This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.
Another year of incredible horror output all over the globe, 1964 has a wealth of riches to discover. It’s the perfect mix of everything, from ghost stories, to monster movies, to proto-slashers. This certainly would have been an exciting time to be a horror fan, as the genre is more eclectic in this moment than it ever had been before. Even Brazil chips in At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, the first in its bizarre, grisly “Coffin Joe” trilogy.
From Japan comes a film that, along with next year’s Kwaidan, will help put Asian horror on the map: Onibaba. A deeply human story with hints of supernatural flourish, Kaneto Shindo’s film sets itself against the backdrop of a civil war, in a time when any pretense of humanity has been abandoned in favor of animal survival. As Paste contributor Andy Crump notes in our ranking of the 100 best horror films of all time: “Onibaba will make you sweat and give you chills all at once, with its power found in Shindo’s blend of atmosphere and eroticism. It’s a sexy film, and a dangerous film, and in its very last moments a terrifying, unnerving film where morality comes full circle to punish its protagonists for their foibles and their sins. There’s a classicism to Onibaba’s drama, a sense of cosmic comeuppance: Characters do wrong and have their wrongs visited upon them by the powers that be.”
In the U.S., Vincent Price continues to be the most dependable performer in the horror genre, starring in a trio of notable films: Two more Roger Corman “Poe cycle” movies, The Tomb of Ligeia and the particularly gorgeous-looking Masque of the Red Death, but also Ubaldo Ragona’s beautifully atmospheric The Last Man on Earth, the first adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, which has subsequently been adapted twice more. Of those adaptations, The Last Man on Earth likely keeps closest to the tone that was intended, combining a post-apocalyptic survivalist mentality with an unexpected revelation that totally reframes the role of the protagonist at the film’s midpoint, making it a unique exercise in cinematic ethics within the horror genre. More formative, perhaps, are the scenes of Price’s character as he barricades himself inside his home, fighting off vampiric invaders who are trying to break in—images that would apparently gestate in the mind of director George A. Romero until he sprung Night of the Living Dead upon the world in 1968.
Meanwhile, at Hammer, things are still moving at full tilt, as the company releases one of its only mythologically inspired horror films, The Gorgon, along with its second Frankenstein sequel, The Evil of Frankenstein. The latter, despite not being among the best in the series, is notable for being a rare co-production between Hammer and Universal, which allowed the British studio’s designers to create a monster this time around that evoked Boris Karloff’s original makeup, albeit with a less-than-satisfactory result. It’s a fun novelty, and a lavish-looking film at times, but it lacks the narrative cohesion and steady direction of the earlier efforts from Terence Fisher.
1964 Honorable Mentions:
Onibaba, The Last Man on Earth, The Masque of the Red Death, Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte, The Evil of Frankenstein, At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, Strait-Jacket, The Gorgon, The Tomb of Ligeia
Director: Mario Bava
Psycho receives a lot of commendation and credit for being one of the most influential films on the concept of the “slasher” horror genre, but in truth it’s not a very precise genesis point for the genre later defined by the likes of Halloween and Friday the 13th. Psycho is largely character driven, with its antagonist simultaneously serving as a sympathetic viewpoint character, and it harbors a deeply psychological point of view that is unlike the more primal attitude of a classic slasher film. Although it may feature a few graphic knifings, it doesn’t really structure itself around them. Its killings are more important in that they serve the story being told, rather than existing for their own sake.
Blood and Black Lace, on the other hand, plays like a missing link between Psycho or Peeping Tom and the classic, “body count” slashers of the early 1980s, with a significantly more misanthropic attitude that revels in its on-screen violence. Perhaps the single most influential giallo film ever made, it codified some of the early tropes of a nascent film genre, innovated a few new ones of its own, and did so with a sumptuous visual aesthetic that proved difficult for any of its imitators to match. In a career full of classics, it is perhaps Bava’s prettiest and most drum-tight film.
The action takes place in a cavernous fashion house where high-end models are dressed, primped and prepared to don their haute couture and walk the runway, offering ample opportunity for the camera to both leer at a bevy of young women and examine the way they’re degraded by their industry, which treats them as little more than domesticated animals. When one of the company’s girls is violently murdered, it throws the entire organization into an uproar, with suspicion landing on almost every person employed in the building. But what are we to make of the fact that none of the deaths can be traced to any individual? Bava ultimately uses a variety of simple (but effective) tricks to divert the audience’s suspicions until his big reveal.
It’s the set-up for an old-fashioned murder mystery, but Blood and Black Lace also deviates from its forebears by being less concerned about the mystery and suspects on hand than it is with the killings themselves. This truly feels like a ground zero for the pulpy, grindhouse aesthetic that prioritizes cinematic death sequences, and the manner of the deaths, above all else. The unfortunate crew of models in the film bite the dust in all manner of ways, both inventive and notably grisly for the time, whether it’s burned to death by being pushed against a hot furnace, drowned in the bathtub or being stabbed through the face with a spiked glove. The film makes it clear: You are there to watch people die, and die in the most stylish way possible.
The influence of Blood and Black Lace would echo through the giallo genre for the next two decades, inspiring endless imitation. Its blank, stocking-faced killer in a hat and black leather gloves essentially became the template for a stock giallo killer, allowing the antagonist to appear in stalk-and-chase sequences without divulging his (or her) identity, while Bava’s fantastical array of rainbow lighting was a clear inspiration on the works of filmmakers such as Dario Argento. Many would attempt to replicate the success of Blood and Black Lace, and some would come close, but few other films in the genre are as much the total package as this one.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.