Horror films in 1975 brought us the directorial debut of David Cronenberg, hot female androids, and one of the most iconic horror musicals ever. 1976 brings us endless murderous children, the son of Satan, and the worst prom night in the history of cinema.
As we truck along with our year-by-year breakdown, we present to you the 15 Best Horror Films Of 1976.
15. Massacre At Central High
Director: Rene Daalder
Stars: Derrel Maury, Andrew Stevens, Robert Carradine, Kimberly Beck
David moves to Central High and finds that his only friend Mark is running with a crowd of bullies that run the school. When David fights back against the bullies, an accident at their hands cripples him. Now David is out for revenge and killing those responsible. The problem is once the killings start, new bullies arise. Now the victims are the bullies and Central High might need to be purged of all the students… and only David can do that.
Few teen revenge horrors combine so well the stark power and earnest sincerity of Massacre At Central High. A bloody but bittersweet tear of the soul, this adept angst terror is buoyed throughout by that rarest of horror genre apparitions: realistic characters thoughtfully drawn. A prototype for all “displaced adolescents” efforts that have come since, Massacre continues to remain near the top. Just looking at one point of reference, the movie highly influenced the big-haired ’80s classic Heathers. Virtually having the same plot, Heathers also involves a crazy student offing the popular kids, but more evil kids take their place. SPOILER ALERT: The ending of Heathers and the ending of Massacre At Central High are pretty much identical.
14. Barbed Wire Dolls
Director: Jesús Franco
Stars: Lina Romay, Paul Muller, Monica Swinn, Roger Darton
The premise of Barbed Wire Dolls is a simple one. A group of nubile women are imprisoned in an island fortress, run by a sadomasochistic female warden who wears a monocle and walks around in see-through dresses. When not torturing and starving the prisoners as part of her job, she uses them for personal gratification in her private quarters and, in her spare time, lounges around in a black negligee while reading the autobiography of Albert Speer. The prisoners are sexually abused much of the time, for reasons that are mostly unclear, and when they are not being abused, they pass the time by pleasuring themselves in their cells — and we get many gratuitous close-ups of this.
In short, Barbed Wire Dolls is a women in prison film that has no real plot – which may sound like a bad thing to most people, but the film is very much honest to itself. It exists only to be sleazy, and this is what prolific exploitation auteur Jess Franco excels at. Barbed Wire Dolls doesn’t try to be anything it’s not. It’s ’70s venality that walks the fine line of eroticism and depravity quite well.
13. The Witch Who Came From The Sea
Director: Matt Cimber
Stars: Millie Perkins, Lonny Chapman, Vanessa Brown, Peggy Feury
Poor Molly suffered severe sexual abuse as a child at the hands of her alcoholic father. She is now, quite understandably, disturbed and dysfunctional. Molly teeters on the verge of outright insanity. She takes out all of her angst on men and relives her childhood through painful flashbacks. We see her downfall through alcohol and murder but things are always kept quite blurred between fantasy and reality until the final denouement.
In its time, The Witch Who Came From The Sea was included with the 72 movies collectively known as Video Nasties, the blanket term given to movies the British government declared – after much persuasion from powerful Christian watchdog groups – were not suitable to be sold or rented in video stores. However, while most of the films on that list were designed to shock, repulse and titillate, this little gem is a great example of how babies get thrown out with the bathwater as soon as governmental bodies start trying to determine what’s art, and what’s obscenity. Molly is a complex flesh-and-blood character whose derangement is presented with immense sensitivity and sympathy – and her descent into madness is figured less as visceral slice-and-dice than as heightened domestic tragedy. This is grindhouse poetry.
Director: William Girdler
Stars: Christopher George, Andrew Prine, Richard Jaeckel, Joan McCall
Campers are being found mutilated in a national park. Suspicions fall upon the bear population. Forest ranger Michael Kelly, along with the help of pilot Don Stober and naturalist Dr. Arthur Scott, sets out to stop the carnivorous carnage. However, the perpetrator turns out to be much bigger, and deadlier, than expected…
Following the massive success of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws it was open season for movies with creatures killing (and eating) humans. One of the first films to hop on the bandwagon was Grizzly, which was cleverly billed as “18 feet of gut-crunching, man-eating terror!”. Was that enough to get people to theaters to see it? Yes! Grizzly became one of the highest-grossing independent films of the year. To this day, Grizzly still has a rather loyal following. And as a drive-in-level guilty pleasure of the most obvious and brainless variety, it is quite a bit of good, campy fun.
