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The 15 best ’70s horror movies, ranked

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The 1970s were maybe the best decade for horror that there has ever been. So many films that still influence the kinds of scary movies that get made today were released during that decade, and it’s also when horror found its mainstream audience. Whether you’re interested in artistic horror films or just want a down-the-middle slasher, the horror of the 1970s was wide-ranging and catered to a wide variety of different tastes. Few decades since have been able to measure up.

For starters, Hollywood served up a multitude of instantly iconic scare-fare, scorching terrifying images into the brains of an entire generation. Not to mention launching the careers of such industry heavyweights as Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott. The U.K. was also particularly prodigious at preying on our fears this decade too, serving up many of the most unsettling slices of British horror ever. Plus, the decade was also a boon for European horror at large, particularly in Italy.

It’s tough to slash down the stiff competition to a mere 15, but like a butcher-knife-handed maniac, that’s exactly what we’ve done. Read on for our picks for the 1970s’ finest horror films.

15. The Hills Have Eyes

Wes Craven’s directorial debut came in 1972’s The Last House on the Left, but it’s in 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes that the future maestro of the macabre really made his mark on the genre. Brutal and disturbing, Hills is certainly one of the finest of the glut of spiritual follow-ups to Texas Chainsaw Massacre, that crowded horror cinema in the second half of the decade, thanks to its exploration of the thin line separating civilization and savagery. With this, Craven previewed the singular vision that saw him rise to the top of the pile in the 1980s and ’90s.

14. Black Christmas

Before Halloween perfected the formula of the slasher formula, we had Black Christmas. One of the first of its kind, this tale of a serial killer who invades a sorority house on Christmas Eve to murder and maim his way through what should otherwise be a silent night may seem fairly familiar to our modern, blood-soaked eyes, but it’s important to remember how groundbreaking it was at the time. It may have been remade twice since (in 2006 and 2019), but the original Black Christmas remains the best.

13. Invasion of the Body Snatchers

You might know it best from that meme of Donald Sutherland pointing and pulling a face, but this second out of the several seminal adaptations of Invasion of the Body Snatchers out there deserves to be revisited in full as well. In contrast to the 1958 original, a classic slice of ’50s b-movie sci-fi, ’78’s Body Snatchers takes the McCarthyism allegory of its predecessor and creates a deeply unsettling, paranoid picture that blends horror with the cinematic language of the conspiracy thrillers popular at the time.

12. Dawn of the Dead

In 1968, George A. Romero created the modern zombie as we know it with the landmark Night of the Living Dead. A full decade later, he returned to the genre he pioneered in Dawn of the Dead, which combined the classic dread of shambling, flesh-eating undead stalking the screen with a heavy helping of sharp social satire. Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake is an effective 21st century revamp of the concept of a zombie horde attacking a shopping mall, but Romero’s original use of zombies to take a gunshot to the head of commercialism can’t be beaten.

11. Eraserhead

David Lynch, Hollywood’s surrealist supreme, started as he meant to go on with his directorial debut, the incomparable Eraserhead. So bizarre it largely defies categorization, we must surely call it a body horror film thanks to the screaming, alien-esque baby (believed to have been created by a rabbit or lamb fetus) that our titular high-topped protagonist finds out he’s the father of over the course of the film. Not to mention various nightmarish sequences that couldn’t have been ripped from even your dizziest fever dreams. It might not be Lynch’s finest film, but it’s certainly an experience you’ll never forget.

10. The Omen

Few horror movies, or really movies of any stripe, get to be the kind of phenomenon that The Omen was in 1976. The film tells the story of a prominent American diplomat and his wife as they adopt a baby and eventually come to realize that he is the son of Satan. The Omen is bombastic and over the top, but it’s undeniably effective. Gregory Peck’s performance as Damien’s father is appropriately harried, and the film’s climax, which sees his character almost succeed in killing his son, is as tragic as they come.

