Do you remember what you were doing 50 years ago? For those readers younger than 50, the answer is quite simply “not applicable.” For those already in their fifties, like me, the answer is not as clear. I was all of six at the time, barely a first grader as I recall, and not exactly thinking on all cylinders.
While I have few vivid memories of 1971, there is little doubt that it was an important year in the history of horror films. It was a strong period of time for the genre, which had lapsed into mediocrity for two years, after the iconic success of 1968. That was a year in which several classics entered theaters, headlined by Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead.
In 1971, there was no single film that matched the brilliance of those two masterpieces, but there were many good films, some of which signaled major changes that would be coming to the horror industry. A few films did rely on an old-school approach to filmmaking, but others took a daring turn into more risqué and provocative material. Controversial topics like witchcraft, satanic worship, and the occult all became common themes for filmmakers, who were clearly willing to push the envelope in terms of content and bloodshed.
Movies like Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, Twins of Evil, and Willard all made their theatrical debuts in 1971. All good and creative films, but none of them made our top five for the year. Yes, the roster of horror was deep and talented that spring and summer, with the following five selections drawing the highest praise of this writer.
The House That Dripped Blood (April 2nd, 1971)
The only anthology film among our selection of favorites, this beautifully filmed production from Amicus has become a delight for fans of vintage horror. The movie features four short stories, all of which are well done and tied to a theme of an English manor house and its infamous history of disappearance and ghostly occurrences.
The central character to the film is a Scotland Yard detective who is investigating the mystery surrounding four previous occupants who have rented the house but have strangely disappeared without a trace. Inspector Holloway, played by British actor John Bennett, hopes to discover their whereabouts and soon becomes suspicious that the house may have played a part in their “vanishings.”
In spite of the film’s wonderful title, there is not a single drop of blood shed in any of the four vignettes. Instead of gore, director Peter Duffell, ably supported by the excellent screenplay of Psycho writer Robert Bloch, gives us an old-fashioned maze of intricate storytelling that is heavy on suspense and surprising plot twists.
The cast is also top-notch. Peter Cushing headlines the segment called “Waxworks,” in which two men develop an obsession for a wax figure of a woman. Cushing’s frequent film partner, Christopher Lee, stars in another segment, “Sweets to the Sweet,” in which he plays the father of a young girl who becomes a little too interested in the world of witchcraft. And in the final vignette, called simply “The Cloak,” a touch of comedy is introduced; British veteran Jon Pertwee plays an arrogant star of horror films who has come into possession of a strange garment that apparently gives him the look and power of a vampire. Pertwee, who would become better known for playing the role of “Dr. Who” on British television, is ably assisted by Ingrid Pitt, who makes a memorable appearance in her own vampiric way.
Anthology films can be difficult to watch when the stories are a smattered assortment of tales, one having nothing to do with another. But in The House That Dripped Blood, the quartet of stories are connected through the mysterious house in the countryside. All of the stories are well-scripted and integral to the theme.
The House That Dripped Blood is one of the most entertaining horror anthologies ever made. With its creativity and emphasis on atmosphere and old-fashioned storytelling, it’s a fun film and a reminder that good horror doesn’t need to rely on violence and bloodshed.
The Blood on Satan’s Claw (April 16th, 1971)
Just two weeks after The House That Dripped Blood made its way into American theaters, a lesser-known film made its stateside debut. The Blood on Satan’s Claw flopped at the American box office, despite its high level of suspense, strong feelings of terror, and shocking imagery. Perhaps it failed because it was too shocking for its day; one scene included the depiction of a rape, something what was rarely shown on film at the time. But as time has progressed, and viewers have become more accepting of graphic content, The Blood on Satan’s Claw has grown in appreciation.
A release from little-known Tigon British Film Productions, The Blood on Satan’s Claw is one of the examples of “folk horror” from the era, along with Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man. It is set in 17th century England, where a farmer in a remote country village discovers the skeletal remains of what he believes to be an actual demon. Shortly after his discovery, the piece of skeletal remains disappears and some of the village’ children begin to behave bizarrely, before turning to violence.
