1976 is such an astoundingly productive year in exploitation and horror that we’re forced to divide it into two parts. Religious-themed horror takes front and center in this first part, beginning with Alfred Sole’s Communion [better known today as Alice Sweet Alice], one of the most substantial cult films ever produced. Beginning with a young Brooke Shields torched in a pew, dysfunctional Catholicism is taken to grounds previously unseen. Mantling the most pronounced trends of the 1970s, Sole plays elastic with multiple genres (slasher, psychological, religious, independent movies, horror) with such idiosyncratic force that the movie’s cult status was inevitable. It should have made Sole a genre specialist, but his career as a director never took off, and he only made a few more films. Surprisingly, critics have been slow in coming around to Communion. It’s essential viewing and we hope to cover it in greater detail here at a later date.
Richard Donner made a bona fide pop star out of a pre-pubescent antichrist with The Omen. It was a marketing bonanza, spawning endless sequels and a pointless 2006 remake. Sensationalistic, red-blooded, and commercially slick, in a National Enquirer kind of way, it’s predictably most successful in coming up with ways to slaughter characters—the most infamous of which is a decapitation by glass. In that, The Omen is a product of its time. The creativity in many of the later Hammer Dracula films was often solely reserved for ways to dispatch (and resurrect) its titular vampire. The Abominable Dr. Phibes took tongue-in-cheek delight utilizing the plagues of Egypt to annihilate everyone in sight. It was also the decade of Old Nick and deadly tykes. Throw in apocalyptic biblical paranoia, and The Omen is practically a smorgasbord of 70s trends.
The Omen is helped tremendously by Jerry Goldsmith’s score, which is reminiscent of Carl Orff and still remembered (and imitated). Three character performances stand out: Billie Whitelaw, who literally lights up as a nanny from the pit, David Warner as a photographer obsessively trying to avoid his predestined end, and Patrick Troughton as a priest who “knows too much” (and gets his own Dracula-like finish). Unfortunately, the film is considerably hindered by its two leads. Gregory Peck, nice fella that he was off screen, is his usual wooden self and poorly cast as Damien’s adoptive ambassador father. The role was first offered to Charlton Heston, whose old school conservative machismo and hammy charisma would undoubtedly have been a better fit. Alas, even though he rightly predicted it would be a major success, Heston objected to a film in which evil triumphed over good, and chose instead to star in the awful Midway, which was also a box office hit that year. Almost equally uninspiring is Lee Remick as Peck’s wife. Like Peck, she’s too wishy-washy, coming to life most when she’s about to die. Together, Peck and Remick throw the film off-balance. In contrast, director Donner rightly doesn’t take this nonsense seriously. Harvey Stephens is effectively stoic as Satan Jr., which renders him even an even creepier beast, but surprisingly, his is more of a supporting character.
Peter Sykes also meddled in Satanism in Hammer’s To the Devil a Daughter. The film benefits from its cast of Christopher Lee, Richard Widmark, Nastassja Kinski, Denholm Elliott, and Honor Blackman. Inevitably, it was an also-ran in the devil’s long cinematic comeback. It did poorly with critics, audiences, and fans of Dennis Wheatley (who wrote the source material on which the film was loosely based). It’s probably best know for being Hammer Studios’ last theatrically released film—the final nail in the coffin.
Frequent Jess Franco actor Michel Lemoine starred in, and helmed, Seven Women for Satan. Lemoine proved to be an even worse director than his mentor. Seven Women starts off with a descendant of Count Zaroff (played by Lemoine) hunting a naked woman, making one expect a nudie version of “The Most Dangerous Game.” Everything about it is softcore-tawdry, including Lemoine’s cheesy, glued-on whiskers. He later graduated to hardcore, which is where he belonged.
Evil Heritage (AKA Satan’s Slave is another softcore nudie devil flick, directed by Norman Warren. It features lots of T&A, S&M, and Michael Gough’s BIG mustache. Warren went the reverse route of Lemoine, starting with porn and “graduating” to horror. Unfortunately, they’re both incompetent.
