Bad hair and flared trousers weren’t the only scary things to come out of the 70s, writes Kellie Morrissey
Cinema can be an uncertain place. “Nothing is as it seems,” muses John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) in Nicolas Roeg’s dark and dreamlike Don’t Look Now (1973), while, two years later, Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert) quotes Edgar Allan Poe in Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock: “What we see and what we seem are but a dream.” There’s more to scary movies than gallons of blood – stormy nights – calls coming from inside the house. In fact, some scary movies provoke a feeling that’s a lot more subtle than that touted by so many recent slasher flicks: subtle, pervasive, wrongness. There’s nothing like a film that makes you feel as though you’ve just stepped into The Twilight Zone, and the quiet freakiness of Don’t Look Now does it superbly – and, what is very odd, quite beautifully.
The Baxters (Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland) have just suffered the death of their first child: early scenes show us a blur of red raincoat against grey water – she drowns, and the grieving couple make their way to Venice, where John is contracted to complete some architectural work. What follows is a stunning, atmospheric tour de force – the canals of Venice are here grotty, dark places, full of murky water and rotting wood. The couple befriends a blind psychic; visit dark, foreboding cathedrals; make love in a sex scene oddly tender for a quasi-horror movie; John has visions of his wife on a funeral boat and finally begins to see flashes of a red raincoat disappearing down side-alleys. The entire film is quiet, unobtrusive, strangely English and very 70s – but the clothes, the crackly film, the muted colours (except for the odd streak of red) all add to the feel of the film. The end is incredible, incredulous and a shock after two hours of quiet tension – the entire film got under my skin in a way I’ve not felt since.
But let’s return to my opening paragraph for a second. Overuse of fake blood may push a movie from “scary” to “gross” (Sam Raimi, we’re looking at you), but can that creepy, elusive wrong feeling incorporate both? I humbly submit Dario Argento’s giallo classic Suspiria (1977) for your approval. Suspiria suffers from a bad dubbing (German to English) but is gorgeous in a way that is wholly unsettling – a portrait of ballet, witches and murder all painted in the most garish of primary colours and polished with a sheen of fake blood. My favourite part has a young woman fall from her room, tormented by a disembodied hand, only to stumble down a hallway and into a room filled entirely with razor wire. Another scene sees a blind man’s throat ripped out by his guard dog in a town square painted entirely red. A feast for the senses – even the soundtrack, with its guttural, near subliminal utterances of “witch”, incites jumps galore.
Like Suspiria, Picnic at Hanging Rock focuses on a girls’ school – but here the supernatural forces are a lot less slash ‘n’ grab and more portal-into-another-dimension. Peter Weir’s film is just as dreamy as his blonde, Botticellian cast: English schoolgirls attending a boarding school in turn-of-the-century Australia go on a daytime outing to a rock formation in the outback where some of them defy their teachers and climb the rock – only to go missing without a trace. Man, this is spooky stuff, and with that beautiful, plaintive theme tune – who knew pan pipes could be so freaky? – and its unsettling final act, Picnic at Hanging Rock will give you some serious goose bumps.
You could be forgiven, if you’ve seen the awful remake with Nic Cage, in thinking that The Wicker Man (1973) does not belong in such a list as this. Hang back a second, though, and watch the original. View it from the perspective of our main character, Sgt. Howie, a devout Catholic (and a virgin at circa 40 years of age) who goes to investigate a disappearance on a pagan island off the coast of Scotland. This film is weird: sex in graveyards, fertility rituals, Britt Ekland, animals buried in children’s graves – and of course, the final scene. The folk ballads peppered throughout elevate The Wicker Man to a level of creepiness that stems from its authenticity and earthiness, aided – again – by that crackly, soft-focused film quality and by a stellar performance from Christopher Lee. Edward Woodward, playing the clueless Sgt. Howie, however, is the standout performance here. Here is a horror film in which there is no-one to root for, and a sustained surreal atmosphere which ends grimly and without consolation.
The 1970s, in my opinion, produced some of the best movies of all time, but what is really interesting about this decade is the strength and quality of the horrors it produced. The aforementioned films nail the detached, disturbed feeling you get from the most esoteric of Lynch films – but with a coherence, a strength of plot and a dreamlike quality that, eventually and without exception, descends to nightmarish levels.