Thinking back, it seems to me that horror movies stopped being scary back in the 1970s. Is it the movies, or is it me? I was younger then, so maybe it didn’t take much to scare me. Or maybe the real world was less frightening back then, making cinematic terrors seem more intimidating by comparison.
Back then, nobody worried about terrorism or AIDS or mad-cow disease or flesh-eating bacteria or any of the other dozens of bugaboos plaguing society today. Yesteryear’s shockers didn’t have to compete with planes flying into skyscrapers or anthrax threats or beheadings in the Middle East.
What scared me back then? The hideous, charred face of “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” was pretty darned scary, but the stylish doctor was a sophisticated creampuff compared to the deep-South inbred maniacs of the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” gang. When I first saw that title, I thought it might be some kind of wacky dark comedy, a la “Little Shop of Horrors” – boy, was I wrong!
The grainy film quality, the herky-jerky camera action, all gave a jittery, realistic quality to the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” nightmares up on the screen. And the first time you see old Leatherface, revving up his chainsaw in that ramshackle house of madness – that’s a sight you won’t soon forget.
Not all movies of that era achieved that same degree of realism, but they were still plenty horrific. For example, the plot of “Sssssss” was utterly implausible, but that’s okay – its sheer exuberance carried it through.
Strother Martin played a mad scientist bent on turning humanity into a race of super-intelligent king cobras, for all sorts of goofball reasons. And gee, he’d even invented the formula that would do the trick.
Soon his handsome young assistant’s hair is falling out and his skin begins turning scaly. Now if I was working for a mad scientist who was cuckoo for reptiles and my skin suddenly began growing scales… I’d put two and two together. I’d figure out that little Scooby Doo mystery in no time.
But sadly, the assistant in this slithery potboiler never connects the dots. Before long he’s the poster boy for the world’s most effective slimming program. No arms, no legs, just a lanky serpentine abdomen – that’s about as slender as you’re gonna get.
“The Devil’s Rain,” with it’s ghoulish cult of wax-blooded devil-worshippers, is a great example of the many Satanic horror movies of the Seventies. The Devil was scarier back then! William Shatner’s super-exuberant acting style fit perfectly into this Mephistophelean drive-in shocker.
Even made-for-TV movies were scarier in those days. The old “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” TV movies, and the weekly series that followed, worked my young nerves into a frenzy with their cheesy chills and thrills.
Darren McGavin played a gonzo reporter in a cheap suit who was forever chasing vampires and werewolves and even Jack the Ripper around town in his continuing quest for the ultimate scoop. And he usually ended up vanquishing the monster – but gosh darn it, his camera film wouldn’t develop, or the cops would lose the evidence, or some other exasperating inconvenience would foul the deal, so that Kolchak’s crabby editor would have to axe the story.
They never showed more than a glimpse of the monsters, and that actually made it even scarier. You’d wait and wait for that choice moment when suddenly the creature would pop out of the shadows, ready to flay poor Kolchak to bits. Fortunately, he always did his research, so he’d have the necessary cross or wolfbane or whatever was needed to conquer the boogeyman du jour.
But I will admit, in recent years, I’ve seen a few movies that conveyed the same macabre mood as those ’70s favorites of mine, so I guess it is still possible for me to be captivated by cinema horror. They aren’t super-new releases, but you can find them in most stores that sell DVDs.
“Jeepers Creepers” and “Jeepers Creepers 2” tell the tale of a hideous creature that wakes every 23 years to feast for 23 days. If the Creeper needs to replace a hand or leg or other segment of his body, he’ll just eat that bit off a tasty victim and presto! New replacement part. That’s a pretty gonzo idea for a monster. “Cabin in the Woods” and “Dead Silence” are other, more recent movies that also hit the bull’s-eye with plenty of exhilarating weirdness.
Weirdness — that’s what a lot of movies since the ’70s have been missing. Many of today’s movies seem to be retreads of earlier, better movies.
Plus, ’70s horror movies had a lot more energy. The critters leaped into the horror arena with savage gusto. A lot of today’s monsters either hover in the shadows or straggle across the screen like damp tomcats that have been left out in the rain all night.
So if you’re looking for a creepy chiller and the new releases aren’t cuttin’ it for you, try hunting down some vintage ’70s classics. You have nothing to lose – except your SANITY! Bwaaah-haaa-haaaa-haaaaaaah!