20. Salem’s Lot (1979)
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.
19. The Amityville Horror (1979)
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.
18. Phantasm (1979)
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 brain will start to cry.
17. House (1977)
Director: Nobuhiko Ôbayashi
Stars: Kimiko Ikegami, Miki Jinbo, Kumiko Ohba, Ai Matsubara
Seven schoolgirls encounter a malevolent force in an isolated old mansion. As this entity picks them off, one by one, the survivors struggle to unearth a mystery which stretches back decades, hoping they may find a way to live through what was supposed to be an idyllic weekend in the country. Cue the inventive death scenes, cue the gore.
Any simplified plot summary of Japanese director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 classic is bound to sound this commonplace, this trite. What such a bare synopsis fails to capture, though, is the sheer weirdness of this movie, the cinematic anarchy Obayashi unleashed on audiences in the guise of a spooky tale. House is equal parts goofy kids’ movie and gory horror flick. And any movie where, say, a girl comments on the “naughty” movements of her disembodied legs as they wriggle under the lid of a piano she’s playing with her chopped-off fingers gets points for originality. If you crashed a teenage girls’ pajama party after necking some bad acid, this is probably what it’d feel like.
16. The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)
Director: Robert Fuest
Stars: Vincent Price, Joseph Cotten, Hugh Griffith, Terry-Thomas
Doctors are being murdered in a bizarre manner: bats, bees, killer frog masks, etc., which represent the nine Biblical plagues. The crimes are orchestrated by a demented organ player with the help of his mute assistant. The detective is stumped until he finds that all of the doctors being killed assisted a Dr. Vesalius on an unsuccessful operation involving the wife of Dr. Phibes, but he couldn’t be the culprit, could he? He was killed in a car crash upon learning of his wife’s death…
Possessing a particularly gleeful and nasty sense of humor, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, set in the mid ‘20s, comes across almost like a live action version of the artwork of Edward Gorey, not just in the film’s mix of dark comedy and clever shocks, but also visually as well. There is just something about the film that lifts it out of horror picture banality. It could be the ingenious deaths, the collective performance of the cast, the art deco surroundings, but perhaps it is mainly down to the film not taking itself too seriously. This leads to an amusing script and one of the best films of its ilk. It’s great.
15. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Director: Jim Sharman
Stars: Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, Patricia Quinn
The Midnight Movie to which all others are compared, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a musical dressed in cheap monster suit filmed on a sound stage with plenty of leftover b-movie props. It launched a thousand midnight screenings, created a cult of devoted followers that trail-blazed screening traditions like shouting at the screen, ritual jokes and dress – if you’ve been to a showing of The Room where people yell the dialogue back at the actors, it’s because The Rocky Horror Picture Show did it first.
The story itself revolves around two ordinary people, Janet Weiss and her fiancée Brad Majors who go to a castle to find a phone after their car gets a flat tire. They are met by a very strange fellow named Riff Raff and his sister Magenta. The castle is holding some sort of party where the partygoers are doing “The Time Warp”. The couple soon meet the true host of the castle, a crazy cross-dressing scientist named Dr. Frank N. Furter. Frank has been working on a creation and now has come the time for him to unleash it. The creation is a blond hair, blue eyed muscle man named Rocky Horror. Soon, chaos ensues as Frank has plans for everyone around him on a night that no one will ever forget.
14. The Omen (1976)
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.
13. Nosferatu The Vampyre (1979)
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. As he should be.
12. Carrie (1976)
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.
11. Black Christmas (1974)
Director: Bob Clark
Stars: Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, John Saxon
Although Halloween is credited as the film that kicked off the slasher genre and Friday The 13th is the considered the one that inspired a slew of imitations, Black Christmas pre-dates them both by nearly half a decade. This makes it all the more impressive, then, that despite being one of the earliest proper examples of the genre, it remains one of the better slasher movies 40-plus years after its original release.
Black Christmas opens with someone approaching a sorority house. We don’t know who. He watches as the drunken sorority sisters and their boyfriends are having a little fun before the holidays. The figure moves up the side ladder, crawling through to the attic window of the house – no one is the wiser. A phone rings downstairs. It’s him again! The moaner! All the girls are listening in. The caller is intense, holding nothing back. In an eerie, distorted falsetto voice, he calls the girls “pigs” and threatens to “lick [their] pretty piggy c*nt[s].” After being challenged by one of the girls, he ends the call with a simple, monotone threat – as if using his regular voice: “I’m going to kill you.” Thus, the wheels are in motion for one of the all-time great whodunit horror mysteries.