1960s Horror Movies

Psycho (1960)

Bad Girls And Blood Freaks

1960s horror movies reflect an era of rapid change and uncertainty, and a yawning generation gap. The social stability of the post-war years crumbled as attitudes to everything from hemlines to homosexuality underwent a seismic shift. The 1960s were defined by cultural revolution and rocked by dramatic and often violent news events: Cuba, political assassinations, the Civil Rights struggle, the Cold War, Vietnam. Sexual revolution happened too, as new medical technology freed women from their reproductive chains. Horror movies, especially those made for low budgets outside the mainstream studio system, offered ways to process and interpret the rapid pace of change. They often served as cautionary tales about the dangers of abandoning traditional values.

The relaxation of censorship also allowed filmmakers to debunk old taboos and explore new ways of depicting sex and violence. As the power of the Production Code faded, underground cinema dodged scrutiny and therefore censorship. As well as being more open to nudity, onscreen violence, and other tropes that challenged social mores, the drive-in teen audiences of the 1950s were growing up, and becoming wise to the empty promises of lurid titles and titillating posters, immune to the scare factor of rubber suits and miniaturized sets. They wanted horror that was more rooted in reality, more believable, more sophisticated, or dealt with some of the issues they faced in a rapidly changing world.

Despite the often tragic turmoil of this era, there was a seeming feeling of optimism, the sense that humanity was moving forward, onward and upward. The concept of Cold War lost heat, and, in 20-odd years without nuclear holocaust, the threat of mass-death-by-radiation had receded. The mutant monsters of the 1950s now looked a little silly. No aliens had turned up either – well, they hadn’t announced their presence to the masses although maybe a few MIBs knew a thing or two. Rather than focusing on external threats, counter-culture thinking involved a re-examination of the social psyche — traditions, stereotypes, prohibitions.

If every generation gets the monsters it deserves, then the horror moviegoers of this era got themselves. No more giant insects or actors in rubber suits! Instead, horror movies of the 1960s held up a mirror to audiences, asking them to think about what they saw every day. Is there something a little strange about your face?

Thriller To Chiller

Horror movies and thrillers have always overlapped, especially the psychological horror and film noir of the 1940s-1950s. Both run on cycles of tension and release. The antagonist’s pursuit of the protagonist drives the plot. The boundary between the two genres is blurred, but probably occurs around the point when supernatural plot or character elements are introduced. Horror allows supernatural explanations and entities, while thrillers remain wholly within the real world.

In the 1940s, Val Lewton pushed against the Universal tide by making horror films that existed on this boundary. His monsters tended to be human, with no need of Jack Pierce makeup or castle thunder to denote their evil natures. This subtly psychological style of horror got somewhat lost among the masks and rubber suits of the 1950s but resurfaced in the 1960s. As it became easier to get a low-budget film made and distributed, independent filmmakers searched for stories that could be profound and powerful, yet didn’t rely on a cast of thousands or elaborate special effects. They drew on the aesthetics and anti-heroes beloved of film noir but had to find a way of making the tired pulp detective plots fresh again. They mixed things up by making them weird.

Psycho (1960)

The undisputed master of the thriller, Alfred Hitchcock, made his two ventures into the horror genre in the 1960s. Although there are moments in all his major works that cross the line between horror and thriller it is only Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963) that can truly be described as horror films. Inspired by the no-frills, low-budget approach of William Castle, he proved himself expert at scaring audiences with both an internal and external threat. One monster is carefully delineated and explained (“Oh Mother! “), the other is an unnatural, inexplicable presence, watching and waiting somewhere beyond normal human experience.

Psycho occupies the border between horror and thriller. While in some ways it’s a classic murder mystery, it also introduces us to Norman Bates, who is as weird as it gets and the kind of monster who’ll stalk your dreams. Psycho was certainly marketed as a horror movie: it was sold on the strength of how scary it was — along with the poster of an underwear-clad Janet Leigh and a shirtless John Gavin promising some racy scenes.

Everyone “knows” the story; Norman and his Mother are familiar to those who have never seen the film. Psycho has become iconic in a way few other movies have ever become. The Bates Motel continues to loom over visitors to the Universal Studios theme park. The screeching soundtrack and the flashing of the knife blade in the shower scene seem condemned to perpetual rerunning in horror films to this day. If ever a movie cast a giant shadow over the genre then Psycho is it.

