The 1970s was a seminal decade in cinema including the horror genre. Sadly pillaged for remakes by film producers looking for “pre-awareness product”, this period remains one of the greatest in the history of horror cinema.
This article will look at must-see horror films of that decade that, while not obscure in most cases, are routinely pushed aside in genre conversations in favor of focus on the widely accepted classics such as William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Dario Argento’s Suspiria, John Carpenter’s Halloween, George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Ridley Scott’s Alien.
When looking at this particular take on select horror films of the 1970s, readers are advised to keep in mind that all film writing-from the casual to the academic-is based on personal taste.
Those looking for Steven Spielberg’s Duel, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive, Jeff Lieberman’s Squirm or Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm will not find those films here and this article is not for any reader wishing to argue about whether or not any of the following entries are “true horror films” as they all are.
The films are in chronological by release year.
1. Count Yorga, Vampire (Bob Kelljan, 1970)
Screenplay by Kelljan
2. The Return of Count Yorga (Bob Kelljan, 1971)
Screenplay by Kelljan & Yvonne Wilder
Lead actor Robert Quarry turns in outstanding performances in this pair of highly memorable low-budget vampire films.
The makers of the first Count Yorga film initially had a horror-oriented softcore sex movie in mind but Quarry convinced them to transform the production into a serious horror film with excellent results especially given the limited resources available to the filmmakers.
The film was a hit for distributor American International Pictures and a bigger budget was put into the sequel which is superior to the original.
Quarry went on to appear in the AIP horror films Dr. Phibes Rises Again, Sugar Hill and Madhouse, with the company positioning him as a replacement for their aging horror headliner Vincent Price but AIP stopped making horror films around this time so that plan was never fully realized.
Quarry’s AIP contract prevented him from taking the offered vampire role in 1972’s The Night Stalker TV movie but the actor teamed with director Ray Danton for a non-AIP vampire film called Deathmaster in 1972 which unfortunately falls well below the Count Yorga films in terms of quality.
3. The Andromeda Strain (Robert Wise, 1971)
Screenplay by Nelson Gidding based on the Michael Crichton novel
A group of scientists tries to contain and destroy a lethal alien virus while studying a pair of unlikely survivors who first came into contact with it in this highly underrated film.
Centering on the solid acting ensemble of Arthur Hill, James Olson, David Wayne and Kate Reid, The Andromeda Strain builds to a highly suspenseful climax wherein one of the scientists must navigate his way through a battery of lasers in order to prevent their underground lab from self-destructing. The inevitable remake of this great film took the form of a very lackluster 2008 TV mini-series.
4. Blacula (William Crain, 1972)
Screenplay by Joan Torres & Raymond Koenig
As Robert Quarry had done with the first Count Yorga movie, Blacula star William Marshall convinced the filmmakers to create a more serious-minded horror film than they had originally intended.
A film unfairly dismissed by some, William Marshall’s charismatic performance as the deadly vampire Mamuwalde makes Blacula a 70s horror film must-see.
A lesser sequel co-starring blaxploitation legend Pam Grier was made by the Count Yorga films director Bob Kelljan in 1973. The late William Marshall should have had a much more substantial feature film career and would’ve been the perfect casting choice to play the lead villain in such films as John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981) and John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian (1982) over Isaac Hayes and James Earl Jones.
5. Deathdream (aka Dead of Night, Bob Clark, 1972)
Screenplay by Alan Ormsby
The late director Clark had a highly varied career. Best known for the horror film Black Christmas (1974) and the comedies Porky’s (1982) and A Christmas Story (1983), his low-budget take on the classic W.W. Jacobs short story “The Monkey’s Paw” deals with the unexpected homecoming of a young soldier killed in Vietnam.
His return wreaks havoc on everyone around him as the soldier exhibits strange behavior then embarks on a series of killings in order to keep his body from decaying.
Although rough in the way many low-budget films from young directors are, Deathdream is a far better film than Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things-another of Clark’s early career horror collaborations with screenwriter Ormsby.
6. The Night Stalker (John Llewellyn Moxey, 1972)
Teleplay by Richard Matheson based on the Jeff Rice story
Many cite Steven Spielberg’s 1971 Duel as the apex of the 1970s TV horror film wave but the highly accomplished vampire film The Night Stalker holds up much better over time.
Anchored by veteran actor Darren McGavin’s highly memorable performance as newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak, The Night Stalker spawned a lesser Kolchak TV film The Night Strangler in 1973, a fondly remembered 20-episode TV series in 1974 that was an obvious inspiration for The X-Files series, a short-lived TV series reboot in 2005 and an announced feature film.
Legendary writer Richard Matheson-who also wrote the Duel teleplay based on his own short story-penned both of the Kolchak TV movies but was unfortunately not involved in the actual Kolchak television series.
7. The Asphyx (Peter Newbrook, 1973)
Screenplay by Christina Beers, Laurence Beers & Brian Comport
This frequently overlooked British horror gem stars Robert Stephens and Robert Powell as scientists who identify then attempt to capture the spirit of death in the aftermath of a tragedy.
The men create highly dangerous near-death situations to try to draw the creature out with grim and unexpected results. Fans of Stephen King’s novel The Green Mile and Frank Darabont’s screen adaptation of the book will recognize elements from the ending of The Asphyx.
8. A Cold Night’s Death (Jerrold Freedman, 1973)
Teleplay by Christopher Knopf
This outstanding but little-seen TV movie stars Robert Culp and Eli Wallach as a pair of scientists doing primate research in an isolated polar research station.
When inexplicable disturbances start to occur, the researchers start to suspect they are not alone in the station.
Tight and atmospheric, this is an example of a great TV film of the 70s never receiving a proper video or DVD release. Also known by the less compelling title The Chill Factor.
9. Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)
Screenplay by Allan Scott & Chris Bryant based on the Daphne Du Maurier story
Highlighted by its rich atmosphere, unique editing and stunning final moments, Don’t Look Now is the tale of a couple played by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie who travel to Venice in the wake of the accidental death of their daughter.
There they encounter a mysterious figure in the same kind of red raincoat their daughter died in and a psychic who claims to be in contact with the dead girl.
10. The Legend of Hell House (John Hough, 1973)
Screenplay by Richard Matheson based on his novel “Hell House”
Iconic genre writer Matheson adapts his own novel for the screen with this tale of a group hired by a wealthy patron to investigate “the Mount Everest of haunted houses” in an effort to gain evidence about life after death.
Roddy McDowall delivers a strong performance as a psychic who is the only survivor of a previous attempt to uncover the secrets of the deadly Belasco house.
Being a Richard Matheson creation, this particular entry in the subgenre is a more visceral experience than one usually finds in haunted house films. The Belasco house doesn’t merely slam doors and produce unusual sounds, it actively fights back against intruders.
Fans of the fake trailers in 2007’s Grindhouse will find a strong Legend of Hell House influence in Edgar Wright’s supremely entertaining entry Don’t.