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Forgotten 70s and 80s horror film classics

  • By MisterCharlie Author Avatar
  • 18 January 2013

Personally I like nothing better than to settle down to a truly chilling horror film at this time of year. It’s dark and cold outside, with any luck your snowed in, and there’s nothing to look forward to except the far distant relief of Spring sunshine. Perfect then, for immersing yourself in some classic frightfests. There’s a number of reasons I love pre noughties horror (and don’t get me wrong, I like the current crop, but the genre has definitely undergone some seismic shifts), but here’s the main two: No mobile phones. No internet. So many great scenes would be rendered impotent by the ability to call for help, or Google that weird stranger.  As the mysteries of the world are rolled back by the increasingly intrusive glare of information technology, the sheer unknown-ness of a pre internet/ mobile age has got an unparalleled ability to chill, without resorting to hackneyed “oh no my receptions gone!” plot devices.

Still, whenever I look up a decent horror to watch online, I’m always a bit disappointed to see the same predictable names crop up again and again. Yeah Ringu is totally awesome, and hard to watch without bricking yourself, but do we need to be told that again? And if Nightmare On Elm Street is really that good how come every single one of the billion sequels suck balls?

So here you are: list of films you may not have seen, all of which deserve more attention. Around half of them are, brilliantly, watchable on Youtube, and I’ve made it even easier by embedding the full movies when possible. This list proudly favours the creepy over the explicit – whilst I love a good slasher/ monster flick that’s a list for another day. I also don’t buy that a horror movie has to have supernatural themes – a few of the films on these list scare the hell out of you with nothing more than the mundane evil of everyday life. I can, however, guarantee that every one of them is noteworthy, both as horror, and as cinema, and they will chill you long after the credits roll….

 

The Little Girl Who Lived Down the Lane

It seems incredible that this excellently acted modern gothic isn’t better known, particularly considering its main protagonists are played by (the truly horrible) Martin Sheen and an excellent, teenaged Jodie Foster. It’s pretty hard to get into the plot without giving much away, suffice to say that a young girl and her poet father go to live in a cabin on the edge of a small Canadian village, where they are alternately harassed and helped by the freakish locals.  The pacing is unique, slow and unsettling, and the performances impeccable.  Amongst its fans, The Little Girl Who Lived Down the Lane is fervently loved, to the extent that slightly deranged fanzines have been produced devoted to its mystical symbolism. Outside of that group it remains pretty much unknown. An essential treat.

The Changeling

Rather than the vaguely tepid Angela Jolie vehicle of the same name, this 1980 production maxes out haunted house chills with a side portion of sorrow. Essentially, a bereaved writer goes to live in a troubled mansion and has to uncover its secrets to free himself from its restless inhabitants. The fear ratchets up in unbearably tense moments (the séance scene is particularly harrowing), aided by a superb score.  Unfortunately released the same year as The Shining, this got swamped in the (deserved) hype surrounding the Jack Nicholson classic, but stands up to this day as a genius shiver of ghostly story telling. 

The Other

Twins are creepy*. They can do weird psychic stuff, and if we cut off one twin’s arm the other twin starts smelling like hot pumping blood. Probably. The Other recognises this, and comes up with a really nasty little shit of a twin, then puts him in some tiny little short shorts and a neat pudding bowl haircut, all of which makes him seem that lil bit more horrible. Again, it’s hard to say why this isn’t better recognised, but it may be in part due to the slow burning, weirdly edited story – stick with it though, because the moment it all clicks you’re rewarded with a superb pay off.

*Except any twins who might be reading this. You’re fine. It’s the other ones. Please don’t get me.  

Only a trailer for this one I’m afraid, but you get the picture –

The Tenant

In many ways a companion piece to Rosemary’s Baby, Polanski’s earlier feature also has a protagonist besieged by his fellow, seemingly normal tenants, who are gradually revealed to be shot through with evil. The film gets weirder and weirder as the main character’s mind falls apart, and the final moments leave you with nothing but a set of sickening questions. Not one to watch if you like everything neatly tied up, The Tenant is more of a surreal nightmare than a traditional horror, but a fine example of a master plying his trade.  

Picnic at Hanging Rock

Restraint is the key to this film. Picnic at Hanging Rock posits the question – what happens when people simply …disappear. Set in colonial Australia, and showing a drawing on a deep set fear of the mystery contained within the ancient landscape, this film offers no solutions, just an unsettling attempt to try and quantify a chaotic and inexplicable event. It’s filmed with a drifting, dream like sense of foreboding that never fails to give me chills.

Threads

This BBC film literally scared the shit out of a nation. Made at the height of cold war nuclear paranoia, this docudrama portrays the after effects of an atomic bomb landing in England. On screening it bummed out people across the land, and contributed to a huge swelling in CND support. Why? Because it is GRIM. Trust me, this film makes Downfall look like The Hangover with added Nazis. Not a horror in the traditional sense, just absolutely horrific. Probably best not used as a date movie.

Angel Heart

Alan Parker’s filmography is what you’d call ‘eclectic’. I’ve never quite figured out why the man who made Bugsy Malone, Evita and The Commitments should find time mid-career to make a 50s film noir cum voodoo Satan worship blood fest. But I’m glad he did. Alongside big stars (a pre-ogrefaced Mickey Rourke, and a silky Robert De Niro), and a great twist in the story from back in the days before all films had to have a twist in the story, Angel Heart also, memorably, features Lisa Bonet in an explicit, blood drenched sex scene that outraged Bill Cosby so much she was fired from The Cosby Show. Slightly dubious voodoo stereotypes aside, this is an underrated, well-acted and extremely stylish gem.  

A Warning to the Curious

Back before it was spunking money on Strictly Come Dancing and The Voice, the BBC used to knock out fine dramas regularly. From 1971 – 78 there was a Christmas tradition of filming a ghost story for Christmas, usually based on the writing of MR James. Every single film turned out to be a masterclass in chilling on a budget.  Largely directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, the films made maximum use of the creepiness to be found in England, in its brooding country side, cold churches, pagan history and strange, grasping citizens. Sometimes the stilted nature of the films verges on the comedy, and Mark Gatiss has acknowledged them as a big influence on the nastier elements of League of Gentlemen, but at their height they send shivers right through you. A Warning To The Curious, with its tale of cursed treasure finding itself into modern times, is my favourite, but they’re all available to watch on youtube, and all recommended.

Hausu

What to say about Hausu? Well, this 70s Japanese horror is probably the weirdest J-Horror ever made. It’s got Satan cats, cannibalism, school girls, possessed pianos and mad severed ghost heads. I think it’s fair to describe it as mind blowing and utterly bewildering, and you owe it to yourself to watch it at least once.  I thought there was a version on youtube, but looks like I was wrong. It has however been reissued after years of languishing as forum legend, so you should be able to track down a copy online. In the meantime watch the trailer and try and figure out just what the hell is going on…

 Spoorloos

Ahh the Hollywood remake. Sometimes OK, often shite. In the case of Dutch chiller Spoorloos,  remade as The Vanishing, the results were box office successful, but to fans of the original, predictably disappointing. Telling the story of one man’s search for his kidnapped wife, the film hinges around one terrible question – what would you risk to find out the truth? The remake lost its balls at the last minute, and it’s particularly individualistic, American, ‘hero saves the day’ bullshit dénouement renders the horror of the original concept  - that we are utterly helpless against random acts of evil - meaningless. Unfortunately the Youtube upload is without subtitles, but here it is if you fancy trying to learn a new language -

 

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