In podcasts passim we’ve made our feelings pretty clear on modern horror films, essentially that so close to all of them are trash that we’ve consigned the genre to the ignore pile. But that doesn’t seem entirely fair, so we thought we’d return to the genre’s heyday in the 70’s to look at six of the most highly regarded horrors the world has yet seen. Surely this will rekindle our love of things that go bump in the night, then stab you in your bumps? Let’s find out as we discuss Don’t Look Now, The Wicker Man, The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Omen, and Halloween.
A word of warning, we will not shy away from spoilers in this podcast, so you’ve been telt. It’s particularly applicable to Don’t Look Now and The Wicker Man, as they’ve been rather less absorbed by the pop culture zeitgeist and are therefore a little more vulnerable.
While there’s as solid an argument for putting Don’t Look Now in to the psychological thriller category as horror, it’s this cross-pollination that’s lead to it being regarded, in retrospect at least, as one of the more critically well regarded horrors of the era.
John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie respectively. Obviously) are understandably left distraught when their young daughter Christine drowns in their backyard pond. They attempt to get on with their lives by accepting a commission to restore a church in Venice, ignoring the recent news of a serial killer on the loose. John throws himself into his work, with Laura seeming to be left at more of a loose end.
In a chance meeting, Laura happens upon two sisters, Wendy (Clelia Matania) and Heather (Hilary Mason), the latter of whom may be blind in her two common or garden eyes, but her third eye is wide open. Claiming to have “the gift” of psychic abilities, she claims that she’s seen Christine in the afterlife and that she’s quite happy. Although John makes his opinion on the likelihood of this being anything other than a scam quite clear, it does give Laura some small sense of closure and starts dealing with the loss a little better.
Tensions rise when Laura wants to return to the two sisters for a seance to contact Christine, but this goes on the back burner when they receive news that their son, until now safely out of mind at boarding school, has been hospitalised in a minor accident. Laura is sent off to the airport immediately, but soon John begins seeing first his wife in the company of the sisters around town, and then glimpses of what appears to be his daughter, sporting the same distinctive red raincoat.
He gets the police involved, who detain Heather but this comes to naught, as Laura phones them from the boarding school, obviously not a brainwashed captive of the two villainous mastermind old age pensioners. Thoroughly puzzled by these events, John apologises to Heather and takes her back to her hotel, leaving just before Heather collapses into a psychic fit foretelling imminent danger to John.
And here’s where the spoilers would come in, but let’s see if we can just say that things do not go well for John after he catches another glimpse of what seems to be his daughter and gives chase.
I’ve never had a great deal of affinity for the supernatural elements so beloved of the genre. Somehow, despite all evidence to the contrary, rationality found me at a young age and gave me a fairly robust belief system of not believing in anything, be that religious, supernatural or paranormal. As such on first viewing this, in my late teens if memory serves, I was rather taken by what appears on first blush to be a psychological horror on the effects of grief that’s rejecting the paranormal elements and soon as it introduces then, at least from the central character’s perspective.
The dreamlike, or perhaps nightmarish, qualities produced by director Nicolas Roeg does a great job of building tension towards the final, shocking moment when John’s ticket is punched. Roeg’s never met a narrative he couldn’t fracture, and with the possible exception of the wonderful alienation he produced for The Man Who Fell To Earth, this may be his finest hour. There’s a strong counter-argument that this is not a film built for repeat viewing, although I do find rewatching this to be rewarding to a point.
Sutherland and Christie give compelling, meaty performances that makes the film a joy to watch, and the visuals of Venice certainly are easy on the eye. Roeg’s method of intercutting throughout the film remains a great way to keep us off balance, even when you’re expecting it, and picking up on the recurring motifs throughout the film shows that this has a layered depth that is not common to the horror genre and very enjoyable to tease apart.
Sadly knowing exactly how John meets his end does make it rather harder to invest in that story arc. While it absolutely worked for me on watching the film first time through, it’s not the sort of twist that survives any rational analysis at all.
Even with this in mind, I enjoyed revisiting this, and it holds up as a very good film from an interesting director that I hope we talk about in a future episode. Compelling narrative, great performances, very involving on the technical levels of film-making, and overall a really solid thriller cum horror.
Not, we hasten to add, the Nic Cage version. This late 1973 outing, directed by Robin St. Clair Rimington Hardy, sees mainland police Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) get wind that a young girl, Rowan Morrison, has gone missing on the remote island of Summerisle. He hops in the seaplane to start an investigation, but isn’t prepared for what he finds when he gets there.
