Horror Films of the 1970s: Volumes I & II Book Review
Written by ZigZag
Published by McFarland
Written by John Kenneth Muir
2007, 662 pages, Reference
Released on September 13th, 2007
I began my review of Horror Films of the 1980s with the following: Countless movie review guides clutter store shelves and for the most part they are all interchangeable, following the same basic template: an alphabetical listing of titles, and sometimes a rating scheme with a number of stars, thumbs, skulls or chainsaws, is accompanied by a brief plot synopsis occasionally sprinkled with snarky critical comments. I went on to praise the rewarding content of John Kenneth Muir's book as something special. This observation is repeated for the same author/host's Horror Films of the 1970s.
With his dedicated approach to studying horror films by decade, prolific author John Kenneth Muir has created a definitive set of reference books. I encourage readers to check out this ongoing series and offer this tip: read them in chronological order. I started with the 1980s installment and was blown away by the content. When I stepped back into the 1970s, I was a bit surprised to notice the subtle differences in writing style. Don't get me wrong, this is a stellar book, but Muir has grown as a writer from one volume to the next and the shortcomings are a bit more apparent. The 1970s model covers 228 films that for the most part receive a thorough breakdown and analysis. One problem, however, is at the time of publication (2007), several of the titles covered were not readily available on home video, and are thereby relegated to merely a cursory mention. Over the next eight years, a good number of the missing entries have been recovered, restored and released. This book would benefit from a second edition that updates certain information, but for now, let me focus instead on the guide in front of me.
Muir begins with a seven-page introduction that offers an overview of what readers can expect and humorously divides the decade into two categories: horror films with actor Peter Cushing, and those without. The author sets the stage for what promises to be an entertaining read, and then follows this basic intro with a more substantial (27 pages) essay titled The History of the Decade (...in brief). This piece is the central thrust of the book and I want to pause to take a closer look at this thoughtful reflection on the historical framing of events that influenced genre output. The 1960s had promised a revolution that was going to solve the world's problems through peaceful protest. Apparently, things didn't reach the Promised Land quickly enough and whether you blame the assassinations of King and Kennedy, the ongoing war in Vietnam, Charles Manson, the shootings at Kent State, the rise of serial killers, or countless other acts of human cruelty against one another, the 1970s rolled in with decidedly less than sunny skies overhead.
Familiar faces like Dracula and Frankenstein's monster continued to crop up on the silver screen throughout the decade, but Muir explains that change was coming as the lights were quickly going out at Hammer Studios. The onetime leader of spectacular horrors was being eclipsed by both leading competitor Amicus Films and a real-world sense of fear thanks in part to the war, the nuclear meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear facility and the scandals rocking the Nixon administration. The author goes on to point out that the horror genre shifted its focus to reflect contemporary societal fears growing within our own borders. Savage cinema is a subgenre that replaces the classic movie monster with the average citizen filling the role of evil sadist. The Last House on the Left (1972), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and I Spit on Your Grave (1978) all depict horrible things happening to people not by mutant outsiders, but by a neighbor that might wave to you as you walk down the street. Muir traces the evolution of the slasher film from here, detailing how the subgenre gave rise to the unknown killer stalking innocent teenagers in movies like Black Christmas (1974) and Halloween (1978).
Moving on, the author explains how the 1970s were also a home for a growing unease with the unknown. If man fears what he doesn't understand, then the women's movement tapped into a fresh vein of terror resulting in such films as Play Misty for Me (1971), Carrie (1976), The Brood (1979), The Stepford Wives (1975) and It's Alive (1974). The paranormal took hold with such hauntings as The Legend of Hell House (1973) and The Amityville Horror (1979), while the Devil himself dominated the decade with countless cinematic ventures, highlighted by The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976). These films inspired countless rip-offs and while some were better than others, there was no mistaking Americans' fear of things outside of their control. Muir switches gears here and reveals that Mother Nature was the next villain to strike, sending countless waves of sinister animals including Food of the Gods (1976), Day of the Animals (1977) and Long Weekend (1978) just to name a few. All of these nature-run-amok films stand in the shadow of Steven Spielberg's unbeatable Jaws (1975), the film that encouraged Hollywood to crank out waves of sequels and imitators that became the new normal for the industry.
This is a lot of coverage of an article that prefaces a movie reference guide but believe me when I stress the importance of this overture, as it reflects the author's approach to his reviews of the films that follow. Once you get past the introductions, Horror Films of the 1970s mirrors the layout of the later installment, including a listing of technical specs, crediting cast and crew members, rating and running time, etc. All titles are graded on a five-star rating scale, based exclusively on merit and are given a thorough critique that analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of the films. Where this book stumbles is in the plot synopsis that precedes each of these reviews. Rather than providing a general overview, Muir inexplicably reveals all aspects, including the ending to the titles being covered. I cannot understand how this was considered a good idea, but luckily he shows more restraint when covering films of the 1980s. Muir recovers with a strong conclusion that studies how the themes of classic horror films are still relevant today and also includes a quartet of appendices that single out particular elements for quick access or recommended viewing. Overall, this is another fine addition to the increasingly crowded shelves of the reference library. I can easily encourage readers interested in comprehensive, thoughtful guides to pick this one up, but maybe skim the last paragraph of the plot summaries for films you haven't yet seen.