Imagine you are in a restaurant. You sit in a dark corner booth and check out the menu. The faint smell of cigarettes smoked long ago fills your nostrils and Thelonious Monk tickles your eardrums. Now, this isn’t some posh bistro in Paris or somewhere “Midwest fancy” (like an Arby’s) it’s just a no-name corner spot in a no-name town. At this restaurant, you order yourself the classic three-course meal of an appetizer, entree and dessert. You have done this hundreds of times in your life, but this time is different. This meal just so happens to start off with THE BEST chicken wings you’ve ever eaten. That’s followed up by THE BEST cheeseburger you’ve ever had, and you end the meal with THE BEST piece of apple pie you’ve ever tasted. Using basic logic, that would make this the greatest restaurant you’ve ever been to, right? So what does this have to do with the greatest year in horror film history?
Now imagine that this restaurant represents 1979, the number one year in horror film history. We can call it the greatest because it features three best-of-all-time films in their sub-genre, all packed within one magical year. Within its 365 days, this year gave us the best vampire, zombie and science-fiction horror films that have ever been made. Some may try to debate these claims, but luckily for us, we have the math to back us up.
Over the past few weeks, we have examined the #2 (1986) and #3 (2017) best years in horror film history. This week, as a final gift from me in 2017, we will be looking at the films that make 1979 the greatest year in horror film history. For those of you unfamiliar with our process, here’s a quick refresher:
OUR METHODOLOGY OR: HOW WE LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE EXCEL
We took a look at all of the horror films from 1970 to 2017. (The early 1970’s were a starting point for us because A) We needed one and B) The frequency of quality and iconic horror films really picked up during this time).
To determine a “score” for each year, we took a look at 5 different rating sources-
- Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer Score
- RT Critic’s Average Rating
- RT Audience Score
- RT Audience Average Rating
- IMDB Viewer Ratings
– These ratings were averaged to find the “Fiend Score” for each film. We then combined the Fiend Score of the top three horror films from each year to give that year a total. I admit, the selection of the top three films was sometimes difficult. It was necessary to take other factors into account, such as the size of release, box office total and iconic status to determine which films were included in the top three. These three films were totaled and given an official number which we are calling its “NOFS Score”. These NOFS Scores ranged anywhere from 142 (Ouch) to 255.
So, without further ado, The Greatest Year in Horror Film History is:
Part III- 1979
NOFS Score- 255
The 1970’s were a tumultuous time in the United States and abroad. This was especially true at the end of the decade, where marginalized groups struggled to find their place in society and were denied basic rights from the newly galvanized conservative movement. This directly led to an influx of horror cinema across the country, packing small-town theaters with those wishing to escape. The 1970’s produced some of the finest horror films ever made, like The Exorcist (1973), Halloween (1978) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Everything culminated in 1979, however, and we were given the greatest year in horror film history.
The horror films of 1979 are an amalgamation of the societal fears and attitudes toward authority the population felt all through the decade. Although horror has been an effective mirror for society throughout history, this is especially true for 1979. Here are the films with the top three Fiend Scores from that year:
#3- Nosferatu the Vampyre
Written and Directed By: Werner Herzog
Starring: Klaus Kinski, Isabelle Adjani, Bruno Ganz
Fiend Score- 82
Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre is the best adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that has ever been made. Officially, it’s an adaptation-of-an-adaptation, but either way it far surpasses any other attempt at the story. Nosferatu (1922), directed by F.W. Murnau is gorgeous and iconic, but Herzog’s direction, cast and setting puts his version above the original. It is, quite simply, one of the most beautiful horror films ever produced.
Bruno Ganz, a man that has somehow found a way to look like Javier Bardem but talk like Tommy Wiseau, plays Jonathan Harker, a man sent to Count Dracula to sell a house. He and his beloved Lucy, played with an angelic ethereality by Isabelle Adjani, are thrust into harm’s way as the Count makes his way to town to set up shop. They are fine representations of their characters but are ultimately overshadowed by the performance of Kinski as Dracula.