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After the success of Psycho, Hitchcock picked The Birds as his follow-up, a Daphne du Maurier short story (Hitchcock had already filmed Jamaica Inn in 1939 and Rebecca in 1940). Hitchcock saw a lot of potential in du Maurier’s tale of ‘nature red in tooth and claw’, the same kind of potential Steven Spielberg would see in Jaws two decades later. However, due in no small part to the difficulties of depicting avian attacks on screen in 1963, The Birds is no Jaws. It is, however, an intriguing horror fantasy that has increasingly disturbing environmental connotations as time goes by.

The birds represent a new kind of monster, the inexorable force of nature: it’s never revealed what causes them to attack but thanks to their dinosaur DNA they make fearsome and effective predators. A variety of special effects (much blue screen work and some animation provided by Disney technicians) plus the spooky soundtrack (a combination of deathly silence and artificial bird noises) create a many-headed monster, flapping and screeching and pecking. The Birds was never what Hitchcock hoped it would be (he blamed the script) but it nonetheless has some chilling moments.


Things That Go Bump

Deborah Kerr in The Innocents

“The more enlightened our houses are, the more their walls ooze ghosts”.

—ITALO CALVINO, The Literature Machine

A number of ghost stories hit the screen in the 1960s that still have the power to startle today, transcending their black and white photography and minimal special effects. These films can be seen as a reaction against the elaborate creature features of the late 1950s or the concrete fantasy monsters of the 1930s. They are simple stories that only require the audience to suspend disbelief in increments, and often, as in The Haunting (1963) operate from a position of skepticism towards the supernatural.

The characters do not believe that they are being affected by unseen forces until too late (if at all) and the horror lies in the journey the protagonist takes between sanity and psychosis. Can the hero believe what he/she (it’s usually a woman) is seeing? Reality unravels in textbook (Freudian) style, as familiar, safe mise en scène disintegrate, revealing aspects of another dimension. When the protagonist resists or complains, the causes of her terror can be explained away in Act Two by a kindly doctor, vicar or another authority figure, but the forces of madness — whether internal or external — always triumph by the end.

These screen stories reflect a preoccupation with change, with women on the front lines, the first (and often the only ones) to be destroyed by the erosion of the old order. Were these movies subliminal warnings to women, an exhortation to behave, or suffer the consequences? These ghost stories depend on more than an ambiguous spectral presence for their thrills; they throb with psychosexual tension and take a sadistic satisfaction (Hitchcock made it fashionable) in the suffering of the beautiful heroine. The protagonist is a final sacrifice rather than a Final Girl.

The Innocents (1961)

The Innocents is one of many adaptations of Henry James’ 1898 novella, The Turning of The Screw. James’ story of a governess whose new charges may not be quite what they seem is a masterpiece of ambiguity and inference, straddling the line between psychological suspense and haunted house yarn. He never clarifies on the page exactly what happens (or happened) at Bly, instead leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions about events. Is the governess plagued by supernatural forces, or is she the victim of her own, fraught, emotional state?

The Innocents straddles a similar line, thanks to multi-layered screenplay. It’s a combination of William Archibald’s adaptation of his 1950 stage version (which sticks to the “ghosts did it” theory) and Truman Capote’s Southern Gothic take on the material, which digs into the fragile state of Miss Gidden’s mind. The narrative is atmospherically realized on screen, with the Capability Brown-designed landscapes of Sheffield Hall standing in for the rising mists of Bly.

The director, Jack Clayton, cast the then-40 year old Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens, even though she’s only 20 in the book. This adds another layer to the storytelling, framing the governess as a fading spinster, long past her sexual prime, repressed and regretful. Kerr’s performance embodies the ‘woman on the verge’ typical of horror in this era. Her attachment to Miles and Flora can be read as something desperate and unnatural, intense enough to tip her over the edge.

