Friday, November 4, 2011

Top 13: Best Horror Films of 1978

compiled by Nickolas Cook

The year was 1978 and drive-ins were still alive and well across the country and horror was still very much in demand (even though, thanks to Star Wars (1977) the science fiction film was definitely taking over). Big studios had taken to making them as well, so there were some big budget films popping up on the radar. But one movie on this list was about to change the face of horror films for decades to come. I'll let you figure out which one it is...and any Horrorhead worth his/her salt will know exactly which film I mean.

It wasn't easy to choose 13 titles out of all the films which came out that year, but I think I found the best of the many which came out in 1978. Some of the films that didn't make the cut are still, in my opinion, well worth searching out and viewing. I mean, you can't go wrong with movies like the Spanish fangs of "Alucarda", squishy laughs from the cult classic "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes", the toothsome sequel "Jaws 2", the somewhat black comedy of "The Boys From Brazil", another better than expected sequel, "Damien: Omen II", thrills in the hospital halls with Robin Cook's bestseller come to the big screen, "Coma", strange happenings with "The Eyes of Laura Mars", even more sequel lovin' from "It Lives Again", a little bit of puppet horror with "Magic", some gory fun with hand tools in "The Toolbox Murders" and even some nature gone wild disaster goodness with Irwin Allen's "The Swarm".

The movies which did make the list all generally wind up on most fans' and critics' genre best of lists, so if you're not familiar with a few of the titles, do yourself a favor: seek them out and educate yourself on what made the grade in the glorious disco lovin' year of 1978. I think it's pretty telling that 6 of the 13 movies on this list have been remade. So, without further ado, behold and enjoy our Top 13 Best Horror Films of 1978
(NOTE: List is in alphabetical order only, not by importance to the genre)

13. Blue Sunshine

Directed by one of my favorite directors, Jeff Lieberman, who also made a couple of other standout cult classics of the genre, SQUIRM (1976)and JUST BEFORE DAWN (1981), this is a cautionary tale about the eventual cultural backlash of the free-loving 60s flower children movement. The experimental drug Blue Sunshine has some nasty side effects that cause those who imbibed it years earlier to become blood thirsty murdering psychopaths. Lieberman knows what buttons to push by showing us mothers and fathers killing their family and friends, all crazy eyed and bald, and just who do you think was behind all those innocent people ingesting the drug? This is a movie that should be included in any decent horror collection.

12. Dawn of the Dead

It's no secret by now that this is one of the most influential movies on my life, and I daresay, there are probably millions more people who will agree that this still stands at the top as the best zombie movie ever made. Directed by George Romero, we see the world end as the living are killed and eaten by zombies. It's one of his strongest films, giving a clear warning about the dangers of consumerism gone wild. And after you've seen it, you'll never look at your local shopping mall the same again. The 2004 remake was decent, but nowhere near as powerful as the original.

11. The Fury

Director Brian De Palma had already given us CARRIE (1976) and so he went seeking amongst the bookshelves for more psychokinetic mayhem with this story from John Farris about a couple of young adults who have been created by a secret group of government run scientists to be born with psychic powers, so they can be trained to destroy America's Cold War enemies. It had some real star power with the aging Kirk Douglas as the father of one of the powerful children, but it's really about Amy Irving, who plays the young psychic powered woman, pursued by the government to be used as an assassin. Most people who have seen this will remember the splatter-riffic ending best, but even without that gruesome scene this is a top notch thriller made by one of the genre's greatest directors at the height of his popularity.

10. The Grapes of Death (Les Raisins De La Mort!)

Director Jean Rollin has a way with horror that most international horror makers miss by a huge margin. Using soft focus cinematography and large canvas backdrop scenary, he tells the story of what happens when a small French country community is driven to ghoulism and acts of violence and bloody murder when they drink wine made from grapes that have been sprayed with a new chemical pesticide. The 1970s was a hotbed decade for the dangers of chemicals in foods and drink, and their eventual effect on those who innocently ingested them. But beyond the warning, Rollin gives us a hell of a gory film with moments of tension that match any American made horror film of that period. When you expect he will turn the camera's eye away, he keeps on rolling, allowing us no comfort as the violence escalates. This is as close to a zombie film as you can get without any actual zombies, much like 28 DAYS LATER (2002)

9. Halloween

And if you haven't figured out which film on this list changed the horror genre forever afterwards, this is it. Directed by John Carpenter, this almost singlehandedly gives us the psycho slasher horror film as a true sub-genre. We are given all the slasher tropes in this one film: the holiday as a demarcation period for the slayings, innocent and not so innocent teenagers as knife fodder, the unstoppable killing machine psychopath and the trademark camera setups for "scareshots" or "jumpshots". Without this movie it's almost certain we wouldn't have had such other classic slasher flicks as FRIDAY THE 13th (1981) or PROM NIGHT (1980). "Halloween" remained the number one box office moneymaker in horror, until recent years when THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999) came along to claim that crown. The recent remake by Rob Zombie in 2007 doesn't hold a candle to the power of the original.

8. Invasion of the Body Snatchers

This is a remake that actually works. Directed by Phillip Kaufman, and starring some of the 70s biggest name actors and actresses, this takes the original film of 1956 and gives another cautionary tale about the eventual reprocutions from the flower child era in America. This time it's a warning against the infiltration of too much liberalism and new age psychological methods in everyday practice. A sort of cry against Socialism, in its own way. But even as a straight forward alien invasion story this movie works very well. It has a damn near perfect balance of titillating shocks and intelligence. I don't know too many people who have seen this movie who don't get creeped out by at least two or three key scenes in it. If you haven't seen the original 1956, do so, but also see this one. The other semi-remakes, such as BODY SNATCHERS (1993), can be ignored.