Suspicions are immediately raised when the local bumpkins deny all knowledge of Rowan’s existence. Thinking they’re hiding something, Howie checks various sources such as the local school’s register, finding that Rowan was indeed present recently. On trying to uncover why the locals are lying to him, he finds himself exposed to the local religious beliefs, which are even more shocking to him.
Howie is a fiercely devout Christian, and the residents of Summerisle most certainly are not. While his mind appears to be blown by the school teacher describing to her kids that the maypoles to be used in the upcoming harvest festival are phallic symbols, it’s presumably starting to dribble out of his ears when he stumbles across a field full of folks copulating with wild abandon.
He appears to be thinking of a way to mass arrest the entire island when an invitation to see Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) appears, who explains, to an extent, the reasons behind the island’s peculiar religious views. His Victorian ancestors created a strain of fruit trees that would thrive in Scotland’s not hugely welcoming climate, and convinced the economically depressed islanders that worshipping the old pagan gods of the land, sun and sea would help their crops growth and, well, it sort of stuck, in defiance of all farming knowledge, even at the time. It’s not like the nitrogen fixing cycle is a modern discovery or anything.
Anyhow, Howie is led to believe that Rowan is not dead, as the islanders now claim, but that they intend to sacrifice her to improve the harvest. He sets about searching door to door to finder her, while being mocked in quite obscure fashion by the islanders, eventually infiltrating their celebrations in order to find and rescue Rowan. This does not work out well for Howie, and I remind you about that spoiler warning at the top of this show, as it transpires that this has been a trap for Howie, not a rescue mission, as the pure, virginal Howie is captured and burnt as a sacrifice to the old gods in the titular wicker man. Oh God. Oh Jesus Christ.
Now, viewing this through the lens of history, one of the more interesting things about it is how this subverted the genre norms even before they’d been properly established. While anyone who’s watched Scream will know the broadly accurate Rules of Horror, in particular that those who give in to temptations of the flesh are first in the firing line, The Wicker Man is almost the complete inverse. Our hero remains chaste, even when Brit Eckland is somehow trying to seduce him from another room, but it’s this that makes him the target, and rather than being the only one that survives, he’s the only one that’s killed.
This is another of the more experimental horrors on this list, which is something that’s not so common in modernity. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a modern horror film with such a strong affinity for folk music, for example. Indeed, ending aside, this isn’t really making any effort to horrify you, unless perhaps you’re as puritanical in your worldview as Howie is, which I don’t believe was the majority opinion in Britain back in ’73 and certainly is not now.
There’s perhaps a case that it’s unsettling, as we’re pretty much kept as much in the dark about what’s going on as Howie is, and the local customs are, by our standards, odd, although only because they have a rather less effective PR department than Christianity – communion is hardly any less objectively daft a belief than reincarnation, but again that might be the rationalist in me speaking out.
William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is one of those rare movies that has truly transcended the cinematic medium and become part of the parlance of our times. A great deal of myth surrounds the movie both as a piece of cinema and in terms of its production, attributable mainly to the fearless way in which Friedkin, working from William Peter Blatty’s screenplay of his own novel, mixed horror, sexual violence, explicit language and religion, frequently within the same scenes. Throw in a hefty dose of pea soup and the mixture is right for some blasphemous bible-baiting that had audiences in 1973 alternately screaming and, if you believe the legends, fainting in the aisles.
So prevalent are these stories along with tales of weird goings-on around the production that it’s often hard to separate the film from the fantasy, and easy to forget that, brou-ha-ha aside, The Exorcist remains a superb piece of filmmaking over four decades on since it’s release.
For anyone unfamiliar with the plot, Linda Blair is Reagan MacNeil, the young daughter of Ellen Burstyn’s Chris; an actress who has moved temporarily to Washington D.C. while filming. Reagan passes the time idly messing around with a ouija board, her mother laughing off the notion of her daughter’s new invisible friend “Captain Howdy.”
It’s not long however, before Reagan’s temperament and physical constitution take a turn for the worst, much to the bafflement of local doctors who can find nothing wrong with her, and I’m pretty sure you know much of what happens next, even if you haven’t actually seen the movie.