11. Bloodsucking Freaks
Director: Joel M. Reed
Stars: Seamus O’Brien, Viju Krem, Niles McMaster, Dan Fauci
A mysterious stage performer, known only as Sardu, brings female “actors” to the stage and performs acts of vile mutilation and dismemberment before a somewhat disbelieving, horrified crowd. One member of the audience is a critic, and makes his disgust with what Sardu is doing well known to the showman. Soon, the critic is kidnapped and discovers the secret to Sardu’s stage show: Everything is real and the actors are murdered and tortured live on stage each night. He also finds out that Sardu and his deranged dwarf assistant Ralphus keep a number of brainwashed slave women captive underneath the theater. Soon, a man’s ballerina girlfriend is kidnapped by Ralphus for use in Sardu’s show. Will she fall under Sardu’s spell? Will her boyfriend and the detective he has at his side be able to stop Sardu and end his reign of gore once and for all?
A horror movie that is named on just as many “all-time worst” lists as Citizen Kane is on “all-time best” lists is either A) Doing something right seriously wrong, or B) Doing something wrong seriously right. The latter seems more appropriate. This film aims to disgust, revolt, and offend… and it probably does so better than just about any other movie you’re likely to see.
10. Island Of Death
Director: Nico Mastorakis
Stars: Robert Behling, Jane Lyle, Jessica Dublin, Gerard Gonalons
A brother and sister – Christopher and Celia – indulge in an incestuous relationship as they arrive on the island of Mykonos, posing as normal newlyweds. It soon becomes apparent that their goal is a nefarious one – to punish those they see as impure and perverted, from the promiscuous to the homosexual.
Island Of Death is certainly not a film that is concerned with making friends. There is sex with a goat, a man killed by enforced paint drinking, a woman getting her head chopped off by a bulldozer, golden showers, a lesbian heroin addict being killed by an aerosol blowtorch and a British policeman getting hung from a plane. A twist is gleefully blurted out in the final moments, paired with a terrifically sadistic demise, and that’s it, the film ends. Though, it should be made clear, for all the violence, sex, and cruelty on display, this is one funny ass movie. In a blackly comic, far from subtle mix of the intentional, unintentional, and ridiculous…
9. Jack The Ripper
Director: Jesús Franco
Stars: Klaus Kinski, Josephine Chaplin, Andreas Mannkopff, Lina Romay
Many attempts have been made to dramatize the tale of Jack the Ripper, but Jess Franco’s 1976 effort into the subject proves to be one of the best. Our killer is given a sense of duality and warped motivations that surpass those provided to him in other treatments and some of the camera work and direction is impressively well planned and executed.
The film mainly concerns one Dr. Orloff – a trusted member of society and respected physician – who finds himself driven by his own lust and psychosis to brutally murder local prostitutes under the cover of night. As Orloff’s bloody rampage continues (and word of his proclivities begins to spread in the papers and on the streets), the police realize they have a serial murderer on their hands but seem virtually powerless to stop him. In spite of the efforts of Scotland Yard’s best men, the only lead they have is a blind “witness” who is openly superstitious and often references the supernatural. In a desperate effort to bait and capture our killer, the lead detective’s girlfriend, Cynthia, volunteers to pose as one of the street-walkers and gets in way over her head…
8. God Told Me To
Director: Larry Cohen
Stars: Tony Lo Bianco, Deborah Raffin, Sandy Dennis, Sylvia Sidney
NYPD Det. Lt. Peter Nicholas investigates a series of murders committed by random New Yorkers who claim that “God told them to.”
