The Seventies and early Eighties were an era of experiments on the silver screen. With new technologies and an updated Hollywood code, the decade we’re about to delve into was a flourishing one, to say the least. Today’s masters of horror and drama emerged with bold new stories that genuinely spoke to the audiences of that era. The lavish and melodramatic tales of the Golden Age were abandoned, making room for the gritty and shameless, for the violent and the startling. Boundaries were pushed.

1972: Tangoes, Mobsters, and the Madness of Man

Bernardo Bertolucci gave us a Marlon Brando at the height of his career and a wide-eyed Maria Schneider in ‘Last Tango in Paris’ (1972). When the two strangers meet, physical intimacy almost immediately becomes an ‘elemental force… the medium of exchange’ between the emotionally broken Paul and the sensually curious Jeanne, as once noted by Roger Ebert.

Their chance encounter gives birth to a mysterious and restless mood that goes on to define their tempestuous relationship. The coupling was basically a rape scene, and Mr Bertolucci later confirmed that Ms Schneider was not aware of the details prior to shooting, which made her emotions all the rawer and more shocking. In the end, ‘Last Tango in Paris’ was the first feature to equate physical intimacy with human communication, despite the contrast between its high-art aspiration and its controversies.


Once considered by critics as the Soviet reply to Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968), Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Solaris’ (1972) is eerily earthbound and drawn to the past, especially since it’s a sci-fi film set mostly on another planet in a distant future. The Russian director did not share Kubrick’s fascination with technology, nor his misanthropy. He also stepped away from the source material’s author, Stanislaw Lem, and his concern with Man confronting the Cosmos. Tarkovski was more about the humanity that Man brought with him into the depth of Cosmos, instead. He spent his entire career proving that cinema was an art form as important as any other medium, and he certainly proved it with the weightlessness scene between Kelvin and his dead wife’s ghost.


The most memorable scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘The Godfather’ (1972) is likely the horse’s head in the bed of Hollywood studio chief Jack Woltz. The circumstances that lead to this moment—specifically, Woltz’s decision to deprive mobbed-up singer Johnny Fontane of a key part in an upcoming war flick—were clearly inspired from Columbia boss Harry Cohn’s choice to cast Frank Sinatra in ‘From Here to Eternity’ (1954), though the dead horse trigger itself was something that writer Mario Puzo probably picked up from ‘The Public Enemy’ (1931). It haunts me, to this day.

In ‘Aguirre, the Wrath of God’ (1972), his finest film with his archetypal star, Werner Herzog delivered a perfect example of his desire to depict the world as it had never been seen or even imagined before. The movie can easily be interpreted as an allegory of authoritarianism, its deranged hero representing the Hitlers of absolutely every stage of humanity. But viewing this story solely through an intellectual lens would diminish its sensory appeal, which ultimately carries its true meaning. As the camera swirls around Aguirre on his raft, stricken with delusional madness, Herzog presents us with history as nightmare, making his viewers breathe a sigh of relief when the film ends, and we’re returned to reality.


1973: Political Statements, Merchandizing, and Demons

On 27th March 1973, Marlon Brando won an Oscar for his role in ‘The Godfather’. The actor sent Sacheen Littlefeather, a 26-year-old Apache, to refuse the Academy Award on his behalf, and to use the 45 seconds initially allocated to his speech to read out a 15-page statement instead. The brave young woman made her points about the portrayal of Native Americans in film and TV with courtesy and eloquence, drawing audience gasps and cheers. It wasn’t the first political upset at the Oscars, but it was certainly the most memorable. Charlton Heston called it ‘childish’, while Jane Fonda said that what Brando did ‘was wonderful’.


On 20th August, George Lucas was still reaping the success of ‘American Graffiti’ (1973) and renegotiating his deal at Twentieth Century Fox for a science-fiction film. He didn’t ask for more money upfront but insisted on retaining all the merchandising rights of the film (this included income from any soundtrack album, tie-in book, or range of toys). At the time, few people understood how far-sighted the decision really was.

Merchandising rights were considered the ‘garbage’ of any contract, so no one thought much of it, until ‘Star Wars’ (1977) became the highest-grossing film of all time, and absolutely everything bearing its logo sold like hot and crispy powdered sugar beignets. His success with Star Wars merchandising went on to change the way movies were made, sold, promoted, then profited from.


This year also gave us William Friedkin’s ‘The Exorcist’ (1973), starring Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Jason Miller, and Max von Sydow. The director’s insanely popular follow-up to ‘The French Connection’ (1971) is a textbook adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel, who also penned the screenplay. It is a wonderfully crafted example of how to balance the temporal and spiritual aspects of such a troubling story. But without the legitimate scepticism from Burstyn’s Chris MacNeil when a radical course of treatment is recommended for Blair’s Regan, her daughter, I doubt the climactic showdown between Miller’s young Damien Karras and the demon Pazuzu would’ve had such a striking effect.


