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‘70s Horror on the Criterion Channel

In the ‘70s, a new wave of horror film presented terror as a messy, brutally honest implosion from within.

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‘70s Horror on the Criterion Channel
Photo: United Artists

All American horror films that really matter can be separated into two time periods: before and after Vietnam, an event that epitomized an era and transmogrified the nation’s concept of “horror” forever. Whereas the horror films of yore would invariably depict true red-white-and-blue protagonists dealing xenophobically with foreign evil (vampires and cat people often represented all of Eastern Europe), a new wave of horror film presented terror in America as a messy, brutally honest implosion from within.

Vietnam seemed to be the cataclysm that ended the idea that America was the world’s “control group,” at least for a while. Typically, Psycho is referred to as the film that sliced horror history in half along socio-political lines, but for all its subversions of the rules of horror, the film still faithfully presents mainstream American society (as represented by Vera Miles) as the norm. No, it took a series of social uprisings, the gradual unraveling of a deceptive image that American soldiers were swaggering like pimps in Vietnam, and a seemingly endless cycle of political assassinations to fuel a new breed of scare-mongering films. And they exposed and subverted everything America held true—open spaces, machinery, industry, and country-gravy hospitality—and amplified the nation’s capacity for superior terror.

This month, the Criterion Channel celebrates this wild, weird, and far-out era of genre filmmaking with their ‘70s Horror series. In their words: “This tour through the 1970s nightmare realm is a veritable blood feast of perverse pleasures from a time when gore, grime, and sleaze found a permanent home in horror.” For more about the 29-film series, which collects some of the grimiest, goriest, and most inventive horror films from the decade, click here. And below is our list of our favorite films in the series. Eric Henderson


Ganja & Hess

10. Ganja & Hess (Bill Gunn, 1973)

Ganja & Hess is both a highly personal reconstruction of the vampire myth (many cite it as the “anti-Blacula”), as well as a Godardian broadside, allowing us to imagine that Bill Gunn was actually thumbing his nose at the way the industry was shaping up for African-American directors in the ‘70s, thanks to films like Gordon Parks’s Shaft. Blaxploitation, now responsible for whole forests’ worth of thesis papers, carries a dual appeal: Films that fall within the genre’s framework often have an insoluble blackness that white audiences can never completely absorb, which, paradoxically, is part of their appeal. Ganja & Hess, which has been retroactively, circumstantially cast as a berserk dash toward career suicide on Gunn’s part, is so singular, so opaque, that it doesn’t even have the draw of commerce-friendly exoticism. If Shaft is Barry White and Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is the Sex Pistols, then Ganja & Hess is John Cage. Jaime N. Christley


The Crazies

9. The Crazies (George A. Romero, 1973)

Like Night of the Living Dead, The Crazies concerns a plague that explodes America’s suppressive (and suppressed) tensions, though the monsters are left almost entirely off screen in this case, as George A. Romero foregrounds the sociocultural textures of martial law. The Crazies reprises Night of the Living Dead’s mercilessly propulsive editing while introducing a bold comic-book palette that would be refined in Dawn of the Dead and Creepshow. The film also abounds in inspired sketches of madness and infrastructural collapse, from the military’s dehumanizing uniform of black gas mask and white hazmat jumpsuit to an irrational image of an insane woman sweeping a battlefield with a broom. Even Romero’s self-consciously lyrical touches intensify the film’s textured canvas. The Crazies ironically understands fascism as being inherent in both the preservation and revolution of society. Chuck Bowen


Images

8. Images (Robert Altman, 1972)

Images might not immediately strike one as a genre exercise, as it’s a subjective dramatization of a fragile woman’s psyche, following a famous children’s author, Cathryn (Susannah York), as she seemingly loses her mind and commits murder. Utilizing a fractured narrative, the film proffers an unreliable reality that underscores the greater tenuousness and chaos of human existence writ large. It’s an art film that follows a codified set of traditions that were particularly in vogue in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Robert Altman is less interested in emotion and psychology than in emotional and psychological gamesmanship—in mind-fucking that has a rich tradition in the more obsessive and political films of Luis Buñuel, Ingmar Bergman, Roman Polanski, and Joseph Losey, to name just a few of Images’s influences. Bowen


Deathdream

7. Deathdream (Bob Clark, 1972)

A grindhouse threnody for the Vietnam generation, Bob Clark’s emotionally overwhelming Deathdream is a raw nerve radiating pure shock and grief, as evidenced by the reunion of Faces’s Lynn Carlin and John Marley to play the parents of a young private who, after apparently dying in battle, returns to their doorstep. With echoes of “The Monkey’s Paw,” it gradually dawns on the initially relieved family that Andy’s purple heart may no longer beat, and yet he thirsts for blood, which would be horrifying enough if the film didn’t also seem to be suggesting that, whether soldiers return home from war decorated or draped by the flag, they never return as they were before. Henderson


