As a new decade dawns, the horror genre is graced with one of its most monumental years, in terms of both quality and quantity of output. This is a true watershed moment, and in a lot of ways it rather feels like the genre suddenly “grows up” overnight. The schlocky drive-in pictures from the likes of William Castle remain, but even Roger Corman starts taking a page out of Hammer’s playbook here with more lavishly appointed productions. And at the top of the bill, you have a handful of certified classics. It really doesn’t get much better than this.
Indeed, there are almost too many horror films of merit in 1960 to discuss them in detail. Notably, Corman begins his “Poe series” here with House of Usher starring Vincent Price, the first in a series of collaborations that will also include more Poe stories like Masque of the Red Death, or even H.P. Lovecraft tales masquerading as Poe works, as in The Haunted Palace. Hammer releases its first sequel to Horror of Dracula, the somewhat diminished The Brides of Dracula, with Peter Cushing making an appearance as Van Helsing, while France’s Georges Franju produces the influential and visually unnerving Eyes Without a Face. Even Ingmar Bergman produces what could reasonably be referred to as a horror film, The Virgin Spring, a particularly brutal rape-and-revenge story that would set the stage for American grindhouse imitators like Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left. Looking at a list of all the horror films produced in 1960, the sheer variety is mesmerizing—it’s a unique melange of the reimagined fears of yesteryear and the emergence of new, modern terrors.
One of the most important settings where those new horrors were emerging would prove to be Italy, where director Mario Bava released his first internationally famous work, Black Sunday. The story of a wicked witch who is betrayed by her brother and then returns from the grave 200 years later to seek revenge on her own descendents, it combined the neo-gothic stylings of Hammer Horror with the increasingly erotic sexploitation cinema bubbling up from Italy and Spain to set a sumptuous new precedent. Many of these same elements would be present in the popular rise of Italian giallo cinema, which would happen a few years later, with Bava again at the helm.
If there’s a single film in 1960 that could potentially challenge Psycho for the title, though, it’s Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. The two films would appear to be thematically linked, although Peeping Tom has always been far less well known—they both revolve around atypical serial killers who are pleasant and cordial in their daily lives, but are driven to kill by a form of madness fixated around their relationship with a parent. Featuring experimental cinematography that would later become commonplace in the slasher genre, such as killer’s POV shots that hold throughout several kills—or more accurately, shots through the camera of the killer—the film proves to be one of the most formative of all the proto-slashers. In fact, although Psycho is often credited with being the film to most prominently inspire the eventual birth of the proper slasher movie, Peeping Tom displays more of the hallmarks of the genre, including a roster of female victims and a more prototypical variant on the “final girl.” Much of this was lost on audiences of the day, who didn’t turn out in droves to see Peeping Tom as they did Psycho, but the likes of Mario Bava, Dario Argento and even Hitchcock himself were certainly paying attention.
1960 Honorable Mentions:
Peeping Tom, The Virgin Spring, Black Sunday, Eyes Without a Face, House of Usher, Village of the Damned, The Brides of Dracula, The Little Shop of Horrors, 13 Ghosts
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Produced in a time when many horror auteurs were expanding the boundaries of the genre via experimentation with modernized, upscaled production, such as Hammer’s vivid use of period sets and color, Hitchcock’s Psycho probably seemed, at first, as something of a step down for the director. He had just directed and produced North by Northwest, after all, on a budget five times the size of the one that was earmarked for his 1960, black-and-white psychological horror flick. But Psycho, as you surely know yourself, didn’t need expensive chase sequences or Cary Grant, clinging from Mount Rushmore. All it needed was Hitchcock’s willingness to embrace experimental filmmaking techniques, story structure and mature, psycho-sexual themes, the likes of which the genre had never seen before. If you were wondering: Despite being made on a fifth of the budget, Psycho ultimately raked in five times more at the box office than North by Northwest, ushering in a new era of American horror cinema with it.
It hardly seems necessary to summarize the plot of Psycho, but suffice to say, it’s the story of a woman who flings caution to the wind when she decides to run away from her life with a life-changing amount of stolen money. Or at least, we think that Psycho is this woman’s story, because we’re meant to. When lovely Janet Leigh pulls up to the sleepy little Bates Motel, however, the film becomes something else entirely. The infamous shower stabbing sequence is one of film’s great demarcation lines, in which Hitchcock succeeds not only in subverting but completely confounding a viewer’s expectations for what kind of story they think they’re watching. Is it a murder mystery? A proto-slasher? And defines a protagonist?
Inventive camera angles and rapid-fire cutting from Hitchcock and cinematographer John L. Russell give Psycho a unique visual identity in a number of sequences, from the shower death to Arbogast’s vertigo-inducing tumble down the stairwell, but it’s the characters that make the film sing. Anthony Perkins is masterful as poor Norman Bates, a man so fundamentally broken by his upbringing that he doesn’t even realize the nature of his depravity. He radiates such a sense of good-natured likeability and disarming passiveness in early dialog scenes with Leigh that it’s impossible not to be charmed on some level by him as the pair converse—and even seem to flirt, a bit—over sandwiches in the hotel parlor. She warms to his candor, and he casts himself quite effectively as the victim of his cruel mother’s overbearing control, even if he can’t bring himself to state it directly. Instead, he simply acknowledges that “we’re all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out.” It was a portrait of a cold-blooded killer that most audiences had never seen before—not a mad dog, but a whimpering, sympathetic one that belied a hidden vicious streak.
