[Horror History] We All Go a Little Mad Sometimes (The 1960’s)


This is Part 6 of a series of posts on the history of horror cinema tackled decade by decade. Be sure to read Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 as well.

The Beat Generation. The Cuban Missile Crisis. Acid. Thalidomide. JFK. The sexual revolution. Bookended by Psycho (1960) and the Manson Family Murders, the 1960’s saw an enormous shift in what the public perceived as true horror. Change, revolt, and upheaval were the buzz words of the day as the social stability of the post-war years crumbled and everything from hemlines to homosexuality was re-examined for a new age. As the concept of the Cold War began to lost heat, so too did the oppressing fear of nuclear holocaust and mass-death by radiation. The mutant monsters of the 1950’s now looked a little silly, and since no aliens had shown up, the counterculture thinking shifted from external threats to reevaluating the social psyche. Tradition and prohibition were all put under the microscope as stereotypes across the board were questioned.

Horror films, usually made for cheap outside the major studio system, offered the world a means to debunk old taboos and explore new ways of perceiving sex and violence. In the sixties, they became vehicles for processing and interpreting the rapid changes of the decade, sometimes serving as cautionary tales about the dangers of discarding long-established practices willy-nilly, and other times stripping bare long held cultural stereotypes and asking the viewer to rethink their view of the world. The drive-in teen audiences of the 50’s were growing up, immune to the rubber suits and low-level scare factors of films with once lurid titles and tantalizing posters. A demand for horror that was more grounded in reality, more believable, more sophisticated, and more open to challenging social mores became predominant. Underground horror was able to dodge scrutiny, and therefore censorship, and genre lovers of the 1960’s got their wish for a new monster: themselves. Horror was now holding up a mirror to cinema-goers, and the reflection wasn’t always pretty. Sometimes, it was downright terrifying.

Come take a look…if you dare

Among the first to make their voice heard in this new ear was American International Pictures b-horror maven Roger Corman. He had begun his career in the 1950’s and at the turn of the decade convinced producers James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff to grant him a massive budget for two black-and-white creature features. He then took all that money and made something else entirely, House of Usher (1960). The film, an adaptation of the famous Edgar Allan Poe story, was made in color like the horror films of British studio Hammer but more significantly, it was filmed in windshield-shaped widescreen to better accommodate drive-in viewings. With a careful, imaginative script from novelist Richard Matheson and respectable acting from Vincent Price to make up for the woodenness of the rest of the cast, House of Usher kicked off a new cycle of Corman-Poe-Price-AIP films that included The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962), and The Raven (1963). Based off their success, AIP invested in finding work for other mature horror stars as well, including Ray Milland, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, and Lon Chaney, Jr. Bela Lugosi had, unfortunately, died in 1956. The old elite worked alongside youth-appeal faces like Frankie Avalon, Jack Nicholson, Barbara Steele, and Hazel Court. Originally conceived as an answer to the British horror films of the late fifties, Corman’s Poe parade eventually crossed the Atlantic for the last, most lavish entries: The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964). AIP and Price then stuck around in the UK as things began to change, most notably working on Michael Reeves’s historical horror film Witchfinder General (1968), marketed in the U.S. as a Poe narrative, The Conqueror Worm.

Hammer stayed in the game, producing a number of strong Frankenstein sequels between 1958 and 1974, most directed by Terence Fisher and starring Peter Cushing. There was also strong work from Don Sharp (Kiss of the Vampire, 1964) and John Gilling (The Reptile, 1966; Plague of the Zombies, 1966). Christopher Lee donned the cloak once more for Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), then strode through sequels that ran from bland (Scars of Dracula, 1970) to excellent (Taste of the Blood of Dracula, 1970). By the mid-1960’s, Milton Subotsky, who had started Hammer’s ball rolling, was offering serious competition with his Amicus outfit, known for omnibus horrors on the Dead of Night (1945) pattern like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1964). Amicus used Cushing and Christopher Lee the most, as well as other noted horror types like Michael Gough and director Freddie Francis, but Subotsky was more prone to draw on contemporary sources like the stories of Robert Bloch (The Skull, 1965; Torture Garden, 1967) or EC horror comics like Tales From the Crypt (1972). Hammer answered by adapting novels by stuffy British author Dennis Wheatley, notably The Devil Rides Out (1968) and Lost Continent (1968), both of which have an almost nostalgic edge to them, though there are still threads of dissent common in almost all 60’s horror. The ambitious and short-lived Reeves came of note directing Barbara Steele in an Italian quickie, Revenge of the Blood Beast (1965), then made two outstanding films in the UK: The Sorcerers (1967), a sci-fi/generation gap picture in which Boris Karloff and Catherine Lacey mind-meld with Ian Ogilvy, and Witchfinder General, the English answer to the Grand Guignol starring Vincent Price. His next intended project, The Oblong Box (1969), also starring Price, was passed to Gordon Hessler after his death. Hessler brought in Christopher Wicking for rewrites and the two fell into an easy partnership. They followed up Box with several interesting, somewhat experimental films, most notably Scream and Scream Again (1969), a complex, clever, almost kinetic horror-conspiracy film. Whereas Hammer was still clinging to their traditional bodice-ripper fare, Reeves and his contemporaries were peppering their films with splashes of American thrillers, classic Westerns, and mod TV shows like The Avengers (1961-1969) that captured the hip vibe of Swinging London.

