In 1975, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws defined the idea of blockbuster as we now know it. Despite the epic career that followed, the director has never surpassed this early work. It’s really a full-throttle horror adventure about the trio of shark hunters Roy Schneider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss; a fact that amazingly eluded MCA when they produced numerous sequels (without Spielberg) that reduced Bruce (the shark) to an underwater Jason Vorhees.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show defined “cult classic” like no other film before or since. Although it was relatively slow to take off, it became the staple for audience participating midnight showings and undeniably the number one cult film of all time. It was stupidly remade by Fox (imagine that) in 2016 and deservedly flopped with both critics and its TV audience.
Salo, the 120 Days of Sodom was the last and most notorious film of Pier Paolo Pasolini before he was brutally murdered under mysterious circumstances, shortly after filming. The film itself is only for the strongest stomachs.
Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (directed by Don Edmonds) is one of the most notorious of cult films and made a bonafide 70s grindhouse superstar out of former exotic dancer and softcore porn actress Dyanne Thorne. The main role is loosely based on Ilse Koch—the “Bitch of Buchenwald.” The historical Ilse, wife of the camp’s commander, was known to have frequently flogged prisoners, including pregnant women. At one of her trials, witnesses were produced who testified that she chose Jews with unique tattoos for extermination so that she could keep their skin. After two trials, she was sentenced to life in prison in 1951 for crimes against foreigners, incitement to murder, and attempted murder. In the last few years of her life, she became paranoid that former camp prisoners were conspiring to kill her, and committed suicide in her cell in 1960.
Shot on the same sets as “Hogan’s Heroes,” the film is thoroughly a product of its time. Under that lens of horror/sexploitation/torture porn, it’s less offensive than either a TV series that makes light of the Holocaust or torture porn dressing itself up as sacred Easter pageant theology (2004’s Passion of the Christ). Still, one can question the entertainment value of a buxom blonde Josef Mengele conducting monstrous experiments, but 70s audiences had no qualms, flocking to see it in grindhouse theaters and making it enough of a hit that three sequels followed. Ilsa’s motive for torture is to prove that women can endure more pain than men and should therefore be allowed to fight on the front lines, which is about as convincing as the movie’s opening statement from the producers defending its historical accuracy. It’s unlikely to inspire contemporary viewers to go to do research on Wikipedia. There’s not much in the way of plot, but purely as exploitation, it’s resoundingly successful in accomplishing what it sets out to do.
With this subject matter, a solid performance is needed. Thorne, with tight, low-cut white blouse and swastika armband, delivers in spades, spitting dialogue out of thin, cruel lips. It must be a testament to her onscreen charisma that she commands attention through all that bloodletting, which is still revolting even by contemporary standards. Thorne appeared in a number of similar-themed films outside of the Ilsa franchise before receiving a PhD in comparative religions and becoming a minister.
Bikers Peter Fonda and Warren Oates race against Old Nick’s minions in Jack Starrett’s Race with the Devil, which was loaded with enough silly action to make it a minor cult hit. And while we’re at the races, Paul Bartel‘s Death Race 2000, produced by Roger Corman and starring David Carradine as the racer Frankenstein, became an even bigger cult phenomenon. In 2017 Corman released an “update,” Death Race 2050, which only proved the theme solely belongs to the 70s.
Robert Fuest further proved Dr. Phibes to be his only hit with the execrable The Devil’s Rain. William Shatner, Ernest Borgnine, Ida Lupino, Tom Skerritt, Eddie Albert, Keenan Wynn, Hee Haw girl Lisa Todd, and John Travolta (in his brief film debut) cross paths with real life Satanist Anton LaVey, producing one of the worst films of the entire decade.
Armando Crispino didn’t do much better with his giallo Autopsy, even though it’s the best among his handful of films. It does have an energetic opening, but little in the way of genuine style or narrative.
1975 was a grand year for Italian gialli imports. Strip Nude For Your Killer (directed by Andrea Bianchi), unfortunately, is pedestrian and doesn’t live up to its title, despite starring Edwige Fenech. Eyeball (directed by the prolific Umberto Lenzi) is about a red caped killer who gouges out his victim’s eyeballs. Nuff said.
The Killer Must Kill Again is Luigi Cozzi’s first film. It’s an effective giallo, one that has fallen under the radar of genre fans. Dario Argento‘s Deep Red is one of the most famous/infamous of the genre. For some, it’s Argento at his best.
Russ Meyer unleashed mammoth udders in Supervixens, but director Bitto Albertini attempted to top that Caucasian skin quota with Black Emmanuel, which starred Dutch/Indonesian beauty Laura Gemser giving Sylvia Krystal a run for her money. Gemser made enough of an impact to star in more than a half dozen sequels.
Lee Frost’s Black Gestapo is exactly what it says. Blaxploitation was already on the way out, however, and this subpar production didn’t do anything to draw back a waning audience.