Worst of the entire occult/Satanism wave was Land of the Minotaur (directed by Costas Carayiannis), starring Donald Pleasance and Peter Cushing. Slipshod filmmaking at its most embarrassing, it’s not not even bad enough for a laugh. The young hip crowd is disappearing from a Greek village, and priest Pleasance is out to quash the minotaur cult responsible. Naturally, that dastardly Cushing is up to no good. Neither is Brian Eno, who scored, and undoubtedly omits this from his considerable resume.
The Premonition (directed by Robert Schnitzer) is an E.S.P. oddity teetering between arthouse and horror. it was recently released on Blu-ray by Arrow Video as part of its handsome “American Horror Project, Volume 1.”
Despite a stellar cast of Bette Davis, Oliver Reed, Burgess Meredith, and cult icon Karen Black, along with genre TV director Dan Curtis, Burnt Offerings is a disappointing possessed house entry that is a precursor of sorts to genre films that followed. Still, it has a fan following, a memorable downer finale, and is covered in more detail at 366 Weird Movies.
Naked Massacre ( directed by Denis Héroux ) is a Canadian production about a Richard Speck-like Vietnam veteran murdering nurses. This is a good example of exploitation cinema trying and failing to have its cake and eat it too.
Who Can Kill A Child? (directed by Narciso Ibáñez Serrador) is the mack daddy of a small, but substantial 70s trend: killer kids. AIP jumped on the bandwagon and released an edited version of this under the title Island of the Damned. Serrador, who also wrote the screenplay, treats the subject with grim caution and smartly never explains why island children are slaughtering adults. His approach helped make the film a cult phenomenon. However, with its period pacing and unsettling, taboo imagery (assault weapon toting adults vs. baby-holding killer tykes, a group of boys undressing the corpse of a woman, children using an elderly man as a pinata, and an unborn infant attempting to kill its mother from the womb) it was swept under the rug for decades, only to re-emerge briefly in the home video market.
Bloodsucking Freaks (directed by Joel Reed) usually makes everyone’s list of worst all-time movies. It should. It’s revolting in all the worst ways. Clearly influenced by Herschell Gordon Lewis and taking misogyny to a new low, a post-movie shower is required for almost any viewer, a few current politicians excepted.
Nico Mastorakis’ Island of Death is yet another film inspired by Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It usually tops lists of sleaze cinema. How could it not be with bestiality, homemade crucifixions, and homosexual genocide?
Dino de Laurentiis’ infamous production of King Kong (directed by John Guillermin) may have rightfully made a star out of Jessica Lange, but it almost all involved prefer it forgotten (the director and producer, who made the belated sequel King Kong Lives in 1986, excepted. It amazingly made their first effort look like a masterpiece). The movie was a box office bonanza, despite making everyone’s worst of the year list. Of course the ‘Murican masses will line up for a pile of crap, if it’s marketed right.
Predictably, the financial success of King Kong prompted a quick parody: Queen Kong (directed by Frank Agama). The producers of King sued, however, and won, which catapulted the simian mate into a thirty year obscurity. It resurfaced on home video after Peter Jackson’s 2005 take on the Kong legend. For those of us who had read about Queen for years, it proved an abysmal discovery. Plan 9 from Outer Space it’s not.
South Korea also had its say about giant monkeys with A.P.E (directed by Paul Leder). The monkey suit must have been an ordeal to wear, especially when chasing toy army trucks.
Werewolf Woman (directed by Rino Di Silvestro) is Italian exploitation, allegedly about a lycanthrope. However, it’s actually about a mentally disturbed descendant of a she-wolf, which makes the film a cheat. It does have a relatively good performance by Annik Borel and like virtually all of Di Silvestro’s films, it wears titillation on its sleeve.
Creature from Black Lake was director Joy Hock’s entry in the minor Bigfoot craze. It stars Jack Elam, hamming it up as usual, which is beneficial since the film is too subdued for its own good. On the plus side, the Louisiana swamp is well-photographed.
