The 1970s is generally considered one of the finest decades in cinema history, and it was a fertile time for the horror genre as well.
You know the classics, of course: movies like The Exorcist, The Omen, Halloween, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, Dawn of the Dead, Carrie and others all became horror landmarks, while even old staples like British studios Hammer and Amicus were still making some interesting fare.
But the '70s are also memorable for the wealth of lesser known horror films that emerged from that tumultuous decade. Some went on to become bona fide cult classics, while others were remembered only by horror diehards and historians. Many were forgotten or unavailable for years, but thanks to specialty Blu-ray houses like Scream Factory and Severin, and streaming video services like Netflix and Amazon, you can see almost all these movies today, often in pristine or restored condition.
This list of horror's more obscure '70s delights could easily be twice as long -- we had to make some tough choices just to whittle it down to 20. But each of these movies is creepy, weird, sometimes distasteful but definitely memorable -- a tribute to what may still stand as horror cinema's greatest decade.
The Blood on Satan's Claw (1970)
Set in an early 18th century English village coming under the influence of a demonic force awakened by local children, The Blood on Satan's Claw is considered one of the prime examples of a subgenre best described as "pastoral" horror: stories set in bucolic, rural societies where the dark events contrast sharply with the tranquil surroundings. The Blood on Satan's Claw is strong not on plot but mood and imagery, including an unsettling eye staring half-buried from the ground, weird patches of furred flesh showing up on people's bodies and a once-innocent teen (Linda Hayden) attempting to seduce a priest. Director Piers Haggard keeps control of the unsettling tone until the somewhat botched ending, but despite that it remains one of the finer British horror outings of its time.
Count Yorga, Vampire (1970)
This was originally meant to be a softcore porn film until star Robert Quarry told the producers he would only play the title role if they made it as a straight horror movie. They agreed, giving us one of the best vampire films of the early '70s. Quarry is excellent and eccentric as the arrogant yet strangely urbane Yorga, who chomps his way through a group of young friends in modern-day Los Angeles. The self-aware humor inherent in the idea of a bloodsucker rampaging through a contemporary city actually works nicely alongside the genuine scares, making Yorga a more influential film it seems. It was followed by a sequel, The Return of Count Yorga (1971).
I Drink Your Blood (1970)
A cult of Satanic hippies invades a small town and harasses the residents, only for the local baker to sell them pies infected with rabies -- a plan that backfires when the hippies go on a homicidal rampage. A precursor of more accomplished movies like The Crazies (1973) and later-era works like 28 Days Later (2002), I Drink Your Blood is grindhouse mayhem at its finest -- meaning it's a cheap, rough, gruesome ride that takes itself rather seriously and is more effective for it. The movie's middle-America-vs-the-counterculture subtext is hard to miss, but it's the spearings, mutilations and disembowelments that will keep you watching in horrid fascination. Originally released on one of the classic double bills of all time with I Eat Your Skin.
Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971)
The Blind Dead -- the rotted, eyeless, reanimated corpses of a cult of Knights Templar who drink human blood -- are among the best movie monsters of the '70s. They're more like mummies than zombies, they're not mindless and their slow, implacable way of pursuing their victims (along with their surreal slow-motion horseback riding) give them a truly nightmarish quality. Spanish director/creator Amando De Ossorio's film is light on plot but super-heavy on atmosphere, and he directed three more films about the Templars: Return of the Blind Dead (arguably the best in the series), The Ghost Galleon (the one misfire in the bunch) and Night of the Seagulls (which approaches Lovecraft territory). One warning: made as Spain was emerging from a period of brutal censorship, the Blind Dead movies all contain an unhealthy streak of misogyny -- but look past that and you still have an outstanding early horror franchise to enjoy.
Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971)
Sensationalistic title aside, this is one of the best horror movies of its era. Dreamlike and surreal, its terrors taking place in a weird limbo between day and night, the movie follows recently released mental patient Jessic (Zohra Lampert) as she and her husband move to a small town in order for her to complete her recovery. An enigmatic stranger (Mariclare Costello) living in their house and a series of increasingly bizarre incidents begin to chip away at Jessica's already fragile sanity. The plot never does much to explain anything, but director John Hancock is more concerned with mood and atmosphere, of which this little chiller has tons.
The Asphyx (1972)
This little-seen thriller is slow-moving and stately, yet also supremely eerie and thoughtful. Robert Stephens stars as Cunningham, a scientist in 1875 Victorian England who inadvertently captures on film an asphyx -- a spirit that descends upon a person at the moment of their death as recounted in Greek mythology. Cunningham deduces a way to trap the asphyx, reasoning that if it is caught, one can become immortal; but of course one must get as close to death as possible to summon the asphyx in the first place. A unique and character-driven study of obsession (and the only film ever directed by Peter Newbrook), The Asphyx benefits from its period atmosphere and oppressive sense of foreboding.