Carnival of Souls (1962)

Carnival of Souls (1962)
Candace Hilligoss as Mary in Carnival of Souls

Carnival of Souls is a low-budget gem, a cult horror film that retains its power to haunt the viewer almost sixty years after it was first released. It features another traumatized blonde, this time played by Candace Hilligoss. From the opening drag race (which could in itself be a PSA warning teens against this dangerous activity titled “The Chicken Run Straight To Hell” ) to the muddy finale, every frame is pervaded with a sense of isolation and dissonance.

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Cheap Thrills

Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
Shown on the set, from left: director Roger Corman, Vincent Price (via the Hollywood Reporter)

Writer/producer/director Roger Corman is an iconic figure in the horror genre. He was perhaps the most successful independent movie maker ever, whose pragmatic approach to film-making (2-5 day shoots, actors/writers being asked to direct second unit camera crews, filming two movies on the same set with the same actors) proved incredibly profitable. He recognized that horror, sex, and laughter are never very far apart, and managed to imbue his pictures with all three.

His delicious sense of irony emerges in some of his early titles: Bucket of Blood, She Gods Of The Shark Reef, Gas! -Or- It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It. Corman spent just enough on his movies to get them in the can, but managed to provide audiences with what they wanted to see (buxom women, blood, a bit of monster make-up). He churned out wildly entertaining  B movies at an incredible rate, always pulling in enough cash to finance his next venture, and kickstarting the careers of various Hollywood luminaries (Jack Nicholson, Robert Towne, James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme et al) along the way.

The title of his 1990 autobiography, How I Made A Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost A Dime says it all: he did not restrict himself to horror films but ventured into ‘women’s pictures’ (featuring women in some sort of uniform — student nurses were a particular favorite), biker drug flicks, blaxploitation movies and ‘rural dramas’.

The Wasp Woman (1959)

Corman ended the 1950s making monster Bs, like The Wasp Woman. It centers on the same concept as The Fly a year earlier – the mixing of human and insect parts – but it had around a tenth of the budget of the Fox pic. Nonetheless, Corman finds ways to introduce his signature flair and the movie has become a cult classic.

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Motley Drama: Corman’s Poe Cycle

As the 1960s began, Corman was looking for new ways to make films. He was fond of literary adaptations – especially if the original was in the public domain – and he mined Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories for some of his most memorable work between 1960 and 1964. In 1960, when AIP execs Arkoff and Nicholson asked Corman to make yet another pair of low-budget black and white horror films, he told them he had a better idea, a movie adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. Nicholson and Arkoff initially balked at the concept, which differed wildly from their then-staple trade in monster B-pics aimed at drive-in adolescent audiences. “Where’s the monster?” asked Arkoff.

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The Masque of the Red Death (1964)
Death becomes… The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

Corman’s instincts about teens and Poe were proved correct by the success of this cycle of movies. This is partly because Corman wasn’t simply retelling the 19th-century stories on film, although Poe’s preoccupations with premature death, being buried alive, incest, and things hidden in the cellar are timeless. Each of Corman’s Poe movies is startlingly contemporary – despite the period sets and costumes and the self-consciously archaic dialogue they’re very much of their time. The early 1960s saw continued social upheaval as the Civil Rights struggle intensified and the generation gap grew. Films about the collapse of ancient, incestuous, closed orders, like the Usher family, or the punishment of aristocratic old men who considered themselves above the law like Prince Prospero, couldn’t fail to chime with a young audience, especially if they were framed by druggy nightmare sequences, contained filmy-costumed beautiful women conducting Satanic rites, and oozed barely-repressed sexual desire.


Hammer Horror

Hammer Horror's poster for Dracula

In the UK, Hammer Films, a company founded in 1934 with a spotty track record of success, adopted AIP’s low-budget salaciousness and produced a slew of horror pictures between 1955 and 1979. In their golden years, during the 1960s, they achieved considerable success thanks to a reliable formula of melodramatic story-telling; beautiful, scantily-clad women; graphic violence (for the era); barely subdued eroticism and solid craftsmanship. The British Board of Film Classification introduced the ‘X’ certificate in 1951 (suitable for those aged 16 or over) and Hammer chased that rating for every picture, often outraging the censors.

Although their first real success was The Quatermass Experiment(1955), a sci-fi adventure, they soon decided that monsters in human form were better… and cheaper! Also, the glut of monster pictures in the 1950s meant that audiences, as ever, sought a new direction. or an old one.