Embryo (directed by Ralph Nelson) has an A-List cast in Rock Hudson, Barbara Carrera, Diane Ladd, and Roddy McDowell co-starring in a sci-fi yarn about the creation of a perfect woman. Naturally things don’t go according to plan, which means a typical 70s shock finale. Unfortunately, it’s mostly a dull affair.
Bacula director William Crain tried his blaxploitation horror hand again with Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde. Lightning didn’t strike twice. Frequent genre director Arthur Marks did slightly better with J. D.’s Revenge,which features an early performance from Lou Gossett, Jr. The
Monkey Hu$tle (directed by Arthur Marks) is more late blaxpolitation. It stars Yaphet Kotto, was shot in Chicago, and is imminently forgettable.
meets blackspolitation in Black Heat. Do you really need to know more than that?
Fresh off his aptly neurotic Obsession, Brian De Palma struck gold with Carrie: the first, best, and hippest screen adaptation of a Stephen King novel to date. Of course, in the contemporary scene, the King brand brings a given market, but in 1976, this adaptation of his first novel was high risk-taking. Ballsy De Palma fits the bill. Although social misfit Carrie ( Sissy Spacek) has telekinetic powers, the seed of authentic horror here is religious fundamentalism. Horror stems from what we know. None of us have encountered supernatural vampires or zombies. Yet, anyone who has been exposed at length to fundamentalism, and is intelligent or moral enough, recognizes it as horror.
One of the criticisms occasionally leveled at the film is the performance of Piper Laurie as Margaret White, mother of Carrie. According to the naysayers, she is too easy of a target; hammy, one-dimensional, and cartoonish. They’re wrong, and in most cases, I would venture to guess that such critics have never set foot inside of a charismatic, fundamentalist church or have known a subscriber to such a primitive worldview. The sole objection to Robert Duvall’s The Apostle (1997), an otherwise fine film, is that it purports that glossolalia and slaying in the spirit stem from the joy of loving God. Occasionally, perhaps, but most often it arises from apocalyptic fears and reactionary hatred of everything that challenges or contradicts their simplified, ragtag beliefs, which is why extremist right wing ideologies and fundamentalism go together like peanut butter and jelly. In choosing false piety, devotees, more often than not, render themselves caricatures. In this regard, King knows of what he writes, but De Palma has an even more authentic feel for it. The result is a rarity in being a film that is actually “better than the book.”
When her painfully introverted and attractive daughter starts going through puberty, Margaret reaches for the cross and whatever weapon she can find. It would be completely comical, if the ignorance wasn’t so unsettling and astutely captured. Carrie’s going through the change of life only validates to Margaret that her daughter’s focus is Earth-bound, rather than on the above. It’s perfectly reasonable then that this mother, having committed her daughter to God, expected her to be miraculously spared puberty, and she is genuinely surprised that Carrie has also inherited the curse of Eve. Alas, it’s her daughter’s failure, not God’s. To make Carrie’s life even worse, she is tormented by her school peers, but at least gets sympathy from her gym teacher (Betty Buckley).
Locking Carrie in the closet and forcing her to recite prayers has little long term effect, because while the vivid religious imagination can catapult Margaret to visions of empowerment, actual power is, smartly, gifted to Carrie. De Palma handles her religious ecstasy with authentic sensuality, making this a powerhouse of a woman’s film, which sharply contradicts the frequent accusation of this director as a misogynist.
Carrie is bookended by an infamous, blood-soaked opening and finale with a crucifixion so over the top that it literally is a “slaying in the spirit”; a telekinetic revenge on hypocritical puritan values and a ferocious prom night slaughter of the middle class (guilty and innocent alike). De Palma executes his narrative with assured satire, making this among the greatest of horror films, even surpassing established genre masterpieces helmed by the likes of George Romero, John Carpenter, and Alfred Hitchcock (yes, I said that). Because of its high school landscape and King’s pulp reputation, Carrie is oddly remembered by some as yet another period teen horror. A belated 1999 sequel (directed by Katt Shea) and limp 2013 remake (directed by Kimberly Peirce) probably haven’t helped the original’s cause.