15 Best Horror Movies Of 1979

Horror films in 1978 brought us an exploitative flick Roger Ebert called a “vile bag of garbage,” a classic Roger Corman Jaws rip-off, and perhaps the greatest zombie and slasher movies ever made. 1979 brings us multiple vampire classics, thee seminal haunted house movie, and space horror done at its absolute finest.

As we truck along with our year-by-year breakdown, we present to you the 15 Best Horror Films Of 1979.

15. Thirst

Director: Rod Hardy
Stars: Chantal Contouri, Shirley Cameron, Max Phipps, Henry Silva

This cold-blooded, thinly wrought horror film has a warm-blooded theme – the regular imbibing of said substance by a certifiably crazy cult. Kate Davis is slowly drawn into this cult against her (and everyone else’s) better judgment. Once involved, she discovers that they have sanitized, hospital-like centers where red-blooded individuals are kept zoned out by tranquilizers. Otherwise they might have some objection to being essentially imprisoned and immobilized in order to supply blood on demand. Let the consumption begin!

If you’re looking for a traditional vampire flick, this certainly isn’t what you’re looking for. Thirst disregards such lore – the “vampires” have no fangs, can stand daylight, garlic, crosses, etc – and for that reason it’s to be applauded. Made at a time when the vampire genre was going through something of a hiatus – it at least makes a better fist of transplanting the genre to the modern day than other ‘70s efforts like the Yorga films and Hammer’s Dracula 1973 AD, but it still seems a little unsure of itself and fails to make its basic idea entirely convincing simply because it tries to merge old-style religious ceremonies with production-line technology. For anyone who likes to see movies that at least try something different – even if it doesn’t succeed completely – this one would definitely be worth a look.

14. Prophecy

Director: John Frankenheimer
Stars: Talia Shire, Robert Foxworth, Armand Assante, Victoria Racimo

By 1979, environmentalism was a full-fledged tour de’ force in American cinema, with movies of various genres addressing the terrifying notion of sickness and mutation from either chemicals or nuclear radiation. This was the year that a string of movies warned humankind that our unnatural tampering with Momma Earth would eventually rise up to figuratively (and in some cases literally) bite us on the ass. And you know whenever there’s a trend in Hollywood, you can rest assured that with the cream comes the cheese. Prophecy falls so squarely into the latter category that it could be sealed in red wax and put on the shelf next to the Gouda.

In this environmentally conscientious horror tale, a young EPA agent and his pregnant young wife are sent to Maine to mediate a fight between the local Indians and a notoriously polluting paper mill. Once there, they find the deep forests inhabited by a terrifying menagerie of monstrous, mutant creatures. What follows is a movie that is in no way perfect, but it’s entertainment in its purest form. If you’re looking for scares, you won’t find them here. But if you’re looking for a silly and amusing piece of cinematic camp, you can’t go wrong with this.

13. The Driller Killer

Director: Abel Ferrara
Stars: Abel Ferrara, Carolyn Marz, Baybi Day, Harry Schultz

Reno Miller is a young artist in NYC who is gradually losing his marbles. Reno hates his crime infested neighborhood and cannot pay his rent. He goes to an art gallery to beg for money but the owner is fed up with Reno’s constant borrowing and says no. A punk band moves in to a neighboring apartment and Reno goes more berserk in the face of their constant rehearsing. His psychotic alter-ego soon takes over, he purchases a power drill, and begins to execute random vagrants, not quite realizing that it is happening in reality.

A title like The Driller Killer incites visions of a brutal power-tool slash fest, but the film is far from the standard maniac on a killing spree fare. A somewhat divisive film amongst those who have seen it, the name, and the fact that it was banned in some countries have given audiences the expectation of a graphically violent gorefest (probably not helped by the fact that the VHS cover showed a man being drilled in the forehead). However, The Driller Killer is more of a gritty, New York underground art film than what one would call a slasher. But there are still some pretty gruesome death scenes, naturally.

12. Fascination

Director: Jean Rollin
Stars: Franca Maï, Brigitte Lahaie, Jean-Marie Lemaire, Fanny Magier

Some find the experience of tasting blood to be exciting, sexually arousing, and empowering. A condition known as “clinical vampirism” is an obsession for consuming blood due to a belief in its ability to grant life enhancing vitality. Given the awareness of this vampiric tendency in some, it’s not surprising that history is filled with unsolved murders of victims who appear to have been killed under conditions strongly suggestive of vampirism. Jean Rollin’s 1979 opus Fascination is an interesting and bewitching take on the idea of craving blood that is coupled with the director’s superior visual style and erotic nature.

