This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.
As we get into the mid-1970s, we’re presented with a year that isn’t quite as deep as those that preceded it, but still has an array of very ’70s classics to its name. Whether or not you think it’s appropriate to include the likes of Phantom of the Paradise in this listing, there’s few things more ’70s-tastic in horror than Larry Cohen’s killer baby movie, It’s Alive, which perfectly dates the era.
This is also a groundbreaking year for the arrival of a genre that would come to dominate the late ’70s and early ’80s: The slasher film. Finally, after describing so many movies such as Psycho, Peeping Tom, Blood and Black Lace or A Bay of Blood as “proto-slashers,” we can definitively say the first true slasher is here, and it’s called Black Christmas. Note: This year’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre also contains more than a few slasher elements, but the film doesn’t fit the tropes of the emerging genre nearly so snugly as Black Christmas.
Bob Clark, who would later, ironically go on to give us A Christmas Story, directed Black Christmas with inspiration drawn largely from the world of urban legends, and the tale of “the babysitter and the man upstairs” that would also serve as the basis for When a Stranger Calls in 1979. The story revolves around a sorority house, where the occupants have been receiving a series of bizarre and threatening phone calls, before girls begin to disappear. At the same time, composed and mature student Jess Bradford is dealing with her own relationship struggles, even as she begins to feel the eyes of a stalking presence on her. Portrayed with uncommon emotional strength by actress Olivia Hussey, Jess proved to be the foundation, in many ways, for the archetype that we later began to refer to as the “Final Girl.” At the same time, though, her individuality, self-assuredness and sexual independence place Jess in a different tier than the more damsel-fied or virginal Final Girls who would often follow in her wake. Beyond the characterization of Jess, however, Black Christmas is notable for its many other contributions to slasher canon: An anonymous, mentally deranged villain who kills for the sheer enjoyment of it; gruesome death scenes; a body count; a cast of nubile victims; POV shots from the killer’s eyes, and more. Perhaps surprisingly, the film didn’t generate an immediate wave of imitators—although there are more quasi-slasher giallo films in the next few years, the genre doesn’t explode into popularity in the U.S. until the sea-change moment of John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978.
1974 is also home to one of the genre’s great comedies, Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks’ classic send-up of the Universal Monsters era, which contains far more direct inspiration from Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein than viewers who have never seen those movies would likely expect. Venturing out further, we also have the Romero-inspired Spanish/Italian production Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, and Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile, inspired directly by the infamous serial killings of Ed Gein. Suffice to say, this is certainly a prominent year for “extreme” horror, and that’s before we’ve even discussed The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
1974 Honorable Mentions:
Black Christmas, Young Frankenstein, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile, Dead of Night, Captain Kronos — Vampire Hunter, It’s Alive, Madhouse, From Beyond the Grave
Director: Tobe Hooper
In the annals of great horror movie taglines, you’ll have a hard time finding better than “Who will survive, and what will be left of them?” The phrase adorning posters for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre—the official title is indeed “Chain Saw,” for whatever reason—managed to perfectly capture the taboo sensation of this scandalous film, and the feeling that even the audience might not make it out alive. Like The Exorcist, Texas Chain Saw is a movie with a malevolent aura about it—its set pieces look infectious, as if you might catch tetanus through the screen. Unlike The Exorcist, though, the film doesn’t hold itself with a great deal of dramatic gravity. Rather, it seems to wallow in its own filth, and invites you to climb into the pen with it.
Joining this year’s Deranged as another film loosely based on the serial killings and necromantic perversions of the notorious Ed Gein, TCSM’s killers are an inbred family of backwoods, cannibalistic butchers who prey on anyone unlucky enough to stumble onto their patch of turf. There’s an entire familial structure here; one with some confusing hints at gender dysphoria among some of the members, but ultimately it’s really only important to know that these people want you dead, and inside their stomachs, although not necessarily in that order. Likewise, it’s the hulking Leatherface you’ll really want to be watching out for, with his titular chainsaw and his mask made of the dried skin of his victims.
Arriving in theaters less than two weeks before Black Christmas, it’s tempting to refer to TCSM as the first true slasher film, but its family/group dynamic of killers flies in fairly stark contrast to the classical, single killer model you expect in most slasher films. However, with that said, it does make contributions to the genre, from the use of power tools as weapons (where would The Driller Killer be without it?), to the hulking, masked figure of its most famous antagonist. There’s a whole lot of Leatherface in Jason Voorhees, that’s for sure.
In terms of tone, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre casts a uniquely sadistic and hopeless shadow. The deaths are brutally realistic and difficult to watch, aided by masterful sound design and gore effects. There are few sequences in genre history so stunningly, simply brutal as Leatherface bringing a hammer down on poor Kirk’s head with a dull thud, as the audience listens to his feet spasm on metal paneling before Leatherface throws the metal door shut with a bang. The whole sequence lasts only about 20 seconds, but it’s agonizingly realistic in presentation. The deaths of female characters such as Pam, on the other hand, are considerably more drawn out, as they are repeatedly tortured and taunted, made aware seemingly deliberately of their own powerlessness.
It gets a point across—watching this film is meant to be an ordeal, rather than a source of cheap laughs. Nobody is getting away unscarred—not Sally Hardesty, and certainly not the likes of you. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre will have its pound of flesh, one way or another.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.