1974 brought a cult movie smorgasbord, beginning with Andy Warhol’s Dracula (AKA Blood for Dracula, directed by Paul Morrissey), which is better known than the previous year’s Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein. It again stars Udo Kier (as the bloodsucker) and Joe Dallesandro (as the servant Mario), along with famed Italian director Vitorrio De Sica as a patriarch with four daughters who need marrying off. Kier’s count is sick, depressed, and bored to tears. He needs virgin blood, but post-sexual revolution, that’s not easy to come by. Three of the four candidates turn out to be sloppy seconds, making the Count even sicker. When he finally does find daughter four to be a virgin, the meddlesome Mario saves her in the predictable way, with Dracula diving to the floor to lap up popped cherry sauce.
Knowingly misogynistic, with a splendid score (Claudio Gizzi), an over-the-top finale that puts some of the sillier Hammer vampire dispatches to shame, and a Roman Polanski cameo, Blood for Dracula is far from perfect, but endures as a cult oddity.
Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise is probably the best film based on the Gaston Leroux novel. It’s greatness lies in its refusal to put the original narrative on a pedestal, which, despite what a certain hack composer named Webber claims, is not that good anyway. It quickly secured its cult standing, but is often considered to be under the shadow of 1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Both are delightful, but if it’s an either/or situation, go with De Palma. His is the better film.
The Night Porter (directed by Liliana Cavani ) was to 1974 what Fifty Shades Of Grey was to 2015, the difference being the S&M relationship here is between a former SS officer (Dirk Bogarde) and the Jewess he tortured in the concentration camp ( Charlotte Rampling). It’s arthouse reputation secured a strong following for years, and it was eventually released on home video via the Criterion Collection. It wasn’t unanimously loved; Roger Ebert was among its critics, in an almost infamous review.
Rampling co-starred in her second 1974 cult movie with John Boorman’s Zardoz, appearing alongside Sean Connery in a ponytail and diaper. It’s yet another 1974 entry that made 366 W weird Movie’s official weird movie list.
Hyped as a soft core porn parody of “Flash Gordon,” Flesh Gordon (co-directed by Michael Benveniste and Howard Ziehm) was another immediate cult hit, although it’s largely forgotten today. More sophomoric parody than porn, it has period charm as a fan film with knowing references and Ray Harryhausen-like effects.
Based (very) loosely on the exploits of serial killer Ed Gein, Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre redefined the term “cult classic.” The general assumption is that Hooper has been primarily a one-hit wonder, with his later successes in Salem’s Lot (1979) and Poltergeist(1982) attributed to others, namely the producers. While Hooper never quite equaled this primitive shocker, his belated followup, 1986’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, approaches brilliance. It’s criminally underrated and deserves reevaluation.
Co-directors Jeff Gillen and Alan Ormsby tackled an Ed Gein variation in another cult classic, Deranged. Although it has a strong following and was a critical favorite, it’s not as well-known as Hooper’s take on Gein, but it should be.
There’s no question about the talent of Larry Cohen, who earned his cult badge in 1974 with It’s Alive. From here, Cohen went on to the heights of God Told Me To (1976) and Q: The Winged Serpent(1982), but they were made possible by the surprise success of the lethal mutant baby from It’s Alive. The title, of course, references Colin Clive’s exclamation in Frankenstein, but that’s not the sole relationship between misunderstood monsters. When the Davis’ (John P. Ryan and Sharon Farrell) give birth to a deadly monstrosity, it slays the entire delivery staff and escapes. It briefly returns home to mommy’s unconditional love, but daddy, quick to disown it, wounds it, causing it to flee a second time. When Ryan joins the citywide manhunt to slay his offspring, he finds it sobbing in the sewers, and must face his own paternal instincts.
Ryan’s angsty performance is exemplary, grounding Cohen’s provocative script. Cohen’s direction is refreshingly subtle, making for one of the best horror films of the decade. He produced two sequels: 1978’s It Lives Again and 1987’s Island of the Alive. Although neither equaled the impact of the original, the second came surprisingly close. It’s Alive was remade (wretchedly) by Josef Rusnak in 2008.
Bob Clark’s Black Christmas was modeled after the earlier (and inferior) Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972). Clark has a better script and superior actors (Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, and Margot Kidder). It’s unique enough to have maintained a cult to this day.
Jumping on the Christmas horror and Exorcist bandwagons was Jose Mojica Marins’ The Bloody Exorcism of Coffin Joe. Today, it’s an obscurity.
Flavia: The Heretic (directed by Gianfranco Mingozzi ) was marketed as Euro nunsploitation sleaze. The heroine is sent to convent by daddy who disapproves of her romance with a Muslim. After she’s defiled by a cult, Falvia teams up with a Muslim army to exact revenge. She becomes as bad as her tormentors, and there’s even a horse castration scene (!) It is well-photographed (by Alfio Rotini, who was busy earlier with The Night Porter). It’s part of the school riding the wave of Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), but it’s not as T&A heavy as it claimed to be. Nor is it very good.