In Fascination we meet Mark, a thief who has just stolen a bounty of golden coins. He decides to ditch the thieves that helped him pull of the heist and runs off with the score. While on the run he comes upon an apparently empty castle where he decides to hide until the night comes, so he can later escape under the cover of the night. Problem is this chateau is not empty, he soon realizes that it is inhabited by two women: Eva and Elisabeth. To him they are easy prey, lonely women in an empty castle, Mark seems to think things are looking up for him, that this night might turn up better then expected; but are these women as innocent as they seem? Is there something more to these women than meets the eye? Yes, of course there is. It turns they’re part of a vampiric cult of blood-drinking aristocrats! Bad luck for Mark.

11. Beyond The Darkness

Director: Joe D’Amato
Stars: Kieran Canter, Cinzia Monreale, Franca Stoppi

Grieving over the death of his girlfriend, Frank, a wealthy taxidermist, decides to dig up her corpse and preserve both her body, and their love forever. However, Frank is a disturbed and murderous man, much like his housekeeper Iris, who had a hand in his girlfriend’s death. Iris also gleefully disposes of the bodies of victims unlucky enough to cross Frank’s path.

This infamous example of Euro gore cinema has long held a reputation for its propensity to turn stomachs with its scenes of cannibalism, implied necrophilia, torture and bizarre sexual perversions. Arguably Joe D’Amato’s finest work, Beyond The Darkness (aka Buio Omega) is quite the lovingly made Italian gorefest. There’s a particularly nasty scene where Frank prepares deceased girlfriend’s corpse for “stuffing(?)” in which he must remove her organs, eyes, blood, etc. There are also plenty of great kill scenes, one of which ends in a throat torn out by human teeth. Basically, the film unquestionably retains its revolting qualities thirty-plus years after its original release.

10. Dracula

Director: John Badham
Stars: Frank Langella, Laurence Olivier, Donald Pleasence, Kate Nelligan

It’s not easy to make a Dracula film. Ever since Tod Browning’s 1931 version starring Bela Lugosi, at least, filmmakers wanting to create a version Bram Stoker’s story have had to deal with masterful precursors deeply ingrained in the public’s consciousness. Even Browning had to compete with F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, the silent German version, and Murnau had to compete with popular imagination fueled by the novel itself.

Given a climate where nearly identical subject matter sparked many filmmaker’s best work, it’s amazing that so many later 20th Century versions of Dracula achieved such excellence. At least by the dawn of the 1960’s, creating fresh, engaging, well-made cinematic interpretations of Dracula should have been next to impossible. Yet it’s been done a number of times, and director John Badham’s 1979 version is one of the better instantiations. This has been called the rock star version of Dracula – a handsome, moody rendition, more romantic than menacing. It’s sort of a Saturday Night Fever version of the story we all know and love with a stylish, afro’ed, bloodsucking lead walking around with an open shirt looking for girls to take to his Castle Disco. While some may argue that this isn’t exactly Stoker’s Dracula (most movies about the iconic monster aren’t anyway), it doesn’t matter because the re-vamping of the plot works as its own mesmerizing entity. Check it out.

9. When A Stranger Calls

Director: Fred Walton
Stars: Carol Kane, Charles Durning, Rutanya Alda, Kirsten Larkin

Derived from the classic folk legend of The Babysitter And The Man Upstairs, Fred Walton’s When A Stranger Calls pits babysitter Jill Johnson in the home of Dr. Mandrakis and his wife who are going out for the evening. Their two children are upstairs asleep. An hour later, Jill gets a phone call wherein the caller hangs up, and then a second one where a mysterious voice asks her, “Have you checked the children?” Initially she thinks this is a friend of hers playing a prank, but after three more of these calls throughout the night she calls the police who brush it off as innocuous. Several more calls of this nature compel her to call the police back, and they agree to trace the call, which is a good thing as the caller is calling from another phone line inside the house and, horrifically, has murdered the two children she is in charge of babysitting. And things are just getting started.

Whilst these first 20 minutes make for a throat-grabbing opening our director decided not to stretch this sequence to feature length (unlike the 2006 remake). This left him with a conundrum of how to expand the story. The route he chose was controversial and one that turned audience expectations on their heads, when the film all but jettisons popcorn boo chills for a downbeat character study and manhunt. It’s pretty great. Some call the movie a glorified slasher that never advances beyond a great first act, but that’s not really giving the movie its just due. On a side note: you should also check out its 1993 made-for-TV sequel – it’s actually pretty great as well.

