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Scariest Films of the 70s

Scariest Films of the 70s

The Gold Standard for Horror Films in a Decade of Change

The 70s in Hollywood was Florence during the Renaissance. It was fertile ground for exploration, and the decade was saturated with generational films to the point that some spilled over into a slightly forgotten puddle. Any list of 70s films will surely omit a few favorites, but one has to pick a lane, stick to it, and if they cut off another driver, they have to avoid looking in any rearview mirrors. 

By the 70s, people were having sex and talking about it, and the news began running round-the-clock coverage of war and its atrocities. Reality was feeling sleazier, grimier and, overall, horrific, depending on which way one was looking at it. So, it makes sense the movies got sexier, grittier, violent, and gory. It was no longer reasonable to get nervous about bare-midriff-ed women, jean-short-ed men, cuss words and canoodling. There was something larger amiss, the looming threat of realizing that humanity might be more inclined to kill than create and that the governments we look to for guidance and protection might not have our best interests in mind. Horror movies in the 70s captured this spirit with an intelligence and shock value rarely seen before and after (at such a high quantity). The films would get gorier and more depraved in coming years but never terrify audiences again the same way. There’s nothing like your first time.

These are the five scariest films of the 70s.

5. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Scariest Films of the 70s

It’s all here: sex, death, and frustration. The actors were young and good-looking, and the characters were horny. From the outset, death is portrayed explicitly with opening shots of decomposing bodies, sun-dried bones, blood, and sausages. Most of the film involves chainsaw sounds cranked to eleven, screaming, and an altogether jarring atmosphere. This is not an easy watch, and it may just be the most culturally and commercially successful uneasy watch of all time. What makes this film so horrifying is that the threat is not supernatural. It is entirely human, and the director Tobe Hooper, and co-writer Kim Henkel made the brilliant decision to frame the story as if it actually happened. Considering America’s current obsession with true crime, does this story seem so far out of bounds? Leatherface is uniquely immense in size, but the bad guys are just that: three guys. They’re twisted, perverted, psychopathic, and cannibalistic, and this is all portrayed through terrifically creepy performance and immensely creative practical gore. The film is grotesque without being cheesy or sacrificing its genuine horror, and it is striking how many ways the team behind the film found to assemble bones into little art pieces. Budget be damned, the final dinner scene with an appearance from Grandpa is still horrifying and contains some of the best horror acting to date despite the acting efforts of the Scooby Doo van squad from the first thirty minutes.

4. Alien (1979)

Scariest Films of the 70s

Sci-fi horror existed to some degree before Alien, but always with a whiff of B-movie ridiculousness. There were large ants or invading flying saucers, but this movie was cold, dark, and quiet. It could have been a play. Contained within this film is the crushingly claustrophobic feeling of uncertainty. In a place as vast as space, a group of humans would assume their corporation-built and certified, sealed and oxygenated aircraft would be the only safe place from there to eternity. But, when the safety of the ship becomes uncertain, it suddenly turns into a hellish labyrinth. There is nowhere to go, and no one is going to save you because “In space, no one can hear you scream.” It may be unintentional, but is there a more fitting statement for many Americans in the 1970s? America was not the safe haven it was once believed to be, and this can either serve as a crushing realization or a rallying cry for the Ellen Ripleys of the world. There is fantastic body horror in this film (i.e. alien ripping out of a guy’s chest). The most effectively terrifying scenes involve the suggestion of the xenomorph rather than seeing it. Ridley Scott used the small budget effectively, mainly offering glimpses of the alien for most of the film through quick cuts, close-ups and heavy shadows. The scariest (and most brilliant) appearance of the xenomorph is when it is simply a red dot on a radar screen moving toward Tom Skerritt in an air duct. The film is a masterclass in tension building and doesn’t disappoint when it’s time to cash the check on all that suspense.

3. Halloween (1978)

Scariest Films of the 70s

Halloween is the slasher film that forever changed the horror genre. The film was designed with no other intention than to terrify audiences. Michael Myers wasn’t so much a man as he was the existence of evil in this world and its ability to randomly strike without feeling or remorse. Myers pursues until the moment the film switches to POV, at which time it is too late to evade. The characters are innocent, and Myers couldn’t be reasoned with. The film established suburbia, the ultimate safe haven, as the ultimate setting for any kind of slasher film. The characters are lambs for slaughter because they never see it coming on the dark neighborhood streets they have navigated their entire lives. The film importantly establishes that one should always check the backseat of their car upon entrance, take little kids seriously when they say they’ve seen the boogeyman, constantly look over your shoulders when walking through your neighborhood at night, and that Jamie Lee Curtis is THE scream queen heroine. Similar to The Exorcist, most of the films that followed in Halloween’s footsteps were some shade of lame, but the ones that took the mantle and did something different with it proved to be lasting. Before this film, killers were generally confined to their creepy little corners that teens stumbled upon, but rarely before had someone like Michael Myers come to a character’s town or home looking for blood. This film satiated the audience’s blood and thrill lust, and Hollywood has worn out those nerves ever since.

2. Jaws (1975)

Scariest Films of the 70s

Another film that plays with the idea of the safety of a place becoming uncertain. The horror in this film is large, unfamiliar, unknowable, and without reason. To add to this, those in positions of power on Amity Island attempt to solve the crisis by keeping the public in the dark. You could read this film as popcorn fun, but considering the 1970s, it can certainly read as a shift in perception of the American government. Jaws has become so commercialized and pop-cultured that the true horror almost diminishes in its legacy. Spielberg would go on to direct family favorites, and there’s an air of nostalgia and childhood to this film, but it is up there with The Exorcist in terms of immediate horror impact. Some people to this day do not dare to touch coastal waters, great whites have become the most feared predators on the planet, and many a young viewer may have even entered their showers with caution. It’s a film with a happy ending, but don’t get it twisted. Jaws is terrifying. Raise your hand if a clump of seaweed has had you doing a Michael Phelps impression all the way to the shore. Other shark horror movies have tried (The Shallows) with technology on its side, but none come close to the sheer terror of hearing the duuuuh-duh while unsuspecting legs kick around in the water.

1. The Exorcist (1973)

Scariest Films of the 70s

To the religious and non-religious alike, the devil is horrifying. But none, up to this point, had treated the topic with such genuine emotion and violence. The Exorcist is such a visceral and personal film experience, considering the presence of the Catholic church and bible allusions in this film. The entirety of the horror takes place in a bedroom within one’s own home. There’s an effective contrast between the buttoned-up Chris MacNeil, the form, order, and repression of Catholic priests, and the stately Washington D.C. homes with the urine, sweat, blood, vomit, and sexually aggressive talk of the possessed Reagan MacNeil. There’s an undeniable heart and gravity of feeling to this film that has been lost on others who followed the template it set. Ellen Burstyn is incredible as a mother terrified of losing her daughter, and Jason Miller gives a thoughtful performance as a tortured, sleepless, and guilt-ridden priest who feels compelled to save Reagan through self-sacrifice. This film is almost as compelling a character study as it is a horror film. The film is willing to be vulnerable through its grossness. Possession films would continue to take the horror genre by storm, but The Exorcist will always feel like a true cinematic masterpiece beyond the genre.

The Exorcist (1973) Official Warner Bros 4K Ultra HD Official Trailer

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Senior editor of Dead Talk News and University of Central Oklahoma graduate. Dakota specializes in news, entertainment pieces, reviews, and listicles.