10 Best Horror Films From the ’70s

Mister Joshua

It’s no secret that the 70’s are my favorite decade for film. The old Hollywood code had cracked and finally fallen away, leading to a whole new group of film makers who finally could push the boundaries of their art to places it had really never gone before. Regardless of the genre, be it comedy, where Mel Brooks films were pushing the boundaries of satire and tackling subjects that had formerly been taboo to filmmakers or Science Fiction where Steven Spielberg and George Lucas redefined the way films were made.

Scorsese, De Palma, Peckinpah, and Francis Ford Coppola turned dramatic films on their ear, creating a sense of gritty realism that seemed miles different than the type of films Hollywood had been producing for decades. It was into this gritty realism that a whole new breed of directors tackled the genre that has become dear to me – Horror. So lets take a look at what I believe to be the best horror films of the decade.

10. Black Christmas (1974)

Although probably the least well known of of the films on my list, Bob Clarks ‘Black Christmas’ makes the list for a number of reasons. The first being, it (along with the Italian Giallos and Mario Bava’s ‘Bay Of Blood’) set the mold for the “stalk and slash” film. Starring Margot Kidder and the wonderfully vulnerable Olivia Hussey, ‘Black Christmas’ raised the bar for all the silent killer films that were to follow.

9. Alien (1979)

Some consider this the greatest film of the 70’s and if this were a list of the greatest films of the 70’s it certainly would still rank on that list as well. Whereas the sequels would take the franchise firmly into “action film” territory, the first installment certainly has enough horror elements to warrant it’s inclusion on this list. It’s essentially a a “stalk and slash” film set in space.

8. Carrie (1976)

Certainly one of the scariest films of the 70s if not all time. As a youngster it took me a long time to make it through the whole film. Carrie herself, although terrifying, the image of her right after the blood is poured on her is haunting, I always found her mother to be far more frightening. One of the first films I ever saw where you felt sympathy for the killer (Carrie) because of all the shit everyone had put her through.

7. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

When I think about the way films had changed from the early 60’s to the early 70’s this one of the first films that usually pops into my mind. It feels gritty, dirty even (although not necessarily content wise, which by todays standards is rather tame). Everything from the set to the film stock used just give TCM a dirty feel. Leatherface became a horror icon, despite what the sequels tried to do with him and it really established the prototype for backwoods, inbred, hicks looking to murder young adult type of films.

6. Suspiria (1977)

‘Suspiria’ is more art than film at times. It’s story while technically there, is somewhat convoluted and at times incomprehensible. Where the film really makes it’s mark is with it’s visual and musical style. The film, with it’s color palate inspired by ‘Alice In Wonderland’ is an amazing visual experience. Combine that with the overwhelming soundtrack by Italian prog-rockers “Goblin” and it creates one of the most unique movie going experiences you’ll ever have. The fact that it contains the greatest death in cinema history (where the chick falls through the skylight, thus hanging herself) doesn’t hurt it either.

5.The Wicker Man (1973)

Robin Hardys masterpiece is more Agatha Christie than Alfred Hitchcock, but that makes it no less intriguing. ‘The Wicker Man’ probably one of the most satisfying and debated final reels in horror film history. Add to that wonderful performances from Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward and this film becomes a weird, quirky, terrifying classic. Another film that is just great film regardless of genre. Just make sure to avoid the remake at all costs….

4.Halloween (1978)

Blasphemy to some I know. ‘Halloween’ certainly set the standard for all the typical ‘slasher’ fare to follow. It’s impact has perhaps been lessened by what happened to the genre throughout the 80’s, but to deny the impact this film had would be a mistake. Virtually bloodless, Carpenter is able to create a new face or terror almost strictly out of the sense of anticipation (what’s going to happen, not what you see happening). It’s something that film from ‘Friday the 13th’ to ‘Alien’ all borrowed from liberally.

