Horror movies have been around since the creation of film.
They often lurked in the darkness of genre, occasionally becoming mainstream or cult classics, but mostly went unrecognized when compared to action, drama, or comedy. A horror movie can contain all three of those things in addition to the death, screams, and scares. There are thousands of horror movies out in the world, but I’d be crazy to try and watch them all in one month. Instead, I’ve made selections out of pre-determined film ‘eras’ to create a rudimentary guide in watching horror movies.
The heyday of horror movies lasted from the early 1970s to the mid-90s. Most people can easily name five films that came out of this period and then many more. While there are smaller trends within this larger time period, the overall impact of the heyday on horror movies cannot be understated. This period created many of our modern tropes, introduced dozens of actors who would later rise to greater fame, and birthed multiple antagonists whose names we still recognize today. It also created the idea of the horror franchise as several films spawned multiple sequels. In recent years, many of the heyday films have been remade with varying success.
These are the films with busty babes who make poor decisions, trip over nothing, and die in terrible ways. They’re full of innocent virgins, dumb jocks, token minorities, and loose ladies who are there to die after satisfying the sex quotient. The villains will die, only to rise seconds later and kill again. The violence, gore, and revulsion reached new levels. They filled theaters with an abundance of horror movies and made the genre bigger than late night specials. Obviously, there are thousands of these films, but I’ve selected ten more to represent the heyday further.
Friday Fright Fest 2022 presents…
The Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971). In the interest of diversifying OcTerror, I wanted to bring more genres that I’ve largely been ignoring. This, of course, includes giallo—Italian films largely defined by stories of sex, murder, and mystery. Paolo Carvara’s early addition to the genre details Inspector Tellini’s (Giancarlo Giannini) investigation into the grisly murders of various women. What I enjoy about the giallo genre is how we get both slasher perspective and detective thriller. However, as a relative newcomer to it, I did find my attention drifted during this film. The score by Ennio Morricone is fantastic, Giancarlo Giannini leads in multiple ways with his acting, and the method of murder is truly inventive and horrific. I wasn’t as invested in the identity of the killer, but appreciated that—for its time—we have this little jab at assumptions. The film has some requisite 70s sleaze and sexiness, but it’s part of the ride we’re on. While the investigation into the murders is the main plot, the subplots about blackmail and various affairs tie together well enough but were perhaps where some of my attention was lost. The root cause of the murders, of course, is misogyny, but that’s true for a lot of horror, too. As I said before, that methodology is what makes this film stand out and what might bring me back for another watch. I love a movie that uses wild real life inspiration for the unexpected, and it mostly works here. Overall, I’d say this is a decent taste of what future delights giallo might bring and I’m ready for another sting.
The Last House on the Left (1972). Wes Craven’s directorial debut has its place in the history of horror: as the beginning of a master’s career, an era of exploitation, and the power of excellent advertising. Based on The Virgin Spring, this film responds to many of the turbulent American emotions of the late-60s and early-70s. On her seventeenth birthday, Mari Collingwood has a fatal run-in with fugitives. When her family discovers the truth, they take brutal revenge. This film has a brutal reputation, but—due to all the various cuts and edits—it’s not necessarily deserved compared to others. While Craven had a darker, more violent vision, what exists today feels watered down in comparison. Several horrific scenes were cut, but it makes the film almost novel because of what isn’t shown when it normally would be. As a debut, though, we see the promise of his future career. The film is a bit of a tonal rollercoaster, and the subplot with the police takes up too much time and is played for laughs against scenes of violence. I like the contrast early in the movie of Mari’s parents against the danger she’s in, because it’s a harrowing truer-to-life example of how we can’t always know what’s happening. In true Craven fashion, several plot elements in this movie would later come to high popularity in other films—namely in I Spit On Your Grave and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Honestly, though, the film doesn’t live up to its own hype, the acting could be better, and some plot elements were definitely better left on the cutting room floor. Craven’s directorial career had to start somewhere, and this isn’t the worst place to begin.
House (1977). I have never seen a film like House before. Nobukiho Obayashi singularly captures something that is terrifying in its own way, humorous and heartfelt, and ambitiously crafted. If it’s reputation as something experimental and weird comes before it than that’s well-deserved. Seven schoolgirls travel to the remote and titular house to visit a reclusive aunt during their break. Unfortunately, what should be a relaxing and fun time turns to horror as they discover not all is at it seems and something is out to devour them. First, it’s a genuine delight to have a mostly-female cast where the focus is not always on boys. They do talk about crushes and fathers but a good amount of time is spent on building their friendships. Do they all have nicknames based on personality traits? Yes. Did I mind? Absolutely not. The characters are a bit stereotypical in that way—Mac is constantly hungry, Kung Fu is athletic, Fantasy daydreams, etc.—but seeing their interactions together and against the supernatural absurdity is where those traits shine. The special effects are at times hyper-imaginative and stand out rather than blending in as we’re used to in the 21st century, but that seems to be the purpose. One memorable scene involving a piano was terrifying even with the unrealistic “cuts” between what was happening logically. Approaching House from a direction of incomprehension or fantasy is probably your best bet for enjoyment. The vivid colors and sets bring this setting to life even as some of the plot lingers a bit too long when it doesn’t need to. The acting doesn’t particularly stand out, but the ensemble works well together. The film has a memorable climax with that perfect pinch of hope that we need in such darkness. If you haven’t already, pay a visit to the House tonight; you’ll lose your mind.
