This feature is Part One (of Two) in an extensive list of highlights and heartfelt recommendations from the last 50 years of horror cinema . . .
1968: There are two truly noteworthy zombie movies that came out in 1968: the undeniable classic Night of the Living Dead and the endearingly awful Astro Zombies (some even consider it the worst film ever made!). But for my money, nothing tops Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby when it comes to existential dread and the anxieties and paranoias of urban living, as well as the socially imposed restrictions that treat women like baby machines with no agency. After fifty years, that at least still rings true, but recent right-backed legal policy coming out of this administration means that we really haven’t come as far as we would like to think.
1969: This wasn’t a great year for horror cinema; in fact, of all the frightful flicks that came out this year, the only one I consider to have much staying power is the pilot for Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone follow-up Night Gallery, which aired about a week after Halloween on November 8. Although the program itself is a mixed bag that errs heavily on the side of nonsense and lacks much of the gravitas of its spiritual predecessor, this premiere consists of three shorts: “The Cemetery,” which is genuinely unsettling and cost young Boomer many a night’s sleep; “Eyes,” about a rich woman’s desire to see again, no matter the cost to others; and “The Escape Route,” in which a Nazi gets his just desserts (not to get political two entries in a row, but I have to point out that you can tell this one is fiction because the Nazi gets treated to a fate he deserves, unlike the American Nazis we see now).
1970: 1970 may have been the year that gave us Equinox, a triumph of amateur cinema and Harryhausen-esque special effects, but it also gave the world its first look into the directorial mind of Dario Argento, and longtime readers of the site know I simply can’t overlook The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. See my review of that one here for more!
1971: Argento churned out a second film in less than a year for a 1971 release date with Cat o’ Nine Tails, but I didn’t care for that one as much as Plumage. In fact, in my opinion, the best horror film of 1971 was Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, a psychological thriller that airs on local broadcast television pretty frequently, having lapsed into that gray market that’s not quite the public domain, but may as well be. Despite the fact that it was met with a lukewarm reception by critics of the time, the film is tense and serves as an interesting peek into the times in which it was made. I’m hesitant to say more for fear of spoiling it for future viewers, but it’s well worth the viewing.
1972: The late Wes Craven had a sick thing about mothers. For every Heather Langenkamp protecting her son in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (see Brandon’s revisit of the film here), there are a dozen Amanda Kruegers getting raped by countless asylum inmates in A Nightmare on Elm Street: Dream Warriors. Last House on the Left is a movie with a distressingly gross approach to sexpolitick, but it is nonetheless an important part of horror cinema history and demands to be seen, if you can stomach it. Acting as a kind of spiritual remake of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (which was itself an adaptation of a European folktale, as explored in this video by Leon Thomas), this serves as an interesting companion piece to Rosemary’s Baby but in a suburban, not urban setting, and about the other kind of horror that parents are inherently subject to: loss.
1973: The Exorcist may be the most famous horror film of 1973, and was the highest grossing horror movie of all time until its box office earnings were surpassed by IT this year, but although William Friedkin’s adaptation is an undisputed classic, I’ve always found The Wicker Man to be a creepier film with a slower build and a better ending. There’s a distinctly pagan feeling to the film that adds an air of discomfort to the proceedings that the polish on Friedkin’s film can’t match. If you’re only familiar with the title because of the terrible/campy Nic Cage remake, you’re doing yourself a disservice by not tracking down the original.
1974: Although I’ve been known to sing the praises of the late Tobe Hooper’s seminal work (and perhaps his opus, give or take however much credence you lend to the stories that Poltergeist was ghost-directed by Spielberg) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the most truly original horror film of the year was Bob Clark’s underrated holiday masterpiece Black Christmas. Years before Halloween, Clark set this proto-slasher during the winter holiday and focused on the travails of a group of sorority sisters who are at first amused by a series of dirty phone calls before they start to disappear one by one. Every character in this film feels real, from each housemate to their alcoholic house mother, and the non-ending makes the whole thing that much more terrifying. It’s a must-see.
1975: Although there’s debate over whether Profundo Rosso (Deep Red) or Suspiria is Argento’s true masterpiece, Rosso works better as a thriller while Suspiria works more as an art house nightmare. 1975 gave us the former, as well as the remarkably well-done Jaws and the frequently-cheesy-but-still-great Karen Black vehicle Trilogy of Terror, but my absolute favorite horror movie of 1975 is the fantastic The Stepford Wives. Even 40 years later, the central conceit of the film still stands the test of time. Even though a little reworking (as evidenced in this year’s Get Out) can adapt the plot to apply the timeless story of disenfranchisement, gaslighting, and the presumption of moral authority because of social power, the original remains as haunting today as it did the year it was released. The only thing scarier is how terrible the remake was.
