The Movie Waffler Six Overlooked Movies From 1975-1980 | The Movie Waffler

Six Overlooked Movies From 1975-1980

breaking away
Six lesser seen gems from the second half of the '70s.

Words by Ren Zelen

As restrictions on language, sexuality and violence loosened up, the 1970s became a decade of experimentation - with sex and drugs, and with literature and film. It was a time of startling and confusing social upheaval, and the films of the era reflect those elements. For every ’70s movie that won deserved acclaim there was another that was unsung and overlooked.

Independent film's best works prove that talented directors don't need Hollywood budgets. Inspired by European art cinema, independent movies of the seventies displayed a very different aesthetic. They were gritty, narratively complex, violent and, at times, uncomfortable and uncompromising.

Shivers (1975)
shivers 1975
Director: David Cronenberg

When a scientist experimenting with a new form of organ transplants slaughters a teen girl and kills himself, investigators discover that the murderer had been conducting experiments involving deadly parasites.

Roger St. Luc (Paul Hampton), a doctor living in the fortress-like apartment building, and his aide, Nurse Forsythe (Lynn Lowry), realise that the parasites used in the experiments are on the loose and are attacking fellow tenants. Those who become hosts of the parasite pass the creature on through frenetic sexual acts induced by the onset of madness.

The debut feature by Canadian director David Cronenberg proves to be his first outing into gross body horror, but is also an examination of social paranoia in modern isolationist society.

Martin (1978)
martin 1978
Director: George A. Romero

George Romero is best-known for his cult series of zombie films, most notably 1968’s Night of the Living Dead and 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, but reportedly Romero’s own favourite among his films is Martin, where he abandons zombies to delve into the vampire mythos.

Young Martin (John Amplas) is entirely convinced that he is an 84-year-old blood-sucking vampire. However, he is without fangs or mystical powers, so Martin instead injects women with sedatives and drinks their blood through wounds inflicted by razor blades.

After moving to Braddock, Pennsylvania to live with his superstitious uncle (Lincoln Maazel), who also believes Martin is a vampire, Martin tries to prey exclusively on criminals and thugs but falters when he falls for a housewife (Sara Venable).

Romero never includes any supernatural elements and keeps things deliberately ambiguous as to whether his central character is a vampire or simply psychotic. The result is an unusually grounded horror film, where the psychology of the character - his troubled relationship to sexuality and powerful ego - seems drawn more from serial killers than from Bram Stoker’s Count.

However, Amplas’ nuanced performance embodies a kind of poignant adolescent desperation, even as he’s draining blood from his victims.

The Shout (1978)
the shout 1978
Director: Jerzy Skolimowski

A man named Crossley (Alan Bates) insinuates himself into the lives of British composer Anthony Fielding (John Hurt) and his wife, Rachel (Susannah York) after he appears at their door. Isolated in rural Devon, Anthony experiments with music in which the smallest sounds are amplified to loud roars.

The Fieldings find that their enigmatic guest has some strange preoccupations, most notably an obsession with dark Aboriginal magic. Crossley claims that he knows the secret of the shout of desolation - a shout so deep, so despairing, that it can kill anyone who hears it. Anthony doesn't believe Crossley’s claim, but one day, as they walk out onto the deserted dunes…

The Shout is a creepy story based on the short tale by Robert Graves (played in the film by Tim Curry) where lies and truth are in a constant battle. In this movie adaptation, director Skolimowski manages to build an atmosphere of disquiet and impending calamity.

Despite winning the Cannes Grand Prix, The Shout has fallen into obscurity, partly because of the odd career of its director: after critical successes (1967’s Berlin-winning The Departure and 1970’s Deep End among them) and a 30-year career, the Polish filmmaker stopped making films for 17 years.

His successful return in 2010 with Essential Killing (which won the Special Jury Prize in Venice) should spur interest in a rediscovery of his unusual body of work.

