The 1950s was largely the golden age of the science fiction film, with horror taking a backseat for a majority of the decade. It wasn't until Shock Theater and it's subsequent re-releasing of the classic Universal horrors, combined with the new emerging Hammer Gothics, that horror came back into vogue. The re-emergence of the Gothic horror film, revived the great monsters such as Frankenstein and Dracula, but also introduced was a slightly meaner and more adult product than the previous generation. A healthy dose of sex and violence was subtly brought in, mainly just flashes of blood and cleavage, but this would be increasingly advanced as the next decade loomed.
The 1960s would become the next great era of cinematic horror, offering more classics than any other era, outside of the 1960s. Like that decade, most of the great films were a creation of less restrictive censorship, which will effectively end in 1968. Most of the horror films released in the first half, still carried the same formula as the past terrors, and could be described as "safe horror, " but in many ways, the decade would be defined right at the offset with the release of Alfred Hitchcock's groundbreaking, Psycho(1960). Horror was no longer an enemy from space or from some distant European country, but was actually living right next door, in the form of clean cut Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. This film's embracing of dark sexual undertones and graphic violence(now very tame) helped establish a new trend in movie horror, that could be seen as the first inkling of the slasher genre.
At the same time, in Great Britain, another cinematic genius, Michael Powell, made another ground breaker in a similar vein, entitled Peeping Tom(1960). This film also dealt with a psychopathic killer, though the focus this time was reflective of our own voyeuristic views on the cinema, itself. This film was not as popular as Psycho, but has since been hailed as a masterpiece.
Roger Corman, known in the 50s for a series of enjoyable low-budget oddities, produced a counterpart to the British Hammer films, focusing on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, and acquiring the talent of Vincent Price. The first film they would make, House of Usher, was a surprise hit and would lead to a series of stylish Poe adaptions, which have yet to be equaled.
The cinema flourished in Italy during the 60s and another milestone would be released in 1960, introducing the world to two of the genre's greatest names: director Mario Bava and actress Barbara Steele. Bava, borrowing a visual style from German expressionism, and infusing a subtle tone of eroticism, created a genre all his own with Black Sunday, a haunting take on both witchcraft and vampirism, with Steele in a dual role as the lead vampire and her innocent descendant.
In many ways, this first year would sum up the remainder of the decade, as various imitations of all these films were released throughout the globe and more and more experimental films were created to add to the mythology of cinematic horror. Gore would get messier by the end, with Hammer films getting increasingly more violent, though the lead blame goes to Herschel Gordon Lewis and his influential, though terrible, gore flicks that started with Blood Feast(1963), a ludicrous shocker with an emphasis on dismemberment and blood-letting.
If any one film was use to signify the end of an era and the impact of gore, it would certainly be George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead in 1968, a film that would forever change the nature of the genre and the way we look at zombies, forever. A violent, cynical film, Night of the Living Dead was a terrifying apocalyptic tale that set the benchmark for gore and would set the standard for the following decade, while also effectively killing the Hollywood horror film. To further symbolize this, Boris Karloff, the king of horror and the genre's most visible actor, made a film commenting on the progressively cynical and turbulent times, called Targets, that same year. It was not a Gothic, nor did it contain any fantasy monsters. It's horror was one bred from home, dealing with a mad sniper who goes on a rampage at a drive-in. For most fans, this would be Karloff's final film, a perfect send-off for the actor and one indicative of the end of an era of classic horror.
Not that the classic model was not utilized throughout the decade. Robert Wise's The Haunting(1962) and The Innocents(1963) bore the unmistakable influence of Val Lewton, while the worlds of Horror Hotel(1960), Carnival of Souls(1962) and Black Sunday(1960), reflected the gloomy, black and white horror of cinema's past.