1976: It was a tough call between The Omen and what I ultimately chose as my favorite horror movie of 1976, but as much as I love the slow burn of Damien and his various acts of evil, Richard Donner’s story of the birth and early childhood of the Antichrist simply doesn’t affect me as much as Brian DePalma’s Carrie, the first of many, many, many adaptations of Stephen King’s works to hit the big and small screens. Sissy Spacek is simply too captivating an actress to ignore here, and Piper Laurie has never been better than she is in this film as the hysterical mother of the main character. The ending is just as much a part of the public consciousness as the reveal at the end of Psycho, but the fact that the finale is a foregone conclusion makes the film that much more tragic, really.
1977: It’s no surprise that I’m picking Suspiria as my top movie for this year, but because I’ve written about it extensively both here and in other places, I want to take this opportunity to recommend the Japanese horror flick House (a.k.a. Hausu), which is similar in a lot of ways. Both films feature a cast composed almost entirely of women in their later years of schooling, visiting the unusual home of an older woman and facing apparitions and other horrors. But where Suspiria plays the haunted house concept to create a discomfiting dream, Hausu is more comedic, featuring bizarre cat monsters, seemingly hungry pianos, and various other absurdities that I won’t spoil for you here. It’s a must-see, even if you can’t get your hands on the Criterion version.
1978: What a great year for horror! In addition to cult classics like I Spit on Your Grave!, we also had John Carpenter’s undisputed masterpiece of slasher horror Halloween, which introduced the world to Jamie Lee Curtis and Michael Meyers. We were also blessed to receive George Romero’s return to the world of his first masterpiece with the improved (your mileage may vary) sequel Dawn of the Dead, which is my favorite of his zombie films, not least of all because it features being barricaded in a mall against the mindless undead horde outside, which was an idle daydream of many children, myself included. But it’s actually Romero’s other 1978 release, the post-modern vampire film Martin, that’s my favorite horror film of the year. It hasn’t aged as well as others (our titular protagonist is a sexual predator in addition to his blood hunger), but it definitely holds a special place in my heart. Despite all of his problems, Martin remains sympathetic, and the film serves as an excellent companion piece to Carrie in its demonstration of the way that the cycle of psychological abuse can take root in a family and repeat over and over again. The audience is consistently confronted with its presumptions and forced to question whether or not there’s anything wrong with Martin other than being told that he is “unclean” for his whole life, and the way that this received abuse harms his psyche and makes him act out in a predictable, if horrifying, fantasy.
1979: Again, it’s no surprise that I’m picking Alien as my best horror movie of 1979, since, as has previously been noted here, it’s my favorite horror film of all time. But I also think it’s important to point out some of the other horror classics, both seminal and forgotten, that came out the same year. Five years after Black Christmas pioneered the “The call is coming from inside the house!” horror element, When a Stranger Calls perfected it. Young Carol Kane, whose career is largely comedic, plays against type as the frightened babysitter who is terrorized by a series of calls that are coming from, well, you know (all I ask is that you avoid the 2000s remake like the plague). 1979 also saw the release of the first Phantasm, a series that grew increasingly absurd as time wore on but is still surprisingly watchable and creepy, and I’m surprised that the Tall Man antagonist has never entered the mainstream horror fandom in the way that Freddy, Michael, and Jason did (although his influence on the Slenderman creepypasta can’t be denied). I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention David Cronenberg’s The Brood, which helped introduce him to a larger audience, and is one of his best works, even in comparison to more successful features that followed, like Scanners and The Dead Zone.
1980: A lot of people would immediately jump to the conclusion that The Shining is the scariest movie of 1980, and they may be right. Kubrick’s opus (give or take a 2001 or a Barry Lyndon or whatever) is probably the best remembered of his oeuvre in the mainstream, and it’s a film that has continued to terrify two successive generations, much to Stephen King’s chagrin. It’s a movie that needs no recommendation, so I won’t bother with wasting your time. However, an oft-overlooked film is Watcher in the Woods, a Halloween favorite of my childhood and beyond, and I can’t recommend it enough. Still, my favorite horror flick of 1980 has to be Altered States, starring William Hurt as a man whose experiments with hallucinogenic drugs and human psychic regression go further than he could have expected and have an effect on him that no one could have foreseen. Although silly at points, it’s a film with unforgettable imagery that will haunt you for weeks after, from multi-eyed goat creatures being crucified in Hurt’s visions to Hurt’s protohuman monster stalking about and making dangerous mischief, Altered States never gets old no matter how many times one sees it.