9. Suspiria

Not to be confused with the 2018 remake of the same name, Dario Argento’s original Suspiria tells the story of an American ballet dancer who travels to Germany to join a company, only to find that members of her class are slowly being killed off. The dancer has trouble settling into the school and begins to hear and see things, ultimately uncovering the secret history of the company she’s just joined. Suspiria‘s themes of societal rot and corruption are as relevant as ever, and the movie itself is just as unsettling as it was more than 40 years ago.

8. The Wicker Man

The story of a Christian detective who is called to a remote Scottish island in order to search for a missing child, The Wicker Man is focused primarily on the pagan rituals and sexual displays of the island’s inhabitants. What makes The Wicker Man work, though, is that our main character is not as bright as he may initially seem to be. He may be there to investigate a mystery, but there are larger machinations at play that he only begins to understand as the movie unfolds. Just don’t watch the Nicolas Cage remake by mistake.

7. Carrie

Plenty of people know Carrie for her bucket of blood, but this Stephen King adaptation is so much more than that climactic scene. The film is a story of teenage alienation, following a young girl who is taunted by her classmates and abused at her home. When strange things begin to happen around her, Carrie starts to suspect she has supernatural powers. While that may initially be empowering, what we ultimately realize is that those who were cruel to Carrie are going to suffer pretty immense consequences.

6. Don’t Look Now

A mind-bending story of grief and loss, Don’t Look Now follows an affluent couple who are living in Venice after the death of their daughter. When they start to suspect they’re being hunted across the city, the movie takes a turn for the surreal, and we see exactly how this loss, although it isn’t always discussed explicitly, has fundamentally ruined their lives. Thanks to stellar central performances from Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, Don’t Look Now is well worth watching, even if you don’t totally understand what you’re seeing.

5. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Horror movies don’t get more straightforward than this, but that’s part of what makes The Texas Chainsaw Massacre so effective. The movie follows a group of friends who find themselves in a cabin next to a group of murderous outlaws and struggle to survive after they start getting picked off by a menace named Leatherface. There are no supernatural thrills on display here; this movie is just a story about a group of kids trying not to get murdered, and it’s even scarier because every piece of it felt like it could really happen.

4. Jaws

You may not think of Jaws as a horror film, but if that’s the case, you should really watch it again. Telling the story of three men who come together to fight off a shark who is destroying a New England beach town, Jaws is thrilling, but Steven Spielberg’s calling card movie is also plenty scary. The decision to show the shark as little as possible only reinforces the elemental fear you feel when he finally emerges, and John Williams’ oft-imitated score is so popular in part because of the instant sense of dread that it creates.

3. Alien

One of the greatest sci-fi horror movies ever made, Alien traps its main cast aboard a ship with an unkillable beast and then spends the movie’s duration slowly picking them off. The production design and costumes on display in this film are second to none, and the xenomorph at the center of the movie still looks completely terrifying more than 40 years later. The team behind Alien understood that space could be a terrifying place and just two years after Star Wars, that’s exactly what they made it.

2. Halloween

The original Halloween mainstreamed horror movies and launched an entire generation of imitators. The film tells the simple story of the victims of Michael Myers, a murderous man who was institutionalized at a young age and then escapes imprisonment at the beginning of the film. Halloween is about an elemental evil, a being who exists only to kill the people who get in his way, and every kill in this movie is so creatively executed that and terrifying that no babysitter ever felt safe again.

1. The Exorcist

While it may not be as influential as Halloween, The Exorcist is close to the ideal of a ’70s horror movie. The film follows a mother and daughter as the daughter begins to exhibit signs of possession. Eventually, an exorcist has to be called to the scene, and what follows is so utterly gripping that even modern horror fans will find themselves unable to look away. The Exorcist was a phenomenon when it was first released, and although it’s been nearly 50 years, it remains one of only a few horror movies to be nominated for Best Picture. Blumhouse, you’d better know what you’re doing with your incoming legacy sequel.

About the author

Joe Allen

Joe Allen is a freelance writer based out of upstate New York who has been covering movies and TV for more than five years. Joe has been featured in The Washington Post, Paste Magazine, and The Charleston Post Courier, and has a Master's in journalism from Syracuse University