the mini-series–effects, actors, and all–and it wasn’t a bad thing. Normally, I’d say book-before-movie, but not in this case. In many ways, it’s better.
The tiny pinpricks of light in the vampires’ eyes; the silent, lingering shots, ratcheting up the tension on your scrotum to that of a snare drum; the awesome use of the Nosferatu-type vampire for Barlow instead of the Euro-trash douchebags we’re used to. (John Steakley’s excellent Vampire$ uses the similar idea of vampires as bestial vermin, as does the filmed adaptation by John Carpenter.) Ralphie Glick hanging like an unholy Christmas ornament outside of Mark’s window, scratching at the glass, will live in my subconscious forever, causing me to download into my mental drawers every time I see a fog bank.
My parents let me watch this. I repeat: MY PARENTS LET ME WATCH THIS. Horrible, awful people…
(Thanks, Mom and Dad.)
1.) DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW (1981)
I defy you to find a better made-for-TV horror film. There just isn’t one. After 30 years, this thing holds up like a Dolly Parton sports-bra.
Ask anyone who grew up in the 70s and 80s and you’ll hear the same thing. Anyone who’s seen the film never forgets it.
Bubba Ritter (played by the insanely believable Larry Drake) is a mentally-handicapped man in his thirties; Charles Durning is Otis Hazelrigg, local postman and all-around mean bastard. (I smell a SIT-com!) Hazelrigg has always hated Bubba, especially when he’s playing with Marylee Williams, a local child. When Marylee is attacked and almost killed (by a neighbor’s vicious dog, unbeknownst to them), Hazelrigg rousts some buddies who hate Bubba, too.
Angry mob+rough justice+scarecrow hiding place=BEST FREAKING MADE FOR TV MOVIE EVER.
I will not pretend to be able to describe this movie adequately. Just SEE it.
Dark Night of the Scarecrow was just released in a sweet 30th Anniversary Edition Blu-Ray, with TONS of extras.
Damn, oh, damn was this good.