Girlfriends (1978)
girlfriends 1978
Director: Claudia Weill

Claudia Weill’s film was all but overlooked on release, and neglected afterwards, but the film did have one notable supporter: Stanley Kubrick, who in an interview, famously said “I think one of the most interesting Hollywood films, well not Hollywood — American films — that I’ve seen in a long time is Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends. That film, I thought, was one of the very rare American films that I would compare with the serious, intelligent, sensitive writing and filmmaking that you find in the best directors in Europe.”

The script by Vicki Polon focusses on the friendship between Susan (Melanie Mayron), an aspiring photographer, and Anne (Anita Skinner), her apartment-mate, who’s on the verge of moving out, and their gradual estrangement over time.

It is, to some extent, a film of its time, dealing with the conflict between having a career and being a wife, but there’s universality to Susan and Anne’s friendship that means that it still feels fresh.

Thanks to the support of fans like Lena Dunham, Girlfriends is finally starting to get the praise and reputation it deserves.

Breaking Away (1979)
breaking away
Director: Peter Yates

Breaking Away is a wonderfully sunny, funny, but intelligent movie that is known by those who have seen it as a treasure.

It’s an indie ‘coming of age’ film concerning four working-class friends - Dave (Dennis Christopher) Cyril (Daniel Stern), Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) and Mike (Dennis Quaid) - who spend one final summer together before facing the inevitable choices of opting for jobs, college or the Army. Over this last sweet summer, they chase girls and spar with the snooty students from the local university.

Dave however, is obsessed with being a champion Italian bicycle racer, and the four friends face opposition from all sides of the community as they decide to make Dave's dreams come true in the university's annual bicycle endurance race.

Dave's Italomania provides the movie's funniest running joke: he drives his blue-collar father (Paul Dooley) crazy by playing opera and speaking in Italian. His dad vainly complains that he didn't raise his boy to be an ‘Eye-talian’, and that he's sick and tired of all the ‘ee-nin’ in the house: linguini, fettucini’ - Dave even renames their dog Jake, as Fellini.

The performances by Dooley and Barbara Barrie as Dave's parents are so loving and funny that it’s good to remember that every movie doesn't necessarily have to have parents and children who are dramatically in conflict.

Breaking Away is one of my personal favourites. It is about people who are complicated but decent, who are optimists but see things realistically, who are fundamentally comic characters but are also multi-dimensional. It's about a Middle America we rarely see in the movies, and it manages to be kind, but never cheesy or condescending. It’s a refreshingly uplifting experience about learning who you are.

As the eminent movie critic Roger Ebert said - “Movies like this are hardly ever made at all; when they're made this well, they're precious cinematic miracles.”  It’s a must-see film. 

Altered States (1980)
altered states
Director: Ken Russell

Wrestling with the idea of God after the death of his father, respected scientist and psychology professor Edward Jessup (William Hurt) obsessively researches the idea of altered human states by combining his experiments in sensory deprivation tanks with powerful hallucinogenic drugs, convinced that it may help him unlock states of consciousness.

As Jessup secretly experiments by ingesting a primitive tribal drug made from Mexican hallucinatory mushrooms, he begins to tap into genetic memory, collective consciousness, and his primal roots.

The experiments are a success at first, but as Jessup continues his work, he begins to experience altered mental and also physical states. As he spends more time in sensory deprivation, his grip on reality begins to slip away. Gradually, his weird visions lead to physical changes.

The movie is based on a Paddy Chayevsky novel inspired by the experiments of Dr. John Lilly, the man who placed his human subjects in total immersion tanks. Chayefsky also wrote the screenplay for the movie but successfully fought to have his name removed from the credits. Although the shooting script remained entirely faithful to his story and his words, he felt that his dialogue, when voiced by the actors under Ken Russell's direction, was rendered incomprehensibly mad. He wasn’t far wrong – but they were his words, after all.

Russell's acknowledged penchant for visual pyrotechnics and apocalyptic sexuality makes Altered States marvellous entertainment and a clever vehicle for making us feel awe and humour, despite being full of pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo.  The result may be rather meaningless, but while you're watching it you are not concerned.