8. Tourist Trap

Director: David Schmoeller
Stars: Chuck Connors, Jocelyn Jones, Jon Van Ness, Robin Sherwood

Tourist Trap begins as so many other low-budget horror films do; namely, with a group of young attractive girls and a couple of their male friends stranded in the middle of nowhere with car trouble. Then, wouldn’t you know it? A Good Samaritan comes along and offers to help the kids with their troubles. The guy’s a little weird and lives alone in a house filled with stuff that belongs in a circus tent, but hey, there’s no one else around, so why not accept the old geezer’s offer?

So from what you’ve just read, you probably have a fairly good sense of where the movie is going from here? Thing is: you’d be wrong. All because we didn’t mention the mannequins that come to life and kill one of the youngsters during the first five minutes of the film. You see, one of the two guys in our coterie of stranded travelers makes the initial foray into a house up the road while seeking help. Within minutes, mannequins – indeed, the type you’d see in a department store – come to life and murder him. It’s from then on that you know you’re not watching just another slasher film. What we get is an off-kilter, slightly funny (the killer complaining about his brother not letting him use his telekinetic powers is a particular delight), but yet very unique and creepy movie.

7. The Brood

Director: David Cronenberg
Stars: Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggar, Art Hindle, Henry Beckman

Dr. Hal Raglan, a psychotherapist, uses “psychoplasmics” which allows negative emotions to cause a patient’s body to undergo physical change. For his patient Nola Carveth, whose anguish comes from the removal of visitation rights to her young daughter, the result is parthenogenetic reproduction (insect like reproduction where unfertilized eggs develop into lifeforms) creating mutant children (monstrous asexual, color blind, toothless and navel-less little scamps) who have a telepathic bond with their mother. Whenever mommy is upset, the mutants go on a rampage.

Shedding the grindhouse skin of his early films for a cool-clinical sheen, body horror master David Cronenberg, with The Brood, presents a bad dream that’s guaranteed to generate recurring nightmares. The horrors are simultaneously literal and allegorical, springing from a deep emotional well that transcends the bounds of conventional drama. This is Cronenberg’s Kramer Vs. Kramer – although that particular picture never featured dwarfish homicidal psychopaths amongst its methods for bridging irreconcilable differences.

6. Nosferatu The Vampyre

Director: Werner Herzog
Stars: Klaus Kinski, Isabelle Adjani, Bruno Ganz, Walter Ladengast

Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu The Vampyre should be an object lesson in the art of the remake for a film culture rife with an irrepressible rage for the redo. Playing to the visual and narrative strengths of the original, down to cribbing many of its iconic compositions, Herzog still succeeds in imprinting the material with his own unique sensibility. The result is an earnest homage that also bears unmistakable traces of cinematic one-upmanship. The basic plot of the original film is followed with a few additions here and there. Count Dracula leaves his castle in Transylvania and sets sail for Wismar in search of new blood. Once there, he unleashes an army of rats that fan out across the town spreading the plague.

In short, Nosferatu The Vampyre is one of, of not the very, most atmospheric and dour versions of the Dracula story there is and has a macabre feeling from beginning to end. There’s nothing Hollywood or lovey-dovey about this version of the Count; he’s a sad and pathetic, though completely terrifying, creature of the night – a nice contrast to the aforementioned Dracula film on this list.

5. Zombi 2

Director: Lucio Fulci
Stars: Tisa Farrow, Ian McCulloch, Richard Johnson, Al Cliver

Strangers looking for a woman’s father arrive at a tropical island where a doctor desperately searches for the cause and cure of a recent epidemic of the undead. Zombi 2 (aka Zombie Flesh Eaters), was the film which revitalized Lucio Fulci’s floundering career, and was the first film on his pathway to being dubbed “The Godfather of Gore”. It should be noted that George Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead was released in Europe under the title Zombi, and although Fulci’s film is billed as Zombi 2, it is in no way related to Romero’s series, being simply a marketing ploy. And an effective one at that.

Cutting to the chase, this film is remembered mostly thanks to two iconic scenes. The first is an underwater zombie vs. Tiger shark fight. This was one of the craziest stunts ever carried out in a zombie picture and was reportedly filmed in an underwater tank where the shark was drugged and the zombie was played by the shark trainer. The second has become legendary in the world of horror, the infamous eye-gouging scene. Everything from the screams of terror to the camera shots of the character’s eye approaching the splinter adds to the tension before we ultimately see her eye get stabbed out quite gruesomely. Great stuff.