Death Line (1972)
A police inspector (the great Donald Pleasance) investigates the death of a government official on an London Underground platform and discovers that the perpetrator is the last survivor of a family of cannibals, who themselves are the descendants of railway workers trapped underground a century earlier and never rescued. Death Line is a dark, dark film, claustrophobic and bleak, and Hugh Armstrong as "the man" gives one of the superb unsung horror performances of its time -- equally horrifying and poignant. Titled Raw Meat in the States, Death Line was directed by Gary Sherman (Dead and Buried) and deserves to be rediscovered.
The Baby (1973)
One of the weirder cult movies on this list (and that's saying something), The Baby follows social worker Ann Gentry (Anjanette Comer), who is assigned the case of the Wadsworth family. Matriarch Mrs. Wadsworth (Ruth Roman) and her two sultry daughters (Marianna Hill and Suzanne Zenor) take care of Baby (David Manzy), Mrs. Wadsworth's adult son who acts like and is treated like an infant by everyone. Ann believes Baby could become "normal" with the proper care, but the Wadsworths -- who are as abusive as they are loving -- won't have it. Roman is terrific in an over-the-top, latter-era Joan Crawford way, and the bizarro family dynamics lead to a grisly finale. The Baby is utterly tacky and kind of icky, but entertaining in its schlocky way.
British horror cinema during the 1970s was more than just the fading Hammer and Amicus brands. Case in point was the work of director Pete Walker, who made a string of gritty, exploitative horror outings with some interesting social and anti-authority themes lurking underneath their unpleasant surfaces. His best were perhaps the harrowing women-in-prison thriller House of Whipcord (also 1974) and this, in which Walker regular Sheila Keith plays a murderer and cannibal who has just been released from an institution and may be relapsing into her old ways. Keith is outstanding, as is Rupert Davies as her loyal husband, and the movie is a unique, subversive and scary take on family dynamics.
The Vietnam War was still raging in the early '70s and it's no surprise that many filmmakers, horror or otherwise, drew on it for inspiration. This second feature from director Bob Clark (whose eclectic career also included Black Christmas, Porky's and A Christmas Story) was a direct metaphor for U.S. soldiers who returned from the bush suffering from PTSD, drug addiction and worse. Andy (Richard Backus) is shot dead in combat and his parents (John Marley and Lynn Carlin) are dutifully informed; imagine their surprise when he shows up at home late one night. But it's not long before they realize that their boy is not the same -- and may not even be alive in the true sense of the word. Eerie and tragic, with touches of black humor, Deathdream brought the war home in blood and decay.
It's Alive (1974)
It's Alive is probably one of the better-known movies on this list, especially due to its iconic monster baby created by make-up wizard Rick Baker. Writer/director Larry Cohen, who went on to create a string of always interesting and witty B-movies, often in the horror genre, takes this rather simplistic tale of a mutant baby on the loose and subtly turns it into a rumination on parent/child relationships, with father Frank (John Wells) eventually becoming his hideous son's protector. The low budget makes for some especially cheesy moments, but the baby is an inspired creation, as is the movie itself. Followed by two sequels, It Lives Again (1978) and It's Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987) as well as a cash grab remake (2009).
The Devil's Rain (1975)
There are a lot of movies on this list that one may like or dislike, but The Devil's Rain is perhaps the sole picture that everyone agrees is just bad. That doesn't make it any less fun to talk about though. But yes, The Devil's Rain is silly, incoherent and borderline unwatchable, even with a cast that includes a struggling-after-the-cancellation-of-Star-Trek William Shatner, Tom "I can't believe my career survived this long enough to get me to Alien" Skerritt and a savagely miscast Ernest Borgnine as the reanimated leader of a Satanic cult. The ending, in which the title storm melts everyone into goo, lives up to its hype, but it's the 75 minutes leading up to it that will try even the most patient horror fan.
A byproduct of the "animals attack" subgenre (we've got more of that below), Squirm was the brainchild of writer/director Jeff Lieberman, who later gave us the psychedelic horror of Blue Sunshine (1978) and the disturbing rural shocker Just Before Dawn (1981). In Squirm, a power line snaps off in a storm and electrifies the ground in a small Georgia town, sending thousands of hungry flesh-eating worms upstairs to burrow under the cast's skin. Featuring early work by make-up legend Rick Baker, Squirm may be a little short on character and story, but doesn't disappoint if you've ever harbored the slightest fear or disgust of earthworms.