1981: The best horror movie of 1981 is actually a horror comedy, John Landis’s greatest creation (sorry, Max), An American Werewolf in London. I recognize this, and acknowledge that it is technically and narratively superior to Scanners, but I still find the Cronenberg flick to be more entertaining (if that’s even the word) on a personal level. The likelihood of something horrible happening to an entire generation because of poor pharmaceutical screening and a tendency to treat pregnancy as an ailment or illness has a greater verisimilitude than the possibility of lycanthropy, especially given that Thalidomide was given to pregnant women in Canada, resulting in a huge number of physical birth defects, and this was likely the inspiration for the film. If you’re only familiar with Scanners because of that one exploding head gif, then you’re missing out.
1982: When I first wrote my review of 1982’s Pieces, over two years ago, I stated that it “set the bar high as my new standard for horror comedy.” Although revisitations of the film outside of the Alamo Drafthouse’s Terror Tuesdays yielded a less exciting experience, it’s still a great film. Other films that I’ve reviewed before from this year include Basket Case and Tenebrae, which are both contenders for the best of the year, as is John Carpenter’s pinnacle creature feature The Thing, but my hands-down favorite has to be Poltergeist, which I was fortunate enough to see in 70 MM earlier this year and loved every minute of it. The hysteria of suburbia, the horror of undead meat, the premature celebration over the supposed “cleansing” of the house: this is a movie that sticks with you. No matter how many times I see it, Poltergeist never gets old.
1983: If you’re a Stephen King fan, 1983 was a good year for you, as it featured Lewis Teague’s adaptation of Cujo, the release of John Carpenter’s movie version of Christine, and David Cronenberg’s understated The Dead Zone film. But it’s Cronenberg’s other big release that year, Videodrome, that I hold in the highest regard. Few films have stayed with me as long as this one has, in all of its gruesome body horror. Few films so capture a descent into madness with such style and substance. “Long live the new flesh!” may be the film’s most well known mantra, but my personal favorite comes to my mind most often: don’t be afraid to let your body die.
1984: A Nightmare on Elm Street was released in 1984, and although the series overall is my favorite franchise to be born out of the slasher wave of the seventies and eighties (over Friday the 13th, Halloween, and Child’s Play), and the first film saved New Line Cinema from bankruptcy, it’s not my favorite horror film of that year. Nor is Silent Night, Deadly Night the top contender either, although I have a fondness for its absurdity in spite of its more troubling aspects. The year truly belongs to Night of the Comet, though: a film about two teenage sisters who survive an apocalyptic comet fly-by. Those who were not protected are atomized instantly, while those who were partially protected slowly turn into mutated zombies. Full of some of film’s best post-apocalyptic vistas, great performances from young actors, and a breakneck pace that moves from one situation to another (Mall! Radio Station! Government Bunker!), this is one to catch, even if it is no longer available with the easy access Netflix used to provide.
1985: Although Phenomena is my favorite Argento film, I have to give Fright Night the award for my favorite horror movie of 1985. It’s a film that speaks directly to the heart of every horror fan who let their imagination carry them to places outside the realm of reason, as well as all those who discovered a love of creature features with the help of a host like Elvira or Joe Bob Briggs. Despite a terrible remake featuring David Tennant and the late Anton Yelchin, the legacy of the original (starring Roddy McDowall, William Ragsdale, and Chris Sarandon at his most sultry and scary) remains untarnished–except maybe by the sequel.
1986: I have to profess a certain fondness for Slaughter High, a mediocre slasher film that relies on nerd revenge fantasies to carry what little emotional load it has. With a tagline like “Marty majored in cutting classmates,” you’d think that the film could do no wrong, but the plot meanders like a stumbling drunk and the stilted cinematography is boring. It only works as much as it does because of my association with the title (Slaughter is also the name of the town in which I grew up) and some pretty inventive (if occasionally nonsensical) kills. Instead, I’d like to highlight the refreshing Troll, a film that has been completely forgotten in lieu of the infamy of its in-name-only sequel, which has enough of a cult following that it spawned a documentary. The original film starts The Neverending Story‘s Noah Hathaway as Harry Potter Jr. (it’s a coincidence), a teen whose family moves into a new apartment in a building that is haunted by an evil troll. It’s essentially a kid flick that’s light on gore but manages to creep, while also featuring a cavalcade of burnouts, future stars, and others: June and Anne Lockhart, Sonny Bono, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Warwick Davis, and Michael Moriarty.