I Spit on Your Grave (1978). This infamous exploitation flick deserves its reputation. Meir Zarchi’s controversial depiction of rape and revenge has held its place in the halls of horror for a reason. Even with remakes and spin-offs and sequels, there is nothing quite like the original and its relentless capture of Jennifer Hills as she’s raped by four men and then sets out for her revenge upon them. This is a narrative/sub-genre that carries its own inherent violence and I Spit on Your Grave is known for its harsh brutality in both of its halves. That said, Camille Keaton carries this film as Jennifer, a relatable and innocent-enough writer from the big city who is looking to get away and is attacked for doing so. The depiction of the rapists as everyday men with jobs, families, and friendships—men who are monstrous, but still men—really gives the film an extra layer of horror beyond the on-screen violence. Although it doesn’t delve too far into rape culture, the film touches on a few key themes and interrogates them. Then, to viewers’ satisfaction, justice is delivered in creative and satisfying ways. This is not a film I would recommend loosely. Even over 40 years later, the material within isn’t quite for the faint of heart and many modern rape-revenge narratives have moved past such violent and ongoing scenes of rape. However, it has its merits and Jennifer Hills remains one of the most iconic heroines of horror to this day.
Prom Night (1980). Jamie Lee Curtis is, undeniably, one of the ultimate scream queens. After the popularity of Halloween and growing slasher genre, it seemed only natural to pair the two again. Unfortunately, the same magic didn’t quite happen here. It’s a trope as old as time: a group of kids bullies another, something tragic happens, and brutal vengeance is taken on those responsible. Of course, it must happen on the titular night. Kim (Jamie Lee Curtis) and several other teenagers are preparing for the most important event of high school, but will a series of horrific slayings ruin everything? Curtis carries this film, but it’s almost not enough to save some of the nonsensical plot. This is a slow burn and most of the action is packed in the last thirty minutes. Despite that, most of the previous build doesn’t really lead to any real satisfaction. Characters don’t make the necessary connections that would add more tension, no one seems to feel guilty for the beginning crime, and we could have a few more red herrings for the identity of the killer. The killings, which let’s admit that’s what we’re really here for, are pretty fun and the repetitive use of glass is great compared to the usual knives. Although they are relatively bloodless and ungory, and I kept hoping for a little more. If you’re not here for the violence then a disco dance break will entertain. Ultimately, I was disappointed by Prom Night because it didn’t live up to my expectations, but someone else might have a great time with it.
Hell Night (1981). Amidst the rise of teen slashers set in high school hellscapes, we can’t ignore the popularity of Greek Row gore. For a time in the Heyday, horror was full of buxom sorority sisters, conniving fraternity brothers, ignorant adults, and plenty of scares. While other films like The House on Sorority Row and Black Christmas deliver interesting plots and characters, Hell Night takes a slightly tiresome plot, throws in a few twists, and is mostly held together by Linda Blair’s presence. As part of a hazing ritual, four students must stay the night in a mansion supposedly haunted by a “deformed” killer. The pacing of this film is a bit hard to enjoy since it takes a few minutes to establish our students’ personalities and the mansion’s backstory before dumping them in this setting for the night. They get to know one another, explore the mansion, are pranked, and chased around for hours. The rules of the night are they’re supposed to stay till morning, but the night seems to last a lot longer than six or seven hours. The costumes, however, are fun especially since I could imagine a remake making more use of licensing rather than generic outfits like Robin Hood. The mansion itself is a cool set. The backstory is a trope of 20th century horror so if you can’t ignore the ableism and mild racism for a couple hours this will be a tiresome watch. The movie tries and it has entertaining moments, but, overall, even Linda Blair can’t save this one from the bargain bin. If you love sorority slashers and haunted houses, you might find some fun here, but you also might be better off with another film.
Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (1988). The horror hostess with the most stars in her own comedy that is full of well-played tropes and heart. Elvira (Cassandra Peterson), desperate to raise funds for a show in Vegas, learns she’s gained an inheritance from her great-aunt in idyllic Massachusetts. However, the modest community isn’t ready for her bigger-than-life personality. This film contains a lot of B-movie plots smashed together: fish out of water, supernatural inheritance, prudes vs nudes, etc. What makes it work is Elvira’s humor and heart. Cassandra Peterson portrays her alter-ego with flair and vigor, winking and slinking her way across the screen and into the townspeople’s hearts. Over 30 years after its release, most of the jokes still land and the sight gags are fun too. Edie McClurg seems to have the time of her life as Chastity Pariah, the overly righteous councilmember who seeks to protect her town from degenerate filth like Elvira. We have a romantic subplot that feels a little wooden (pun intended), a dark wizard on the prowl, and teenagers in desperate need for Elvira’s kind of fun. If you’re not into repetitive boob humor, then this won’t be for you. This movie is the perfect kind of cheese, campiness, and comfort, and although it leans more toward humor and old-fashioned Gothic fun it doesn’t lack for spooky thrills. A midnight screening of this cult classic will deliver twice the fun.
Army of Darkness (1992). The finale of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy cements one of my, perhaps, more controversial horror opinions: I like Fede Álvarez’s Evil Dead the most. This isn’t to say the original trilogy doesn’t have value—it absolutely does—but the tonally topsy turvy tale of Ash Williams and the Deadites doesn’t catch my attention the same way. At the end of Evil Dead II, Ash catapults through time; here, we discover he’s landed in the Middle Ages, and he must go on a quest for the Necronomicon and battle evil once again to return home. Bruce Campbell is having the time of his life, and his charming and roguish Ash is what’s at the heart of this odyssey. Many of the elements of the previous two films are lost, including some backstory, but we gain a dark fantasy tilt and the usual Raimi spatter and zaniness. I can see why so many people may prefer this one out of the three, but I did miss the more straight-forward horror elements. The make-up and technical effects are fantastic, especially on the army of the dead. The film pays tribute to epic fantasies like Jason and the Argonauts while making something of its own. It feels like a swashbuckling adventure, an epic quest, and a horror story all rolled into one. While I can say this won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, it’s also a lot of fun and the right audience will be hailed.
Cronos (1993). I’ve reviewed some of Guillermo del Toro’s work previously but his debut feature showcases some of the early brilliance that he would later improve on. An elderly antique dealer and his granddaughter find a mysterious device that promises immortality (at a price) to whoever uses it; unfortunately, the powerful de la Guardia family also seeks the device to preserve their patriarch. Many elements of the plot read as an expressive homage and love letter to films that must’ve made an impression on del Toro: The Fly, Dracula, 1950s B-movies. Among the glut of vampire films, Cronos is fairly original in its handling of the transformation and mythology. Questioning the impact and power of immortality from the perspective of an elderly character (contrasted against his young granddaughter) also works well. Federico Luppi’s performance as Jesús Gris carries a good chunk of the film and his visual/physical transformation has a nice balance of sympathy and horror. Ron Perlman, as the hapless nephew of the main antagonist, brings a touch of comedy in his character work. What gore and blood exists doesn’t seem to be overdone and is mostly used for its effect emotionally, such as when Jesús succumbs to his bloodlust in a bathroom. Although, the granddaughter, Aurora, has the look and feel of del Toro’s later child protagonists like Carlos and Ofelia, she is more the silent and emotional ‘heart’ of Jesús’ crux. Overall, if you love vampires, del Toro’s filmography, or want the right touch of empathy and horror, find time to watch Cronos.
The Crow (1994). In the late 80s and 90s, we had a good run of ‘darker’ comic book adaptations. Here, Eric Draven (Brandon Lee) returns on the anniversary of his and his fiancée’s murders for vengeance on Devil’s Night with the supernatural help of a crow. This is one of those films that just oozes ambiance in its production—from the costumes to the sets to the music—it all goes together so well to create this world where crime runs rampant and it always rains. Lee is effortless in this role as he plays both the avenger, the lover, and the tragic hero in equal turns and delivers the casual quip with ease. The cinematography, mostly of the overhead shots, is iconic. Almost every scene is pumping with a different kind of action, although the film is a bit fraught with shooting where it seems like no one is actually aiming. This is also one of those plots where the ultimate bad guy is a landlord so, as usual, capitalism is to blame. If we were to remove the superhero noir dressing and some of the supernatural oomph as well, this film clearly falls into some of the same rape-revenge motifs of earlier films like The Last House on the Left. While none of the horror is as overt as the narrative could have been (a lot of the violence is stylized rather than outright gory), the idea that someone could return on Halloween for revenge is perfect for a scary movie. It’s a cult classic that is definitely one to check out if you haven’t already.
Any of these films has sequels, franchises, remakes, and fans galore. They’re hits of the heyday, and there are thousands to watch besides these. Still, at least one of these films is a must-watch each October in order to feel the true spirit of Halloween—unadulterated terror, relentless violence, and pure horror.
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