As a side effect of the release and massive success of Psycho, it also became particularly clear that Hollywood’s Production Code would no longer rule the standards of what was possible within the horror genre. Although the Code would technically persist until 1968, when it was replaced by the current MPAA rating system, a period had begun in which minimal enforcement would lead to a steady increase in sexually risque and explicitly violent horror films—you can consider them Psycho’s vast brood.
Almost any year would probably seem like a bit of a step down after the watershed that was 1960, and that’s pretty much the case for 1961, although it can lay claim to one of cinema’s best pure ghost stories in the form of The Innocents. After the clear #1 for this year, however, the rest of the field is considerably more workmanlike in comparison.
Roger Corman’s Poe cycle continues with the plush but grisly The Pit and the Pendulum, greatly expanding Edgar Allen Poe’s short story source material into a big-budget (for Corman, anyway) Gothic thriller starring a returning Vincent Price and Black Sunday’s Barbara Steele. The film’s drawn-out torture sequences (and the pendulum itself) would be informative on the next generation of Italian horror cinema in particular, where directors such as Mario Bava and Dario Argento would borrow some of its devices, plus quite a bit more blood. As for the Poe films by Corman, they’re all eminently watchable, although they tend to come off with an element of camp in modern viewing that likely wasn’t entirely intended. You might say that where Vincent Price leads, a macabre sense of humor tends to follow.
William Castle, meanwhile, releases two films within one calendar year; unabashed Psycho rip-off Homicidal and Mr. Sardonicus, a film seemingly inspired by the twisted face of Gwynplaine from 1928’s The Man Who Laughs. Per Castle tradition, each was accompanied by a gimmick: Homicidal featured a “fright break,” in which audience members who were too frightened to continue were invited to obtain a full refund, while Mr. Sardonicus featured a hilariously charming “punishment poll” at the end of the film, in which the audience was asked by Castle himself to vote upon mercy or punishment for the villain. Unsurprisingly, only the “punishment” ending was ever actually shot, and Castle takes childlike glee in tabulating the audience’s supposed votes. As he says in its conclusion, “Mr. projectionist, let the sentence be carried out!” Classic stuff.
Also busy in 1961 is Hammer Film Productions, which releases Terence Fisher’s Curse of the Werewolf to complete its first wave of modernization of the classic Universal Monsters, along with the film that Christopher Lee considered Hammer Horror’s finest, mystery-thriller Taste of Fear.
1961 Honorable Mentions:
The Pit and the Pendulum, Curse of the Werewolf, Mother Joan of the Angels, Taste of Fear, Homicidal, Mr. Sardonicus, Hercules in the Haunted World
Director: Jack Clayton
The Innocents is both one of cinema’s greatest gothic ghost stories and one of its preeminent displays of psychological horror, striking a uniquely balanced neutral point between supernatural and psychological interpretations. You can argue with relatively equal ease that the events of the film depict a genuine haunting, or occur entirely within the deeply repressed mind of its central character, and both views are potentially valid. The film leaves such conclusions entirely to the audience’s own discretion, and what we choose likely says a lot about how we view our world.
Scottish actress and perennial Academy Award nominee Deborah Kerr plays the bright-faced, optimistic Miss Giddens, a woman who seems desperate to leave her current life behind, for reasons unknown. We get the sense that she is deeply unfulfilled in some way, perhaps seeing her youth beginning to slip away, and naively believes that a post as a governess, taking care of two young children in the British countryside will afford her the kind of meaning her life has long lacked. And indeed, the children seem quite sweet, and the countryside almost impossibly verdant and splendid, at least at first. Only after getting to know the curiously precocious young ones does Miss Giddens begin to suspect that their lives have been warped by the deaths of their previous governess and her uncouth lover … and that perhaps the spirits of the dead aren’t resting idly.
The sense of mystery surrounding the real-or-imagined nature of that central haunting is aided by the screenplay’s seeming ambivalence toward that question, less an intended state and more a happy coincidence brought on by differing outlooks on the story among the film’s creative leads. Screenwriter William Archibald’s original script was written under the assumption that the ghosts presented in the story were real, while Truman Capote’s rewrites (he took a break in the writing of In Cold Blood to be there) added significantly more psychological and Freudian subtext. Director Jack Clayton, meanwhile, said he operated under the assumption that the apparitions were playing out exclusively in Miss Giddens mind, resulting in an overall presentation that can seem both gauzily dreamlike or coldly defined from scene to scene. At times, one is sure that something not-of-this-world must be going on; a few moments later we’re again given reason to doubt the reliability of our viewpoint character. We teeter on the edge of a breakdown in the very same way that Miss Giddens does, unsure of what to believe.
The Innocents is cold, beautiful and often starkly chilling in its austerity, with nighttime scenes that strand the image of Kerr on tiny islands of brilliant candlelight, set against vast seas of impenetrable blackness in the huge country estate where she and the children reside. Cinematography Freddie Francis captures some instantly iconic, unsettling images, such as the apparition of the previous governess standing motionlessly among a field of reeds, her jet black dress in perfect contrast with the tall grass. Above it all drifts the repeated, ethereal musical theme “O Willow Waly,” sung with mournful intensity by Scottish singer Isla Cameron, immeasurably amplifying the film’s palpable sense of loss and furtive longing.
