The 1970s were an incredible decade, a distant span of time when lots of groovy and peculiar things went down. The music scene was wild and unpredictable, the clothes were fabulous and awful in equal measures and. if your crazy uncle is to be believed, the parties were nothing short of epic. Like many things from that unique period of time, the movies were frequently a bit on the strange side. And the horror movies? Some were positively insane.
10. The Manitou (1978)
This is a solid movie saddled with a borderline disastrous and totally ludicrous ending that kept it from reaching its full potential. It’s also that gonzo finale that earns it a spot on this list. Based on the superb book by Graham Masterton, the film version of The Manitou is a classic exercise in horror and suspense for most of its run time. Okay, the plot revolves around a vengeful medicine man being reborn as a big lump on a woman’s back and that’s definitely kooky, but we’re rocking with an assortment of fairly standard genre staples for the first hour or so.
It’s not until the big exorcism in the hospital ward that closes out the show that things get truly bizarre. The classic horror trappings go out the window and we’re treated to monstrous imaginary lizards and a topless Susan Strasberg flinging laser beams from her fingertips. Did we mention that this occurs in outer space? Strasberg is in a hospital bed while said laser-flinging occurs, but she, her hospital bed and the deformed midget she’s doing supernatural battle with are shown engaging in this bizarre throwdown in space. It’s very, very weird.
9. Zombie (1979)
If you’re a fan of gore maestro Lucio Fulci, you’re aware that he set the bar for bizarre horror movies with The Beyond in 1981. However, his earlier offerings were far from normal and Zombie is no exception. It’s actually one of Fulci’s most grounded offerings, but it’s also the movie where he gave us the deranged glory that is an underwater battle between a zombie and a shark. Much like The Manitou’s absurd finale, this sequence plays a pivotal role in this picture’s place on our list. Bonus points: it’s a real shark, and the stunt man who’s seen doing battle with it might have been crazier than any of the films being discussed here.
The rest of the picture is a gruesome delight for fans of zombie flicks, including a classic sequence where Olga Karlatos has her eye gouged out by a jagged shard of wood. There are several big scares, buckets of gore and an eerie horror film score/tropical island lounge music mash-up that combine to set this one apart from the pack. Also worthy of mention is the sinister atmosphere that permeates the piece and a perfect ending that greatly enhances the fearsome impact of this undead gem.
8. The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974)
Is it an action-packed kung-fu flick? Is it another gruesome vampire movie from Hammer Films? It’s actually both. A true oddity, this unique pairing of martial arts mayhem and vampire folklore yields mixed results. The twisted vampire designs are definitely unique and the fights are lively, but the plot is muddled and some of the performances fall flat. Yet the movie is nothing short of strange, and it never fails to entertain.
Even though The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is uneven, it manages to deliver the goods. There are several exciting kung-fu clashes with multitudes of warriors and ghouls exchanging blows all over the screen. There’s also a morbid atmosphere, some gratuitous nudity, some gore and a number of elaborate sets to spice things up. Peter Cushing reprises his role as Van Helsing and John Forbes-Roberstson does a fair job of stepping in for Christopher Lee as Dracula. The Count doesn’t get a lot of screen-time, but that’s okay. It’s cool to see Cushing get mixed up in the kung-fu fighting (he was in his 60s), and while there isn’t much in the way of scares to be had with this one, it does provide loads of fun.
Additionally, the fight choreography comes from Cheh Chang, the man responsible for countless martial arts classics. His best-known feature, The Five Deadly Venoms, is a popular choice for the best kung-fu flick of all-time. Most of the pictures on this list are crazy and disturbing, but The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is just a crazy good time.
7. God Told Me To (1976)
Our next selection is the product of another director known for churning out bizarre horror, Larry Cohen. Unlike our offering from Fulci, however, we think that God Told Me To is Cohen’s ultimate triumph in the cinema of the bizarre. A devout Catholic is faced with his most difficult case as a detective for the NYPD — a series of otherwise random murders wherein each of the culprits claim that God told them to kill. One of these crazed murderers is none other than noted comic Andy Kaufman as a policeman who guns down five people in a St. Patrick’s Day parade, which just so happens to be taking place in the summer. Go figure.
