In honor of Halloween, I offer a half-dozen rental recommendations from the decade that marked the pinnacle for literate, but skin-crawlingly creepy horror movies...the 1970s:
Black Christmas (1974) -- I've long been fascinated by the amazingly eclectic career of Canadian director Bob Clark. Probably most remembered for inventing 80s teenage sexsploitation with Porky's and Porky's II, he went straight from pure raunch into pure sentimentality with the beloved A Christmas Story, then made a series of completely forgetable, mostly straight-to-video releases before coming back with one of the absolute turkeys of all time in 1999's Baby Geniuses. And yet, long before any of that, he was a pioneering horror auteur, with the Vietnam-era monkey's paw tale Dead of Night and this underrated gem, which more or less sets the blueprint for sorority house slasher tales.
Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971) -- While certainly not the best horror film of the decade, this might be the one that best evokes the era, for good and ill. The hipster dialogue and cheesy synthesizer score practically define the word "dated," and modern horror fans probably couldn't abide the methodical pacing, but the filmmakers' here manage to conjure a sense of dread from beginning to end that is just utterly lacking in the genre today.
The Sentinel (1977) -- This one is sort of like Dario Argento's Suspiria meets Tod Browning's Freaks. It was most noteworthy at the time for using actual physical oddities to play the roles of deformed characters who man the gates of hell. It is most noteworthy now for having one of the longest cameo lists of any film this side of the Cannonball Run. Before all is said and done, Tom Berenger, John Carradine, Beverly D'Angelo, Jose Ferrer, Ava Gardner, Jeff Goldblum, Burgess Meredith, Jerry Orbach, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Walken, and Eli Wallach all make appearances.
The House of Exorcism (1973) -- Also known by its American title, Lisa and the Devil, this one is another that explores the "Gates of Hell" theme to great effect, as Italian auteur Mario Bava confirms what many of us had long suspected -- that Kojak is the Prince of Darkness.
Don't Look Now (1973) -- M. Night Shymalan fans should enjoy this one particularly, as its influence clearly echoes through all his films. Director Nicholas Roeg, who also gave us Mick Jagger in Performance and David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, here manages to turn Venice into a terrifying place, full of creepy little midgets, ominous black waters, and con artist nuns -- all the while mining some fairly deep psychological terrain on the nature of trust between parents and children, and husbands and wives. Stephen Soderbergh would also later ape the film's best scene -- which intercuts Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie making love with them dressing for dinner later that night -- by having George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez reverse the chronology in Out of Sight.
The Wicker Man (1973) -- The Citizen Kane of 70s horror, this one actually first opened Stateside as a double bill with Don't Look Now, which was also produced by British Lion (a tragically short-lived studio that sought to pick up where the immortal Hammer left off.) Sadly, the original print is now lost to the ages and only a heavily edited version survives intact. The 2000 DVD release reincorporates some of the lost footage, but those sections are clearly the worse for wear. No matter -- in any version, this one is a must see. Not does it contain the greatest performance of Christopher Lee's career, it also functions as a musical! How many movies can you say that about?