Featuring outstanding performances from Kerr and especially from a startlingly mature 11-year-old Martin Stephens, who had also starred prominently one year earlier in Village of the Damned, The Innocents is an indispensable masterpiece for fans of classical ghost stories, psychological thrillers and gothic fiction. It deserves to be a must-see on any horror fan’s to-do list.
Another good year, at least compared to the doldrums of the early 1950s. Horror has pretty much established a baseline of quality here, where every year has enough releases—now coming from several different film markets, including Europe and Asia—that it always has a nicely varied pool to draw from. This year’s top few films fall more into the psychological thriller side of the spectrum, whereas other years are more dominated by gothic horror, monster movies, science fiction or the slowly emerging underground scene of more extreme, gore-forward horror.
The top picks for 1962 are a bit contingent upon whether you’d classify both What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Cape Fear as horror cinema. The first seems undeniable, featuring a mad-as-a-hatter Bette Davis serving her sister a dead parakeet and generally being completely unhinged. The latter is more of a discussion, but Robert Mitchum’s Max Cady certainly makes for a worthy horror villain and a logical continuation of The Night of the Hunter’s Rev. Harry Powell. One wonders if the horror elements of the film might have been played up even more if it had been directed by Alfred Hitchcock, as originally intended, rather than eventual director J. Lee Thompson.
Roger Corman is busy as ever in 1962, directing both Tales of Terror and Premature Burial, both continuing to draw on the name of Edgar Allen Poe. The latter is an odd outlier for the fact that it stars Ray Milland rather than the persistent Poe vessel of Vincent Price, but Price makes up for it by appearing in all three stories of anthology film Tales of Terror. I have a particular soft spot middle story “The Black Cat,” which sees a shabby, drunken Peter Lorre, in one of his last film performances, running circles around a snooty Price in a wine-tasting competition, before gleefully sealing him up alive in a loose adaptation of Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” The two would appear together once more, in 1963’s The Raven, from … yeah, it’s Corman again. Who else?
Other notable entries for 1962 include the effectively minimalist, Twilight Zone-reminiscent Carnival of Souls, the only feature film from director Herk Harvey, as well as yet another adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, this time from Hammer. And finally, we should note mad scientist flick The Awful Dr. Orloff, one of the first films from the prodigiously prolific Jesús Franco, which is generally credited as being Spain’s first proper horror film. As this decade goes on, both the Spanish and Italian horror markets will often become horror’s leading edge, especially when it comes to pushing the boundaries of “good taste.”
1962 Honorable Mentions:
Carnival of Souls, Cape Fear, Night of the Eagle, Tales of Terror, Premature Burial, The Awful Dr. Orloff, The Phantom of the Opera
Director: Robert Aldrich
The “psycho biddy” subgenre of horror has never been one that has seen a ton of exploration, but with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, it can at least claim to have a rock-solid foundational text. This is a genuinely unnerving psychological horror film, sometimes wrongly referred to by cinema fans as a mere “thriller.” That word simply doesn’t cut it in describing Bette Davis as “Baby Jane” Hudson, a withered performer who makes Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond look positively well adjusted by comparison.
You’ll have to forgive the Sunset Boulevard reference, but it’s one of those cases where cinematic comparison between two movies is inevitable and impossible to ignore. They both revolve around forgotten starlets who live in crumbling Hollywood mansions, clinging to the past in desperation as their sanity leaves them behind. In “Baby” Jane’s case, though, there’s the unpleasant matter of Blanche as well. Paralyzed from the waist down decades earlier, in an accident that may or may not have been masterminded by her jealous sister, Joan Crawford portrays Blanche Hudson as a sweet, rather gullible, middle-aged ingenue who chooses to delude herself rather than admit that a quickly deteriorating and delusional Jane wants her dead.
And of course, by the time this becomes inarguable, it’s already far too late. The film’s horror often lies in Blanche’s realization of her powerlessness—as a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair on the house’s top floor, she has literally nowhere to go, and escape always seems both maddeningly close and impossibly far. It’s agonizing to watch her sit in her chair at the top of the stairway, weighing the likelihood of injuring or killing herself by trying to throw herself down the stairs to freedom. Few films capture the feeling of being trapped so well, or the indifference of those who might be able to help. Even in the film’s conclusion, as Blanche lays near death on the beach, she’s often only feet from those who might be able to help her—if only they would pay attention to her obvious plight. Instead, though, they just go on living their lives.
It should likely go without saying that Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? requires a handful of trigger warnings when it comes to the subjects of emotional and physical familial abuse in particular. Jane’s methods of torture toward her sister are all the more shocking for the fact that we often don’t understand much in the way of their purpose—and nor does she, most likely. It’s not always clear whether she even knows what she’s doing to Blanche, but other scenes make it perfectly clear that she’s reveling in each opportunity to remind her sister that she holds her life in her hands. Still, as she slips further into delusion, and begins focusing more on reviving her long, long dead career, the film steadily changes tacks, giving us as many reasons to pity Jane as we have to fear her. The relationship between the two sisters is ultimately revealed to be both more and less complicated than we’ve been led to believe.