God Told Me To defies conventions with an amorphous script whose hooks are constantly being pierced into viewers; the opening scene is the first of many baits that are dangled in front of both Nicholas and the audience. A fascinating story eventually emerges out of this police procedural, which eventually has the detective chasing down an enigmatic, androgynous messiah figure. We’re privy to insidious meetings with this self-proclaimed savior’s insidious cabal and the fallout of his “hits,” which include a chilling, presaged St. Patrick’s Day parade massacre that Nicholas is powerless to prevent. Despite the obviously preternatural angle, the film feels like a rather grounded and unnerving look at religious fanaticism. The vacancy the followers embody is nearly pod-like, as if they’d been possessed – but by what? In many ways, the first half of God Told Me To feels like a stripped-down apocalypse story. Yes, the narrative starts to get progressively nuttier (virgin births! alien vaginas!), but there’s a things-fall-apart vibe in the film’s scenes of random violence that’s genuinely unsettling – a fear of being snuffed out simply because.
7. The House Of The Laughing Windows
Director: Pupi Avati
Stars: Lino Capolicchio, Francesca Marciano, Gianni Cavina, Giulio Pizzirani
Stefano, a painter, arrives in a rural Italian village to begin work on the restoration of a fresco in the local church. The unfinished work, which depicts the murder of Saint Sebastian, is by local artist Legnani – a “dark soul” known to the local townsfolk as a “painter of agony” – who disappeared years ago. Almost immediately after his arrival, strange things begin to happen to Stefano. He receives a phone call at his hotel with a spooky voice telling him “don’t touch the painting”. And when his friend Antonio tells him the work has “a horrible story” behind it and falls to his death from a rooftop building, Stefano attempts to uncover the truth behind the painter’s obsession with death, and the mystery of the curious house with the “windows that laugh.”
Championed as one of the great giallo films by horror luminary Eli Roth, Pupi Avati’s The House With Laughing Windows doesn’t offer much in the way of traditional giallo iconography. What it lacks in readily identifiable motifs, however, it makes up for in a near suffocating overabundance of atmosphere. And, what’s more, while the film is certainly a gripping murder mystery, it is also an intelligent allegory (set, pointedly, in the early ’50s) of post-war Italy’s struggles to emerge from the fascist outrages of its recent past. After all, great art has always had the power to reveal uncomfortable truths.
6. Burnt Offerings
Director: Dan Curtis
Stars: Karen Black, Oliver Reed, Burgess Meredith, Eileen Heckart
The Rolf family (which includes Marian, Ben, their son David, and Ben’s aunt Elizabeth) rent a lovely Victorian house for their summer vacation from the quirky Allardyce siblings. The house soon begins to change the members of the family, especially Marian, who becomes increasingly obsessed with the house and with caring for the elderly Mrs. Allardyce whom no one but Marian has ever seen.
Given the relative subtlety of its storytelling Burnt Offerings won’t be to every horror fan’s taste, but rest assured there are some genuinely spine-tingling bits here, including the shock conclusion and several instances in which Ben is haunted by the sight of a ghostly hearse from his past, driven by perhaps the most terrifying chauffer in movie history. The sight of his grinning face will make the blood of even the most hardened horror buff run ice cold.
5. The Town That Dreaded Sundown
Director: Charles B. Pierce
Stars: Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine, Dawn Wells, Jimmy Clem
Set in the small town of Texarkana on the Texas/Arkansas border in the 1940s, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is something of an oddity. In addition to being presented in a pseudo documentary format, interspersed with a newsreel style narration from Vern Stierman, the film also sets itself apart from other slasher movies of the period with some ill-judged attempts at humor – the comic relief presented here only dissipates any tension built up in previous scenes.
The film’s good points, though, far outweigh its flaws and the best thing about it is the actual man who made the town dread sundown, a silent psycho who specializes in attacking young couples late at night, his face always covered in a burlap sack, with holes crudely cut so only fleeting glimpses of his eyes are ever visible. Birthed at the beginning of a genre boom known for churning out derivative masked killer movies, it’s moderately remarkable that The Town That Dreaded Sundown is as unique as it is. It’s a chaotic blend of slapstick, slaughter, police procedural, and true-crime melodrama. Sundown certainly isn’t a landmark achievement, but it also isn’t a forgettable footnote in the annals of horror history, or even a “so bad, it’s good” romp. Rather, its midnight movie cult status is well-earned simply for being so difficult to quantify under any universal standard of film criticism. There really isn’t another film quite like Sundown. And that’s saying something in this genre.
