Saturday 21 October 2017

Scares in the 1970s: horror's golden age

Really special: Maika Monroe in the chilling It Follows, which succeeds because of its uncomplicated story
Really special: Maika Monroe in the chilling It Follows, which succeeds because of its uncomplicated story
Maggie Armstrong
Night of the Living Dead
Rosemary's Baby
The Omen
The Brood
Carrie
Don't Look Now
The Exorcist

Paul Whitington

A good horror film is a rare delight, because most of them are so bad. Normally mild nausea is the only thing you feel watching slashers and sadists, vampires and monsters fill the screen with eviscera, but just occasionally something a bit special comes along. And David Robert Mitchell's stylish new chiller It Follows works so well mainly because its premise is devastatingly simple.

Maika Monroe plays Jay, a dreamy 19-year-old girl who goes out on a date with a handsome chap called Hugh. They get on well, and end up making love. But Jay later finds out that a sexually transmitted curse has been passed to her, and that's she now being pursued by a shape-shifting entity that will keep on coming until it catches her. No one else can see it, and her only hope is to pass the hex on before it's too late.

That set-up might sound daft, but in David Robert Mitchell's skilful hands it becomes the springboard for a really special film. He has the confidence to build his atmosphere slowly, and uses moody synth music and sly references to classic horror films to flesh out his uncomplicated story.

Watching It Follows feels like enduring an extended nightmare, and its gloomy aesthetic reminded me of the great horror movies of the 1970s, particularly the films of John Carpenter, David Cronenberg and George A Romero. Those three masters emerged in a decade where a moribund genre was unexpectedly revived by younger directors who channelled the cynicism and disillusionment of their time into films that often carried serious underlying messages.

They brought new respectability to a genre that had fallen out of fashion in the 1960s and had arguably been in the doldrums for decades. In the 1920s and 1930s, European and American filmmakers had brilliantly exploited cinema's potential as a means of telling ghost stories and dark fairy tales.

But the great Universal horror pictures inspired by the 19th Century gothic tradition were endlessly rehashed in the late 1930s and 1940s, and though there was the odd gem in the 1950s, most horror films through that decade were camp B-pictures obsessed with cut-rate alien invasions.

By the late 1960s it was a genre ripe for re-invention, and two films released towards the end of that decade set the tone for a radical horror revival in the 1970s.

George A Romero was a 27-year-old TV director when he made Night of the Living Dead. Borrowing his basic idea from Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend, Romero shot his film for just $114,000 using a cast of unknowns.

His basic premise - that a nuclear accident awakens the dead who shuffle forth in large numbers to feast on living flesh - was a means of bringing horror into the everyday world and making it, as a consequence, seem all the more real. People were attacked on quiet suburban streets and in their homes by mouldering, dead-eyed creatures that seem to embody our purest existential dreads.

It was stylish, pared-back and wonderfully effective cinema, and would have a huge influence on the development of modern horror through the 1970s, 1980s and beyond. As indeed would Rosemary's Baby, Roman Polanski's bold 1968 psychological chiller based on a book by Ira Levin.

Mia Farrow was cast as Rosemary Woodhouse, a fey housewife who thinks she's all made up when she moves into a grand old Manhattan apartment building with her actor husband, Guy (John Cassavetes). But the sweet old couple next door are Satanists, Guy would sell his granny for a good part, and Rosemary only realises when it's too late that she's been impregnated by the devil.

Whatever about its silly story, Rosemary's Baby was all about atmosphere, and rolling dread. Polanski pushed Farrow to make her seem scared, and in one scene made her walk through Fifth Avenue traffic wearing a fake baby bump, operating on the theory that no one would run over a pregnant woman. It was a brilliant, seminal horror film, and in the 1970s Satan would become all the rage.

He made his most famous appearance in The Exorcist (1973), for me one of the greatest horror films ever made (see panel), but also memorably popped up in the camper but extremely enjoyable 1976 chiller The Omen. In Richard Donner's guignol minor masterpiece, Gregory Peck played Robert Thorn, the US Ambassador to London who realises that his adopted son is actually the anti-Christ. A film full of crazy priests and sinister demonic acolytes was dominated by a spectacular turn by the late Billie Whitelaw, playing a prim English housekeeper who's really the handmaiden of Satan.

