Still from The Wicker Man, 1973

10 vintage horror movies to watch this October

Distract yourself from the horrors of the real world with these with these scary movies.

by Douglas Greenwood
06 October 2020, 8:00am

Still from The Wicker Man, 1973

Fifty years ago, horror movies were supremely fucked up; perhaps even more so than they are in the ‘seen everything’ environment we consume art nowadays. The technical limitations, paired with a desire to push the boundaries of small budgets, forced filmmakers’ imaginations to run wild. Storylines took the most mundane of subjects and transformed them into real manifestations of evil. The results were an era of American and Italian horror films that all, simply by existing, became framed as cult classics. Body horrors, slasher films and home invasion movies were all the rage. For anyone who’s indulged in them, chances are your psyche hasn’t been the same since.

It’s that time of year again! October brings with it windy weather, fall leaves, PSLs and, most importantly, Halloween! And with the looming threat of another lockdown imminent, alongside the general cancellation of actually doing anything fun this year, the best way to celebrate spooky season this year is by curling up on the couch watching films that will freak you out for a very long time. But if you’re bored of watching Paranormal Activity or Insidious for the umpteeth time, here are some throwback features that do the job. You can most likely find them kicking about at a second hand DVD shop, or available to buy digitally. But for the die-hard arthouse heads, all of these are streaming on Criterion Channel this month too, as part of their 70s horror season.

Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)
In this truly messed up psycho-thriller, a couple (played by Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland) flee to Venice with the intention of renovating an old church after a freak accident kills their daughter. Upon arrival, the duo encounter a pair of sisters — one of whom is clairvoyant and insists that their daughter is trying to reach out and warn them of danger. But while life rolls on around the canals of Venice, the grieving father suddenly sees his daughter everywhere, and the realisation that she may have an important message overwhelms them. This is as much a parable on loss as it is a violent and terrifying film about death lingering over you, and the horrifying ways it manifests. Deceptive at times, it lures you into a sense of security before hitting you over the head with one of the most haunting images you’ll see in 70s horror. Good luck!

The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)
A now well-trodden and well documented genre classic, The Wicker Man of the 70s doesn’t star Nicolas Cage (boo!) but does contain much of the familiar framework of the remake. Set on an island in Scotland, it follows a police officer who ventures there to solve a case surrounding a missing girl. On arrival, he finds that the entire island has absconded Christianity and converted to Paganism. Unsurprisingly, they’ve all adopted bat-shit crazy practises that seem very concerning from the outside but normal to them. Midsommar stans, this one’s for you.

Sisters (Brian De Palma, 1973)
Widely considered the breakout feature of now legendary cult filmmaker Brian De Palma, Sisters is a cultish tale of two twin siblings, Dominique and Danielle, and how the pair become even more tightly embroiled after Dominique is suspected of a violent murder, witnessed through an apartment window by an investigative reporter. An absolute shitshow in the greatest possible way, it’s a kitschy, split-screen thriller that thrives on fake blood and brilliant, complex female protagonists. Oh, and Bernard Herrmann, who composed the score for Hitchcock’s Psycho, lathers a lethal feel over the whole thing.

The Nightcomers (Michael Winner, 1971)
The legendary Marlon Brando was nominated for a BAFTA for his appearance in this film; a loose, inspired prequel to a 19th century novella called The Turn of the Screw. Set on an old manor, The Nightcomers revolves around two separate duos: two orphaned children, and a governess and the estate’s gardener (played by Brando) who are engaging in a whirlwind, sadomasochistic love affair behind closed doors. But little do they know that the orphaned children are watching, and are plotting to act out the most violent elements of their elder’s relationship on each other with devastating consequences. Obviously controversial upon its release, the film has become a footnote in the career of Marlon Brando, but for those with truly macabre taste, this might be one of the few horrors you’ve not yet seen.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Tobe Hooper, 1974
Much like The Wicker Man, most of us are familiar with the story of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But if you found the 2003 remake to be a bit sloppy, indulge in the hyper-violent mania of the original instead. Released in 1974, this slasher flick about a group of hitchhikers desperately avoiding the clutches of cannibals and a chainsaw-wielding killer was banned from several countries upon release due to its violent content. But for those who could still see it, that — alongside a make-believe ‘true story’ tagline — acted as a brilliant piece of marketing. The film grossed $30 million against a budget of $140,000, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Deathdream, Bob Clark, 1974
Released in the final months of the Vietnam War, Deathdream (or Dead of Night as it’s known in some countries) is a bloody ghost story about a young soldier who’s shot dead during war, only to return home mysteriously unharmed days later to wreak violent havoc upon his town. It was a word of mouth sleeper hit upon its release in 1974, with posters stating that no one could arrive later than five minutes after it had started so to ensure everyone followed the twisted plot from the start. Back in the days when drive-in theatres weren’t a byproduct of coronavirus making actual cinemas uninhabitable, this was one of the must-see drive-in horrors of its time.

Ganja & Hess, Bill Gunn, 1973
Widely cited as the experimental Blaxploitation horror of its day, Ganja & Hess is a vampiric love story that racked up real critical acclaim upon its release, and has retroactively been framed as a clever scathing metaphor for cultural imperialism. Its lead character, Dr Hess Green, is an anthropologist studying the works of an ancient African blood-drinking tribe. After he’s stabbed by his unstable assistant with a dagger from the tribe, he becomes bloodthirsty and immortal, and soon manages to coerce his assistant’s wife, Ganja, into falling for him by biting her and blessing her with eternal life. If the plot sounds familiar, that’s because Spike Lee remade it in 2014, under the new name, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus.

Images, Robert Altman, 1972
Not so much a straightforward horror as it is a complicated psychological drama, Robert Altman’s Images, which premiered in Cannes in 1972, winning its lead star Susannah York the Best Actress prize, was widely dismissed when it was first released. Filmed in the blustery autumn months of 1971 in Ireland, it’s a cold, sometimes confusing film about a children’s book author who’s haunted by apparitions during the writing of her latest project. Most people didn’t get it, or found it a bit too convoluted, but it did find some fans in the years after its release.

Daughters of Darkness, Harry Kümel, 1971
If you, like the rest of us, stan the hell out of murderous middle-aged women with lots of money, then Daughters of Darkness will be catnip to you. It starts simply: a couple are on their honeymoon, spending the night in a seafront hotel in Belgium awaiting the ferry to England the next morning. They are the only people staying there until, when the sun sets, a countess arrives with her secretary in tow. The concierge recognises her, but it’s been a long time since they last met eyes; he remembers the same, un-aged face of the women from his childhood. So what is she doing here? Well, as it all unravels, it seems like the coercive countess may have something to do with a violent murder of two girls that cast a shadow over Bruges the previous week. Who might her next victim be?

It’s Alive (Larry Cohen, 1974)
Sometimes it’s nice to not have to think about anything when you watch a movie. Big, dumb things can be fun at times. Case in point: It’s Alive, a 1974 mutant horror film about a couple welcoming their new baby to the world, only to discover that it’s capable of brutally killing anything that stands in its way. The New York Times critic Vincent Canby pointed out that, like with many of Cohen’s movies, It’s Alive was “drenched in supreme silliness by way of the dialogue and special effects”, which, if you ask us, sounds like the perfect way to spend a spooked-out Halloween when the outside world looks a lot like a horror movie anyway.

horror movies