As Reagan’s fits become more and more violent they begin to take on a supernatural element, eventually becoming so extreme that local priest Father Karras (Jason Miller) is convinced that the only useful course of action is that most secretive of Catholic rituals, the exorcism.
Karras is deemed too inexperienced by the Catholic seniors and so they call upon the services of Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), the only readily available priest with a track record in such matters. Cue much moody lighting, rotating heads, inventive use of both language and crucifixes, and the startling suggestion that Karras’ recently deceased mother might be preoccupied with somewhat salubrious pursuits in the nether realm.
If The Exorcist sounds as though it might be steeped in histrionics then it most certainly is, though in my humble opinion once one crosses the line into matters religious it’s all degrees of insanity by default. There is some extremely vague theological debate by way of one or two offhand comments from third parties, but Blatty’s script never makes the mistake of passing judgement, instead focusing it’s efforts on relaying a bloody good yarn, and on this occasion it is all the more enjoyable for it.
While it’s difficult to argue that the movie has quite the atmospheric impact now that it did in ’73, it’s easy to see why initial audiences were caught completely off guard, and The Exorcist does still pack something of a punch. Indeed, the last time I saw this movie was 22 years ago at the tender age of fifteen, whereupon a friend suggested we watch a bootlegged VHS copy he had procured and promptly invited his mother to “enjoy” it with us. Little surprise I had no idea what to make of The Exorcist as a movie amidst the discomfort of that particular viewing. Now, with the benefit of enhanced life experience and a fearless appropriation of the word “cunt” I can finally attest to The Exorcist very much withstanding the test of time, and that it remains an atmospheric, shocking tale of horror that, while not so terrifying now, still manages to unsettle in a number of ways.
The only film on this list deemed so horrific that it was banned in the UK, becoming one of the small band of “video nasties” that were surreptitiously passed around as many-generationed VHS copies from the one shop in the region that imported a laserdisc in the mid 80s before the BBFC belatedly came to its senses. It seems particularly egregious in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s case, but we’ll get to that.
After disturbing reports of graverobbing that may affect their grandfather’s burial ground, Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and her wheelchair-bound brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain) return to their old hometown to investigate. Along for the ride are their friends Jerry (Allen Danziger), Kirk (William Vail), and Pam (Teri McMinn), further planning to take a jolly jaunt up to the Hardesty’s old homestead.
The initial signs that things are about to get really strange in the backwoods come, well, firstly from the weird old geezer sitting in a tyre, but the first hints of danger come from a goofy looking hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) who starts lamenting the (arguably) more humane methods of cattle killing at the local slaughterhouse, much preferring the simplicity of battering the cows with a hammer rather than this newfangled bolt-gun to the head idea, or the Chigurh method as I believe it’s called.
After Franklin refuses to purchase an unasked for polaroid, the hitchhiker slashes out at Franklin with a pocket-knife, leading to the freak being ejected from the campervan. They use the last of their petrol to continue on to the now dilapidated old home, despite the warnings of the apparently kindly old petrol-less petrol station owner (Jim Siedow), and set about exploring the surroundings. Kirk and Pam go off in search of a nearby swimming hole, only to find it as dry as a bone. They do however hear a generator in the middle distance, and hoping to buy some petrol from them, I guess, they head towards the ominous shack, Kirk entering only to be greeted by the hulking Leatherface (the splendidly named Gunnar Hansen) and a crushing blow to the head.
And so begins the congaline of the damned, as one by one they try to investigate where the other members of their party have gone only to find the beast that’s the reason for their disappearance, and the creepy, bone-strewn home he lives in. It seems like Sally may be able to escape after a daring dive through a second story window, but it transpires that the petrol station owner she pleads with for help is the father, I assume, of both Leatherface and the disturbed hitchhiker who returns for the final act, and he recaptures Sally for a very uncomfortable family meal along with their surprisingly not-dead, given the state of him, Grandpa (John Dugan).
Now, certainly in the UK, given its prohibition, the reputation of this film very much precedes it. It was held up as the apex of nasty violent horror, so it’s surprised me when finally watching this sometime after its debanning in 1999 to find that there’s almost no explicit violence in the film at all. Director Tobe Hooper has cleverly shot this such that, I think with the exception of one vehicle/manflesh interface scenario, the only on-screen violence is one minor knife wound and that bloodless, mid-to-long shot of a boy getting stop-hammer-timed.