The crimes committed by the children appear to have something to do with the discovery of the demon remains. Or perhaps the children have fallen under the spell of a beautiful young witch named Angel Blake, played by Linda Hayden. As the leader of a coven of devil worshippers, Angel appears to be orchestrating the serious of satanic attacks against innocent members of the village.
Hayden was all of 17 at the time of filming; her underage status created controversy because of director Piers Haggard’s decision to have her appear nude in one scene. To make matters more unseemly, the nudity takes place during a scene in which Hayden’s character attempts to seduce a village priest. While Haggard’s choices were inappropriate, Hayden manages to deliver a strong performance as a wholly evil witch who would love nothing better than to exert total control over the children in the village.
Another strong effort comes from Patrick Wymark, who takes the lead as The Judge, a kind of Witchfinder who must determine the source of the Satanism that has taken over the children. In contrast to many portrayals from the 1960s and seventies, this witch hunter is shown to be a man of integrity and reason, and not a character who relies on obsessive zeal and unrestrained violence. Sadly, Wymark suffered a fatal heart attack shortly after filming ended. Reports vary as to his actual age—some sources say he was 44 while others say he was 50—but there is little doubt that he was a talented actor who seemed headed for a long career in film and TV.
The Blood on Satan’s Claw does have its flaws. It starts out very slowly before finally ascending into a flurry of activity. The story is also somewhat disjointed, making it a bit difficult to follow. Viewers willing to tolerate those shortcomings will be rewarded with an intense film that is full of strong imagery and powerful performances. With its wonderful title, The Blood on Satan’s Claw does not disappoint.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes (May 18th, 1971)
Of all the horror movies that came out in 1971, this one may be the best. A creative and fast-moving film, it remains one of the most underrated horror ventures of any era.
In playing the title role, the legendary Vincent Price delivers one of his most sinister performances. He is the brilliant but psychotic doctor who seeks revenge against the surgeons he considers responsible for his wife’s death. Rather than simply murdering the surgeons in a straightforward manner, Phibes decides to base his revenge on the curses of the Pharaoh, a reenactment of the biblical plagues. Dr. Phibes uses all sorts of animals and rodents as part of his torturous plan, including bats, rats, and even grasshoppers.
While Phibes is clearly evil and deranged, we never know quite for sure whether he is justified in placing any blame on the doctors. Is he to be regarded somewhat sympathetically, due to the allegedly unjust death of his wife, or he is simply a vengeful devil without redeeming qualities? Director Robert Fuest leaves that up to the viewer to decide.
Price is clearly the star of The Abominable Dr. Phibes, but it’s interesting to note that he does not speak until more than 30 minutes of film time have elapsed. After the initial filming, his voice had to be dubbed in because his makeup included the application of collodion, a substance that prevented him from moving his mouth. Waiting for Dr. Phibes to speak only makes him more villainous. When he does talk, we hear the struggle in his voice. His words come painfully, particularly when he tries to communicate with photographs of his dead wife.
Price is assisted by veteran actor Joseph Cotten, who was a last-minute addition to the cast and reportedly felt uncomfortable working on the film. Price tried to put Cotten at ease by contorting his face in funny ways; those efforts led to Price cracking up, but apparently helped Cotton. The veteran of Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock films is quite good as Dr. Vesalius, the last surviving doctor trying to fend off the vengeful ways of Phibes. Another good performer is young actress Virginia North, who has no spoken words in her role as Phibes’ mysterious assistant, Vulnavia, but whose beauty and screen presence add nicely to the film.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes is first and foremost a horror film, but it is also a black comedy that features plenty of old-fashioned British humor. Much of that latter quality is supplied by British actor Peter Jeffrey, who plays Inspector Trout, the lead investigator of the Phibes killings.
With its mix of humor and horror, and the creativity of the nine death scenes, The Abominable Dr. Phibes succeeds as high-level entertainment. It remains one of Vincent Price’s best films.
The Mephisto Waltz (June 11th, 1971)
This is the least known of the five films, but still a worthwhile watch because of its atmospheric exploration of the occult. Produced on a low budget and featuring little in the way of special effects, The Mephisto Waltz overachieves because of its remarkable imagery, haunting mood, and fine acting performances, particularly from the supporting cast.
