The Evolution of the Horror Movie, Part 3: 1960s

For horror fans, a cinematic centenary is just around the corner (2022 in-fact) and to celebrate this monumental moment of the monstrous Rob Mclaughlin takes a close look at the key points of the evolution of the horror movie. Today we stop in the 1960s for…

Motels, Monsters and Mario Bava

What makes the 1960s such an interesting decade for horror films is that—without any build-up or warning from the previous decade—the genre started off to such a shocking start in 1960 when a rather rotund gentleman introduced his films with a rather sombre ‘Good evening’ and the decade of the ‘Hitchcockian’ psychological horror began.

While Alfred did take horror into the mainstream and produced a wide selection of superb suspense films that ranged from the aforementioned maternally fixated serial killers with Psycho (1960) and to the unnatural avian phenomenon in The Birds (1963) the underlying theme of early 60s horror movies was one of underpinned paranoia and the potential rise of communism. While the tail end of the 1950s played with representing modern and evolving post-war society 1960s directors became more akin and aware of the continued development of social change occurring and that an audience who were once happy to be scared by a teenage werewolf terrorising cheerleaders now wanted something more relevant, ‘real’ and thought-provoking to send a literal tingle down their spine.

The Birds (1963)

Throughout the 1960s American audiences also became increasingly exposed to horror films from further afield with likes of Mario Bava producing films such as Planet of the Vampires (1965) or Lucio Fulci beginning to find his horror footing with films like One on Top of the Other (1969). The influx of European horror established new and exciting movies for American viewers to digest. The exotic places these films took place in were far removed from the stereotypes of pristine gardens and white picket fences of suburban American homes and provided canny audiences with a travelogue of stylish European destinations, admittedly most of these were filled with black-gloved murderers as the beginnings of Giallo genre directors begun to shoot their stylised murders in the darkened streets of Rome using the Cinecitta studios.

The black gloves, sophistication and stylish killings of Italian horror were as far removed from middle suburban America as the representations of the Transylvanian castles or gothic mansions which were of course still being presented in Hammer films. Hammer however during the decade went very quickly for the purveyors of the horrific to high-camp. The studio that introduced Vincent Price and Christopher Lees to the masses and carried on the ‘traditional’ bloodied footsteps of Universal and horror media such as the American EC comic styled ‘Tales from the Crypt and ‘House of Secrets’ stories saw the duo battle through brooding eastern European castles and edifices in the 1960s but as the decade passed film fans saw them only as cameo stars in multiple sequels as other up and coming stars took over and the mummies, monsters and maniacs were replaced by the likes Captain Chronos and others battling the undead in far-flung China to as the studio jumped onto new, exciting and innovative film genres of the 1970s as audiences began to turn away from horror.

Hammer’s The Witches (1966)

The retrospective viewing of later 1960s American horror of will always undoubtedly be filtered through the American New Hollywood movement in cinema and in many ways this is not a bad thing. As showing similar critiques of the representations of social anxiety and changing lifestyles with their issues – equally apparent as much in Night of the Living Dead (1968) as they are in Easy Rider (1969).

Five recommended Horror Films from the 1960s

Psycho (1960)

The first horror film of the decade and the initial film to showcase Norman Bates and his Mother Hitchcock’s masterclass in suspense and shock is as shocking in its direction and production as it was sixty years ago.  Of course, featuring one of the well-known scenes in the entirety of cinema the shocking bathroom scene was all done through implication and suggestion without showing the audience anything at all.

Eyes Without A Face (1960)

Somewhat continuing the mad scientist theme from the 1950s this somewhat overlooked European horror film sees plastic surgeon Doctor Génessier, determined to recreate the face of his daughter who has been disfigured in a car accident. While the film is chock full of European style – it is the performance of Edith Scob who plays the disfigured Christiane Génessier and spends the majority of the film behind a featureless mask that is the standout star and gives a riveting performance mostly through her body language and eyes. In case you are wondering there is indeed a ‘Face-Off’ moment in the film that is very well done and still incredibly eerie.

Planet of the Vampires (1965)

There is a well- known ‘secret’ that Ridley Scott had ‘never seen’ Planet of the Vampires before he directed Alien. However, this space fairing tale of interplanetary blood-suckers has more than a passing resemblance to the plot of the 1979 classic.

Planet of the Vampires (1965)

Taking this potential ‘inspiration’ to one side for a moment Planet of the Vampires still has a lot to offer and the lighting, make-up effects and jaunty skin-tight space suits give the film a sophisticated and psychedelic look.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

‘They’re coming to get your Barbara’. George Romero’s first foray into the Zombie genre may well not have the guts and gore as its subsequent sequels but the film still packs a creepy punch and a jaw-dropping final scene. Oddly Night of the Living Dead is in the public domain and can be screened, shown and used without copyright issues being a problem (no paperwork was filed for the film…a costly mistake on the producers part) – a fact that other horror directors and producers have taken advantage of across the decades.

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

In a film that summed up the style and sophistication of the late 1960s Roman Polanski tale of paranoia and the occult still scares today with its underlying unease slowly gets under your skin.  The fantastic performance by Mia Farrow whose vulnerability and innocence really sell the predicament her character is in only adds to the sense of unease and with a finale that lingers this is a movie that while not overtly scary, gory or horrific is still unsettling.

Join us again tomorrow for a look at the 1970s as horror cinema moved first into high society and then, some say, the gutter.

Robert Mclaughlin

As well as writing for Den of Geek and Your Truth, Paul also runs Badgers Crossing, a site for ghost stories. He loves the 1980s and thanks to a keen interest in Public Information Films he has never been electrocuted or set himself on fire.

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