Brian De Palma was the first filmmaker to adapt one of Stephen King's stories, and Carrie remains one of the best screen versions of his work. Sissy Spacek played a 17-year-old Carolina schoolgirl who becomes the butt of jokes and bullying after she mistakes her abnormally late first period for a fatal internal illness.

But her cruel schoolmates mock her at their peril, for Carrie has telekinetic powers that manifest themselves spectacularly during the film's climax at the high school prom.Piper Laurie was enjoyably bonkers as Carrie's ultra-religious mom in a film that helped inch horror towards respectability - both Laurie and Spacek received Oscar nominations.

One of my favourite 1970s horror films is Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now (1973) an overpoweringly brooding British thriller based on a story by Daphne du Maurier. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie played a couple who move to Venice following the death of their child. And while she meets a couple of clairvoyant English spinsters, he begins catching glimpses of his child that turn out to be premonitions of his own death. It's one of those films that's hard to get out of your head.

Though it was largely dismissed by critics in its day, Robin Hardy's British chiller The Wicker Man (1973) is now referred to by some as the Citizen Kane of horror. It's certainly a grand and literate thriller, full of terrifying images and ancient Celtic resonances. Edward Woodward plays a policeman who arrives on a remote Hebridean island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. He uncovers a sinister cult that worships pagan gods, but doesn't realise he's their intended sacrifice.

As we've seen, the occult was a major theme in 1970s film-making, but in some of the scariest horror movies made during that decade, the monsters were all too human. Tobe Hooper's low-budget 1974 film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was so transgressively violent that it struggled to find a distributor and was banned in numerous countries.

On the face of it, Chainsaw Massacre was depressing, nihilistic stuff: it told the grisly story of a family who are waylaid by a group of cannibals. But Hooper would insist that his violent tale was not gratuitous, and rather a satirical commentary on man's innate brutality and the excesses of the Vietnam War. Whatever about all that, it's still a hard film to watch. In 1975, Canadian director David Cronenberg released a shocking film called Shivers, a chilling tale of a Montreal apartment block that's overrun by a man-made parasite which provokes uncontrollable sexual urges. It was the beginning of what would come to be known as 'body horror', an often arch and highbrow sub-genre that played on our profoundest fears of desire, death and decay.

Cronenberg got even grimmer in The Brood (1979), a terrifying film about a deeply disturbed woman whose psychoses give rise to a murderous 'psychoplasmic' offspring. Again, many critics were disgusted, but the movie was extremely well made and signalled the direction Cronenberg would take in the 1980s in films like Videodrome, Dead Ringers and The Fly.

But a stronger sense of where horror would go in the 1980s came from John Carpenter and Wes Craven.

Carpenter was a film buff and fan of the old Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi haunted-house films, and in 1977 set out to make one for the modern age. He decided to set his low-budget horror yarn on Halloween, because it hadn't really been done before, and his monster would be a huge, disturbed man who escapes from a mental hospital and returns to his home town to stalk a group of rather self-satisfied high school students.

Made for $300,000, Halloween grossed $70m and helped launch the slasher genre. Craven, however, could reasonably argue he got there first: his films were nastier, especially his shocking 1972 debut The Last House on the Left, which seemed to be inspired by the excesses of Charles Manson. It was banned for years in many countries, but was extremely well made.

His gory 1977 film The Hills Have Eyes is now considered a cult classic, and in the 1980s Craven would hit the big time with Nightmare on Elm Street. Ghouls with masks and big knives would make hay through the 80s, mainly at the expense of those annoyingly smug teenagers.

HIGH CLASS HORROR: THE EXORCIST

Inspired by a supposed exorcism conducted in Maryland in 1949, William Friedkin's 1973 classic became one of those films you simply had to go and see.

Terrified moviegoers fainted in the aisles, there were tears and protests, and it was all down to Friedkin's sublime and focused direction. The Exorcist is set in Washington DC in the 1970s, and tells the story of a girl who apparently becomes possessed. When 12-year-old Regan O'Neill begins speaking in tongues and levitating inanimate objects, her mother and the doctors she consults are nonplussed.

But a local priest believes it's the work of the devil, and calls in an expert, played by Max Von Sydow. Friedkin apparently put his stars Ellen Bursten and Linda Blair through hell in order to make them look appropriately terrified, but it worked. He spins out the tension brilliantly in a movie that will scare the hell out of you whether you believe in the devil or not.

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