10 Great Underrated 1970s American Movie Classics You Probably Haven’t Seen

6. Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972)

By the turn of the new decade, zombies were becoming a new fad in B movie horror. While Hammer raged on with continuing vampiric hellishness, the “cult” horror genre began to establish itself. Films like The Wicker Man and The Blood on Satan’s Claw brought controversial alternative worship closer into the mainstream, films grabbing headlines and outrage for their nudity, violence and sexual ambiguity. Zombies, those rotten, pus-brained freaks, continued to remain on the outside looking in. Though Night of the Living Dead had been a sizeable box office hit, and indeed Hollywood had knocked on Romero’s door to make a speedy sequel (he relented), zombie films were still very much low budget trash. A few gems crept in there amidst the outpouring of dross, but for the most part, zombie cinema was for the trolls.

So that said, here’s a weird one, but also a pretty seminal entry into the classic canon. For a sub-genre always a little more tongue in cheek than most “straight faced” horror, comedy was inevitably going to come to the plate, and Bob Clark’s truly mad Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things was the first offering. An ultra low budget flick shot on $50,000, it was written by Clark and Alan Omsby, with a cast of friends and family filling out the roles.

The plot focuses on Alan (played by Ormsby himself) and his acting theatre troupe, over whom he was a kind of dictatorial hold. When they arrive on an island by boat which is used as a graveyard for insane criminals, he gets a thrill out of scaring his actors and hams up the island’s supernatural elements in the cottage they are staying in. Alan digs up the rotting body of Orville and begins to torment the actors with the corpse. When a jokey séance firstly appears to have no effect, eventually the ritual helps bring the dead to life, and the actors are holed up in the cottage (Night of the Living Dead anyone?) fighting off a horde of zombies.

Any zombie fan has to admit that this film is a hell of a lot of fun and I personally took great delight in seeing the vile Alan character get what he deserved. The acting may be slightly hammy at times, and the filming is creaky and cheap to modern standards, but you can see the influence of the movie on a lot of subsequent instalments in the zombie genre. It pre-dates the slasher flick, which I would dare say it helped influence, and it also has a vibe of Texas Chainsaw Massacre about it too. (Funnily enough, one of the zombies looks remarkably like Leatherface.)

While a little buried in time now, Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things definitely deserves more credit for putting a bit of fun and comedy into the zombie world. Clark would become more well known for A Christmas Story and Black Christmas, but this is well worth a look too. The final, slowed down images of the zombies invading the house don’t leave the mind for a while either. Strong stuff indeed.


7. The Domino Principle (1977)

The Domino Principle (1977) is another recognised dud in Gene Hackman’s mid to late 1970s output, but one that I feel deserves more credit than it gets. Critically mauled at the time, it stars Hackman as Roy Tucker, a man imprisoned for murder who receives an offer in jail from someone who will help him escape, but only if he promises to work for an “organisation” upon release.

For a film with such a bad reputation, The Domino Principle is actually really good. Opening with a great shot of a melancholic Hackman in close up, peering through his cell bars, he immediately makes you interested in the tale that follows. It may not be the greatest film he made, but it’s a strong effort that should not be overlooked. From his early interactions with cell mate Mickey Rooney, to his tense shenanigans on the outside, Gene gives his part intensity, a brooding resentment that makes Tucker a classic Hackman figure.

It’s a thriller with little depth, granted, but it keeps you intrigued and fully involved to the very end. An under-appreciated gem in my view, The Domino Principle is vintage Hackman in anti hero action mode – and it’s brilliant.


8. Drive, He Said (1971)

Drive, He Said (1971)

When people think of Jack Nicholson as director (if they ever really do), they might usually go straight for the ill-fated but actually rather enjoyable Chinatown sequel, The Two Jakes, released in 1990. Of course, Jack had directed films before (twenty years earlier in fact), and his debut came with 1971’s Drive He Said, a buried gem worthy of lost classic status.

Now a major movie star in his own right due to the recent success of Five Easy Pieces, Jack wanted to fulfil a dream, and decided to stay behind the camera and focus on bringing his vision to life. Based on the book by Jeremy Larner, it follows William Tepper as Hector, a basketball star who is seeing the wife of his professor, played by the brilliant Karen Black. A film of its time, set in an early 70s college campus, it manages to highlight a lot of the social issues of the era without coming across as hopelessly dated and meaningless to modern audiences. Unlike the groovy exploitation films he was a part of in the late sixties (The Trip and Psych Out for instance), Drive, He Said remains grounded, despite keeping proceedings firmly in the time frame.