4. Salem’s Lot

Director: Tobe Hooper
Stars: David Soul, James Mason, Lance Kerwin, Bonnie Bedelia

The successful writer Benjamin “Ben” Mears returns to his hometown Salem’s Lot, Maine, expecting to write a new novel about the Marsten House. Ben believes that the manor is an evil house that attracts evil men since the place has many tragic stories and Ben saw a ghostly creature inside the house when he was ten. Ben finds that the Marsten House has just been rented to the antique dealers Richard K. Straker and his partner Kurt Barlow that is permanently traveling. When people start to die anemic, Ben believes that Straker’s partner is a vampire. But how is Ben going to convince everyone that he isn’t absolutely nuts?

Tobe Hooper’s TV movie adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, despite the constraints inherent in any television production, is actually a very effective and creepy vampire film. Indeed, small-screen restrictions require the bloodletting be kept to a minimum, but the director and scripter Paul Monash nevertheless manage to construct a first-rate chiller out of King’s fertile source material. Salem’s Lot is a masterful vampire flick barely aged that will keep you up nights, and away from your window during the midnight hours.

3. The Amityville Horror

Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Stars: James Brolin, Margot Kidder, Rod Steiger, Don Stroud

You all know the story: Newlyweds move into a large house where a mass murder was committed, and unfortunately, the bad vibes are there to stay.

Like The Exorcist and The Omen, the real baddie of The Amityville Horror is Satan, who drove a boy to kill his parents and four siblings in cold blood, and whose wicked spirit, one year later, possesses new occupant George Lutz and convinces him to do away with his new wife Kathy and her three annoying kids. Supposedly based on a true story (recounted in Jay Anson’s bestseller), the film charts George’s gradual descent into madness – meaning he becomes perpetually cold (causing him to sit in front of a raging fireplace inferno), begins to resemble Ted Kaczynski, and exhibits a disconcerting disinterest in eating hot dogs. The Amityville Horror hasn’t exactly aged gracefully, but it is still a plenty effective little slice of horror. It may feel a bit tame by today’s standards, but Amityville still presents an interesting take on the American dream of happy homeownership gone wrong. The film works because it has plenty of atmosphere, an able bodied cast, and enough uneasy moments to make for multiple tense viewings.

2. Phantasm

Director: Don Coscarelli
Stars: A. Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Reggie Bannister, Angus Scrimm

A young boy named Mike becomes suspicious of wrongdoings at the local cemetery following the death of his pal, Tommy. With his older brother Jody and their pal Reggie, Mike finds out that Tommy’s body, along with others laid to rest there, have been taken by a creepy fellow known only as The Tall Man who is really an alien that crushes the corpses to dwarf-size, dresses them in brown-hooded cloaks, and sends at least some of them through an inter-dimensional gateway set up at the funeral parlor into his world to be slaves. You got all that? Yup, it’s nutter butters.

If you’re looking for a horror film that offers something different and will have you saying “well, I never saw that coming” at least a couple of times between its moody opening scene and surprising twist ending, Phantasm is definitely for you. Just don’t try to make sense of it all or your mind will start crying.

1. Alien

Director: Ridley Scott
Stars: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt, Yaphet Kotto

A cinematic game changer for sure, Ridley Scott’s Alien took a simple premise and shot for the stars. A ragtag crew of space miners, led by female hard-ass Ripley, gets an order to detour from its trip back home and stop on an uncharted planet, from which a mysterious signal has been received. Once there, the Nostromo crew’s members fall, one by one, to a variety of extra-terrestrial threats. Namely a tall, lanky, reptilian beast with no eyes and acid for blood.

Under Scott’s watch, Alien is full of genuine scares, palpable tension, and dazzling visual effects. And speaking of the FX, the alien’s design, credited to H.R. Giger, is the freakiest of its kind; with a long, jai-alia-racket-shaped head and Velociraptor-like arms and legs, the film’s monster is the stuff of intergalactic nightmares. It’s also the benefactor of one of cinema’s all-time great taglines: “In space, no one can hear you scream.” Alien proved that material derided as B-movie fodder could be handled with finesse and glossy production values, without diminishing the thrills or polishing over the hard-edged horror – a feat widely imitated but never surpassed (even by the director himself).

What was your favorite horror movie of 1979? Let us know in the comments below.

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