1975: The Year of Pacino, Nicholson, and O’Neal

In ‘The Passenger’ (1975), Michelangelo Antonioni uses an incredible seven-minute single take as his pinnacle, claiming that he made this decision purely because he didn’t wish to create a run-of-the-mill death scene for Jack Nicholson’s Locke. The influence of Michael Snow’s ‘Wavelength’ (1967), an underground gem of cinema, is downright palpable as the long-held static shot from inside the hotel room takes Nicholson out of shot, and the camera slowly moves towards and through the barred windows into the piazza. Cars arrive, along with key characters and cops… they all come and go in the space between the hotel and a bullring, and even the extras are given significance until the camera executes a 360-degree turn and returns to a now unidentifiable dead man on the hotel bed.

Three years earlier, on 22nd August 1972, as Richard Nixon was nominated for a second term in office, John Wojtowicz walked into a Brooklyn branch of the Chase Manhattan Bank with a gun and declared a hold-up, desperate to get the money he needed for his gay lover’s sex-change operation. It was a seminal moment in America’s social landscape, and Warner Bros. were quick to make the most of it. They hired Sidney Lumet and gave the lead role to a young Al Pacino (then fresh off ‘Godfather II’), giving us ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ (1975), one of the most emotionally stirring films to come out of the Seventies altogether.


Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Barry Lyndon’ (1975), starring Ryan O’Neal and Leon Vitali, has the ideal melange of style, story, and feeling that a viewer might demand of a suspenseful movie. The story is about history as loss, and the camera barely moves. Its frames resemble paintings of times gone by with powerfully baroque vibes, and its chief stylistic signature is the reverse zoom, where the scene begins with a close-up as the camera moves back to give us the fuller, greater picture. The final duel doesn’t have any reverse zooms, though, yet it stands out as a profoundly touching moment, enriched with medium-distance shots or moodier long shots that connect the characters to their environment, while O’Neal’s self-seeking hero proves that he does have the makings of a gentleman, after all.


While George Lucas’s ‘Star Wars’ (1977) made history as the highest-grossing film one time, the blockbuster was born a couple of years earlier with ‘Jaws’ (1975), Steven Spielberg’s frightful oeuvre. By then, Mr Spielberg was already regarded as a wunderkind of cinema, but his shark tale turned him into a cultural force not only through the way in which he adapted Peter Benchley’s novel but also through the way in which ‘Jaws’ was marketed and promoted worldwide. Thanks to superb word-of-mouth and repeat viewers, the film racked up about $260 million, which was more than ‘Gone with the Wind’, then box-office-champion, had made. The jackpot mentality took hold after Spielberg’s horror flick, as studios spent millions to will megahits into creation.


1976: Scorsese, the Steadicam, and Stephen King

In Martin Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’ (1976), camera work, along with Robert De Niro’s exquisite acting and hairstyle come together in one of the most jolting revelations of unleashed evil ever portrayed in American film. However, it’s not that easy to figure out the certainty of Travis Bickle’s terrifying psychosis. Even when he reads his diary entries about New York’s nastiest streets, or when he devises his quick-draw contraption to strap on his arm, or during his ‘You talkin’ to me?’ monologue, we’re still unsure. It could simply be the sharpness of puritanism. It’s at the rally for Senator Palatine that our doubts dissolve, when the camera lifts to Travis’s mohawk as he pops his pills. There, the ugly truth becomes impossible to reject.


In the early Seventies, cameraman Garrett Brown and Cinema Products, Inc. engineers developed the Steadicam system, which mounts the camera on a mobile, spring-leaded arm attached to a weight-bearing harness, thus giving hand-held camerawork the smoothness of a classical dolly. It was first used by Brown in 1976, in three major films: ‘Rocky’, ‘Bound for Glory’, and ‘Marathon Man’. Two years later, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (which often forgets that last bit of its remit) awarded Brown with a special technical Oscar to honour his invention. However, the Steadicam’s greatest first showcase happened later, with Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ (1980), where the pioneering cameraman rushed around the corridors of the Overlook Hotel set, following the kid on his tricycle.


We all remember ‘Carrie’ (1976) as Brian de Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s first novel and the beginning of supernatural horror’s true form. We remember the pig’s blood scene at the prom and the mean girls flicking tampons at poor Carrie when she gets her first period after gym class. But what the film is also memorable for is its most blatant use of gratuitous shock when Carrie’s hand erupts from the ground to grab Sue—only it’s a bad dream, and Sue wakes up, and the terror that Carrie caused as revenge for how she was bullied is over. Other directors have shamelessly reused this gimmick, including John Cassavetes’s detonation at the end of ‘The Fury’ (1978) and Sean S. Cunningham in ‘Friday the 13th’ (1980). It always seems to make us jump, though.