You might think you saw Franklin being sliced and diced with a chainsaw, but actually, you didn’t. You might think you saw Pam being impaled on a meathook, but you actually saw someone standing on a box in front of a meathook saying, “Oh dear, how frightfully inconvenient this meathook impalement is. I shall most certainly miss my luncheon appointment with Abernathy.” That might have been the Kensington Chainsaw Massacre, actually.
Anyway, this is not to downplay the violence in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, explicit or implied, which is essentially the point of the film, Hooper reflecting the cold, graphic, heartless coverage of the outcome of violence both domestically in news footage and from Vietnam with the act of violence in the film, and unwittingly set the template for every slasher film that followed it, each upping the ante until we’re left with something like blood drenched annoyance_Hostel_.
Unquestionably, this is worth watching for the shadow it cast over every slasher film that followed it, and it’s a masterclass in effective low budget filmmaking. I do not, however, find it remotely scary or threatening in this day and age, perhaps a result of me coming to this significantly later in the day. In fact, I find much of this film unwittingly hilarious. Bar maybe the incessant whining of Franklin, I’ve no real issue with the victims, particularly Marilyn Burns who’s as good at screaming and looking scared as anyone I’ve seen, but the things she’s reacting to creates an unintended humorous juxtaposition for me.
While the masked Leatherface is a looming, monstrous presence most of the time, the lengthy scenes of him chasing Sally through the woods swinging a chainsaw just begs to be speeded up slightly with Yaketty Sax played over it, and Edwin Neal and Jim Siedow’s final act gurning is so over the top that it’s halfway through no-man’s land, getting blown up by a German landmine. True slapstick, however, ensues when Grandpa is given the honour of attempting to kill Sally with a hammer, which would be worthy of any Buster Keaton routine, were it not about attempting to kill someone with a hammer. The Korean Buster Keaton, perhaps.
So, comedy gold, for me at least. If it’s thrills and spills you’re looking for, and you’ve become accustomed to the gratuitous, explicit violence the genre’s devolved into it’s going to be tough to take this seriously. It’s historical footprint, however, does mean that this warrants viewing, but more as a historical artefact than an instrument of horror.
If that line recalls the dread night you first sat up watching The Omen as a 12-year-old having taped it off the telly then welcome to the gang.
I’m not ashamed to say that, as a young lad, I was scared out of my wits by Richard Donner’s 1976 efforts here, and The Omen still holds up as a pretty decent yarn to this day, despite having lost a great deal of it’s shock value like most of the movies we’ve discussed here.
Gregory Peck is Robert Thorn, recently promoted to the role of US Ambassador to the UK. Robert’s wife Katherine (Lee Remick) recently lost her first child during labour while the couple were resident in Italy, but is unaware of the fact that the child was stillborn. What Katherine also fails to realise is that her husband, under advice from the hospital’s priest, decides that the optimal course of action would be to swap in a newborn child whose mother has just passed away at the same time.
As you do.
Things apparently go well up until young Damien’s fifth birthday, whereupon his nanny hangs herself from the upper window of their residence in full view of the party and a STRANGE, OMINOUS LOOKING ROTTWEILER.
From this point on things go steeply downhill, with Damien’s aversion to all things church-related mirrored in the untimely and grizzly deaths of those around him who suspect something may be wrong. Amidst the chaos is news photographer Keith Jennings (David Warner), who is on to the fact evil forces are at play, a fact borne out by his discovery that STRANGE, OMINOUS MARKINGS adorn the prints he makes of photographs that seem to predict who will die next and vaguely in what manner. Keith is rightly concerned that a picture in which he has caught his own reflection seems to show one such anomaly intersecting his neck, and anyone who has seen the movie will know how spectacularly that little premonition comes to pass.
The Omen once again has a reputation for having unsettled audiences, though a lot of that may have been down to canny marketing execs witnessing how such reports bolstered the box office of The Exorcist, and in keeping with most of the other movies we’ve discussed here a good deal of that impact has since gone. Once the stage curtains are removed one sees The Omen for what it is, a porto-final Destination where one after another gruesome deaths are cued up for the delight of the audience. Where it succeeds beyond something such as Don’t Look Now is that The Omen bears little of that movie’s pretence at artistry, instead embracing itself for what it is: an audience-pleasing rollercoaster of gleeful gruel that is fast-paced enough to have better withstood the test of time.