To modern audiences, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is likely best known simply as a backdrop, against which the personal feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford played out. Be this as it may, it remains an extremely effective, Hitchcockian thriller, ripe with pathos, and deserves to be evaluated on its own merit, rather than as a footnote in a classic bit of Hollywood gossip.
Another year of grab-bag variety, 1963 gives us a wealth of new films from Italy, including what is generally regarded as the birth of the giallo genre. Elsewhere, Hitchcock unleashes another classic, Roger Corman goes into total overdrive, and Herschell Gordon Lewis releases what is often referred to as the first “splatter” film, Blood Feast.
Obviously, Hitchcock’s The Birds is a major co-headliner here. Its allegorical tale of birds that go berserk and attack the residents of Bodega Bay presaged the coming 1970s wave of ecological horror films, which would be endlessly imitated in the wake of Spielberg’s Jaws. Here, the birds’ attack would seem to represent both an antibody-like response to mankind’s ungrateful pillaging of the natural world, and a visual representation of the blossoming relationship between the characters portrayed by Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor. It lacks some of the human-driven suspense seen in Hitchcock’s best thrillers, but who can forget the sight of Hedren, ironically trapped in a phone booth like a parakeet, watching as a swarm of birds tears the world apart around her?
In Italy, meanwhile, Mario Bava is having one of the most dynamic single years that any horror director has ever had, helming three different films: Black Sabbath, The Whip and the Body, and The Girl Who Knew Too Much. Two of them are gothic revival horror films starring icons of the genre—Christopher Lee as a masochistic aristocrat in Whip, and a revitalized Boris Karloff as the creepy host of horror anthology Sabbath. The other, released in the U.S. as Evil Eye, is the least known today, but ultimately was among the most influential films in the history of Italian cinema, given its reputation as the first true giallo. This thriller-horror sub-genre blossomed throughout the 1960s and became extremely popular in the 1970s, incorporating elements of murder mystery and detective fiction into crime, psychological thriller and occasionally overtly supernatural stories. The name, which is the Italian word for “yellow,” refers to the fact that giallo films were often evocative of the cheap, sensationalized mystery/crime paperback novels that were popular in post-war Italy, which were printed with yellow covers. Bava can be considered the genre’s godfather, but subsequent giallo films will give us some of the most notable works from the likes of Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Ruggero Deodato and Umberto Lenzi.
In the U.S.A., Roger Corman is riding high as the country’s preeminent schlock artist of the day. His The Haunted Palace takes the Poe Cycle in an odd new direction, adapting the H.P. Lovecraft novella The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and claiming it as a Poe creation, while X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes is a classic bit of sci-fi pulp that feels like it would have fit in neatly among the science fiction horror films of the previous decade, but for the considerably more lurid tone. At the same time, Corman’s status as producer willing to give chances to new talent is already being established, as he gives the leftover budget of the film The Young Racers to a 24-year-old Francis Ford Coppola, who uses it to write and direct his low-budget debut, Dementia 13. In the coming years, Corman productions will essentially give first chances to a who’s who of American directorial and acting titans, from Martin Scorsese and Ron Howard to Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, James Cameron, Nicolas Roeg, Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone and more. Together, they’re often referred to as graduates of “The Roger Corman Film School,” denoting what has arguably been Corman’s deepest contribution to American filmmaking.
1963 Honorable Mentions:
The Birds, Black Sabbath, The Whip and the Body, The Girl Who Knew Too Much, The Haunted Palace, Paranoiac, The Raven, X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes, Blood Feast
Director: Robert Wise
Thematically, The Haunting is a bit like the American answer to The Innocents in the U.K. two years earlier. Both are psychologically driven, seemingly classical ghost stories that use the possibility of the supernatural to tease out modern revelations. Both feature a central, female viewpoint character who is characterized by her psychological and emotional fragility, struggling to reconcile her own desires against her societal responsibilities. Both leave ample room for discussion on the nature of what actually occurs in their plots, and how many of the events are imagined.
As for which is out and out more frightening, though? Well, that’s when it gets hard to deny The Haunting. Robert Wise’s film is one of the genre’s most effective chillers, and one of its most enduring masterclasses in getting the maximum amount of tension and suspense out of the slightest instances of suggestion and supernatural phenomena. It’s an inhumanly patient film, repeatedly luring audience members into lowering their defenses before springing another jolt on them.
Adapted from the same Shirley Jackson source material that gave us Netflix’s (reimagined, but effective) The Haunting of Hill House, Wise’s adaptation hews much closer to the novel on which it was based. It follows a nebbish young woman, Eleanor, who is experiencing a crushing degree of guilt over her mother’s recent death, coupled with the life-long anxiety she’s experienced after a childhood poltergeist experience. Invited to join a paranormal investigation of the infamous Hill House, Eleanor feels compelled to accept, even as her misgivings flare constantly. Arriving at the house and meeting her fellow researchers, she’s torn between feelings of terror and an intense longing to be somehow possessed by the force she feels there. Is it simply a reflection of Eleanor’s repressed self, begging for release from the pains of her life? Or has a dark force awoken in the bowels of Hill House, intent on making Eleanor its own?