1977: Family-Friendly Aliens and Bloody Ballet

In Steven Spielberg’s ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ (1977), the magic moment when the spaceships form the Big Dipper in the sky marks the beginning of the director’s artful authorship. After hostile examples set by the likes of ‘The War of the Worlds’ (1953) and ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1956), one might wonder why Richard Dreyfuss’s Roy Neary is so keen to meet aliens, especially after his own encounter left him sunburned only on the right side of his face. But he pursues this obsession throughout the film and all the way to Wyoming, on a secret platform on Devil’s Tower where scientists confirm what he already knows: aliens are here, and they’re ready to meet us.


‘Suspiria’ (1977) was Dario Argento’s first horror film. In it, he remembered the lesson learned during his time shooting gialli: murder scenes must be original set pieces that leave the viewer breathless. Therefore, the main character’s introduction is swiftly followed by the brutal murder of two girls at the hands of an almost invisible force. It’s a complicated double murder sequence, rife with unrestrained gruesomeness and symptomatic of the Seventies’ genre yet transcended by Argento’s calculated and daring aesthetic choices. Its theatricality is purveyed by the vast and empty Art Deco scenery, but also by Goblin’s saturated music theme.


1979: Jazz and Killer Aliens

Bob Fosse was a choreographer before becoming a critically acclaimed director. ‘All That Jazz’ (1979), featuring Roy Scheider and Jessica Lange, is basically an autobiographical testament, as well as one of the most personal and original films to ever come out of Hollywood. Fosse’s strikingly bold approach deals with death in a romantic fashion as the movie is structured in the form of a dialogue between Scheider’s Gideon and his ‘angel of death’. It also adds a clinical angle through the open-heart surgery scenes and an ironic stab through the climactic song-and-dance sequences. A dazzling masterpiece of the silver screen, ‘All That Jazz’ deserved the Oscar for Best Film that ultimately went to ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ that year.

Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ (1979) set a standard for gruesome and horrifying sci-fi effects—the first, in fact, to step away from the otherwise humanoid depictions of aliens offered by cinema up to that point. The emergence of the beast when it explodes from John Hurt’s chest is a stellar early example of the now-holy union between horror film and advanced body make-up.


1980: Acting and Politics

There were two noteworthy events that best describe humanity’s first step into the Eighties. One came in the form of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ (1980), another Stephen King adaptation that secured its slot in the annals of cinematic history. The second came on 4th November, when Ronald Reagan was elected as President of the United States—the one-time B-list actor and TV personality landed the greatest role of his life as the leader of the so-called ‘free world’. He understood the power of media spectacle and mass entertainment.

His presidency ultimately promoted a sentimental optimism and a certain detachment from reality. It was a triumph of stage management and a performance that recognized the value of that key big moment with its well-timed line. In the end, it also redefined the relationship between entertainment and politics.


1982: Crossing the T’s

We conclude this cinematic period with three monumental works of feature-length film. Steven Lisberger’s ‘Tron’ (1982) is the first substantially computer-animated movie. The innovations it put forth irrevocably changed the special effects industry. Technically speaking, there are only 15 minutes of computer-generated imagery, but it’s a miracle that the digital imaging crew were able to produce any footage at all! It took four monolithic computers two hours to render a mere half-second of film. For that era, ‘Tron’ was extraordinary, and it shifted our view of SFX forever.


Sydney Pollack’s ‘Tootsie’ (1982), starring Dustin Hoffman and Bill Murray, gives us a hilariously sentimental romp with an out-of-work but savagely uppity actor who ends up dressing like a woman and nailing the role of a female doctor on ‘Southwest General’. Murray’s Jeff is a key counterpart to Hoffman’s Dorsey. The failed playwright has few lines, but they anchor the film. In fact, his downbeat one-liners were never more effective than in ‘Tootsie’.

And last, but certainly not least, John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ (1982) provides us with the single greatest technical and artistic use of the bubbling-flesh effect. The late Seventies and early Eighties are basically the domain of Rob Bottin, Rick Baker, Chris Walas, and an assortment of other special makeup effects pioneers who created and serviced a boom market for transforming bodies of all kinds, particularly in the horror and sci-fi genres.


Requiring the hard work of 34 SFX makeup staffers (Rob Bottin and Stan Winston among them), ‘The Thing’ is a superficial remake of Howard Hawks’ ‘The Thing from Another World’ (1951) and a towering presence above every other entry in the field of bubbling flesh.

Carpenter’s film isn’t astonishing purely from a visual effects angle, either. The film comes with literary entertainment attached, an original text of science-fiction paranoia and assimilation terror which the director mines greedily.