He is not an attractive man who just happens to enjoy dark castles and dope capes. You cannot walk past him on the street and mistake him for yet another aristocratic gentleman. He is an animal, an apex predator than needs to hunt. Kinski plays the character with a hunger and a pent-up power that is unrivaled in the Dracula filmography. Herzog lights his sets so perfectly that even his bright-white complexion can be hidden from you if he so chooses. It is shown in several scenes that Dracula is capable of forcing you to do as he wishes. Harker is twice attacked and is unable to fully resist or remember it in the morning. Kinski’s vampire doesn’t resort to glamour or hypnosis, however, as he chooses to take what he wants and stare directly into your eyes as he takes it. The scenes where he enters the bedchambers of both Harker and Lucy are so chilling because of the hunger in Kinski’s eyes. It bores into the screen and creates an uneasiness in the viewer, almost as if he has triggered our prehistoric fight-or-flight response.
Nosferatu the Vampyre is required viewing for fans of vampires or horror in general. The film begins with actual mummified corpses from Mexico and only gets darker from there. Herzog fills every frame with a physical weight, forcing the audience to gasp to keep from asphyxiating. The scenery surrounding Harker as he journeys to Dracula’s castle, in any other film, would be gorgeous. In Herzog’s hands, however, every crag and rock looks like it is trying to keep Jonathan from finding the way. The wet trail would rather make it’s hiker slip and die than reach their destination. For to reach the castle they seek is a fate far, far worse than death.
#2- Dawn of the Dead
Written and Directed By: George A. Romero
Starring: David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott Reininger
Fiend Score- 84
I remember the first time that I ever saw this film. I was way too young to be watching it, but when you’re in grade school and home alone sick with the flu, you watch whatever VHS tapes are at your disposal. Feeling OK (maybe I was just playing hookie? I can’t remember, but I wouldn’t put it past me), I made myself some lunch and popped in Dawn of the Dead. Many of the film’s central themes went way over my head, but the gore definitely did not. I distinctly remember feeling physically sick after watching the movie. So, I may have been faking my illness at first, but I was most definitely ill afterwards.
The film seems almost tame by today’s standards, but in 1979 it was a gore-fest unlike anything else in theaters. George A. Romero took what shocked audiences in his classic Night of the Living Dead (1968) and turned those scenes up to 11 and shot them in living color. Tom Savini, now regarded as one of the finest effects artists in horror film history, was still a young Vietnam War Veteran when tabbed for this film. His practical gore effects have gone down in history as some of the finest ever filmed, even with the crazy-bright fake blood that he hated so much.
The blood and guts made the film stood out for 8-year-old me, but its central theme of commercialism and the dehumanization of its survivors are what make the film so special today. Everyone knows that setting the film in a shopping mall was no accident, and Romero wanted to make a statement about how the need to buy material things turns us into inhuman beings. That message still works today, only you can now replace the shopping mall with the endless shelves of online shopping experiences. We stare at our screens and drool over (BRAINS!) digital images of things we absolutely must have or else we will surely perish. I like nice things, so I don’t really care what Romero has to say about my shopping habits, but the hedonism and greed that the survivors show is what interests me.
The ending of the film is almost inconsequential. It is the behaviors shown by the survivors of the worldwide epidemic that is what makes this film so powerful. The actions of the initial survivors and the stupid desperation of the motorcycle gang shaped what zombie films and television eventually became. At a certain point, it’s no longer about the reanimated dead, but how we interact with one another as survivors that makes zombie cinema so interesting. Without Dawn of the Dead, the zombie genre would have died out long ago and the horror genre as a whole would not be the same.
Directed By: Ridley Scott
Written By: Dan O’Bannon
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, John Hurt
Fiend Score- 89
Insure return of organism for analysis.
All other considerations secondary.
So reads Special Order 937 from the fine folks at Weyland-Yutani. These fourteen words are the central driving force for an entire franchise that has now reached an incredible 8 films. It is also indicative of a sentiment many people felt in 1979. The government and corporations cannot be trusted and will do anything to further their reign and expand their power.