The fall of the production code would bring about all manner of artistic freedom, especially in sex and violence, and the horror genre would be one that would both profit and hurt the most from this. One positive, was that subject matter that was taboo, was now okay, which led to several satanic horror films, notably the super successful, Rosemary's Baby(1968) and the Hammer studio masterpiece, The Devil Rides Out, released the same year.
There were many nominees for this list and many omissions that pained me, as this proved to be more difficult than imagined. The 60s had such a breadth of creativity that this list could easily be a top 25, with so many wonderful fright films released. If I had been even more lenient, than certainly more classics from Bava, Hammer and Corman, would have made it, along with many of the great underground horror classics. This list is not entirely definitive, but hopefully, like my previous lists, will serve as a guideline for 15 of the most important and artistically viable of the decade. All are essential films, not only of the genre, but of the cinema, itself. Remember that just because your favorite is not on here, does not mean it is not relevant. As with the 1930s, there were just so many to choose from and ultimately, these are my picks, though even I confess, not my favorites. Either way, these are cornerstones of the horror film.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles
Psycho is probably the most famous horror film ever made. This "little" film by acclaimed director, Alfred Hitchcock, didn't just cement his reputation as "the master of suspense," but also lay down the ground rules for the next generation of cinematic horror. Instead of the focus being on some otherworldly invader or some legendary monster, the terror in this film, comes from next door.
Jospeh Stefano's sophisticated script, adapted from Robert Bloch's classic novel, focuses on the horror of the mind and the effect of madness. Anthony Perkins is unforgettable as the seemingly innocent Norman Bates, a leading man type who turns out to be a psychopathic killer. It's easily one of the most unforgettable performances in the cinema, and certainly of this genre. His character is genuinely frightening, yet strangely sympathetic, for we're unsure if is even aware of the terrible, heinous crimes that he committed. It typecast Perkins for life, and he would play the role again in at least four sequels.
Credit is given to Hitchcock for his ruthless direction, setting the audience up for a series of devastating blows, starting with the introduction of Janet Leigh's character, whom we grow attached to and gain sympathy for, only for her to be murdered in the most famous death scene of the movies. The "Shower scene" is still one of the most controversial and imitated in all of cinema, and still packs a wallop, but it's only one of several cruel surprises, including the fate of Martin Balsam's detective and the final reveal of Mrs. Bates.
Psycho was a bold way to start 1960 and is still an unrelenting and suspenseful picture today, it's influence still being felt by the rise of the slasher and mad killer films, which will begin to dominate the genre in the next few decades. Still, nothing would ever top this and it's a genuine candidate for the finest horror film of all time. It's just that brilliant.
2. Night of the Living Dead(1968)
Director: George A. Romero
Cast: Duane Jones, Judith O' Dea, Karl Hardman
Romero's film borrows liberally from Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, as well as siege pictures like Rio Bravo(1959), for a brilliantly, tense and claustrophobic experience, complete with grainy black and white photography, designed to give the film a documentary look and feel.
Zombies on the screen were beforehand, something of the Haitian variety and usually were under the will of a master, like Bela Lugosi in White Zombie(1932), but Romero likens them to ghouls and makes them into flesheaters, each which carry a plague that if bitten, the infected joins their ranks. Along with the concept of destroying the brain to kill them, Romero essentially creates what we all think of as the modern zombie in this film.
Gore films had existed before, notably those of H.G. Lewis, but this was a far more grittier and personal exercise. There's no hope in this picture. Everyone meets a nasty end, including the black hero, a bold casting move, that was not intended for any symbolism: Duane Jones was just the best actor that Romero knew.
The young couple, who always survived til the end of these films, are practically the first to get it, and are burned alive and then eaten, right on screen, in what was up to that time, the goriest scene on film. A mother is stabbed to death by her own daughter, a sister is dragged outside by her own undead brother to be devoured and the hero is shot in the head and thrown in a bonfire, after being mistaken for the living dead.
