The 1970s produced acclaimed horror films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Exorcist, Jaws, Carrie, and Halloween. But the decade also unleashed cinematic oddities galore, most of which were low-budget entries that gleefully pushed the boundaries of good taste. You say “cult movie”—we say “essential.”
1) The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)
Vincent Price plays an organist mangled by a car accident who’s driven mad with grief after his wife’s operating-table death. He sets out to exact revenge on the doctors he deems responsible—using, as one does, the 10 biblical plagues outlined in the Old Testament as inspiration. This campy, 1920s-set black comedy, which has a delightful time with its outrageous murder scenes, was an unexpected hit for B-movie titans American International Pictures and spawned a sequel, Dr. Phibes Rides Again, in 1972—the same year Price had his memorable guest spot as a tiki-obsessed archaeologist on The Brady Bunch.
2) Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)
A killer on the loose is scary enough, but the terror is amplified when said killer wears a freakish mask. This proto-slasher movie is most remembered today for featuring a very young Brooke Shields (tragically strangled at her First Communion; religion is a major theme throughout). But if you watch Alice, Sweet Alice, there’s no way you’re getting this image out of your head:
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3) The Asphyx (1973)
This tale follows a Victorian-era man who realizes his primitive camera has captured images of the shrieking spirit that comes to take the soul of a person who is about to die (and drives them insane just before they do). He becomes obsessed with capturing his own personal “asphyx,” so that he can become immortal. The best part for modern audiences is that the spirit looks like Slimer.
3) The Baby (1973)
A social worker discovers her new clients have a bizarre secret: the baby of the family, whose name is “Baby,” is actually a grown man who hasn’t been allowed to develop mentally past infancy. There is no other movie like The Baby, an unforgettable mash-up of kitschy melodrama, the never-not-unsettling sight of adult male flailing around in a playpen, and psychological horror.
4) Bad Ronald (1974)
After a high school outcast accidentally kills a classmate, his smothering mother (Planet of the Apes’ Kim Hunter) stashes him in a secret room so he won’t get caught. A solid plan... until Mom suddenly dies. But Ronald continues to lurk within the walls of the house, even after a new family moves in, and becomes the creepiest peeper of all time. This movie’s sheer insanity level means we had to include it here, though it was actually a made-for-TV production.
5) The Corpse Grinders (1971)
Classic schlockfest (with one of the greatest titles ever) about sickos whose plan to make cat food out of human meat has the unfortunate side effect of turning the cats into flesh-crazed fiends. Beloved cult-movie director Ted V. Mikels sadly passed away earlier this month, leaving behind a cinematic legacy that also includes 1968's The Astro-Zombies and 1973's The Doll Squad.
6) Count Yorga, Vampire (1970)
This racy-for-its-time American International Pictures release gets major weirdness cred for taking its story cues (seductive cult leader surrounded by fawning chicks) from the then-very-recent Manson murders... if Manson was a vampire, that is.
7) Day of the Animals (1977)
The raging success of Jaws unleashed an avalanche of horror movies about rampaging wildlife. Day of the Animals takes an ecological approach, imagining that the thinning ozone layer turns animals into kill-crazy beasts at high altitudes. This includes human animals, like a villainous Leslie Nielsen, who dies (shirtless, in the rain) while fighting a super hyphy grizzly bear.
8) Devil Times Five (1974)
Because sometimes, little kids who barge your ritzy ski chalet aren’t in the mood for hot chocolate. They’re in the mood for murder, and they aren’t afraid to get awfully creative with their technique. Kind of regretting keeping a fish tank full of piranhas, now, aren’t you?
9) The Devil’s Rain (1975)
Robert Fuest, director of The Abominable Dr. Phibes, returns to this list with this Satanic delight about a family cursed by a devoted servant of the Dark Lord. William Shatner plays the hero and Ernest Borgnine plays the red-robed villain, while John Travolta makes his film debut in a very small role. Other than Borgnine, the most memorable part of this cheese-fest is when the title event manifests onscreen, and everybody’s face melts. It’s spectacularly nuts.
10) Eaten Alive (1977)
Tobe Hooper followed up The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with this story of a sleazy motel owner and his pet crocodile, the latter of whom eagerly gobbles up any guests or interlopers who need silencing. The cast includes Massacre’s lone survivor, Marilyn Burns, future Freddy Krueger Robert Englund, and future Real Housewife Kyle Richards (the year before she appeared in Halloween).
11) Empire of the Ants (1977)
“Joan Collins fights giant, mutated ants” should be the only words you need to hear to inspire you to watch this Bert I. Gordon extravaganza.
12) Food of the Gods (1976)
Like Empire of the Ants, this Mister B.I.G. production is very, very loosely based on H.G. Wells. This time, instead of just ants, the puny humans are besieged by oversized chickens, rats, wasps, and worms, who are all also pissed off..