Unlike The Innocents, where almost every instance of supernatural activity could theoretically be explained away by Deborah Kerr’s mental instability, there certainly does seem to be something unexplainable happening in Hill House. Doors open and close of their own accord. Loud banging issues from unknown points of origin. People behave strangely, seeming to lose track of their own wills. The house has a powerful force of personality, and few seem capable of resisting its gravitational pull.
As Eleanor, actress Julie Harris gives one of the horror genre’s most vulnerable, emotionally affecting performances. The audience both empathizes with and is unnerved by Eleanor from the start, owing partially to her strange, disembodied voiceover sequences, which seem filled with dreamy non-sequiturs that force the viewer to immediately question her state of mind. Even more than her voice, though, it’s Harris’ rheumy, plaintive eyes that hint at the way she’s desperately trying to hold herself together in the face of forces both external and internal that seem to want to tear her apart. Her denouement at the end of the film captures its spirit in the most perfectly creepy manner: “Silence lies steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House. And we who walk here, walk alone.”
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, truly 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 would prioritize death sequences, and the manner of the deaths, above all else in terms of providing entertainment. The unfortunate crew of models bite the dust in all manner of ways that were 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.
Overall, the horror film crop for 1965 feels perhaps slightly less notable than the last few landmark years, but there’s certainly no shortage of movies to recommend. In particular, this is a year with some notable thrillers that are a bit difficult to parse with the usual “is it horror?” question, a scenario that will persist through the back half of this decade. With some films, like The Collector, we’re compelled to give an automatic “yes” on content alone. With others, like Bette Davis in The Nanny, it’s a case of a film feeling fairly close to the horror genre, but not quite being all of the way there.
One film that inarguably qualifies on this front is Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, a much-praised psychological thriller that follows Carole, a woman disgusted by the sexual advances of the men in her life as she cloisters herself in her sister’s apartment, withdraws from reality and slowly descends into madness. Using the foundations of the apartment itself as a physical metaphor for the mental condition of its protagonist, Repulsion otherwise offers few obvious indications of what is going through the minds of its characters, seeming to view humanity and modern relationships with the same sort of disgust that Carole feels whenever another man tries to force himself on her. A persistent theme seems to be the inability to cope with life’s many failures—or whether it’s easier to simply acquiesce to them.
The British market is also still pumping out horror films in 1965, with the likes of Fanatic from Hammer, but a new studio has arisen that will give Hammer a run for its money: Amicus Productions. Some Amicus films, like this year’s The Skull starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, are very much in the mold of classic Hammer period pieces, but the studio simultaneously differentiated itself via experimentation with star-studded horror anthologies, like this year’s Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors. These films, which also included the likes of The House That Dripped Blood and Tales From the Crypt, were usually built around a humorous central framing device and took place in the present day, giving them a more contemporary (but often no less cheesy) flair. Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors again brings Cushing and Lee together, but it’s Cushing who steals the show as the beautifully costumed “Dr. Terror,” who delivers a series of Tarot card-themed scary stories to his fellow passengers on a train car that may or may not be bound for hell. It’s one of Cushing’s most macabrely gregarious performances, as the guy seems to be having the time of his life in the role of omniscient storyteller. It’s a fitting performance for a corner of the genre that revolves more around having fun than achieving genuine fear.
1965 Honorable Mentions:
Repulsion, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, The Collector, The Skull, Planet of the Vampires, Fanatic
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
Kwaidan was released in its homeland of Japan with an unusually serious degree of pomp and circumstance—a quartet of ghost stories (the title is a transliteration of “Kaidan,” which literally means those words) that could boast a big budget and the intensely detailed production design to match. It won prizes at Cannes, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and essentially did everything you never see a “horror movie” do in modern cinema, becoming a touchstone along the way for the rare instances in which horror films have been treated with real a real sense of gravitas. And fittingly so: Kwaidan is a textural and visual masterpiece that treats each of its tales with the dignity of Shakespearean tragedy.
Or, as Paste’s own Dom Sinacola wrote in our list of the 100 best horror films of all time, which includes Kwaidan in its top 20:
Ghost stories don’t get much more gorgeous than the four in Masaki Kobayashi’s sprawling Kwaidan. Between two acerbically political and widely lauded samurai epics, Hara-kiri (1962) and Samurai Rebellion (1967), Kobayashi led what was then Japan’s most expensive cinematic production ever, an anthology film with its parts loosely connected by Lafcadio Hearn’s collection of Japanese folk tales and Kobayashi’s intuitive penchant for surreal, sweepingly lush sets.
In “The Black Hair,” a selfish, impoverished ronin (Rentaro Mikuni) abandons his wife to marry into wealth, only to realize he made a dire mistake, plunging him into a gothic nightmare of decay and regret. “The Woman of the Snow” follows a craftsman (the always welcome Tatsuya Nakadai) doomed to have everything he loves stolen from him by a patient bureaucratic specter. The movie-unto-itself, “Hoichi the Earless,” pits the titular blind monk musician (Katsua Nakamura) against a family of ghosts, forcing the bard to recite—in hushed, heartbreaking passages on the biwa—the story of their wartime demise. Rapt with indelible images (most well known, perhaps, is Hoichi’s skin completely covered in the script of The Heart Sutra to ward off the ghosts’ influence), “Hoichi the Earless” is both deeply unnerving and quietly tragic, wrung with the sadness of Kobayashi’s admission that only forces beyond our control hold the keys to our fates. The fourth, and by far the weirdest, entry, “In a Cup of Tea,” is a tale within a tale, purposely unfinished because the writer (Osamu Takizawa) who’s writing about a samurai (Noboru Nakaya) who keeps seeing an unfamiliar man (Kei Sato) in his cup of tea is in turn attacked by the malicious spirits he’s conjuring. From these disparate fairy tales, plenty of fodder for campfires, Kobayashi creates a mythos for his country’s haunted past: We are nothing if not the pawns of all those to come before.