By no means a masterpiece, The Omen is nonetheless wonderfully entertaining and still comes out on top in a grudge match against almost any modern horror movie you care to mention. Let’s just avoid any mention of the increasingly bonkers and disappointing sequels.
John “Johnny” Carpenter takes his first stab at out-and-out horror off the back of the incredible Assault on Precinct 13, which has to be in with a shout of being the world’s best sophomore directorial effort. Halloween teaches us that psychopathy starts at a very young age, with a prologue where young Michael Myers stabs his sister to death. He’s condemned to a sanitarium under the watch of Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence), for what was meant to be a long time, but Myers manages to escape. On legal advice I am at this point obliged to clarify that we are not talking about Canadian funnyman Mike Myers, or at least the becoming-less-funny-with-every-passing-yearman.
Loomis deduces that he’s likely to be heading back home to Haddonfield, Illinois and heads off there, trying to convince Sheriff Leigh Brackett (Charles Cyphers) both of Myers intents (not good) and sanity (not present). Meanwhile Myers has found a natty boiler suit and pale white mask combo that really brings out the crazy in his eyes, and sets about looking for targets near his old home. He settles on Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her two best friends, Lynda van der Klok (P. J. Soles), and the Sheriff’s daughter Annie (Nancy Loomis).
Annie and Lynda are more of the free-spirited, adventurous types, with Laurie being rather more straight laced. Both are Annie and Laurie are engaged as babysitters for Halloween night, but Annie convinces Laurie to pull double duty so that she can run off with her boyfriend. Later on, Lynda will show up with her boyfriend looking for a location for some adult funtime, and well, those aforementioned horror movie rules from Scream are very much in full effect.
That’s a rather reductive recap of the plot, but in essence there’s no narrative arc other than Myers stalking, tracking and killing his prey, with Laurie being the only one to survive thanks to her own bravery and a timely intervention from Dr. Loomis and his handgun, but, of course, you can’t truly kill the evil that Loomis believes Myers to be, leading to the run of increasing dismal sequels and remakes.
It’s easy to be a little glib about Halloween, because in a great many ways it became the template for every slasher film that followed it, certainly more so than Chainsaw Massacre, to the point where you eventually needed something like Scream to point out just how codified the genre had become. That might make Halloween the most influential film on this list, even if it’s one that might on paper be the one that’s aged the most due to it’s slew of imitators.
That’s selling it very short, though, as Halloween remains one of the most effective slasher movies there is. Carpenter has a great sense of how to build tension, through the camera movements, the framing, and yes, of course, that soundtrack. Carpenter’s naff little riffs somehow some build far more tension than an orchestral score could, not just in this film, but the others he’s composed for.
Innovation might be overselling it, but the use of Myer’s point of view was certainly not common in the genre at the time and this does a great job of bringing an audience closer to the action, and almost putting you in his shoes. I’m sure there’s a few people hoping that VR takes off to enable a new form of cinema that will put us even closer to the action. I’m not completely sure if that’s a positive trait we’re encouraging in humanity.
For a relative unknown at the time Jamie Lee Curtis puts in a compelling performance and manages to pull of that rarest of feats in the genre, being a protagonist that you actually quite like and hope doesn’t wind up on the wrong end of a blade.
While I don’t think I’ve ever found this particularly scary, I enjoy this film a great deal. Carpenter is one of my favourite writer/directors, and this is one of the six or so films of his that I really love (Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing, Escape from New York, The Fog). Most of the rest at worst I don’t mind, and we’ve all agreed not to talk about Ghosts of Mars.
So, yes, this in many regards feels like the ur-slasher, but even if the genre feels oversaturated and played out now it’s certainly worth looking again at the original that’s been photocopied so often.
We discuss our favourites from the podcast, but in the interests of science we asked the good people of Google Plus what their faves were. The results, from 151 votes were: Exorcist 51%, Halloween 22%, The Omen 15%, Texas Chainsaw 10%, and Wicker Man 3%.
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues discussed today, please hit us up on Twitter (@fudsonfilm), on Facebook (facebook.com/fudsonfilm), or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want to receive our podcast on a regular basis, please add our feed to your podcasting software of choice, or subscribe on iTunes. If you could see your way clear to leaving a review on iTunes, we’d be eternally grateful, but we won’t blame you if you don’t. We’ll be back with you on the 10th with a look at the Philip K. Dick adaptations A Scanner Darkly and Radio Free Albemuth, but until then, take care of yourself, and each other.