Anyway, it doesn’t take long for our hero’s investigation to lead him to a telepathic Christ-like hippie with a glowing face and a vagina on his side. There’s no need to backtrack, you read that correctly. This role belongs to well-known B-movie psycho Richard Lynch, and he does an admirable job of fleshing out this twisted menace. Our hero must come to terms with this strange fiend’s immaculate conception, as well as his own (seriously, we’re not making any of this up), and that brings us to the aliens.
Honestly, the picture is more grounded and worthwhile than this synopsis may lead you to believe. God Told Me To is a nifty piece of filmmaking from a gonzo director who always excelled at getting the most out of his leading men. The leads rise to the challenge and gives riveting performances, the effects work is serviceable and the ending is a worthy finale for such an affair.
6. The Sentinel (1977)
This is without a doubt the most star-studded entry on our list. One of the most bizarre aspects of this picture is the casting — how did so many legitimate stars wind up in this absurdity? We’ve got Ava Gardner, Eli Wallach, Martin Balsam, Burgess Meredith, Jose Ferrer and John Carradine, and that’s just the old guard. Up-and-comers featured include Chris Sarandon, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Walken, Tom Berenger and Beverly D’Angelo, among others.
The plot, such as it is, revolves around a fragile young model’s decision to move into the weirdest apartment building ever. The most normal occupant of this place is a blind priest (Carradine) who is always sitting by his window, staring out at a world he cannot see. When our lead (Cristina Raines) first meets Beverly D’Angelo’s character, this particular neighbor says very little and masturbates an awful lot. Shortly thereafter, the neighbor played by Burgess Meredith invites our bewildered heroine over for his cat’s birthday party. Yes, the cat is forced to wear a hat.
Where does all of this lead? Well, we were kind of hoping that you’d figure it out for us. There’s some question as to whether or not our heroine’s lover (Sarandon) killed his wife or not, there are questions as to whether or not any of these strange neighbors are real or imagined (or maybe the question is whether they’re living or dead) and there’s a lot of religious mumbo-jumbo that seldom makes any sense. Yet there’s an ominous mood that gives the picture a needed boost, and there are a few decent jolts along the way. The gruesome finale was deemed controversial due to the director’s decision to use some genuine oddities in the twisted freak show that brings The Sentinel to a mind-boggling close, but it’s one of the most effective scenes in the movie.
5. The Wicker Man (1973)
The bee-filled remake was awful, but don’t let that sway your opinion on the original, a trippy and often terrifying picture. A policeman is dispatched to a Scottish island to investigate the disappearance of a little girl. However, he arrives to find an odd village full of people who claim that the girl doesn’t exist. This is strange, but stranger still are the various rituals the officer encounters in his search for the truth. Horror stalwarts Christopher Lee and Ingrid Pitt grace the screen in this delirious piece that culminates in yet another startling conclusion.
There are a number of fascinating scenes in The Wicker Man, but our favorite has to be the sensational bit where Britt Ekland strips and writhes against a wall, performing a sensual song and dance that drives our hero in the adjacent room positively wild. Male or female, you’ll find the whole sequence peculiar, but it’s perfectly at home in a film that relies heavily on intriguing music, elaborate costumes and sinister pagan rites.
Is there a missing girl? Will our noble hero find her, or will he find something far worse? Like the 70s themselves, this list is ripe with downer endings, so expect the latter.
4. Don’t Look Now (1973)
This is quite possibly the most frightening entry on our list. Somber and graced with rich characters and legitimate star power in the form of Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, this Nicholas Roeg film is a fine example of what the horror genre is capable of in the right hands. Though Don’t Look Now is outlandish and has a definite flair for the sensational, it’s also a deliberate feature that slowly builds to a shocking crescendo. Some of the more bizarre elements include Donald Sutherland’s hair, a blind psychic with a dire warning, and an explicit love scene that’s about as far from erotic as you can get. Held together by a haunting plot that’s guaranteed to unnerve and edited in such a way that the viewer is kept off-balance throughout, these components provide for a truly unique film.