Nicholson proved himself to be a brilliant director – once he got the chance to get behind the camera, that is. The film didn’t cause too big a dint in the box office charts, but it did go down a storm at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, with its sex scene causing outrage, resulting in post-screening fights in the crowd. Today, it’s rather tame, but at the time Jack knew he was covering new ground. Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately when you consider he might have given up acting had he had more chances to direct – the movie did not propel Jack into the big league as a major director.

Like Dennis Hopper, directing was his true ambition, and as with Hopper, his career as a personal filmmaker didn’t take off. Whereas Hopper committed commercial suicide with his own 1971 picture, The Last Movie (an underrated movie in my view), Jack at least retained his dignity, and had acting to return to when the film failed to set the world alight. Still, it had been a worthy experiment.

Some of the critical reaction to the film was very positive, but it disappeared into time rather quickly. Thankfully it has been given a US Criterion release, and Nicholson fans owe it to themselves to seek it out.


9. Valentino (1977)

In what was his most exciting and productive decade, Valentino was Ken Russell’s last major feature movie of the 1970s, and was perhaps his most lavish production yet. It was also the point where the Ken doubters lost their patience. His run of controversial box office smashes came to an end, and reality, that awful dirty word, hit him in the face. After early critical and commercial successes with the likes of Women in Love, The Devils, The Boyfriend and Tommy, many thought that Ken was beginning to lose his grip on reality. Others only thought he was becoming freer.

Casting Rudolf Nureyev as silent film icon Rudolph Valentino may have seemed a fitting choice for Ken at first, but he was to regret the decision, for Nureyev and Russell became each other’s nemeses. The film was hard to make, due to the clashing of egos, and when released it was a huge flop, both at the box office and with the critics. Ken later called the film the worst decision of his career.

Time has been good to Valentino though, and these days it shines, while even Ken himself ended up separating the hard time he had making it from the artistic results. Ken’s wife Lisi later said that Ken knew the film killed his career and for a long time had hated it. Seeing the movie again at a screening years later however, he turned to her and said it was a masterpiece. Finally, he had made peace with his most notorious alleged turkey.

Though panned and not cherished today as much as his earlier work, there are moments in Valentino as good as the best of Russell. Nureyev, a distinct Russian playing an Italian, struggles with the voice (it’s uncertain to say the least) but he plays, moves and feels like Valentino. Russell, as ever, however, is the true star of the show, giving us one stunning visual after another, a true filmmaker given free reign to expand our minds.


10. Boxcar Bertha (1972)

Martin Scorsese’s Boxcar Bertha tells the tale of Bertha Thompson, played by a young Barbara Hershey, and her train robbing accomplice Big Bill (David Carradine), who get entangled with rail road workers and become outlaws when Bertha is accused of murdering a rich gambler.

Produced by Roger Corman, Boxcar Bertha was met with a muted release and these days is sidelined in Scorsese’s career. And it’s easy to see why upon first viewing. Some have said Boxcar Bertha feels like an excuse to show some bare breasts and bloody shoot outs, and even Hershey herself once said the film is “terribly crippled” by Corman’s insistence on exploitative nudity and violence. It’s ironic to consider, then, that only two years later Marty would direct the ultimate proto-feminist movie, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

But the film does have a lot going for it, and in my view should not be viewed as a mere prologue to Marty’s career. OK, so Hershey and Carradine are definitely no Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, but we care enough about them to hope they get away, despite their devious crimes.

Boxcar Bertha attracted mixed reviews, though some found it appealing, with Roger Ebert noting Scorsese’s distinct eye. The important phrase in Ebert’s original review is the fact that Scorsese made a fine film “within the limits”. Indeed, with a half-million dollar budget, a producer who enforced a rule of guaranteed nudity and violence, and so little time, there was only so much an artist like Scorsese could pull off. Though not a personal film for him, there were aspects of Boxcar Bertha which appealed to Marty.

There were also key scenes he would draw inspiration from for later work, like the brilliant crucifixion sequence, destined to fascinate and delight a young Scorsese. Indeed, it’s worth watching for this scene alone, a classic slice of Scorsese gold which refuses to flinch, save for the fact we do not see the piercing of flesh.