No other film quite captures the chaos and turbulence of that period than this film, it's social political themes still disturbingly relevant, even today. This led to a slew of imitators, including a few sequels, official and otherwise.
Night of the Living Dead is not just one of the great horror films of all time, but one of the most important in the development of American cinema and low budget filmmaking. A true classic.
3. Rosemary's Baby(1968)
Director: Roman Polanski
Cast: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon
One of the scariest movies ever made, this is the one that firmly signaled the end of the Production Code, which had dominated Hollywood for nearly forty years. Rosemary's Baby was one of the first films to deal with satanism head on and the result was a box-office smash and led to generations of rip-offs and imitators. Without this film, The Exorcist(1973) would not have been possible.
Rosemary's Baby deals with a couple who move into a New Work apartment, where mysterious things occur, and the young wife(Mia Farrow) ends up mysteriously pregnant and it seems like the child has some sort of demonic possession over her. We're never shown the child, but it does not matter, for we already know that this is the antichrist, as such doom has held us captive during the entire picture.
With it's embracing of satanism and witchcraft, the film was ahead of it's time, while also presenting a "real world" look at horror, by again taking us out of our comfort zones of Gothic fantasy and bringing the terror home.
The film is brilliantly acted and directed, with a standout performance from Mia Farrow as the mother who fears the worst and grows increasingly mad and Cassavetes as her mysterious and brooding husband. Polanski was a regular in the horror genre, and was known for his abstract and bizarre tastes, having helmed the bizarre, Repulsion(1965) and the hilarious(and strange), The Fearless Vampire Killers(1967).
William Castle, the master of gimmicks in the 1950s, produced the picture and it's probably the best thing he ever worked on.
Modern horror films could learn a great deal from this film, with it's seamless blend of characterization and plot, proving yet again, that a good story with believable characters can build a much more frightening, and in this case, unforgettable, cinematic experience.
4. The Haunting(1963)
Director: Robert Wise
Cast: Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson
The Haunting is the scariest ghost movie ever made, and we don't even see a single ghost! Director Robert Wise relies purely on suggestion, utilizing strange angles and sound effects to heighten the tension and atmosphere, in adapting Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. Julie Harris believes that Hill House is haunted and goes along with a team of psychic investigators to go and see. While Harris can be a tad annoying, her performance is perfect in keeping with the idea of whether or not such things exist or are they the products of a disturbed imagination.
The bedroom scene, where ghostly knocks appear at the door at night, is one of the most frightening scenes on film, the tension, nearly unbearable. The beautiful black and white photography and use of widescreen makes the house a character in itself, a device used in many later haunted house films. What makes this one superior, is that it proves that the power of imagination is still stronger than any visual fiend that the filmmakers can conjure up, and as a result this remains one of the most effective and frightening of all horror films.
5. Peeping Tom(1960)
Director: Michael Powell
Cast: Carl Boehm, Anna Massey, Moira Shearer
Released the same year as Psycho, Peeping Tom is actually just as frightening and effective as a film, though it remains underrated, except in the hearts of cinephiles. Peeping Tom is also a film about the mind of a serial killer, though acclaimed filmmaker, Michael Powell, takes a much different approach than Hitchcock.
Peeping Tom is about a troubled young photographer(Carl Boehm) who suffered abuse as a child from his twisted father(Director Powell in a wonderful cameo) and has developed a fetish where he believes that he is only living life through his camera. He also gets his kicks by photographing women as he kills them, stalking them while filming and impaling them with his tripod. It's a very disturbing movie, but also a brilliant one, commenting on our own voyeuristic attitudes, regarding the cinema itself, and really delving into the mind of the sexually deranged like no film before it, save for Fritz Lang's M(1930). Boehm's performance is a real gem, offering sympathy and understanding, despite his gruesome deeds. It's a performance that has not achieved the recognition it probably deserves, and i'm surprised that it has not been more anthologized.
