Psychological Thrillers of the 1970s… Now those were Scary Movies

“Where there is no imagination, there is no horror.”   ~ Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

It’s just before Halloween and a certain eleven-year-old you want to entertain really likes the idea of a horror movie. Before torture-slashers and Nightmare on Elm Street were the order of the day, I remember Friday Fright Night on Channel 38. Those films from the 1970s… now, those were scary movies.

When it’s so chilling, you laugh because otherwise you’d scream and wake the house. The music, the backstory; intricacies that access your deepest insecurities and make you want to be certain you check all the closets… the pantry… every door… twice. Before you go to bed.

Just in case.

The subtleties make psychological thrillers less appealing in a culture where we hate to wait for anything, but I’ve always favored these films. There were vampires or zombies, but maybe not, maybe ghosts, or just our own minds playing tricks on us.

A few of my favorites:

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) follows a woman recently released from a mental institution. Jessica’s dim and treacherous husband buys a place on an island off the Connecticut coast. Everyone on the island has an affliction of some type, people keep dying strange deaths and the gorgeous redheaded hippie occupying the house looks like a woman who drowned a century earlier. This movie was directed by a young John D. Hancock and has a subtle arthouse feel to it. The moral of this story… if you truly want your fragile wife to recover her wits, best not move her to haunted psycho-horror land.

Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, AKA Revenge of the Living Dead (1972) is a low budget movie by Bob Clark who would later direct Porky’s. It has an especially nasty director of a small theater taking his troupe to an island off Florida that was once a graveyard for the insane. More macabre than I generally like my horror, it’s a perfect build-up and a chilling ending. Children is also the first horror movie I ever saw as a kid of perhaps eight. This maybe explains a lot.

The Omen (1976) is probably the film that brought us the franchise as it exists today. “Here is wisdom, let him that hath understanding, count the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man and his number is 666.” Revelations 13:18. Or to put it in other words, if black dogs follow you everywhere, killing your enemies, a psychotic governess is your familiar, your presence frightens polar bears, churches cause you physical pain and a tricycle is your weapon of choice… you might be the Antichrist. Even scarier is Faye Dunaway in those hair-raising 70s do’s. This alone is worth the 6.99 on Amazon, but truly this film is little-kid horror at its eerie finest. No remake can ever match the original.

Full Circle or The Haunting of Julia (1977) has Mia Farrow possessed by the vengeful spirit of a young girl. We must sort out how much of this might be a spirit and how much is Julia herself. Julia is the first film adaptation of a novel by Peter Straub and terrifying for how well the backstory is constructed and the care with which the plot develops. This is a British/Canadian film with Richard Loncraine directing and there’s a very European conclusion. Though I’m proudly American with regard to my endings, this one works for me. Farrow is such a twit throughout… at-home tracheotomy, indeed.

The Changeling (1979) is a Canadian-made film, based on the real-life experience of its writer, Russell Hunter. A composer, John Russell (George C. Scott) moves to Washington State following the accidental deaths of his wife and daughter. The old Victorian home he rents has been vacant for over a decade and Russell is subject to strange noises, opening and closing doors and one of the scariest-ever scenes involving a red, rubber ball. Engaging backstory is once more the secret to the film’s fright-quotient and it won the first ever Genie Award (A Canadian Oscar for films made in-country). I’ve seen it at least ten times and The Changeling always scares the bejeezus out of me.

There are themes here — islands, little kids, old houses, paranormal phenomena… or psychosis. Most important to each of the above films is the sense that any of these characters could actually be creating their own reality. Again, we’re far more scared by what we can’t see or don’t recognize.

In the end, we watched the remake of Poltergeist. The 2015 version showed us everything the original couldn’t. The special effects weren’t so great in 1982, but the original movie was better because of it. Further emphasizing that imagination is the most potent element in horror and the reason Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stated: “Where there is no imagination, there is no horror.”








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