The picture is set in Venice to great effect, and follows a pair of grieving parents as they attempt to cope with the recent death of their daughter. There they meet the elderly psychic; Christie’s character isn’t interested in her or her warning, but Sutherland is intrigued. There are also bodies being found in the canals, victims of a savage murderer. Sutherland keeps seeing a ghostly figure in red that may or may not be the ghost of his dearly departed daughter.
If you haven’t seen this one, we can only hope that no one has spoiled the infamous ending for you. To this day it remains about as powerful and terrifying as closing reels get. Fearsome and abrupt, it’s a fitting punctuation mark for a dark and twisted movie that’s seldom given the respect it deserves.
3. The Brood (1979)
A masterpiece from David Cronenberg, The Brood is ripe with suspense and dread in addition to the director’s trademark zeal for unadulterated shock value. Is it downright disgusting at times? Yes. Is it punctuated by shocking moments of violence and an abundance of gore? Of course!
The story concerns Oliver Reed’s efforts with a strange new breed of therapy. His patient is the lovely Samantha Eggar, and as Reed’s experiments with her progress it becomes obvious that her treatment is somehow related to a series of abhorrent murders taking place. Left to unravel this eerie premise is the patient’s estranged husband, convincingly played by Art Hindle.
A quality score courtesy of Howard Shore, solid effects, and Cronenberg’s steady hand at the helm yield a powerful frightfest that is exceptionally perverse. There are moments of sheer terror interspersed with a wealth of suspense. As the revolutionary therapist’s methods are revealed, we’re treated to a vulgar display of mind-bending horror. The Brood may not be Cronenberg’s masterpiece, but it’s very effective and very bizarre.
2. Suspiria (1977)
It’s been decades since noted giallo maestro Dario Argento directed anything that didn’t wind up being utterly laughable, yet there was a time when he had the goods. In 1977, he dropped a bomb on horror fans spanning the globe — Suspiria, a whirlwind of style and passion that continues to prey on audiences with a taste for the spooky stuff.
There’s a long list of movies about witches, but few of them are any good. Suspiria is fantastic. The score by the band Goblin is legendary, the cinematography is nothing short of stellar and the carnage that unfolds in this eerie gem is bloodcurdling. In addition to a surreal atmosphere that’s equal parts fairy tale and nightmare, the movie boasts some of the most vicious demises ever depicted on film. Ask any fan of Suspiria to determine which kill scene is the most sadistic and they’ll have to think it over. The brilliant colors, the fantastic nature of the piece and the roving camera, which moves so much that we’re seldom able to get our bearings, combine to make viewing this ’70s shocker a bewildering experience.
1. Phantasm (1979)
Phantasm is just your average tale of hooded dwarves, flying spheres that drill into people’s skulls and spray their brains across the room, and a malevolent mortician from another dimension. That’s okay, though, because there’s a teenage boy, his brother who may or may not be dead, and an ice-cream vendor who plays a mean guitar on hand to save the day. These would-be heroes have their work cut out for them — the Tall Man (the mortician from another dimension) is expertly played by Angus Scrimm and remains one of the genre’s most beloved villains. Wickedly inventive, endlessly creative, and incredibly entertaining, Phantasm is equal parts bizarre and awesome.
This is one of those movies where everything comes together perfectly. The effects are great, the score is perfect, the acting is on point and both the script and the direction never fail to surprise us. There are thrills, chills and chuckles, and the picture is of such quality that it still has a devoted fanbase clamoring for another sequel. Speaking of which, the fifth Phantasm film is on the way, and it looks like it will be absolutely terrible. We hope we’re wrong about that, but we’re 100% sure that we’re right about the original. Phantasm is everything a film on this list should be: deranged, creepy and delightful. That’s a tall order, but the Tall Man delivers.