3. The Last House On the Left (1972)

I’ve spoken at length about how this film was my gateway film into the seedier side of horror. This is the film that really ignited my love for everything that horror could be. When I think of gritty realism this is the film that I’m really referencing. It’s dirty, and I mean in every way possible. It feels almost like a found footage film. It feels like this could have really happened, and someone could have really filmed it. Banned in dozens of countries, 40 years later, it’s still not an easy watch for people. Rob Zombie said it best “You don’t invite people over and say ‘hey, let’s watch “Last House on the Left.” It’s a film that stays with you and, for me at least, really changed the way I looked at and thought about how powerful films could be.

2. Dawn Of the Dead (1978)

Without a doubt my favorite tagline from any film…period. It’s impossible not to think of it every time I hit the local mall. What Romero is able to accomplish with the film is genius, pure and simple. His ability to combine horror and social commentary is something that had very rarely been done (and certainly not by something as “low brow” as a zombie film). He had done it with ‘Night of The Living Dead’, but topped himself, both in scares and message with the sequel. Certainly one of the most influential films of all time. Zombies have became their own sub-genre with everything from the ‘Return Of the Living Dead’ films to current television juggernaut ‘The Walking Dead” and even a ‘South Park’ parody episode.

Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) gets zombified in Dawn of the Dead

1. The Exorcist (1973)

Some have called this the scariest film of all time and as a straight horror film it’s hard to argue with them. This film has everything: a well crafted story, tremendous acting, awesome special effects and some serious dirty talk! It’s another film I had a hard time sitting through when younger.

Now, as a grizzled horror vet, the image of Pazazu is still the scariest thing I’ve ever seen on film. Even today I can’t look at it without thinking something is sneaking up behind me. Seriously, just writing about the film gives me the creeps. If you haven’t seen it, of course go and see it right away, but do so with the lights off and alone. Have fun!

Well, there we go. It was a long time coming. Frankly, I debated going back and forth amongst the top 4 films over and over again.There are plenty of films I left off, even after the honorable mentions. The Hammer films from the 70’s, ‘Jaws’ certainly got some consideration, some of Vincent Prices early 70s work (Dr. Phibes), but I had to draw the line somewhere.

Honorable Mentions (Films that just missed the cut) –

  • Any of the Cronenberg films from the 70’s. Shivers/Rabid/The Brood – all are very good films, but just missed the list. I had considered 1 spot for all three films, but that wouldn’t be fair.
  • The Omen (1976) – Like an American made Hammer film. Great performances, creepy kid. Cheapened by the remake. Just missed.
  • Phantasm (1979) – in any other decade, this film easily makes the list, unfortunately there are just so many great horror films from the 70’s.
  • Duel (1971) – Barely misses the cut, Spielberg used the same formula to more box office success a little bit better later in the decade, but there is something innocent about ‘Duel’ that makes me enjoy it a little more than a certain film about a shark. Still my favorite made for TV film ever.

Thoughts? Leave a comment. Anything else I missed? Let me know.



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      1. Chris Choncek May 7, 2012 at 6:10 pm

        A few others…..

        Don’t Look Now
        Legend of Hell House
        Burnt Offerings

        I think Phantasm should’ve made the list…

      2. Dread World May 8, 2012 at 10:23 pm

        If “Phantasm” makes the list….what comes off?

      3. Kyle Styres July 22, 2012 at 2:49 am

        There’s been a huge error…TCM is actually the winner.

      4. Kyle Styres July 22, 2012 at 2:50 am

        There’s been a huge error….Texas Chainsaw is actually #1

      5. Jeff Rittenour September 26, 2012 at 3:47 pm

        I’d say Hallowwen number one but i think it’s hard to swallow for younger generations… and I’ve always considered it and Jaws more suspense films than horror… Exorcist prob is the grand daddy. And wasn’t Halloween originally supposed to be the sequel to Black x-mas?

      6. Keith mc coy January 20, 2013 at 2:29 pm

        Hell of a list! For me, Salems lot and Jaws would be up there. And Halloween at number 1

      7. the13thwolfman July 31, 2015 at 12:08 am

        So three need to come off this list and be replace. Alien which to me is a sci-fi film with gore not a horror film. Last house on the left which I think is one of the worst films just because it is poorly made and the wicker man. Replace those with The Omen, Phantasm, & Legend of Hell house