The legacy of Kwaidan has lived on through the decades, as other horror anthologies have often repeated its highlights, occasionally in full. Perhaps most notable was 1990’s Tales From the Darkside: The Movie, which copies “The Woman of the Snow” almost verbatim, only stopping to transplant the location from feudal Japan to urban America. It likely goes without saying that it ultimately lacks the frosty intimacy of the former.
A trend is beginning to come into focus in 1966—it isn’t a weaker year, per se, if you’re judging purely by the volume of horror fare being released, but you’re not really seeing films you’d describe as having grand artistic aspirations or novel approaches. The giallo genre has become well established, and Hammer has been at its monster remakes for a good while. All in all, the horror cinema of this stretch, from roughly 1965-1967, is just beginning to feel slightly more stale. It’s a bit more like an era of potboilers, as established genres continue their successes, and the rest of the industry waits for the next evolution in horror, which would arrive on a few fronts in 1968.
That isn’t to say there aren’t some fascinating films. Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby … Kill! deserves credit for turning away from giallo and in the direction of supernatural suspense and horror, just as the giallo genre was heating up. It’s another film with Bava’s hallucinatory visual style and vivid colors, although they’re not quite as striking in their contrasts here as they are in Blood and Black Lace. So, too, does it invert the typical iconography of the genre, using a weathered old witch as one of its primary protagonists, whereas evil is symbolized by the spirit of a sweet-looking young girl, who compels those she curses to kill themselves in grisly ways. The film certainly has its prominent fans, Martin Scorsese and Dario Argento among them.
Meanwhile, Hammer releases a film with oft-overlooked importance to the zombie genre, The Plague of the Zombies. The “walking dead” of its title are still zombies in the Haitain voodoo sense, as seen in films such as I Walked With a Zombie, but their visual design seems highly influential upon the “reanimated corpse” style of zombies seen in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead two years later. In fact, the bulging eyes and broken teeth of these zombies is in some ways a more visually striking image than Romero’s ghouls, though their menace is slightly undercut by the fact that these particular undead have been enslaved by an immoral industrialist to labor in his tin mines. Still, one wonders if The Plague of the Zombies might be a more cherished entry in the Hammer library if it could have boasted the presence of Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing. It’s hard to say, but we’ll go out on a limb and say that these are some of the scariest-looking “zombies” of the pre-Romero era.
1966 Honorable Mentions:
Kill, Baby … Kill!, The Plague of the Zombies, The Diabolical Dr. Z, Daimajin, Island of Terror
Director: Terence Fisher
Hammer’s second sequel to Horror of Dracula was director Terence Fisher’s last time helming an entry in the iconic vampire series, and with this opportunity he delivers a good old-fashioned, no-frills gothic chiller. It’s easily the least complicated of the sequels featuring Christopher Lee as Dracula, and arguably the most effective as a result.
There’s nothing superfluous in this film—it’s a basic, antiquated setup and somewhat dated aesthetic, but it feels as if this was all by design; a conscious return to the roots of the character. You can sum it all up in one sentence: A group of four English travelers is lost in the hinterlands, where they make the phenomenally bad choice to take shelter in Dracula’s seemingly abandoned castle, reawakening the vampire in the process. There’s a bit more to it than that—Dracula has a servant who aids in his resurrection, for instance—but ultimately this is an entry in the “trapped overnight in a haunted house” genre, almost like a revival of The Cat and the Canary or James Whale’s The Old Dark House. Like the best Old Dark House films, then, it benefits greatly from its impressive and intricately decorated sets, which rank among the best in Hammer’s monster revival series.
Visually and tonally, the film maintains a serious, spooky edge. We play through all the classic vampire tropes, from Dracula’s animal magnetism with the ladies to his weakness when confronted with holy symbols, but there’s a sense throughout that for all these helpless modern travelers, it’s only a matter of time before the vampire picks them all off. In that sense, Dracula: Prince of Darkness seems almost exactly like what someone who had never seen a Dracula movie would probably EXPECT to see in one—a sort of greatest hits reel for the entire vampire genre.
Christopher Lee, it must be said, is at his best despite limited screen time—he looks regal and commanding, but more than a little crazed. He has a grand total of zero lines of dialog in Prince of Darkness, instead behaving more like a barely restrained animal, although the cause for this lack of dialog has since passed into horror genre legend. Lee always maintained that he simply refused to read the lines that were written for him, feeling embarrassed by the poor dialog, while screenwriter Jimmy Sangster later defended himself by claiming that his script never contained any dialog for Dracula in the first place. It’s hard to know exactly who to believe, but it hardly tarnishes the old-school delights of seeing Dracula prey on the unwary in Prince of Darkness. It’s the vampire genre’s equivalent of simple comfort food.
