The Best Horror Movie of 1967: Wait Until Dark

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The Best Horror Movie of 1967: <i>Wait Until Dark</i>

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.

The Year

1967 feels like a bit of a step up from the preceding year, although there’s still a sense that the horror genre is waiting for the next evolutionary step to arrive. Still, this is an overall solid year of thrillers with horror elements, horror comedies, horror fantasy and classic Hammer output.

Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers is a notable film of the year that has always polarized audiences to some degree, and understandably so—it’s a strangely wrought film that can be compared to little else. It’s a feature-length satirization of the atmosphere of Gothic horror cinema more so than it is a parody of any specific Hammer or Universal production, and it does an incredible job with elements such as period costuming, fabulously detailed sets and the vampires themselves—in some cases, you might even argue that it does the Hammer aesthetic even better than Hammer. The film’s comedy, on the other hand, has aged more poorly, and it’s difficult to accept the film as a lighthearted, sexy farce when you’ve got both Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate on screen, knowing what will happen involving each of them within a few years. Add to that the often muffled, difficult to understand dialog and the film loses some of its luster on modern viewing, although Polanski’s active, gliding camera movements add some pizazz to sequences such as the vampire masquerade. Now, as then, it’s a film that defies easy evaluation.

At Hammer, meanwhile, the Quatermass science fiction horror series gets another sequel, while Terence Fisher directs the most ambitiously odd entry in the company’s Frankenstein series, Frankenstein Created Woman. This time around, Peter Cushing’s caddish doctor has moved beyond attempting simple monster-building or brain transplantation and is instead experimenting with transference of the human soul itself, opening up the series to an entirely different style of metaphysical rumination. The film plays around with gender roles (a bit clumsily), transplanting the soul of a man into the body of an attractive young woman, who then carries out a series of revenge killings on behalf of the male soul within her. Rarely does Frankenstein Created Woman stop to lay down any kind of concrete rules regarding this soul-swapping procedure, which makes for somewhat confusing plotting and motivation—it’s hard to know who is supposed to be in control of this woman’s body at any given moment. We also don’t get nearly as much Peter Cushing this time around, but the film is more memorable than others for its tonal deviation from the typical gothic formula. For once, we have a Frankenstein movie that doesn’t end with a burning laboratory or exploding castle.

Elsewhere, this is a solid year for international horror, as the USSR contributes the fairy tale-esque psychological fantasy-horror film Viy, while Mexico continues Coffin Joe’s sadistic reign of misogynistic terror in This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse.

1967 Honorable Mentions: Frankenstein Created Woman, Quatermass and the Pit, The Fearless Vampire Killers, Viy, This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse

The Film: Wait Until Dark

Director: Terence Young

The basic plot outline of Wait Until Dark could just as easily make for a modern home invasion thriller, but Terence Young’s film holds itself with a little bit more gravity than that. A classic American thriller at heart, it qualifies on the “horror” front for the genuinely menacing performance of Alan Arkin, and the perfect sympathetic heroine in Audrey Hepburn. It bears all the hallmarks of a stage play adapted into a feature film, which it is, but it plays its pieces so deftly and with such rapidity that it never feels stilted or unrealistic. Or, it might be more accurate to say that even if there are some holes here, the viewer is likely too riveted to notice them.

The MacGuffin of the film is an old-fashioned child’s doll, which secretly contains a valuable stash of heroin. After being smuggled into the country, it mistakenly ends up in the possession of a photographer named Sam and his wife Susy (Hepburn), who was blinded one year earlier in an auto accident. And unfortunately for Susy, her absentee husband isn’t around when unsavory types seeking the doll start to come calling.

What commences is a fraught game of cat and mouse, which ends up being significantly more twisty than one would initially expect. The three men seeking the doll concoct an elaborate and devious con to pry the information out of Susy, totally unaware of the fact that she genuinely has no idea of its location. Likewise, they don’t account for her well-developed senses of perception and intuition, as she quickly begins to piece together that not everything is as they claim. It’s a simple and effective way to get the audience into Hepburn’s corner—the film makes her first naive, and then increasingly capable and inventive. We want to see her conquer the criminals at their own game, not only because her life might be at stake but because the world expects less of her thanks to her disability. So too do we want to see her develop the confidence she’ll no doubt need to stand up to her demanding husband, who in her own words wants her to perform as a “world champion blind lady.” Susy is ultimately a person with few allies—she must fall back on a well of inner strength instead of praying for outside interference, in true slasher movie fashion.

The film absolutely shines when it comes to infusing its quiet moments with suspense, showing a Hitchcockian flair (it feels a lot like Rope or Rear Window, with its one location) in sequences such as Susy rummaging through her closet, unaware that there’s a corpse only inches away. Arkin, meanwhile, shows a lot of range as the suave, sociopathic professional killer of the bunch, disguising himself as multiple characters as part of the scam to make Susy reveal the doll’s location. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t pay homage to the rousing climax, where the showdown between good and evil is capped off by one of the most genuinely surprising jump scares in the history of the genre. We’ll say no more—suffice to say, it’s one of those moments that must have brought audiences out of their seats in 1967, and it’s still wonderfully effective today.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.