The film itself is a perfect horror movie. Some have called it a slasher film in space, likening the Xenomorph to everyone’s favorite terrestrial killing machine, Michael Myers. They have even compared the Nostromo to a haunted house. While this is completely valid, I have recently run across a point of view that paints the film in an entirely different light. You see, Alien isn’t a slasher, its a possession film.
The haunted house is not the freighter Nostromo, but instead the planet LV-426 where the crew encounters the abandoned alien spacecraft. They are sent to the ship because of a mysterious beacon, luring them in even though some may see it as a warning. The crew investigates the ship, then something attaches itself to Kane (Hurt). The others rush him back to the mother ship, which only allows it to spread and evolve, putting everyone else on the crew at risk. The Nostromo represents a host body, and the Xenomoph a possessing entity. Once invited in by the foreign agent Ash (here an android, but in other films shown as a demon or Satan himself), the entity systematically destroys everything that made the host unique and independent. As the final battle between Ripley and the beast showed us, the only way to survive a possession film is through exorcism.
Whatever lens you choose to view the film through, Alien remains one of the finest horror films ever made. It is tied with Silence of the Lambs (1991) as the film with the highest Fiend Score we calculated, and it launched the careers of Scott and Weaver. Although the on-board “computer” looks a little silly by today’s standards, the rest of the film holds up and is just as terrifying today as it was in 1979. Scott’s ability to film in tight, dark spaces is unparalleled, and the creature design by H.R. Giger is still regarded as the finest in horror film history. The bio-mechanical quality of the Xenomorph makes it difficult, especially when the ship’s lights begin to strobe, to distinguish what is ship and what is alien. This forces the audience to stay on edge and to constantly search behind the characters and down the dark hallways for the creature. It is a masterclass in film-making and suspense-building, and it led the way in making 1979 the greatest year in horror movie history.
- We’ve determined that 2017, 1986 and 1979 were the top three years in horror film history, but what was the top decade? According to our calculations, the 1970’s carry the highest average NOFS Score at 224. Even though the current decade started poorly, 2016 (224) and 2017 (234) may be a sign of what’s to come in the next few years and it may push the 2010’s over the top.
- Even though it is considered an all-time classic (for some reason), 1979’s The Amityville Horror didn’t quite crack the top-3 for the year. It finished with a lowly Fiend Score of 50.
- 1979 also gave us David Cronenberg’s The Brood (Fiend Score– 71), Phantasm (Fiend Score– 69) and When a Stranger Calls (Fiend Score– 52). Not all of these are are earth-shatteringly good films, but all have become iconic movies that are must-watches for horror fans.
- Although it was only a made-for-TV miniseries, Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot also premiered in 1979. I mention this exclusively for the bedroom window scene. I still have nightmares about that one.
- Whenever you are crunching the numbers, looking to find the “Best Of” anything, you inevitably discover the “Worst Of”. Here are the worst years in horror film history-
- Although 2015 gave us The Babadook (and we say thankya), the year as a whole came in as the #3 worst year of all time with an NOFS Score of only 152. The other films from that year were poorly received, including Annabelle (Fiend Score– 44) and Ouija (Fiend Score– 31).
- The number two worst year in horror film history was 1989, which finished with an NOFS Score of 149. The top-three films for that year ended up being Pet Sematary (Fiend Score– 58), Puppet Master (Fiend Score– 48) and A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (Fiend Score– 48).
- Last and definitely least, the worst year in horror film history was 1995! Demon Knight (Fiend Score– 55), Species (Fiend Score– 45) and Village of the Damned (Fiend Score– 41) were the top three films of the year, totaling an NOFS Score of only 142.
Join the Discussion:
So, there you have it! 1979 is officially the greatest year in horror film history. What do you think about our findings? Head over to our Official Facebook Group and let us know! Where would you rank these years? What do you think makes the 1970’s the best decade for horror? Do you think the 1980’s should be above it? Put on your thinkin’ caps and tell us your opinions!