Who Can Kill a Child? (1976)
This Spanish entry was hard to see for years until its release on DVD in 2009, primarily relegated to VHS bootlegs before that. A British couple head on vacation to a small island, only to find that the children there have murdered all the adults and have them in their sights next. Thoroughly unnerving, the movie places its leads squarely in the moral quandary suggested by the title: they want to survive but are unable to bring themselves to do the unthinkable, even in self-defense. Lots of creepy imagery is present in the movie, which ends on a sinister, ambiguous note as well.
The Car (1977)
The Car is almost elegant in the simple-minded way it combines Jaws (1975) and The Exorcist (1973) in the tale of a possessed black limousine that begins mowing people down in a small Arizona town for no reason whatsoever. James Brolin is solid as the sheriff's deputy who battles the demonic auto, there are some genuinely shocking deaths and director Elliot Silverstein stages a number of gripping action sequences, making this a cut above most drive-in fare of the time (a drive-in was where we saw it, of course). Only some weak comic relief detracts from the overall tense goings-on in this minor classic.
Shock Waves (1977)
Yes, this is the one about Nazi zombies emerging from underwater graves to terrorize a group of people shipwrecked on an island. Writer/director Ken Wiederhorn invests his rather slim premise with a thoroughly surprising amount of creepiness, and the Nazi undead are among the more memorable monsters of the '70s. The always great Peter Cushing brings gravitas to the proceedings as the former SS commander who has hidden himself and the zombies on the island, while the cast also includes genre legend John Carradine as well as Brooke Adams, who went on to star in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and The Dead Zone (1983).
Day of the Animals (1977)
Following the massive success of his unabashed Jaws knockoff Grizzly (1976), director William Girdler upped the ante with this "nature runs amok" thriller, in which a depletion of the ozone layer begins to turn animals violently against humans -- bad news for a group of hikers in the High Sierras who also start to feel the effects of the depletion on themselves. Day of the Animals is not one of Girdler's finer efforts (more on him later), but it's got reliable performances from Grizzly holdovers Christopher George and Richard Jaeckel and a truly nasty turn by Leslie Nielsen as the human villain. Crude but still creepy, it's a worthy addition to the "animal horror" canon.
Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)
William Shatner is back in this surprisingly scary B-movie about a small town coming under siege from an army of tarantulas. Pesticides are blamed for the invasion of eight-legged marauders, making Kingdom of the Spiders one of the better entries in the "eco-horror" subgenre of the time. The Shat, who plays veterinarian "Rack" Hansen, is fairly restrained in his scenery-chewing as he investigates the menace and then fights to survive it. There's a fair amount of tension throughout the film, although the closing shot could have been a classic if not done so cheaply. There's a school of thought out there that suggests that the bland 1990 "thrill-omedy" Arachnophobia was a loose remake of this far edgier original.
The Manitou (1978)
An ancient Native American spirit manifests as a tumor on a woman's neck, eventually revealing himself to be a shaman who has reincarnated himself to take revenge on the white man for conquering the land of his people. Based on horror writer Graham Masterson's novel, The Manitou is packed to overflowing with ludicrous "shock" scenes, sketchy special effects and casting howlers (Tony Curtis as a psychic?) but manages to convey a mood of real eeriness in several sequences. It was the last film from '70s schlock auteur William Girdler, whose streak of exploitation hits -- Three on a Meathook, Abby, Grizzly, Day of the Animals and this -- was cut short when he was killed in a helicopter accident while scouting locations for his next picture.
Tourist Trap (1979)
Weird and unsettling, Tourist Trap stars Chuck Connors -- having a blast -- as a lunatic who brings the mannequins in his forgotten roadside museum to life and terrorizes a group of friends who make the mistake of stopping at his place for gas. Connors devours the scenery like a madman and there are a number of scary scenes in the movie, even if the kids he methodically slaughters are right out of a slasher film stock company. Mannequins creep everyone out though, and the movie plays effectively on that subconscious fear. Director David Schmoeller also made the cult favorites Crawlspace (1986) and Puppetmaster (1989).
Honorable mention to: Jonathan (1970), Mark of the Devil (1970), Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny & Girly (1970), The Brotherhood of Satan (1971), Frogs (1972), Sssssss (1973), Horror Express (1972), Messiah of Evil (1973), Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974), Vampyres (1974), House of Whipcord (1974), Shivers (1975), Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (1975), God Told Me To (1976), Eaten Alive (1976), Alice, Sweet Alice (1976), The Last Wave (1977) and many more!