Pete Walker graduated from soft core porn to depicting Catholic psychos in House of Mortal Sin (aka The Confessional). It was a big enough hit to steamroll his career, which came to an abrupt end after the disappointing old dark house thriller House of the Long Shadows (1983), which wasted a once-in-a-lifetime iconic horror cast to instead spotlight Desi Arnez, Jr.
Freddie Francis teamed up with star Peter Cushing for The Ghoul and Legend of the Werewolf. The latter amounted to a lamentably fatigued rehash of Terence Fisher’s 1961 Curse of the Werewolf.
An art professor once said, “Obsession in art is usually a good thing.” Jean Rollin must have believed him, romping yet again in the realm of surreal lesbian vampires for Lips of Blood. The key word there is usually, not always. While Lips of Blood may be less trying in the pacing department than some of his others—Rollin felt the script among his strongest—it’s not the ideal starting point for this prolific director.
Spider Baby (1967), The Big Doll House (1971), Coffy (1973), Foxy Brown (1974), and the fabulously titled Switchblade Sisters make up the essential canon of the fiercely independent Jack Hill. Sisters features a no-name cast. New girl in town Maggie (Joanna Nail) runs into the girl gang the Dagger Debs at a hamburger stand (of course). A fight breaks out between Maggie and gang leader Lace (Robbie Lee), which lands the ladies in the big house and under a mean dyke warden, who inspires the girls to team up together. There’s a guy gang, too: the Silver Daggers, led by Lace’s man meat, Dom (Asher Brauner), who’s now eyeing Maggie. Yes, trouble is a-brewing, especially since there’s also a rival gang on the horizon called the Crabs. Rape and a battle between Roller Derby Queens and commie lezbos are layers of icing on an entertaining trash cake. Kitty Bruce, the daughter of Lenny Bruce, has a small role. The film did reasonably well on the grindhouse circuit upon its release, but was rediscovered when Quentin Tarantino hailed it as a lesbian cult classic. Hill only made one film after this, 1982’s Sorceress, produced by Roger Corman, whose recut of the film so infuriated Hill that he ended their partnership and walked away from his own career.
Aldo Ladd’s Last Stop on the Night Train is another offspring of Wes Craven‘s highly influential Last House on the Left. Ladd’s film has its apologists who claim it as superior to the original, and those who dismiss it as a pale copy. There’s room for both.
The Giant Spider Invasion (directed by Bill Rebane) is about a giant spider invasion. It’s as hokey as it sounds, but has some hilarious moments. Watch out for the bloody mary!
Bug is the last film produced by William Castle. Jeannot Szwarc, who went onto helm that masterpiece Jaws 2 (1978), directs. It’s about nasty, killer cockroaches. It’s hardly the most desirable coda for Castle.
Sunburst, AKA Slashed Dreams (directed by James Polakof), features an early performance from Robert England, who no doubt would rather forget this shoddy, ho-hum thriller about a couple stalked by would-be rapists.
Shot in Florida, Satan’s Children (directed by Joe Wiezycki) is ten-cent drive-in exploitation about Satanists. This occult entry has a radically unexpected twist: it turns out that the Devil is a raging homophobe (take that, Kim Davis). This is an authentically jaw-dropping exploitation opus, which falls in that has to be seen to be believed category. That also means we will have to cover it in greater length at some point.
To prove he is an all-hetero male, the Devil whips up Satanico Pandemonium: La Sexorcista (directed by Gilberto Solares). It’s basically Mexican nunsploitation and pure nonsense. There’s no real plot apart from a nun who copulates with Old Nick in human form. Will Jesus show her the light? Is the devil really straight? These are important questions that the world may never be privy to.
Everyone remembers Dan Curtis‘ anthology Trilogy of Terror for the tale “Amelia,” written by Richard Matheson, (who penned all the original short stories on which the film is based, but only adapted the final entry). Trilogy could also be dubbed a Karen Black anthology since she stars throughout. The Zuni fetish doll in “Amelia” manages to accomplish in a mere twenty minutes what Chucky couldn’t pull off in half a dozen features. Black, one of the sexiest and most idiosyncratic actresses of the 70s, gets batshit crazy with a voodoo spirit and literally scorches the twist ending.
David Cronenberg, who is one of the two or three best directors of the last half century, made his name with the commercial feature Shivers (AKA They Came From Within). The eventual payoff was well-earned: Cronenberg struggled for three years to get it made and released. Barbara Steele is the name actor in a small part. Her experience shows compared to the remainder of the amateur cast, who range from barely passable to awful. However, Shivers‘ success doesn’t rely on acting. Cronenberg’s script springs from Richard Matheson and George Romero, but goes its own way. Already, Cronenberg reveals himself as a highly individualistic artist. In a high-rise apartment complex, a genetically designed parasite is unleashed that transforms its victims into libido-driven zombies. Of course, this being Cronenberg, there’s more to it than that, and all sorts of taboos are broken: infanticide, lesbianism, and incest, juxtaposed against the bland architecture before ending in orgy-for-all pool party. The metaphors abound, coming fast and furious, but ultimately it’s just a damn good horror film.