Since we’re going Roman, The Arena is an example of gladiator exploitation that was, briefly, a hot thing. It’s also part blacksploitation, with Pam Greir starring. “Black Slave, White Slave,” screamed the ads. The white slave is Margaret Markov and Greir, obviously, the non-Caucasian. In 1974, it wasn’t politically correct to bitch about political correctness. Actually, it was hip then and quite the hit, which led to its somewhat epic cult stature. Steve Caver directed for producer Roger Corman. This was Carver’s first film. He went on to direct number of “B” flicks, including …
Big Bad Mama, starring Angie Dickinson making out with William Shatner. Again produced by Corman, it’s a ripoff of superior films, including Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Throwing in a bit of nudity and some hilarious acting from Shat, it deserves its camp classic reputation.
Much acclaimed cinematographer Jack Cardiff directed The Mutations, starring Donald Pleasance in a mad scientist variation. Cardiff was better when sticking to lensing.
Joseph Larraz’s Vampyres took the lesbian bloodsucker genre to a new level, helped considerably by the intense acting of actresses Marianne Morris and Anulka Dziubinska. It’s still a genre touchstone.
Jean Rollin goes gang-raping with pirates in Demoniacs. As usual with this cult icon, it’s surreal softcore Euro horror, tailor-made for his fan club.
Foxy Brown is the followup to Jack Hill’s Coffy from the previous year, again starring blaxploitation queen Pam Grier. Unfortunately, Hill had less compliant producers this time around, who forced an obvious, weak ending on the project. His loathing for the finished project is well-known. Still, Grier proves a formidable weapon.
Jonathan Demme, still apprenticed to Roger Corman in 1974, brought us Caged Heat. Yes, it’s women-in-prison exploitation, except that it’s pretty damned good. Barbara Steele, the last living classic horror icon, does good work as the looney toon crippled warden. It’s actually tame compared to many in this genre and more enjoyable than Demme’s “serious” film Silence of the Lambs (1991).
Devil Times Five (directed by Sean MacGregor) is a disturbing horror movie about sociopathic tykes who escape the nuthouse and go on a killing spree, including offing a victim in a bathtub filled with piranhas. This is essential exploitation.
Despite starring Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, and Robert Quarry, Madhouse (directed by Jim Clark) is not so essential. It’s a lot like the previous year’s Theater of Blood, with a bit of 1953’s House of Wax, but a far poorer effort. Price stars as faded “Dr. Death” horror actor Paul Toombs, who may or may not be on an actual killing spree. It’s too derivative , but does have some stylishly executed executions.
Frightmare secured the high genre ranking of director Pete Walker. Gory, even by today’s standards, it’s helped by a good cast, including scene-stealing Sheila Keith and a delightfully heterodox conclusion.
The Trial of Billy Jack is Tom Laughlin’s three-hour follow-up to his 1971 hit. Unintentionally surreal and as subtle as Billy Jack’s barefoot kick to the chin, it’s been called the camp masterpiece of ass-kicking Native Americans against the status quo, but hey, with a certain Cheeto-in-chief reviving once-thought-dead hostilities against our original landlords, it’s probably required viewing now.
The poster art for Mario Gariazzo’s The Sexorcist (AKA Eerie Midnight Horror Show ) says it all: a Linda Blair-like image for the first title and a large pair of red lips for the second. Gariazzo covered his bases when peddling his trash. Take it for what it is.
Amando de Ossorio returned to zombie templars in his third (and weaker) “blind dead” movie, Ghost Galleon.The problem is that the zombies merely make a brief appearance and are confined to a boat. It’s additionally hampered by its meager budget, but has a few memorable moments. Osorio would mostly return to form in the next year with his forth and final entry in the blind dead series, Night of the Seagulls.
Amicus diverged from their omnibus horrors with The Beast Must Die (directed by Paul Annett), an Agatha Christie-styled werewolf yarn. Genre fans frequently complain that it’s overly talky but, although it’s no classic, it’s better than its reputation, with a nifty William Castle-like “werewolf break.” Peter Cushing and Charles Gray have smaller parts, but they milk them.
Hammer studios, clearly in decline, talked Terence Fisher out of retirement for Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, starring a skeletal Peter Cushing and David (Darth Vader) Prowse. Shot in 1972, it was not released until two years later, and is generally regarded as lesser Fisher. Struggling with alcoholism, the director barely made it through his final entry for the studio’s Frankenstein franchise. He never made another film, dying in 1980. Despite its low budget and reworking of past themes, it’s spirited enough to be better than its reputation and proved a worthwhile swan song for Fisher/Cushing’s unique Baron, although it reportedly only did scant box office.
Hammer switched focus in Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter (directed by Brian Clemens), which was successful enough to become a cult favorite.
On the other hand, it seemed Hammer studios had succumbed to desperate silliness with Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (a co-production with Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers studios). On paper, kung fu vampires sound like a recipe for disaster, but in the hands of director Roy Ward Baker, what emerges is, luckily, an entertaining endeavor. Just as 1974 gave us Peter Cushing’s final performance as Dr. Frankenstein, the icon also bequeathed us his valedictory Van Helsing in Golden Vampires. Dracula takes over a samurai’s body and, with his legion of karate chopping bloodsuckers, goes after Van Helsing. John Forbes-Robertson briefly embodies the count, before David Chiang takes over. Robertson, filling in for Christopher Lee, gives an admirable performance despite a bad makeup job. Cushing is showing his age, and his energy is not what it was in the previous decade. Julie Ege, as a Van Helsing ally, steals every scene she’s in, but she’s underused when Baker hands the action over to the boys. Still ,the film is campy in all the right ways, with plenty of well-executed fighting sequences.