25 Underappreciated Horror Films From The 1970s

12. Dead Of Night (1974)

Director: Bob Clark
Stars: John Marley, Lynn Carlin, Richard Backus, Jane Daly

Dead Of Night (aka Deathdream) is a interpretation of The Monkey’s Paw, a short story by W. W. Jacobs. We follow Christine and Charles Brooks, your typical middle-American family who have just been told of their son Andy’s death in Vietnam. Christine, hit hard by the news, refuses to believe it; later we witness her sitting in the dark loudly praying for his safe return. Later in the night, her wish is granted – Andy returns home to everyone’s pleasant surprise. But Andy is not himself – he is withdrawn and hardly talks at all. He also has a few side-effects from his ordeal, like not having a heart beat and occasionally killing people and injecting their blood so his flesh doesn’t fall off. It seems that either Andy is an undead zombie, or this is the most acute case of post traumatic stress disorder anyone has ever seen.

Dead Of Night is probably one of the most depressing horror movies ever made. But in this case, that’s a good thing. The film is also very, very calculatingly paced. It’s soaked in atmosphere and it oozes dread. Youngsters today will probably find the picture too slow and boring, but you really should give the movie a chance. You very rarely see horror movies like this nowadays: thoughtful, atypical and aimed at mature audiences.

11. Countess Dracula (1971)

Director: Peter Sasdy
Stars: Ingrid Pitt, Nigel Green, Sandor Elès, Maurice Denham

When, in a fit of ire, the ageing Countess Elizabeth lashes out at her inept maid, she inadvertently discovers that the virginal girl’s blood harbors properties able to restore her youthful beauty. Slaying the girl and bathing in her blood, Elizabeth deigns to assume the identity of her own daughter, Ilona, who has not been seen at the castle since being shipped off to boarding school as a child. But no sooner has Elisabeth met and fallen in love with handsome soldier Imre Toth, than she realizes that the regenerative effects of the maid’s blood are far from permanent and she is only able to sustain her façade by seeking fresh donors to fend off her true, haggard appearance. Finding a willing accomplice in her faithful companion, Captain Dobi, the slaying begins.

Countess Dracula is very loosely based on the real-life exploits of Elizabeth Báthory, a 17th century Hungarian countess who is reputed to have bathed in the blood of 600 young woman in an attempt to stay young and beautiful. Her story and life have inspired many other horror films (most recently being Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon) and even songs by metal bands such as Venom and Bathory (they even named themselves after her). This Hammer horror flick is an enjoyable take on her.

10. Vampire Circus (1972)

Director: Robert Young
Stars: Adrienne Corri, Thorley Walters, Anthony Higgins, John Moulder-Brown

Fifteen years after the people of Schettel freed themselves from the influence of the vampire Count Mitterhaus, they find their village beset by plague and forcibly quarantined by the surrounding towns. Enter the Circus Of Night, who promise “a thousand delights” to the beleaguered villagers. They have a clown, a strongman, acrobats, dancers, and their main act, Emil, a panther who seems to turn into a man. The timing of these gypsy performers appears to be perfect for lifting the spirits of Schettel. However, the Circus has another purpose beside entertainment – vengeance. Emil and the acrobats are vampires related to the Count, and they are here to enact his dying curse – to sacrifice the town’s children in order to resurrect Mitterhaus.

With this premise in place, you can expect Vampire Circus to present plenty of violence. It does, on the part of both the vampires and the villagers. The body-count is high, in fact this is one of the first films since Frankenstein that has monsters killing children, except here it’s actually done on-screen. Erotic, grotesque, chilling, bloody, suspenseful, and loaded with doom and gloom atmosphere, this is the kind of experiment in terror that reinvigorates your love of the scary movie artform. Very underrated indeed.

9. Night Of The Devils (1972)

Director: Giorgio Ferroni
Stars: Gianni Garko, Agostina Belli, Roberto Maldera, Teresa Gimpera

Night Of The Devils is an Italian vampire thriller with a remarkably good pedigree. The script is based on The Wurdalak, a short story by none other than Leo Tolstoy. The central character is the patriarch of a wealthy family who fears that he will show up one day in vampire form. Should this happen, he warns his family not to let him back in his house, no matter how much he begs or cajoles. Not surprisingly, his warnings are to no avail.

A tour de force of Italian horror, Night Of The Devils both harkens back to Mario Bava-based gothic horrors as well as anticipates the gory excesses of latter-day Lucio Fulci. Devils achieves a balanced sense of the unknown, the sympathetic, and the ghoulish, focusing on character to embellish suspense as it creeps around in a most inspired manner.