Hammer began to rehash all the classic horror stories so beloved of Universal in the 1930s:  DraculaFrankenstein, The Mummy etc, but added a touch of erotica in keeping with the mood of the times. Whereas the Universal movies were wholesome family fare, Hammer prided themselves on their ‘X- ADULT ONLY’ certification. That X-rating was earned by a soft-focus erotic flavour which seems curiously chivalrous to us now, but was very daring in a world that had not long left the Hays Code behind. Actors like Virginia Wetherell, Madeline Smith, Ingrid Pitt, Janina Faye, Vera Day, Caroline Munro, Martine Beswicke, Carol Marsh, Yvonne Monlaur, Valerie Leon made their names as Hammer heroines (and villainesses), and were collectively known as the Hammer Glamour Girls.

Male Hammer stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were direct heirs of Lugosi and Karloff, and played a similar succession of villains and monsters. They too have become paradigms of the genre (along with Vincent Price, who continued to clock up genre-flavored movie roles and TV guest star appearances during the 1960s and 1970s).

Hammer at Bray Studios

From 1951 to 1966, Hammer Film Productions made their home at Bray Studios, housed in Down Place, a 1750s-built country house on the banks of the River Thames between Bray and Windsor. The elegant mansion provided the ideal setting for many Hammer films, including The Old Dark House, the St Trinians series, while The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile were shot back to back using the same sets. The location became an integral component of the typical look of a Hammer production. Over the years, Hammer added facilities included four soundstages, ancillary buildings and a permanent ‘Village’ set. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, in itself a tribute to Hammer production style and values, was filmed here in 1975.

Although Hammer Horror from the 1960s seems tame by today’s standards, and sometimes a little too camp in tone, the movies did deal with some serious topics, and ventured into controversial territory, setting new standards for their day. Hammer Films proved that horror could be aimed at an adult audience and still turn a profit. The movies and their stars are remembered with great fondness by generations of fans. Various attempts were made in the 2000s to bring back the Hammer banner, and 2010 saw their first theatrical feature of the millennium, Let Me In. This was followed by The Resident and Wake Wood, and, in 2012 The Woman In Black (starring Daniel Radcliffe) became the most successful British horror film in over 20 years.


Other 1960s Horror Movies of Note

Corman wasn’t the only low-budget filmmaker making a splash in the 1960s. Pornographer Herschell Gordon Lewis made the notorious Blood Feast (1963) on a shoestring budget of $24,500. His gore-spattered tale of an Egyptian caterer who specializes in maiden’s body parts grossed over $4 million.

Blood Feast (1963)

Night of The Living Dead (1968)

NIght of The Living Dead (1968)
NIght of The Living Dead (1968)

George A. Romero gathered together his buddies in Pittsburgh in June 1967 and embarked on shooting a movie with the working title “Monster Flick”. They worked according to low-budget principles Corman and Lewis would have approved: $114,000 and six months later they had produced cult classic Night of the Living Dead. This incredibly influential horror film took a deadpan approach to its grisly subject, humans eating other humans’ brains, signaling a new social realism that put the archly stylized horror of the first half of the decade to shame.

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The movie was released on October 4, 1968, when it must have seemed like the world was burning. Audiences used to TV news footage of political assassinations, war in South East Asia, riots in the streets, and police quashing protest with bullets and tear gas didn’t have to make much of an imaginative leap into the martial law scenario outlined at the beginnng of the film. Romero showed that horror films could and should offer brutal social commentary: it’s the only horror movie of its time (and few have gone there since) to address racial tension directly.

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Rosemary's Baby (1968)
Ruth Gordon as Minnie Castevet in Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Rosemary’s Baby (1968) expresses some of the anxieties about evil children explored in The Bad Seed (1956) and Village of The Damned (1960) (an adaptation of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos). It also tapped into the ongoing debate about a woman’s right to choose. If only Rosemary could have marched into Planned Parenthood for some objective medical advice, instead of falling under the control of religious maniacs! Rosemary’s Baby paved the way for the evil children movies of the 1970s (from It’s Alive to Alien) and is referenced heavily by current horror filmmakers (see: Get Out and Hereditary).

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