7. I Spit On Your Grave (aka Day of the Woman)

Truly a "grindhouse" classic, this movie, directed by Meir Zarchi and starring one of the bravest actresses in film, Camille Keaton, this is the ultimate in rape revenge flicks. And let me tell you, this is not for the faint of heart, as the camera never flinches: you see it all. You experience every disgusting, terrifying moment right along with the poor woman who is not only gang raped once, but is gang raped twice by the same group of good old boy backwoods asshole rednecks. Needless to say, no one can blame her for taking her bloody revenge on these bastards. But what really set off the critics and activist groups was how much pleasure she seems to take in luring them into her lair to kill them in inventive and cruelly sadistic ways to match their role in her rapings. This isn't a movie that you want to watch with your parents, for sure, and not to be taken lightly, as it still has the power to shock and disgust like very few modern films. The recent remake from 2010 didn't have anywhere near the punch to the gut of the original. In fact, the original film was banned in many countries, and has remained so in several of them to this day. It became a hotbed for controversy when several censorhip activist groups used it as an example for more governmental content control.

6. The Legacy

Directed by Richard Marquand and starring Katharine Ross, Sam Elliott and "The Who's" Roger Daltrey, this is a supernatural thriller based on a bestselling John Coyne novel of the same name. It takes the Gothic conventions of an inheritance from a mysterious benefactor to the devil in a contemporary setting, in this case, the backroads of modern day England. The pace is fast enough to keep you interested, while also presenting a creepy know, actually, I did a great review for the book, which works as well for the movie, here at several years ago. Check it out. Buy the movie and the book. Maybe the author will come back to horror again, instead of his current well received pro golf books.

5. Long Weekend

One of two Austrialian films that made the list, this is the ultimate in cautionary tales about exploitation of the natural world. A young couple take a weekend on a deserted beach front property and spend their time abusing the hell out of the place, shooting the animals, throwing their garbage wherever they feel like... but seems Mother Nature isn't willing to put up with it this time and sends the elements and the indigenous creatures to exact revenge. The story sounds simple, but the way in which their abuse of the natural world mirrors their loathing for each other and themselves is what makes the movie work best. There was a recent remake of this movie in 2008 that didn't work as well because it didn't keep that subtext.

4. The Manitou

This is one of the greatest cheesy movies ever made. Directed by the late great William Girdler, who tragically died before the release of this, his most popular film to date, and starring Tony Curtis and Burgess Meredith, it was based on the book of the same name by one of horror fiction's grandmasters, Graham Masterton. It was a hell of a great read that was turned into a hell of a great movie. When Susan Strasberg discovers a strange growth on the back of her neck that keeps getting bigger and bigger, she is hospitalized for testing. But the growth isn't just a tumor, but the ancient spirit of an evil Indian shaman who is using her as a physical channel by which to be reborn. Although you'll most likely laugh at the now dated early animation effects, it's the makeup effects that work best in giving the midget demon a sense of true menace as he gains control of the woman and then the hospital while Tony Curtis' fake psychic must battle a real supernatural danger with the help of his hired Indian shaman, played by Michael Ansara. I saw this as a kid and have never forgotten how much fun it was to watch. I still dig this movie, even today, all these years later.

3. Patrick

The other Australian flick on our list was directed by the late great Richard Franklin, who was one of that country's greatest genre directors, who also made another horror classic, ROAD GAMES (1981). "Patrick" is the story of a young man who murders his parents and goes into a coma, but that coma doesn't stop him from using his psychic powers to manipulate his environment. And when he falls in love with his new nurse, he uses his powers to make her life a living nightmare. Known for its pacing and special effects, there's another reason for Horrorheads everywhere to love this one: the Italian prog-rock horror soundtrack gods "Goblin" did the original soundtrack, although later reissues have a different soundtrack by Brian May of "Queen".

2. Piranha

Remade last year as a 3-D film, this original was directed by Joe Dante from a blackly humorous screenplay by the great John Sayle, and it's still one hell of fun movie. It's sort of a throwback to the 50s style monster on the loose films that these guys grew up on, but it still has enough gore to satisfy modern audiences, with enough humor to keep it light and fun, as it tells the story of a summer camp resort under seige from a new genetically bred killer school of piranha that are out for blood. There's even a small role for Barbara Steele, but look for other great sight gags and cameos from horrors legends. If you like the remake, then this original will probably be just as entertaining for you.

1. The Shout

This is probably the least known film on this list and that's a damned shame, because this is a great low key creepy horror film, with some great acting from some of the U.K.'s greatest names, John Hurt, Alan Bates, Tim Curry and Susannah York. It was a winner that year at the Cannes Film Festival and for good reason: it is a damned great little movie. Alan Bates is a mysterious stranger who insinuates himself into the quiet country life of John Hurt and Susannah York, who tells them he has been taught by ancient shaman how to use his voice to kill. Based on a short story by one of modern fiction's greatest writers, Robert Graves, this movie has literary intelligence and insight into the human condition, while still being frightening on different levels than most horror cinema can hope to accomplish. Much of the disquieting sense comes from the use of camera and the sound effects and musical score. If you've never seen this one, it is a must.

--Nickolas Cook