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
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.
After a few years where the horror genre felt like it was mostly treading water, 1968 signals the start of another paradigm shift. This is a top-flight year all around, but it signifies a time when the genre is growing and changing, leaving behind some of the vestiges of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Even at studios such as Hammer, which has been cranking out fairly similar gothic horror films for the last decade, it’s clear that change is in the air. The low-budget success of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is a beacon and inspiration for the coming crop of indie filmmakers who will usher in the New Hollywood era, starting with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider in 1969—check out our appreciation of that film’s 50th anniversary here. But it’s NOTLD that proved you could shoot a horror film for around $100,000 and have it gross 250 times its budget. Those numbers were not lost on the new generation of hungry filmmakers.
Only one other film from 1968 mounts a serious campaign to be considered in the #1 spot, and that is Roman Polanski’s urban masterpiece, Rosemary’s Baby. The modern tenement/apartment setting of the film brought a story with supernatural implications into what was a new and unsettlingly familiar locale, where an array of “well-meaning” faces walk all over a meek Mia Farrow, taking advantage of society’s expectations that she be subservient to the desires of almost everyone else in her life. Paste’s Dom Sinacola puts it best, in our ranking of the 100 best horror films of all time: “With Rosemary’s Baby, the body of young Rosemary is the institution through which Satan’s malice gestates, a body over which everyone but Rosemary herself seems to have any control. At the mercy of her overbearing neighbors (played by a pitch-perfect Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer), her Ur-Dudebro husband, Guy (John Cassavetes), and the doctor (Ralph Bellamy) recommended by her high society cadre of new friends, Rosemary is treated as if she’s the last person who knows what’s best for her and her fetus—a position she accepts as a matter of fact. She’s only a woman, a homemaker at that, so such is her lot.”
At Hammer, meanwhile, this is about the time when studio executives, perhaps looking at the increasingly extreme violence and more overt sexuality present in the films of their American competitors, begin to ramp up the sexualization of their franchises, in entries like this year’s Dracula Has Risen From the Grave—just look at the poster, if you want the world’s least subtle indicator of how things were changing. These changes don’t always fit in an organic way—although actresses like consummate Hammer Horror buxom beauty Veronica Carlson are no doubt lovely, their increasingly sexualized presentation often seems simply shoehorned into stories that are otherwise traditional gothic monster movies. These films are often still entertaining, but as the close of the decade draws near, Hammer’s output increasingly takes on an exploitative tinge that seems designed to help it compete against the American exploitation pictures of the day, losing some of its sense of gravitas in the process.
1968 Honorable Mentions:
Rosemary’s Baby, Kuroneko, Hour of the Wolf, Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, Witchfinder General, The Devil Rides Out, Spirits of the Dead
Director: George A. Romero
It’s sort of funny to think that, in the film always cited as being the progenitor of the modern zombie genre, the word “zombie” is never actually uttered by anyone. The use of that particular term to describe the reanimated corpses seen in Night of the Living Dead was a pop cultural affectation that seems to have grown out of our previous use of the word “zombie,” but as for Romero, he mostly called the creatures “ghouls.” Not that it really matters—the importance of Night of the Living Dead is hardly in its impact on semantics. Its monumental influence is seen pretty much everywhere else, though: In the enduring images of Romero’s version of the undead; in the revolutionary new depiction of on-screen gore; in its low-budget and independent nature; in the color-blind casting of Duane Jones as Ben, the film’s de facto protagonist. Rarely has any one horror film innovated in so many areas at once.
To young horror fans who take in the film today for the first time, the thought of its on-screen violence being shocking might seem overblown, but to audiences of the day, it truly was a revelation, even in the seemingly protective starkness of black and white. The oozing skull of a freshly killed ghoul is an image that was seared into the collective memory of those shell-shocked souls who stumbled out of midnight screenings of the film in 1968 and its various re-releases in the years to come, but it’s the contemporary critical reviews that best capture the tone of moral outrage the film caused in some circles. Variety wrote the following, seemingly calling on the federal government itself to censor the visual affront that NOTLD represented:
“Until the Supreme Court establishes clear-cut guidelines for the pornography of violence, Night of the Living Dead will serve nicely as an outer-limit definition by example. In [a] mere 90 minutes this horror film (pun intended) casts serious aspersions on the integrity and social responsibility of its Pittsburgh-based makers, distributor Walter Reade, the film industry as a whole and [exhibitors] who book [the picture], as well as raising doubts about the future of the regional cinema movement and about the moral health of film goers who cheerfully opt for this unrelieved orgy of sadism.”
When major publications are questioning “the moral health” of the average cinemagoer, it’s safe to say that some kind of cultural revolution is probably underway, and hey—it was the late 1960s, after all. So too does the film reflect more than a decade of societal anxiety related to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, although this was hardly intended by Romero, who initially wrote the character of Ben with a white actor in mind. After discovering Duane Jones, however, the role of Ben took on entirely new significance—a brave, proactive, heroic man whose race largely isn’t a factor in his generally valorous portrayal. Only in his interactions with the more cowardly, selfishly minded (and white) Harry Cooper does the specter of race factor in strongly, but this only made Ben that much more of an icon to black audiences: A hero who stands his ground rather than kowtowing to white authority. Or as Ben puts it, sealing Harry up in the defenseless basement where he’s chosen to isolate himself: “You can be the boss down there. I’m the boss up here!” And then there’s the film’s incredibly bleak ending, which plays very differently when its “rescue” crews are accidentally gunning down a black man, as opposed to a white man.