13) Frightmare (1974)
British exploitation director Pete Walker made this story about a family that closes ranks around its bloodthirsty cannibal of a matriarch. It’s the kind of movie that was so proud of its pearl-clutching reviews that it ran excerpts from them on its poster:
14) God Told Me To (1976)
To complete the sentence begun by the title, “God told me to commit mass murder because he spoke through a cult leader who is actually part-alien and has an unbelievable connection to the NYPD detective who’s on the case.” Director Larry Cohen makes the list again just below, for a very different movie that’s also eye-poppingly peculiar.
15) House (1977)
Maybe the most bonkers haunted-house movie ever, the Japanese-made House (Hausu) went largely unseen stateside until a revival release in 2009; in 2010, it got the Criterion treatment. It’s no longer rare, but it’s still cuckoo as can be.
16) It’s Alive (1974)
Director Larry Cohen’s second notch on this list is to mark this nightmarish yarn about a seemingly normal couple who give birth to a mutant baby monster. (Seriously, The Omen’s Damien has got nothing on this thing.) The teeny menace was created by effects make-up whiz Rick Baker, who’d go on to win seven Oscars for his work on films like Men in Black and The Wolfman.
17) Killdozer! (1974)
Here’s another made-for-TV movie—but it’s the only movie ever about a bulldozer that goes on a killing spree after it’s possessed by strange forces emanating from an alien meteorite. Yes. This is a real movie.
18) Night of the Lepus (1972)
Another nature-strikes-back flick, but this time, it’s KILLER BUNNY RABBITS. This is a good one to watch at Easter, and/or as part of a double-feature with Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
19) Patrick (1978)
Just because a man’s in a coma doesn’t mean he can’t still use his psychokinetic powers to control what’s happening around him. Why—he can even commit murder from the comfortable slumber of his hospital bed!
20) Psychomania (1973)
Members of a biker gang who wear skull helmets and call themselves “The Living Dead” decide to start really talking the talk, committing suicide one by one so they can come back as undead soldiers of Satan. Psychomania is especially notable for its psychedelic rock soundtrack by John Cameron, including the trippy jam that plays over the opening credits, inluded above.
21) Shriek of the Mutilated (1974)
Sometimes a Yeti movie isn’t just a Yeti movie—it’s so much more. Such is the case of this magnificently-titled movie that looks like it was made for about $20 and yet—without giving away the last-act twist—goes for the gusto in ways other Z-movies would never dare.
22) Sugar Hill (1974)
The best blaxploitation-gangster-zombie movie ever made, because it’s the only blaxploitation-gangster-zombie movie ever made. It’s also a cautionary tale about not pissing off the only woman in the neighborhood who can assemble an army of undead whenever she needs to wreak vengeance on somebody.
23) The Thing With Two Heads (1972)
Baker also worked on this movie, which answers the immortal question: What would happen if a head transplant went awry and a racist white man (Ray Milland) woke up with the head of a black man (Rosey Grier) grafted next to his? Cinematic magic happens, is the answer.
24) Trog (1970)
Joan Crawford plays a scientist who discovers the missing link is alive and well and answers to “Trog,” short for “troglodyte.” Predictably, the creature doesn’t mesh well with the modern world. This very strange film marked the final on-screen appearance for Crawford; at the time, she probably had some regrets, but today Trog lives on as a wonderful curiosity.
25) Tourist Trap (1979)
Chuck Connors is best-known for starring on TV’s The Rifleman—except by those who’ve witnessed his performance in this lurid tale of a man who turns real people into mannequins for his ghoulish roadside attraction.
26) Werewolves on Wheels (1971)
What’s scarier than an outlaw biker gang? How about... an outlaw biker gang of Satan-worshiping werewolves?
27) The Werewolf of Washington (1973)
In this horror/comedy/satire, a Washington insider (Dean Stockwell) is bitten by a wolf while on assignment in Eastern Europe, and returns home to learn he’s no longer himself whenever there’s a full moon. If you’re looking for something spooky to lighten the mood in the weeks leading up to Halloween and the election, look no further.
28) The Wicker Man (1973)
The best pagan horror movie ever has more or less crossed over from the cult realm and become an actual classic, but that doesn’t mean it’s not strange as hell. It has many distinctive elements—folksy soundtrack, eerie atmospherics, Christopher Lee’s performance (and snappy wardrobe), that shocking-no-matter-how-often-you’ve-seen-it ending—that make it just so weirdly wonderful.
29) Willard (1971)
Just a simple tale of a young man with a very special connection to his own personal rat army. The movie was such an oddball hit that its ringleader rodent got his own sequel, 1972's Ben. (The 2003 remake, starring Crispin Glover, is also quite entertaining.)
30) The Wizard of Gore (1970)
Speaking of movies that got Crispin Glover-centric remakes... this later entry in the late, great Herschell Gordon Lewis’ filmography is about magician Montag the Magnificent, whose gruesome on-stage tricks only appear to be illusions. Instead, the horrible acts he commits upon hypnotized audience volunteers actually come to pass once they’ve left his show.
Given that his performances include guillotines, swords, drills, and chainsaws, you can imagine how messy this gets. The movie tries to have fun with mindfuckery in its last act, but by then it’s already achieved what it’s set out to do, and more—no splatter movie before or since has ever captured the act of pawing through bloody intestines with such unbridled joy. Three cheers for the Godfather of Gore.