Sadly, this was lost on moviegoers and critics of the time, who publicly denounced the picture, effectively ending Powell's film career. The film appeared too far head of it's time, perhaps, but has since been regarded by film fans as a breakthrough in horror and art cinema, worthy of reappraisal.
6. Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?(1962)
Director: Robert Aldrich
Cast: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Victor Buono
Brilliant, offbeat dark comedy is a completely different kind of horror movie. This psychological piece focuses on true Hollywood Gothic, telling the story of a washed up child star(Bette Davis) and her descent into madness as she preys on her crippled, once-a-star sister(Joan Crawford).
The novelty of this was the pairing of Hollywood's two great leading ladies, Davis and Crawford, and the reported off-screen rivalry, which manages to manifest itself on the screen, beautifully. Both women are pitch perfect, with Davis making for a truly memorable grotesque, dressed in her adult baby dress and with pancake makeup, proving to be a more terrifying creation than many a Hollywood movie monster. Her final scene is a wonderfully creepy bit of madness and depravity, and that ending is a real wow.
Crawford gives one of her best screen performances as the tormented Blanche, who slowly is tortured to a complete mental breakdown. That "lunch" scene with her pet bird is one of the most memorable of the 60s horror film.
Victor Buono gives his usual slimy, comical turn as the creepy suitor of Baby Jane, and it's easily his best role. It's especially fun when the murders add up and he begins to have second thoughts about the craziness about him.
This film led to a revival for the actresses, along with an odd sub-genre of "Crazy Old Ladies," which also helped keep Tallulah Bankhead and Olivia De Haviland active during the decade. It's an odd to define fright flick, but one that also influenced many of the ironically creepy and Hollywood horrors of recent years, with the focus on decaying minds and suppressed savagery. Of course, many a horror film has not been graced by stars of this quality or a director with as much taste as Aldrich.
7. The Birds(1963)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Suzanne Pleshette
The film begins like any Hitchcock romance, very cute and mysterious, with Hedren trying to deliver birds to Rod Taylor, who lives in a small town on the coast, and whom she is attracted to. The horror is subtly played at first, such as a bird that skims Hedren's head or another that crashlands into a door and kills itself. However, once an old farmer is killed, the birds begin to plot and attack en masse, leading to a few of the most memorable horror movie moments, including a great scene at a gas station involving a man and a cigar and the eerie vigil of a group of birds awaiting the recess bell, ready to prey on a group of school children.
Hitchcock leaves the ending vague, with the birds ceasing their attack, though we're not sure if it's for good or only a temporary end to the assault. It's a very apocalyptic ending and there's neither music nor an end card to give the audience any comfort.
This is a very disquieting and uncomfortable movie, and Hitchcock may have been correct in assuming that this "could be the most terrifying motion picture I ever made!"
8. Black Sunday(1960)
Director: Mario Bava
Cast: Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi
The first of a wave of Italian horror films, that would eventually become the "giallo," this Gothic classic put Barbara Steele and Mario Bava on the map. Bava had mild success earlier with his vampire film, Il Vampiro(1957), but strikes gold here, combining the vampire myth with witchcraft and satanism, for a particularly potent brew. No one forgets the beginning as Barbara Steele's evil witch declares a curse, before having a metal mask with nails pounded into her face! Centuries later, her beautiful descendant(also Steele) arrives to her ancestral castle and the vampire witch is unleashed, planning on revenge.
Steele is the embodiment of mystery and sensuality and really pushed the envelope for eroticism in the genre, however subtly. Her vampire, despite her appearance, has a genuine sexiness to her that influenced many later femme fatales, as well as the role of sex in the horror film. Bava would explore these themes in even more complexity with the classic, The Whip and the Body(1964).
Bava's cinematography is gorgeous, the black and white reminiscent of German expressionism with the emphasis on shadows and fog, bringing his Gothic world to life, like few before or since.
A very unique film in the vampire canon, this is also one of the true groundbreakers in Italian cinema, and it's impact on the horror film is still being felt.
