For a largely derided decade, the 1970s were actually a golden age for movies, maybe the best 10-year stretch in film history. For that brief period, studios were giving free rein to young directors such as Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, Bob Rafelson, Hal Ashby, Monte Hellman and the pre-bloat George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, all of whom turned out some of the best films ever made in a short space of time.

But that’s not why we’re here.

The ’70s were also a time when exploitation cinema saw that no one was guarding the onscreen content chicken coop, so to speak, and started turning out some seriously gratuitous sex, violence and all-around weirdness — some exhilaratingly bananas, some not so much:

DISASTER MOVIES

BEST: “The Last Wave” (1977): While America just couldn’t get enough of watching stuff blow up, burn, drown, get creamed by blimps and otherwise go smash in the ’70s, I’m going to go off the map and pick this creepy Australian thriller about white Sydney lawyer Richard Chamberlain defending five Aboriginals accused of a ritual murder. As he delves into the case, Chamberlain becomes increasingly haunted by visions of all of Australia being destroyed by a cataclysmic tidal wave. Haunting, weird and ultimately terrifying — although, sadly, George Kennedy does not appear.

WORST: “Meteor” (1979): As the ’70s dribbled to a close, the “busload of stars slumming for a paycheck in front of unconvincing miniature effects” trend culminated in this pre-“Armageddon” slog about the titular model boulder threatening a sixth-grader’s model New York. The likes of Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, Natalie Wood, Karl Malden, Trevor Howard and Brian Keith (looking very, very sheepish) mumble lines like Connery’s classic, “If you think you can prevent it by burying your heads under a blanket of (expletive), fine. If you ever reach your decision, I’ll be in the bar across the street.” It’s the only line he delivers with some feeling.

KUNG FU

BEST: “Enter the Dragon” (1973): Was there ever any doubt? No action star, in the history of movies, has ever been more charismatic, sexy, graceful or legitimately formidable than Bruce Lee, and this is his best movie. Sure, it’s got problems, as do all Lee’s (sadly meager) roster of films. Still, as Lee infiltrates the now-cliche martial arts tournament on the now-requisite evil crimelord’s private island and defeats formidable psychos Bolo Yeung and Bob Wall — and then an entire army — there has never been a more thrilling screen presence, of any genre, ever.

WORST: “Bruce Lee Fights Back From the Grave” (1976): As if to prove how irreplaceable Lee was, an entire industry sprang up (called “Bruceploitation”) after Lee’s death, churning out martial-arts knockoffs capitalizing on the man’s legacy. I chose this one not necessarily because of its awfulness, but because of its utter shamelessness — I mean, having faux Bruce rise from his (cheesy, box-lettered) grave because he made a deal with the devil? That’s totally karate kick-worthy

SCI-FI

BEST: “Alien” (1979): Still the scariest, and most influential, sci-fi horror film of all time. Sequelled, remade, ripped-off, spun-off and soon to be prequelled (by original director Ridley Scott, no less), it’ll never be equaled.

WORST: “Starcrash” (1978): An Italian attempt to cash in on “Star Wars,” this alternately-hilariously bad and tedious space opera suffers from a miniscule budget, awful special effects, Marjoe Gortner and David Hasselhoff (and their hair), a sheepish Christopher Plummer in a muumuu, a more annoying robot than C-3PO and an all-around talent-lack. The fact that this was never lampooned on “Mystery Science Theater 3000” is a national tragedy.

EXPLOITATION/GRINDHOUSE

BEST: “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974): “Grindhouse” was rarely more literal than in this still-grueling low-budget legend about a family of cannibal human-butchers and the unpleasant vanload of young people they want to turn into sausage. The grimy, authentically-disreputable atmosphere of “TCM” has never been equalled. You should probably be grateful

WORST (TIE): “I Spit on Your Grave” (1978) and “The Last House on the Left” (1972): I’m not condemning the exploitative rape-iness of these notorious cult films, necessarily; I love movie sleaze in all its forms. I call out these dirtbag-favorite flicks for making it clear that the directors (Meir Zarchi and Wes Craven, respectively) were cynically getting off on the degradation of their various heroines.

SLASHER FILMS

BEST: “Halloween” (1978): It’s not its fault that nearly every aspect of John Carpenter’s seminal slasher about silent, implacable killer Michael Myers returning to his hometown on a certain holiday evening has been recycled into cliche hundreds of times in the intervening years. Nor is it surprising that none of those myriad imitators have surpassed it.

WORST: “Drive-In Massacre” (1977): If you’ve got a sure-fire sleaze-classic title like that, you’d darn well better not be this ridiculously dull.

DISCO

BEST: “Saturday Night Fever” (1977): Of course, of all the regrettable things about the ’70s (cocaine, polyester, that “Seasons in the Sun” song), disco tops the list. But you can’t deny that this coming-of-age tale of a young Brooklyn lad who can only escape his dreary life on the light-up disco dance floor still holds up relatively well. Sure, svelte young John Travolta’s suitably narcissistic dance moves nowadays teeter between “impressive” and “giggle-inducing,” but “Fever” remains the best relic of a best-forgotten genre.

WORST: “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (1978): In deference to Peter Frampton’s visit to our fair city, let’s just pretend this Bee Gees/Frampton as The Beatles “musical” never happened, shall we?

Dennis Perkins is a Portland-based freelance writer.


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