When it comes to categorizing classic films, determining the best 1970s horror movies is a touchy topic. As the decade was such a pivotal and formative era in horror cinema, there are dozens of movies that deserve to be highlighted. However, relative to their place in and contribution to horror history, some 1970s films stand out more than others.
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Whether they’re obscure 1970s horror movies or those largely recognized for their contributions to the genre, these films represent the best of their respective franchises and subcategories. Some of them even rank among the best Hollywood movies of the 1970s of any kind, as well as the highest-grossing. For viewers seeking the dark roots of modern horror cinema featuring monsters, slashers, ghosts, and unexplained occurrences, these are all essentials of the genre.
10 Halloween (1978)
John Carpenter’s Halloween is hailed as one of the best 1970s horror movies due to its revolutionary impact on its subgenre. The film introduced the iconic masked killer Michael Myers and is among the pioneers of the slasher archetype, inadvertently establishing the Halloween movie franchise. The original’s minimalist approach and focus on psychological terror — instead of excessive gore — continue to resonate even with modern audiences. Jamie Lee Curtis’s breakout performance and Carpenter’s masterful direction cement Halloween as a classic that shaped the horror landscape, influencing countless films that followed. Undoubtedly, Halloween is a cornerstone of 1970s horror cinema.
9 The Exorcist (1973)
Directed by William Friedkin, The Exorcist is remembered for its frightening special effects and the iconic story and performance of Linda Blair’s Regan MacNeil. Based on William Peter Blatty’s novel of the same name, the film explores the demonic possession of a young girl. Its chilling atmosphere, powerful performances, and innovative use of practical effects set a new standard for horror. The Exorcist delves into themes of faith, fear, and the supernatural with enough intensity to make it controversial upon release. The film’s cultural impact, critical acclaim, and ability to terrify audiences on a profound psychological level make The Exorcist a timeless masterpiece of 1970s horror.
8 Empire of Passion (1978)
Directed by Nagisa Oshima, Empire of Passion is a haunting blend of eroticism and supernatural horror. As a Japanese horror classic, Empire of Passion stands out for its unique approach to the genre, merging psychological horror with elements of folklore and romantic tragedy. Though there are supernatural factors, the movie creeps into viewers’ nightmares more deeply as a sordid tale of guilt, passion, and regret. It may not be a well-known film, but Empire of Passion‘s tragic horror love story is decidedly one of the best 1970s horror movies.
7 Carrie (1976)
Based on a Stephen King novel, Brian de Palma’s Carrie follows a tormented high schooler whose telekinetic powers lead to a tragic prom night. Sissy Spacek’s compelling performance as the title character, De Palma’s stylish direction, and the film’s exploration of bullying and the consequences of repression have made Carrie an American cinema classic. As the movie deftly blends supernatural horror with a poignant coming-of-age narrative, it resonates with audiences on both emotional and visceral levels. Carrie‘s influence on the horror genre and its iconic portrayal of the terrors of adolescence make it a standout horror film from the 1970s.
6 The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
The film that birthed the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of the most successful formative low-budget horror movies ever. This is primarily due to the film’s introduction of Leatherface, who is based on the notorious serial killers Ed Gein and Elmer Wayne Henley. Set in the desolate Texas landscape, the film’s gritty atmosphere and brutal realism left an indelible mark on horror cinema. From the documentary-like cinematography to the horrific reveals, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is largely recognized as one of the movies that led to the creation of the slasher genre.
5 Jaws (1975)
Jaws earns its status as one of the best 1970s horror movies for revolutionizing the genre and instilling viewers with a primal fear of the ocean. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the film blends suspense, adventure, and horror with a relentless natural predator: the great white shark. The groundbreaking use of suspenseful music, innovative animatronics, and Spielberg’s masterful direction created an unparalleled cinematic experience that not only defined the summer blockbuster but also tapped into universal fears. Its cultural impact, coupled with gripping storytelling and memorable characters, solidifies Jaws as a timeless horror classic.
4 Alien (1979)
The film from which the Alien movie franchise crawled out, Ridley Scott’s Alien is a groundbreaking fusion of horror and sci-fi and is notable for its introduction of the dreaded Xenomorph. The film unfolds as the relentless extraterrestrial stalks the crew of the spaceship Nostromo, heightened by H.R. Giger’s iconic creature design and Alien‘s haunting atmosphere. Moreover, Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal of Ellen Ripley not only broke gender norms in the horror genre but also gave audiences one of the most iconic sci-fi protagonists of all time. The continued exploration of the movie’s world in films like Prometheus is proof of Alien‘s enduring legacy.
3 The Omen (1976)
The Omen explores the sinister concept of an Antichrist child, delving into a supernatural curse surrounding the young Damien Thorn and his unwitting adoptive parents. Richard Donner’s direction, combined with one of the most haunting film scores by the legendary Jerry Goldsmith, succeeds at establishing a thick sense of impending doom. An unsettling portrayal of religious horror, The Omen sparked discussions about the nature of good and evil. Its success led to a franchise and influenced subsequent horror films, establishing the trope of the ominous child in the genre. Adding to the film’s notoriety is how the production of The Omen was rumored to be plagued by a terrible curse.
2 House (1977)
One of the earliest feature films that successfully combined horror and dark comedy, House defies conventional genre norms. The surreal and avant-garde style of this Japanese film merges live-action, animation, practical effects, and inventive cinematography. Set in a haunted house with a whimsical yet sinister atmosphere, it follows a young girl named Gorgeous and her friends as they visit her aunt — but come upon horrific and hilarious surprises instead. Through absurd visual gags, House incorporates elements of fantasy and folklore, unlike any other notable horror film from the 1970s.
1 Black Christmas (1974)
Released years before Halloween, Black Christmas changed the slasher film genre by establishing tropes that are still used today. Directed by Bob Clark, the film centers on a sorority house targeted by an unseen killer during the holiday season, essentially laying the groundwork for subsequent slasher flicks. Its atmospheric tension, ambiguous antagonist, and realistic portrayal of fear set Black Christmas apart from other suspense-driven films of the era. Decades later, Black Christmas still holds up as a time capsule of the best filmmaking practices of 1970s American horror cinema.