1987: Another great year, with the first feature to be based on a work of Clive Barker (Hellraiser), the “baby’s first horror movie” of myself and many others (The Gate), and the second film of John Carpenter’s apocalypse trilogy (Prince of Darkness), but no movie from this year captures my fancy and interest quite like Jackie Kong’s Blood Diner, a tongue-in-cheek parody of the more serious 1963 seminal splatterer Blood Feast. Despite only a few titles to her name and a depressingly short career, Kong remains one of the best examples of a successful female horror director, and Blood Diner is her masterpiece. You can read Brandon’s review of the film here.
1988: More pretentious and short-sighted critics than those of us here at Swampflix love to complain about the number of franchise entries and sequels that we’re dealing with in today’s cinemas, but the eighties, and specifically 1988 and 1989, were in many ways worse. This is the year that gave us Hellbound: Hellraiser II, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, Friday the 13th Part 6, Halloween 4, Sleepaway Camp II, Return of the Living Dead Part II, Poltergeist III, Fright Night Part 2, Critters 2: The Main Course, Zombi 3 and Phantasm II. It also gave us original flicks like the oft-forgotten Pumpkinhead, Lair of the White Worm, Brain Damage, and Child’s Play, which terrified me more as a child than any other film save perhaps Puppetmaster. It’s been a long time, and the law of diminishing returns has meant that each sequel further watered down the terror of Chucky, but there’s still a lot to be frightened by here, as a child (whose doll is possessed by a murderer and no adult believes him) and as an adult (a parent whose child seems to be committing heinous acts of violence and blaming his toys). It’s a rare film that ages with you and puts you on both sides of the horrific events, and I respect that.
1989: Silent Night, Deadly Night 3! C.H.U.D. II: Bud the C.H.U.D.! Stepfather 2! Sleepaway Camp 3! Beyond the Door III! Howling v: The Rebirth! Amityville 4! Friday the 13th Part VIII! Nightmare on Elm Street 5! Yet another banner year for sequels, and a crop of truly terrible ones at that. It’s no surprise we have to look outside of the American studio system for my favorite horror flick of the year. Sure, Pet Sematary is decent and I think that Leviathan deserves more fond remembrance than it is usually awarded (and I would be remiss if I didn’t note that Society was made in 1989, even if it wasn’t released until 1992), but there’s nothing that came out this year that tops La chiesa. Read my review of it here.
1990: This is a tough one. Rob Reiner’s Misery is an amazing movie, and my one of the best Stephen King adaptations for the big screen, up there with Kubrick’s The Shining, Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, and DePalma’s Carrie. I also have a real fondness for Tremors, which is as pitch perfect as a deconstruction of giant monster movies as Scream is for slashers. But I have to give Jacob’s Ladder the prize here. Despite having a twist ending that has been spoiled by pop cultural osmosis (like Psycho before it and The Sixth Sense that followed), this is a film of deep sorrow, anxiety, and fear, and it will haunt your dreams for longer that you’d expect. If you haven’t seen it already, skip checking out any information about it and go straight to the video store (analog or online) and see this film before it can be ruined for you.
1991: In my review of last year’s Don’t Breathe, I noted some similarities, both superficial and not, to The People Under the Stairs, one of the oft-overlooked films of Wes Craven’s career. It’s hard to recommend this film without giving away too much of its central thesis, but it is noteworthy that the film tackles race with a surprisingly deft hand for a director who was both white and 50 years old (and thus the epitome of “The Man”) at the time of production. This isn’t even getting into the fact that Craven was never a man of great subtlety (see the above discussion of Last House on the Left). Somehow, he managed to create a film that is more complex than the larger part of his body of work while also expressing frustration at gentrification, the forced creation of urban ghettos, and the rise of the slum lord. It’s not only his most nuanced work (comparatively), it’s also his most socially relevant.
1992: And speaking of socially, relevant my favorite horror movie of 1992 is the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer! Nah, I’m just kidding, it’s Army of Darkness! Nah, still kidding, although those are both a lot of fun. No, I’m talking about Candyman, which takes the childhood game of Bloody Mary and transposes it to Chicago’s South Side, giving the title monster, played by Tony Todd, a sympathetic back story in which he was murdered by a racist mob because of his interracial marriage. That aspect of the story is mostly overlooked in order for director Bernard Rose to create some of the most enduring horror imagery of the 1990s. That rib cage covered with bees? Geesh. It’s no surprise that contemporary horror like American Horror Story continues to use elements of this film, including not only the bee imagery that is an integral part of this year’s Cult storyline, but also protagonist Helen’s leitmotif, composed by Phillip Glass, which the show uses often.
Read Part 2 here.