9. The Innocents(1961)
Director: Jack Clayton
Cast: Deborah Kerr, Peter Wyngarde, Megs Jenkins
Superb adaption of Henry James' definitive ghost story, The Turn of the Screw, this is a very subtle and terrifying film that rates as one of the best supernatural horrors from any era.
Deborah Kerr is excellent as governess to two children who she believes carry the spirits of a malignant couple. Martin Stephens, who also played the leader of the children of the damned in Village of the Damned(1961) is even creepier here, as we the audience, really believe that something is terribly wrong with this child and it may be the work of the supernatural.
Like in The Haunting, we are never sure if the ghosts are within the mind of the characters or a reality, but this film keeps us in a defensive position, right until the final chilling moment.
Rarely has black and white photography been used so beautifully, the soft tones and widescreen photography really capturing the era and in which James wrote better than any filmmaker today could, and it's doubtful, with as much subtlety. Certainly not for all tastes, this is a fine film, nonetheless and one of the all-time best adaptions of a Victorian era horror classic, and certainly the best of James' work.
10. The Masque Of The Red Death(1964)
Director: Roger Corman
Cast: Vincent Price, Hazel Court, Jane Asher
The best of the Corman-Poe films, this may also be the best adaption of Edgar Allan Poe's work made. Vincent Price is perfection in an understated role as Prince Prospero, a heartless, licentious noble who rules a province without conscience, as plague devastates all around. Philosophical and exquisitely photographed, with lush costumes and sets(apparently on loan from A Man For All Seasons(1963) this is Corman's best looking film. The nightmare scene, which became a regular of these films, is also the creepiest, as Hazel Court imagines her own death, with grim, sexual undertones thrown in that are still unnerving.
The finale with Price and the masque ball falling to the Red Death is sheer poetry and one of the best filmed of all horror scenes, with the ultimate reveal of Death's face being that of Price himself, a metaphor if there ever was one.
Price made many horror film essentials throughout his career, but this is probably his all around best work, and like with the later, Witchfinder General(1968), really dis-spells the belief that all he was, was a "ham." His Prospero is one of the finest performances in the horror film.
11. The Devil Rides Out(1968)
Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Christopher Lee, Charles Gray, Nike Arrighi
This adaption of Dennis Wheatley's The Devil Rides Out, is one of the best occult films ever made and Hammer's best horror film besides, Horror of Dracula(1958). Christopher Lee gets one of his best roles,as a hero for a change, as Duc De Richleau, a master of the occult who is trying to save his friends from a devil worshipper named Mocata (Charles Gray, in one of the best villain roles you'll ever see), climaxing in an unforgettable seance that is really one of the creepiest moments of 60s horror.
Director Fisher utilizes a lightning pace and focuses on action and suspense to create horror, and with great results. The cast are all good, with Lee and Gray delivering two of the best performances of their careers. This was one of the pivotal horror films of the late 60s, establishing a precedent for the inclusion of satanic themes into the horror film, along with Rosemary's Baby, that same year. Hammer made many genre classics, but this one deserves more recognition.
12. Witchfinder General(1968)
Director: Michael Reeves
Cast: Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Rupert Davies
Pitch-black horror film that was very far head of it's time, focusing on real-life monster, Matthew Hopkins, who was elected "Witchfinder General", something of a bounty hunter position, during the time of Cromwell. What Hopkins did was get hired by towns to get rid of "undesirables" and would do so in the most heinous and torturous ways possible. Vincent Price gives what may be the performance of his career, completely without humor, or any of his trademark routine, as Hopkins, and makes for one of cinema's great figures of horror.
Like many films of that period, including Bonnie and Clyde(1967) and The Wild Bunch(1969), this film is also excessively violent and makes us question our own thirst for violence and the cost of revenge. The ending is still chilling and one of the bleakest of the period.