The Tenant

6. The Tenant (Roman Polanski, 1976)

The masterful final panel in Roman Polanski’s remarkable “Apartment Trilogy,” The Tenant surpasses even Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby in its portrayal of claustrophobia and dissipating sanity. Casting himself as Trelkovsky, a meek Polish wanderer whose new Paris residence comes equipped with sinister neighbors, mysterious hieroglyphs, and mystical intimations, the great director employs a comically escalating sense of dread to crystallize a worldview in which weaklings and barbarians jostle for power and everyone is an outsider, as powerless against bullying as they are to helping the suffering of others. A master class in ominous, insinuating mise-en-scène, this is the ultimate Polanski skin-crawler and one of cinema’s supreme paranoid fantasias. Fernando F. Croce


The Brood

5. The Brood (David Cronenberg, 1979)

The longing and the sense of tragedy that were beginning to peak through at the end of Rabid are allowed to blossom in The Brood. David Cronenberg’s interests aren’t quite as explicitly psychosexual in nature as usual, as he turns instead to the cycles of damage, repression, and abuse that originate in the nuclear family. The film marks the beginning of his career as a significant formalist, though it’s also as raw and primal as anything he’s made. The pent-up emotional turmoil suggests at times what Bergman might’ve done with a horror film, and it features one of Cronenberg’s most audacious metaphors: a group of vengeful mutant children who’re conjured from the rage of a deeply troubled woman. This woman passes her psychic torment on to everyone even peripherally in her path, most devastatingly of all to her young daughter, who may soon begin to grow her own creatures, born of inescapable, inexpressible anger that’s provoked by the seemingly predestined trauma of life with family. Bowen


Invasion of the Body Snatchers

4. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978)

Throughout Invasion of the Body Snatchers, one of the subtlest and most extraordinarily fluid of American horror films, Philip Kaufman crafts textured scenes, rich in emotional and object-centric tactility, that cause our heads to casually spin with expectation and dread. Kaufman and screenwriter W.D. Richter fuse paranoia, eroticism, and flippancy to arrive at their own distinctly flakey yet intense genre-movie style. The filmmakers have gone out of their way to devise scenes which are set in places that have rarely hosted a horror-movie set piece before, such as a dry-cleaner’s, a book store, and the creepy swamp-colored spa that provides their film with one of its shock centerpieces. The soundtrack is particularly unnerving when we get a prolonged glimpse at how the pod people hatch out of the flowers blooming all over the city, which Kaufman stages as a simultaneous birth and rape. Bowen


The Wicker Man

3. The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)

A film that’s become synonymous with British horror, The Wicker Man follows a conservative Christian policeman (Edward Woodward) seeking a missing girl on a Hebridean island inhabited by pagans. The first half has an (intentional) air of the faintly ridiculous about it, embodied equally by Christopher Lee’s gloriously campy portrayal of the cult’s leader and the life-on-the-island sequences that are Pythonesque in their absurdist look at culture clash. But the film’s impish wit and soft, Arcadian glow belie its cruel streak. The gathering clouds of unease building into a shocking third act that’s aesthetically and structurally reminiscent of the end of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, possibly the highest praise one can give to the conclusion of a horror film. Abimanyu Das


Don’t Look Now

2. Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)

Don’t Look Now is driven by a crushing sense of emotional desolation. The phrase “psychic thriller,” which was used to market the film, is technically true, but misleading, given that psychics are normally used by directors as springboards for action set pieces or as agents for ushering forth the explicit arrival of ghosts. There are certainly ghosts in Don’t Look Now, and maybe even the kind that populate traditional horror stories, but the prevailing specters here are those that people come to know through disappointment or tragedy as allusions to things lost or desired, which have a way of suddenly opening mental portals to the past, and, in the case of this film and quite a bit of supernatural fiction, the future. Don’t Look Now suggests a ghost story that Faulkner may have written, as it offers characters who’re at the mercy of their streams of consciousness. There’s barely a present tense here at all, as it’s swallowed up by what’s already happened and what will happen. Bowen


The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

1. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)

Opening in utter darkness illuminated by sudden, dreadful flashes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre begins with a police report describing a violated corpse as “a grisly work of art,” a term that also applies perfectly to Tobe Hooper’s legendary grindhouse masterpiece. A rough-hewn American Gothic canvas, the film charts the trajectory of a batch of youngsters from a clammy van to the dangling hooks of an abbatoir run by a cannibalistic clan. Materializing in the middle of the horror genre’s most transgressive decade, this is a cacophony of piercing shrieks, metallic clanks, and roaring machinery that looks back to Psycho’s view of ingrown monsters even as it outdoes the older film in sheer, visceral impact. Snapshot of Vietnam-era outrage? Indictment of all-devouring capitalism? Blood-spattered redneck Theater of Cruelty? Yes to all, plus the screen’s most grueling portrait of mushrooming terror. Decades of sequels, remakes, and imitators can’t take away its scabrous power. Croce

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