Before 1960, horror movies were, shall we say, a little more prudent and followed, more or less, conventional narrative structures and genre tropes that never crossed the line into the full-on taboo. The ’60s was the decade when ratings boards were put into precarious positions by rebel filmmakers and were pressured to condemn or even ban films that were being deemed by advocate groups as “morally wrong.” The decade in cinema might have not been as groundbreaking and envelope-pushing had it not started with a bang.
1960 saw the release of “Psycho” and “Peeping Tom,” two groundbreaking movies that, needless to say, shocked mainstream audiences. These two taboo-breaking movies were met with inauspicious reactions, and one of them, “Peeping Tom,” was banned in its native country and destroyed the career of one of the great directors of all-time, Michael Powell. As for “Psycho,” the studio had so little faith in the picture, Hitchcock was left to finance it, and traded in his director’s fee for a 60% stake in the picture. It was a costly mistake for Paramount. The film was a hit, and also pushed boundaries, not just with its unprecedented depiction of violence (cue the famous shower scene), but sexuality as well, opening with a man and woman sharing the same bed (gasp). Powell and Hitchcock paved the way for open-mindedness and the rest is, as we say, history, as the domino effect both “Peeping Tom” and “Psycho” had on filmmakers wasn’t left unnoticed.
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The ratings board had a stack of cases to deal with the rest of the decade, including “Eyes Without a Face” which had a sadistic doctor kidnapping a girl and removing her face to help his disfigured friends and “Black Sunday,” about the bloodbath a witch concocts to possess the body of a lookalike, was full-on banned in the U.K. and censored in the U.S, By then, real-life “serial killers” were emerging from the shadows and into mainstream news, and filmmakers were using these everyday horrors to tell their own inspired tales on-screen. Suffice to say, the floodgates would bust wide open the following decade with full-on shock horror such as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “I Spit on Your Grave,” and “The Last House on the Left,” but the 1960s set the stage.
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For more, don’t forget our lists of the Best Horror Movies of the 1970s,1980s, and 1990s.
“Dracula: Prince of Darkness”
Christopher Lee’s second time as Bram Stoker’s beloved vampire also proves his best (Lee is on fine form, avoiding the boredom of his later performances, having nicely carved the character for himself after one film). Director Terence Fisher brings a humanity out of Lee, their best work together besides “The Curse of Frankenstein.”Silent, but stern (Lee claims he refused to read any lines in the script), Dracula is as imposing as the film is daunting. Barbara Shelley, red haired and ready, gives the film a sensuality, rarely seen again in post Hammer films. Where later Hammer films entered into the territory of pastiche, here there is a genuine sense of threat when the local tourists ignore a warning not to enter Karlsbrad for fear of vampiric reprisal. Cinematographer Michael Reed has a good eye for colours (the reds and blues in the film are very striking), giving him a palette to bring to “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” the darling of the James Bond series. The film ends on an icy note (literally), giving an oddly sombre close to a franchise more concerned with whacking hearts than melting them. — Eoghan Lyng
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“The Haunting” (1963)
One of Martin Scorsese’s 11 scariest horror films of all time, Robert Wise’s “The Haunting” is widely considered to be a staple of the genre. Director Wise is better known for his musical adaptations “The Sound of Music” and “West Side Story,” but this darkly psychological adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” showcases the director’s darker side. The film follows Dr. Markway and his three young companions Luke, Theodora, and Eleanor as they try to prove the existence of ghosts at the eerie Hill House. Things quickly turn terrifying when a malevolent spirit tortures the group, especially the sensitive Eleanor. This movie is a great example of innovative filmmaking, as Wise and cinematographer Davis Boulton made use of a warped camera lens to produce disorienting visuals. The script is also particularly innovative for its time, as it features a lesbian character (Theodora) and much of the plot hinges on her attraction to Eleanor. Censors forbade the characters from touching, but that didn’t keep this masterwork from making their romance more explicit than in the novel. For both its formal and social achievements, this film will always be one of the most memorable and invaluable contributions to come out of the 1960s. – Lena Wilson
“The Innocents” (1961)
Director Jack Clayton’s loose adaptation of Henry James’ novella “The Turn of the Screw,” “The Innocents” (1961) is not only one of the scariest films of the ‘60s but one of the scariest films ever made (again, just ask Scorsese who, like “The Haunting”, named it one of 11 scariest of all time). Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) has just accepted her first job as a governess for a niece and a nephew. Upon the nephew Miles’ (Martin Stephens) expulsion from boarding school and his return home, Miss Giddens begins seeing visions of a man and a woman, who may have died previously in the house, and now seem to be possessing the bodies of the niece and nephew. While indebted to James’ novella, the film probably owes more debt to Truman Capote’s scripting, which externalizes much of the horror from the novella, than anything else. While Clayton would never become a household name, his other notable film being the Robert Redford snoozefest “The Great Gatsby,” he directs here with a truly menacing gothic touch. The use of cinemascope for a horror film, and the blackout that begins the movie were truly original ideas at the time and add the overall eerie feeling present. “The Innocents’ is a truly stunning horror film that’s well worth tracking down. — Christian Gallichio
“Rosemary’s Baby” (1968)
One of the rare horror films whose Wikipedia entry could start with, “ ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ is an Academy Award-winning horror film,” Roman Polanski’s psychological occult horror film remains the benchmark for the “pregnancy horror” subgenre. The best horror plays to our basest fears as opposed to a quick, cheap jump scare, and the strength of “Rosemary’s Baby” comes from it’s all-too-real plausibility. Most of that can be chalked up to the performances, specifically Mia Farrow’s slow-burning manic performance as Rosemary Woodhouse, who becomes mysteriously pregnant after moving into a new apartment in New York with her husband (John Cassavetes) that is known to have strange occurrences. In addition to the claustrophobia that Polanski brings to Ira Levin’s novel, it’s aso easy to forget how darkly humorous the movie is. Most of which comes from Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer as their suspiciously involved neighbors, who are a little too interested in Rosemary starting a family. “Rosemary’s Baby” successfully captures the anxieties of taking the plunge into parenthood, yet also expertly weaves it into a story about paranoia, body horror, and satanism. It’s stature looms so large that any film that even remotely pays homage to it (most recently Alice Lowe’s “Prevenge” and Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!”) is immediately recognized as having a “Rosemary’s Baby” feel. – Ryan Oliver
“Night Of The Living Dead” (1968)
Zombie films and television programs may be all the rage in 2017, but very few have used the undead in as terrifying or thought-provoking ways as George A. Romero. And even fewer have remained relevant in terms of their themes. Like some of the other great horror films released in the late 60’s and early 70’s, “Night of the Living Dead” is a clear commentary about the Vietnam war, how the country was in a fractured state and this looming sense of gloom and doom permeated through everything. Perhaps an obvious metaphor with people being eaten alive by the undead, but regardless of subtlety or lack thereof, “Night of the Living Dead”remains an unflinching and brutally effective siege horror movie, one that holds up as a metaphor for the fractured state of our country, but also the troubling racial tensions that are still going on almost 50 years after the fact. The other, less dire legacy the film has left behind — something known from experience — is how chocolate syrup makes an excellent fake blood substitute if you’re shooting horror in black and white on a low budget. – RO