8. The Other (1972)

Director: Robert Mulligan
Stars: Uta Hagen, Diana Muldaur, Chris Udvarnoky, Martin Udvarnoky

The atmospheric direction of Robert Mulligan and the first-rate writing of Tom Tryon (based on his own novel) place The Other at a notch above the seemingly endless parade of demonic horror films of the ‘70s. The story takes place on a small Connecticut farm in 1935 and concerns a luckless family that finds itself further plagued by a violent series of mysterious deaths. It seems that the curious fatalities have something to do with Alexandra Udvarnoky’s twin sons – ten year old Chris and Martin. Martin is shy, withdrawn, and somber, while Chris behaves like a normal ten-year-old boy. The question the film poses is which twin is good and which is evil – and has he caused the killings?

The Other is a dark, eerie minor masterpiece that is filled with lasting images: a finger wrapped up in a handkerchief, a boy leaping into a pile of hay with a pitchfork in it, the corpse of a baby drowned in a wine barrel, so on and so forth. It’s a slick, polished, and professional chiller that combines an intriguing mystery with periodic eruptions of bloody violence. It’s wonderful.

7. God Told Me To (1976)

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.

6. Messiah Of Evil (1973)

Directors: Willard Huyck, Gloria Katz
Stars: Michael Greer, Marianna Hill, Joy Bang, Anitra Ford, Royal Dano

A horror gem by the writing and directing team behind Howard The Duck? Hard to believe, but Messiah Of Evil (aka Dead People) is the genuine article, a largely forgotten early ’70s classic filled with moments that are so uncanny, the term “Lynchian” would be perfect had the David Lynch brand been invented in 1973.

A small coastal town in California is the setting for this odd, creepy story. When Arletty arrives, looking for her father, she quickly learns little is as it seems. Beneath the idyllic seaside village, a rot has begun to take hold. Folks speak in guarded, awkward tones, they spend endless hours on the beach at night, staring off into the ocean. Some have even developed a taste for raw meat. When she meets the town drunk and a trio of prying tourists, the sinister history of the town starts to reveal itself.

5. Dracula (1979)

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 1960s, 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.

4. Tourist Trap (1979)

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.

3. Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders (1970)

Director: Jaromil Jires
Stars: Jaroslava Schallerová, Helena Anýzová, Petr Kopriva, Jirí Prýmek

Young Valerie lives with her grandmother. She feels the first stirring of sexual awareness when a carnival parade comes to town and a man presents her with a pair of magic earrings. When her fantasy adventures begin, the line between dreams and reality is blurred.

A work of both visceral immediacy and lingering allure, Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders is a uniquely influential film, one of intoxicating sensation and unconscious immersion – and one, for that matter, often recognized and referenced more than actually seen. Based on a novel by the poet Vítezslav Nezval, the film paints its portrait of a young girl’s sexual awakening in highly allegorical strokes, through a mix of gothic imagery, folkloric cues, and mythic conceits. If you aren’t too anxious about decoding what it all means, you’re likely to be quite entranced.

2. Let’s Scare Jessica To Death (1971)

Director: John D. Hancock
Stars: Zohra Lampert, Barton Heyman, Kevin O’Connor, Mariclare Costello

Let’s Scare Jessica To Death is a story about a woman named Jessica who is released from a mental institution after a six-month stay following a mental breakdown. Upon her release she retreats to her newly-purchased country house, with her husband Duncan and their close friend Woody, to recover in peace and silence. But a strange girl named Emily is at the farm, too, and it soon becomes obvious that she is somehow related to a young woman who drowned on her wedding day over a century ago. Is Emily a vampiric ghost? Are the hostile townsfolk all zombies? Or is Jessica losing her mind all over again?

Let’s Scare Jessica To Death is not a movie that will appeal to everyone. Those looking for shock, gore and quick-paced editing won’t find it here. What the movie does have, however, is a great sense of atmosphere and growing unease. We’re never quite certain – is this all coming from Jessica’s feverish imagination, or are there more sinister doings afoot? And as the plot unfolds, it’s easy to empathize more with Jessica and what she’s going through. In fact, this is one of those movies where the main character is someone you really care about – rare in today’s typical horror movie.

1. The Shout (1978)

Director: Jerzy Skolimowski
Stars: Alan Bates, Susannah York, John Hurt, Tim Curry

An asylum director begins telling a visitor to a cricket game the story of one of his “better” patients, Crossley who is able to compete. Some time previously, Crossley accosted Anthony, a composer, just after church and was for some reason invited to dinner. Once at the composer’s home, he tells the story of his unusual upbringing among Australian Aborigines, and of the awful and strange gifts this has left him with. Among them is the ability to bring about another’s death by using a certain kind of shout. The next morning, he begins to weave an erotic spell on the composer’s wife Rachel, and then proves his killing ability on a sheep in a field. His influence increasingly disrupts their peaceful lives, until in a confrontation, the composer finds a way to best Crossley – but which results in his being placed in a mental institution.

The Shout is a wonderfully strange and beguiling piece of offbeat cinema that combines the sensibility of surrealist Eastern European film with Australian mysticism and English whimsicality to create a uniquely sinister yet often peculiarly funny one-off work, that continues to be well worth investigating.

Are there any films you’d like to add to the list? Let us know in the comments below.

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