Finally, and most obviously, NOTLD’s concept of the reanimated corpse as “zombie” provided us with the template for the 21st century’s single most popular and socially relevant monster. The basic rules established here, such as needing to “destroy the brain” in order to stop a ghoul, persisted and were embellished by decades of films to follow, but the still-beating heart of Romero’s vision remains largely intact even now, more than half a century later. In the interim, Romero-style zombies have been used to represent every conceivable form of symbolism, from mindless consumers, to deadly pathogens, to screen-addicted millennials. It’s an outline that has proven as endlessly adaptable as it is persistently horrific. Where would the horror genre of the 1970s, 1980s and beyond have been, without zombies?
After 1968 provided us with twin classics, 1969’s horror offerings are a bit more down to Earth, although plenty weird. There’s no shortage of volume this year, but nothing that feels like a masterpiece of the genre. Instead, 1969 highlights the continued emergence of horror cinema in several international settings, including Japan, Mexico and Czechoslovakia.
The latter is a curious film called The Cremator, set in 1930s Prague, where the title character operates a crematorium and is obsessed with the spiritual aspect of burning the bodies of the deceased. He believes himself to be something of a cosmic ferryman, releasing the souls of those who die as a result of the encroaching wave of German fascism, giving the film a distinctly political aura. Striding the tipping point between dark drama and psychological horror, The Cremator was banned in Czechoslovakia for 20 years following its release, but is now hailed as one of the most important entries of Czech New Wave filmmaking.
This is likewise a year for trippy horror cinema out of Japan, including several films that experiment with depictions of sexual perversion, captivity and the degradation of the human form. Blind Beast, also known simply as Moju, is a rather disturbing depiction of power, misogyny and Stockholm syndrome in action, whereas Horrors of Malformed Men makes it difficult to not consider the psychological fallout of a country scarred by the atom bomb attacks at the end of the second world war.
Other notable films include the awesomely titled Hammer sequel Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, which is among the better entries in the series except for the distressing decision to write a rape scene between Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein and the character played by Veronica Carlson—a seqence seemingly intended to ramp up the “sexuality” of the series, but instead it comes off as entirely out of place and gratuitous. Twilight Zone fans will also want to check out the Night Gallery TV film from 1969, as it launched Rod Serling’s horror-focused NBC series in style.
Finally, Ray Harryhausen devotees know that this is the year of The Valley of Gwangi, showcasing some of Harryhausen’s best stop-motion dinosaur work, although it had become notably more difficult to impress audiences with stop-motion effects by 1969. Sadly, it’s an art that is on its way out by this time.
1969 Honorable Mentions:
The Cremator, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, Blind Beast, The House That Screamed, The Valley of Gwangi, The Book of Stone, Night Gallery (TV movie)
Director: Teruo Ishii
The choice of a top film for 1969 could have gone in a number of directions, but ultimately we were swayed by the pure, unrelenting bizarrity of Horrors of Malformed Men. A bad acid trip captured beautifully on celluloid, this work from cult Japanese director Teruo Ishii is like taking a pilgrimage to the island of Dr. Moreau, rendered as a home movie shot by Nicolas Winding Refn. It is, suffice to say, pretty damn weird.
Just trying to describe the plot of this film is a trip in and of itself. It opens with a young man who has been wrongfully imprisoned—or has he?—in a mental institution, with no memory of how he got there. Escaping, he sees the face of a dead man in a newspaper obituary that perfectly matches his own, and decides to slip into that upper class man’s life. To this point, the film plays like some kind of psychological mystery or noir, but the protagonist is then drawn toward a mysterious island, and that’s where the real fun begins. You want malformed men? You get malformed men, and then some.
Visually, this is a bizarre, colorful, orgiastic feast for the senses, combining the tawdry feel of a prime Bava giallo with a more serious director’s attempt at thematic profundity. The movie goes out of its way to provoke strong reactions by any means necessary, bandying around its deviant sexual imagery as if it’s nothing. The effect is jaw-dropping, but also increasingly profound as time goes by. Soaking it in, one begins to feel that the sight of these “malformed men” is a visual metaphor that stands in for the whole of post-war, post-bomb Japan—not only the humans who were literally maimed at Hiroshima or Nagasaki, but also the nation’s wounded psyche.
The man you would call the “villain” of Horrors of Malformed Men, Jogoro, is ultimately the synthesis of 20-plus years of post-war anxiety. He is one of the most stark raving mad of all cinematic antagonists, played with slinky perfection by actor Tatsumi Hijkata, moving with unnatural undulations that make him look like some kind of boneless aquatic creature that crawled up onto land. He casts a truly demented shadow upon the film’s superior second half, ruling the island like a sadistic philosopher king, as the audience is drawn ever deeper into the consciousness-expanding visuals.
Outside of the works of Alejandro Jodorowsky, you’ll be hard pressed to find more perfectly strange but hypnotically compelling material—a film you will remember in singular, head-scratching images for years to come.