It might be difficult to believe that a young Alan Alda, who was on the cusp of becoming a star on the TV series, “M*A*S*H”, is somewhat weak in the lead role. Alda plays Myles Clarkson, a mediocre pianist who has settled for a career as a music journalist. By a stroke of luck, Clarkson has a chance to interview a legendary piano-playing figure, played wonderfully by German actor Curd Jurgens. The meeting with the aging pianist, who is on the verge of death, will result in Clarkson becoming a brilliant pianist himself, but it soon becomes apparent that the transformation is not quite what it seems.
Despite the lack of a substantive budget, director Paul Wendkos does well in mixing an occult theme into a film of horror and mystery. The cinematography and the musical score both elevate the experience. Wendkos also makes good use of a talented cast. Despite having limited screen time, Jurgens’ performance as the dying pianist is powerful. The stunning Jacqueline Bissett is excellent as Alda’s wife, displaying vulnerability through a torturous series of nightmares (including the appearance of a human-headed dog). And then there is the sultry Barbara Parkins (better known for Valley of the Dolls) who plays Jurgens’ incestuous daughter in the creepiest of manners. Only Alda seems out of place—this is no Hawkeye Pierce that he is playing, after all—but that is likely a result of miscasting rather than his strong merits as an actor.
In some ways, The Mephisto Waltz is the poor man’s version of Rosemary’s Baby. On a lower level than its 1968 predecessor, it delivers through a good story, creative camerawork, and fine performances. Its major weakness is the final act, which is a bit of a letdown after a good buildup. Still, The Mephisto Waltz is worth watching, one of the better films that took the chance of venturing into the world of the occult during a new decade of horror.
The Brotherhood of Satan (August 6th, 1971)
Despite its low budget and lack of big name stars, this is one of the more entertaining films to deal with the themes of satanic worship and witchcraft. With its gritty, offbeat treatment of the subject matter, The Brotherhood of Satan creates a creepy atmosphere filled with paranoia and suspense.
The 1971 film opens with a family of three enjoying the start of a summer vacation, as they travel through a remote part of the American desert. They soon stumble upon a terrible car accident, which they decide to report to a local sheriff in a nearby California town. It is there that the family will become trapped, ensnared by a cult consisting of senior citizens doing it best to lure young children and make them followers of Satan.
It’s a good story, but a talented character actor of the era lifts The Brotherhood of Satan to another level. The quirky Strother Martin, a familiar face throughout the 1960s and seventies, had a knack for stealing scenes with his unusual vocal delivery and overarching presence—and this film is no exception. Clearly, based on his effort in The Brotherhood of Satan, Martin could have handled more starring roles than he was given. Martin would die only nine years later, passing away from a heart attack at the age of 60. Perhaps his early death accounts for his status as somewhat of a forgotten character actor, but one whose impact is still felt through his work.
Martin plays the character known as Doc Duncan, seemingly the only doctor in town. By the way, he also happens to be the leader of the satanic movement that is threatening citizens and tourists! Giving the role the proper passion, Martin plays his Satanist role with intensity and flair. He is assisted by fellow character actor L.Q. Jones, who portrays the sheriff. (Jones also served as the screenwriter and producer of the film.) Another effective performance is turned in by the handsome Charles Bateman, the head of the family that has seen its vacation turn into a nightmare.
In addition to the individual performances, much of the credit for the overachieving nature of The Brotherhood of Satan goes to director Bernard McEveety. He creates an appropriately creepy atmosphere, full of eerie music and decorative sets. He also proves himself skilled at the use of lighting, especially within the building where much of the interior story takes place.
So often the endings of vintage horror films come too abruptly and leave us wanting something different, but McEveety delivers a climax that is bizarre and chilling. We’re left with the feeling that we’ve watched a quietly effective horror story that deserves more recognition. The Brotherhood of Satan isn’t quite regarded as a cult classic—but perhaps it should be.
Are these the five best horror films of 1971? In a year that was particularly rich in theatrical releases, that is hard to say. Good arguments can be made for the inclusion of Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, which is especially creative, and Twins of Evil, which delves into both witchcraft and vampirism. And don’t forget about Willard, and his army of obedient rats.
Heck, just try to watch them all. You’ll have a better sense of just how terrific 1971 was for fans of horror.
Check out what Bruce is up to on his Facebook page: Ghostly Gallery.
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