The 1970s is widely regarded to be one of the best decades for horror cinema. By extension, it’s also one of the best decades for horror movie villains. Not every horror movie needs a tangible villain to succeed – in Don’t Look Now, the villain is grief – but horror is a great genre for iconic villains.
The horror films of the ‘70s introduced fans to plenty of unforgettable villains. These included masked slashers, like Halloween’s Michael Myers and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s Leatherface, and inhuman monsters, like Jaws’ 25-foot shark and Alien’s seven-foot-tall xenomorph.
10 The Mutants (The Hills Have Eyes)
Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes starts off with a terrifyingly relatable setup: the Carter family is run off the road and plagued by car troubles in the middle of the wilderness. Throughout the night, they’re stalked by mutants hiding in the hills.
Led by Papa Jupiter, this mutant family is contrasted with the Carters in interesting ways. They’re essentially a dark, bloodthirsty inversion of the suburbanite protagonists.
9 The Trucker (Duel)
Before bringing a similar sense of Hitchcockian tension to Jaws, Steven Spielberg proved his ability to terrify audiences with a faceless, mostly off-screen monster in his seminal made-for-TV thriller Duel.
The film revolves around a mild-mannered businessman running afoul of a vengeful trucker during a road trip across the desert. Thematically, Duel is about the fear of confrontation. The giant, merciless truck is a powerful symbol of that fear.
8 The Summerisle Cult (The Wicker Man)
Edward Woodward stars in Robin Hardy’s folk horror gem The Wicker Man as a detective who’s sent to the mysterious island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a child. The island’s residents turn out to be a sinister cult luring people to a horrifying fate.
The detective figures out the cult’s true intentions a little too late, and in one of the spookiest movie endings of all time, the chillingly calm cult members encase him in the titular “wicker man” and ritualistically burn it to the ground.
7 Damien (The Omen)
Before his groundbreaking contributions to the superhero and buddy cop genres, Superman and Lethal Weapon, Richard Donner made a groundbreaking contribution to the horror genre: the 1976 supernatural scarer The Omen.
Throughout the movie, it becomes ominously clear to the Thorns that their adopted son Damien is the Antichrist and the son of the Devil.
6 Margaret White (Carrie)
The argument could be made that Carrie herself is the villain in Brian De Palma’s Carrie, since the movie culminates in Carrie using her newly discovered telekinetic powers to go on a brutal killing spree. But the first couple of acts make it clear that Carrie is driven into her murderous rage by a combination of ruthless schoolyard bullies and an abusive, overbearing mother.
The latter, Margaret White, is the quintessential portrait of a terrible parent (and a religious zealot). Piper Laurie was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars for her chilling turn as Margaret.
5 The Shark (Jaws)
Steven Spielberg pioneered the summer blockbuster with his game-changing 1975 gem Jaws. The 25-foot great white shark terrorizing Amity Island only has a couple of minutes of screen time in the movie, but Spielberg uses off-screen suggestions and Hitchcockian suspense to make it a terrifying presence throughout the entire runtime.
What is left to the audience’s imagination is undeniably more horrifying than anything on-screen. The fact that some viewers are still scared to go in the ocean almost half a century after Jaws hit theaters is a testament to the effectiveness of its thrills.
4 Pazuzu (The Exorcist)
The demonic antagonist of William Friedkin’s supernatural blockbuster The Exorcist doesn’t have a physical appearance. Instead, Pazuzu appears as an ominous statue in the opening premonition and later possesses 12-year-old Regan MacNeil.
Pazuzu’s evil is shown through the radical changes in Regan’s personality after the demon takes over. It can see into people’s souls and crudely reflects their worst insecurities back at them (like telling a grieving Father Karras, “Your mother sucks c**ks in Hell!”).
3 The Xenomorph (Alien)
The titular star-beast in Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror opus Alien is the ultimate movie monster. H.R. Giger’s haunting design is a disturbing inversion of the familiar human form, and it’s responsible for some of horror cinema’s most terrifying moments.
The baby xenomorph is born gruesomely out of a crew member’s chest, then it grows to adult size towering over its unsuspecting victims in a matter of hours. Its acidic spit burns through the ship’s hull as it stalks the astronauts one by one, sneaking up on them silently before pouncing.
2 Leatherface (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre)
The minimalist genre thrills of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre have made it the horror masterpiece to beat. It’s perfectly paced, it dares squeamish viewers to look away, and it has one of the most iconic villains of all time.
Leatherface is a cannibal who stalks unsuspecting youths, takes them out with a sledgehammer, hangs them on meat hooks, and serves them at his traditional family dinners. Since the Hardestys are shown to have profited from slaughterhouses, Leatherface acts as an ironic satire of the meat industry.
1 Michael Myers (Halloween)
The unforgettable opening scene of John Carpenter’s seminal 1978 indie hit Halloween shows Michael Myers’ first murder from his point of view. After stabbing his sister to death, the mask of his Halloween costume is removed to reveal that he’s just six years old.
The bulk of the movie sees an adult Michael wandering around Haddonfield in a boiler suit and a creepy William Shatner mask, mindlessly committing more murders. Surrounded by the mystique of Donald Pleasence’s curious exposition as Michael’s baffled psychiatrist, “The Shape” has become renowned as the faceless embodiment of murderous rage.
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