This was released in the U.S. as The Conqueror Worm, to cash in on the Poe films, but has since been returned to it's original title for DVD release. Sadly, this was the last film of Michael Reeves, a talented, young director, who had much promise in the future of the horror film.
Director: Roman Polanski
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Ian Hendry, John Fraser
Super weird, psychological horror film about a sexually disturbed young woman who is left alone in her sister's apartment for a month and begins hallucinating demons from her past, which manifest itself into murder, as she slips into insanity.
Very disturbing and artistically lensed, Polanski's film is brilliantly creepy and uneasy, with Deneuve, one of the most beautiful actresses of all time, giving a wonderfully understated, yet creepy performance as Carol, a young woman who has some real hang-ups involving men.
The subjective camerawork, and the Cocteau-esque dream sequences are wonderfully weird and strange, especially the hallway of outstretched arms and Deneuve's final scene of her being reduced to a curled up ball of insanity. This is a really bizarre film, and really not for everyone, but well-made and likely to remain in one's conscience for a long time.
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Cast: Boris Karloff, Tim O' Kelly, Nancy Hsueh
First film for director Bogdanovich is also his best, a really horrifying look into America's obsession with violence and firearms, juxtaposed with our need for horror. Tim O' Kelly plays a clean cut American youth who takes it upon himself to gather up a load of firearms and start a killing spree, starting with his mother and wife, and ending in a drive-in, where the premiere of a horror movie is being held, starring Byron Orlock, played by Boris Karloff, in one of his finest performances.
The writing was on the wall here: this was real horror and the Hollywood horror of the past was no longer as relevant, made clear by Karloff's world-weary actor, who reflects on the violence and realizing what true horror really is. When Karloff looks outside the Los Angeles skyline and intones, "What an ugly town this has become." We wonder if that is not a reflection on the world as a whole.
Karloff is absolutely brilliant here, in what was to be his swan song, more or less, playing himself. If anything, this was the perfect send-off for Hollywood's King of Horror, and stands today as an important film of the era.
The ending is disturbing and suspenseful, guaranteed to upset, with Karloff eventually disarming the killer. When he does, he asks, "Is that what I was afraid of?" and I can't help but ask myself the same thing, when reflecting on this kind man's long and beloved career as a "horror man." Few actors ever received a better send-off than this.
15. House Of Usher(1960)
Director: Roger Corman
Cast: Vincent Price, Mark Damon, Myrna Fahey
This is a frightening and well-made film and is still one of the creepiest and most faithful of all Poe adaptions.
The 1960s began much like the 50s, naive and innocent with only the hints of depravity and carnage that would permeate the end of the decade. Cinema changed much during those ten years and horror in particular, lost it's innocence along the way. The Gothics and Sci-fi horrors of the previous decades gave way to a new breed of horror that included the early forms of the splatter and slasher film. Films like Psycho, Night of the Living Dead and Targets were harsh reminders of those changing times and reflective of the turbulence and quickly changing politics and ideologies brought on with the arrival of atomic fear, Vietnam, civil rights and the breakdown of the traditional family unity. Horror was no longer such a safe escape as it had once been, and this may have proved to be our loss.
More classics were produced this decade than any other besides the 1930s, making the omissions list all the more painful. Frankly, many could have been interchangeable here, including The Whip and the Body(1964), Horror Hotel(1960), Carnival of Souls(1961), Brides of Dracula(1960), Plague of the Zombies(1966) and Black Sabbath(1965).
This was a great decade for horror, because it was such a birthplace of real horror. The growing cynicism and anger felt throughout the United States and the rest of the world, would appear even more profoundly in the following decade with devastating results. A new dawn was upon the horror film, one that would find cannibals from Texas, zombies in a shopping mall, an unstoppable killer in a William Shatner mask, and even the Devil himself, replacing the traditional horrors of the past.
The next decade was going to prove alot meaner than the last...