4. Who Can Kill A Child?
Director: Narciso Ibáñez Serrador
Stars: Lewis Fiander, Prunella Ransome, Antonio Iranzo, Miguel Narros
An Englishman and his pregnant wife decide to go holiday before their baby is born, so they head to an exotic Spanish island that they soon find is fairly deserted. In fact, the only inhabitants they do come across are kids, no older than their early teens. The kids do fun, cute little things such as beating old men to death, using corpses as pinatas, and molesting dead bodies. Luckily for the couple, they don’t catch on to this stuff too early in their trip, so they get a chance to walk around and see the sights. The perfect vacation doesn’t come along every day, you know?
It should be said that this movie works very well at making these seemingly innocent youngsters incredibly menacing and to a degree genuinely frightening. The cinematography in the film is near-perfect, using the secluded and deserted nature of the surroundings to engulf the characters and the far-away shots of the children amassing in the village streets to create dread. The filmmakers picked children who are at once cute and terrifying as we know what lurks behind their smiling faces. Having the protagonists be parents themselves was also a genius move as the horror that adorns their faces goes much deeper than simply fearing for their lives. We see how physically ill it makes them to have to think of children behaving this way, but in order to get back to their own children, they may have to drop all illusions that these kids are in any way innocent. This right here is chillingly creepy and unflinchingly confrontational stuff.
3. Alice Sweet Alice
Director: Alfred Sole
Stars: Linda Miller, Mildred Clinton, Paula E. Sheppard, Brooke Shields
It’s generally a bit of a taboo in film to combine children with murder. Usually that means filmmakers are wary of killing a kid in a movie – that’s crossing the line – but it also works the other way too. Alice Sweet Alice isn’t scared of such taboos: not only does it include a child being killed mere minutes into its runtime, its entire plot also revolves around the notion that another child may be the one doing the killing.
The child in question is the titular Alice, a badly-behaved 12-year-old girl who constantly bullies her younger sister Karen. With her parents divorced and her dad out of town, it’s perhaps understandable that Alice isn’t getting along with her sister or her mother. It’s not long, however, before things go seriously out of control… and the fun begins.
2. The Omen
Director: Richard Donner
Stars: Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, Harvey Stephens, David Warner
Robert and Katherine Thorn seem to have it all. They are happily married and he is the US Ambassador to Great Britain, but they want more than to have children. When Katharine has a stillborn child, Robert is approached by a priest at the hospital who suggests that they take a healthy newborn whose mother has just died in childbirth. Without telling his wife he agrees. After relocating to London, strange events – and the ominous warnings of a priest – lead him to believe that the child he took from that Italian hospital is evil incarnate.
Everything in The Omen falls into place with ease. The cold setting and sense of gloom almost oozes out of your television screen. Richard Donner filmed the movie utilizing the creepiest possible angles and techniques – at no time is there a visually lacking frame in this movie. Throw in big scares like the unforgettable nanny that hangs herself at Damien’s birthday party, and we have one for the ages. Worst birthday party ever. Then there’s the tricycle scene that will literally make you cringe as it unfolds. It’s entertaining and yes, still ominous after all these years. A landmark of satanic cinema.
Director: Brian De Palma
Stars: Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, Amy Irving, William Katt, John Travolta
Brian De Palma’s film adaptation of Stephen King’s gothic melodrama Carrie — which concerns a downtrodden girl’s telekinetic revenge on her high school classmates after a few of them viciously have her elected prom queen so they can crown her with pig blood in front of everybody — is so entertainingly perverse, such a triumphant mixture of style and sleaze, comedy and terror, it’s become one of the great American horror classics pretty much behind the back of established critical reception.
Over the years, it seems Carrie’s official reputation has crumbled away to that of a cheap, exploitative, derivative teen-shlocker. Which is sad, and not deserved. This is a movie that rewards careful viewing. By paying close attention to performance, narrative structure, dramatic use of montage, and mise en scène, subtle layered depths and complexities of perspective emerge. A perfect mix of pop parody, visceral disgust, and sizzling social satire, the movie plays the audience like a cheap fiddle, setting it up and knocking it down with tactical precision, working it over at such a deep level of sensation viewers may find themselves thoroughly immersed in the story’s emotional stakes despite the silliness of the subject; and the shock of that bloody hand coming out of the ground to grab our survivor’s hand at the end leaves the audience with something disturbing to mull over afterwards.
What was your favorite horror movie of 1976? Let us know in the comment section below.