The late 1900’s was truly where a number of modern horror films had gained their baseline. Hot off the heels of the 60’s darlings such as Night of the Living Dead or Rosemary’s Baby came an advent of movies that really defined horror as a genre. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is touted as being one of the earliest examples of a slasher, a beloved subcategory of the October season that has been often employed by amateur filmmakers and seasoned veterans alike. The aforementioned Night of the Living Dead preceded the chokehold zombie media would have on the film and television in the years that followed, and so on. While the industry was still in its punk rock and devil horned infancy, I would like to draw attention to three examples early in the 1970’s that really illustrated the breath of Horror movies in their capacity to lie beyond just “scary”. Grab your “Can’t Lick our Dick!” presidential buttons and copy of Steven King’s Carrie in hand, because we’re diving into 1974.
Black Christmas was an incredibly bold attempt at capturing mainstream media attention in a genre that had barely proven it’s worth (slashers with examples such as Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom before it) prior. The film’s atmosphere is intentionally cold and muddling (ironically not having very much to do with Christmas outside of being the in-universe season) and the antagonist never being given a face to their actions which limited its audience appeal. Despite this, Black Christmas is one of the most effective horror film’s I’d seen in years which surprised me given the films lack of attention. The kills are somewhat far and few between (at least until the final act) which made the actual content far more shocking than just a cheap slasher-fest. The suffocating sense of realism in a holiday-based home invasion gave it an edge that felt like it was beyond the conventions and boundaries of your standard horror movie. I attribute this to the year; being the early 1970s, those boundaries simply didn’t exist, at least not in the overstuffed sense they do now. In this way Bob Clark’s nightmare of a film stands as an outlier and a carefully constructed miracle of a flick that projected the contemporary knife wielding maniac subgenre of films to greater heights.
Pivoting from pure horror to horror you could strum an electric guitar to, Brian de Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise debuted the very same year. The marketing tended to focus on the scary side of this film, portraying such as a killer ridden thrill fest. The reality couldn’t be further; audiences expecting a modern gory Phantom of the Opera instead were treated to a new variant of horror film, the musical romp with some terror elements to guide the story along. In the years that followed other examples of this genre included 1986’s Little Shop of Horrors or 2009’s Sweeny Todd, or perhaps the largest and most influential example, The Rocky Horror Picture Show which came out the following year. Whereas PotP beat Rocky Horror to the punch by a year, I feel as though Rocky Horror got the last laugh in notoriety. The former I have to concede though is a better made film and story, taking the groundwork of what was already an established story (Phantom of the Opera) and injecting just enough rock opera goodness with a dash of horror to make it an electrifying film. Since horror musicals exist in such a capacity today, I think they owe a debt to Phantom of the Paradise for it’s grand debut, where influences of such can even be seen in works such as Kentaro Miura’s Berserk.
From The Producers to Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks will always be hailed as a comic classic in the film making industry. 1974 was the year he directed his comedic chops in making Young Frankenstein, a take on the Mary Shelly classic novel that cast Gene Wilder as a goofy version of Victor Frankenstein. With the acting talents of Peter Boyle (Taxi Drive) and Madeline Khan (Paper Moon) being the supporting roles on the project, Young Frankenstein was another worthy addition in Brook’s catalog (and flourishing career in film) that proved to be another vital pillar in what made this year so broad for horror. Since then, with films such as Heathers or Tucker and Dale vs Evil, taking common hallmarks of the industry and molding a comedy out of a horror movie basis has become a well-respected aspect of the genre. Young Frankenstein even painted the groundwork for Brook’s own horror comedy works, such as High Anxiety or the somewhat ill received Dracula: Dead and Loving it, allowing the director to continue his run of classic comedy films and inspire other fledgling directors to do the same.
For this month, as has become tradition for the last few years starting with COVID, I have been watching 31 new horror films for all 31 days in October. Phantom of the Paradise ended up being my number one watch for this year, which made me curious to dive into what else was influential from the same period. Finding that the fantastic Black Christmas and the classic in our household Young Frankenstein were from the very same year inspired me to research what made this era so influential. I’d come to conclude that 1974 was a year not of firsts, but of refinement as directors came into their own style of filmmaking. It’s given me a new perspective on how to approach movies from this era up to the modern day, and it is exciting to examine next years batch of films with some new background knowledge in mind. Happy Halloween, and don’t let the remake of Black Christmas get you! (It’s awful).