But it was at the very start of the decade, in 1960, that horror changed forever and radically. The change did not come about in the old house on the hill, as might have been expected. It didn’t happen in the cold, dank fruit cellar (though the shriveled discovery the film’s conclusion certainly helped). No, it happened in the pristine, tiled bathroom of a nondescript room at the Bates Motel. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, adapted from Bloch’s novel, was the director’s attempt at reclaiming his “Master of Suspense” moniker back from Henri-Georges Clouzot, who had staged his own bathroom atrocity in the masterful Les Diaboliques (1955). A sustained exercise in misdirection, Psycho elevated the multiple-personality serial killer into a major figure in the horror film. Previously, this archetype was usually found in foggy melodramas like Hangover Square (1945) or in film noir like While the City Sleeps (1955). But Hitch, it should be recalled, had been intrigued by Jack the Ripper as early as The Lodger (1928), and gave American cinema its first great serial killer with the character of Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) in Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Anthony Perkins’s iconic performance as ultimate mama’s boy Norman Bates, who dresses up as his murdered mother to slaughter Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), set the tone for many, many madmen to come. Hitchcock dabbled in straight horror one more time with The Birds (1963), an apocalyptic exploration of the unnatural natural. The Birds would provide inspiration for the under-siege element of Night of the Living Dead (1968) as well as countless 70’s horror films in which hitherto-subservient animals decide to prey on human beings.

A boy’s best friend is his mother…and an owl’s best friend is clearly not that boy

It was Psycho that made the bigger splash, however, directly and indirectly becoming a source of inspiration for decades to come, and its influence began immediately. Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), a melodramatic tale of psychosis involving fading Hollywood icons whose festering relationship descends into madness in a crumbling California mansion, starring actual aging Golden Age legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, is all the more believable given that Mrs. Bates is believed to be a real character until the very end of Psycho. Crawford also starred in the Lizzie Borden-esque Strait-Jacket (1964), produced by William Castle, who was also responsible for the first great Psycho imitator, Homicidal (1961), complete with gender-bending and theater gimmicks. Meanwhile, Davis reteamed with Aldrich for a Southern gothic twist on Les Diaboliques with Olivia de Havilland, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). Hammer also took note of Psycho’s success and ran a series of Hitchcock-lite efforts that mixed in the who’s-killing-who of Clouzot’s film: Taste of Fear (1961), The Nanny (1964, starring a subdued Davis), Paranoiac (1962), and Nightmare (1963). Psycho‘s pattern was mimicked well into the 1970’s, and is arguably still being drawn on and played with today. Interestingly, the first major attempt to bend Psycho‘s DNA also starred Anthony Perkins: Noel Black’s Pretty Poison (1968). Perkins plays another unstable, perhaps-homicidal young chap, but it turns out that the blonde, all-American girl next door (Tuesday Weld) he draws into his mad fantasies is a far more dangerous character.

Over in Italy, meanwhile, Hammer and Psycho influence ran rampant. Riccardo Freda was one of the first to put his own spin on what the Brits were doing with The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962) wherein Robert Flemyng played an obsessive necrophile in the 1880s and Barbara Steele played his doomed second wife. Steele was a British starlet who had become an Italian horror icon thanks to Black Sunday (1960), a vampire film directed by Freda’s former cinematographer and uncredited co-director Mario Bava. Looking east to Russian literature and Moldavian lore, Black Sunday is a dreamlike, intricate, and unconventional gothic that became the foundation for Bava’s subsequent, inventive catalogue. He moved from Expressionist black-and-white to delirious color for the three-story gothic Black Sabbath (1963), the sado-romance The Whip and the Flesh (1963), and the first of many masked slasher pictures, Blood and Black Lace (1964). Steele also worked with Antonio Margheriti in La Danza Macabra (1964). Margheriti was a prolific player in whatever genre was hot in Italian cinema at the time. His film The Virgin of Nuremberg (1964) is one of several “masked gimmick criminal” films inspired by German director Edgar Wallace and the revival of franchises like Dr. Mabuse and Fantomas. Bava also got in on this trend with Diabolik (1968), after which it was considered to have peaked.

In Spain, horror was dominated by Jesus Franco. He combined the plot of Eyes Without a Face (1960) with Freda’s aesthetic to produce The Awful Dr. Orloff (1962), the first of many, many titles that often reshuffled characters, tricks, and story elements. Occasionally, Franco churned out great work, including his widely regarded masterpiece Necronomicon/Succcubus (1967), but mostly his oeuvre is considered quite dull. Franco was the whole of Spanish horror, however, until screenwriter Jacinto Molina wrote and starred (under the name Paul Naschy) in Hell’s Creatures (1968), an homage to Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). Naschy reprised his medallion-wearing werewolf role several times and beefed up his star status by playing as many famous monsters as Karloff, Lugosi, and both Chaneys combined. In France, Jean Rollin also weaved together the inspired and the makeshift like Franco and Naschy. He dealt in pulp influences and serial-style pictures, often blending horror into nudie picture, as with Rape of the Vampire (1967). Sam Sherman and Al Adamson, an American producer/director team most equivalent to Rollin and Franco, used relics of Universal (old lab equipment, aged Chaney, Jr. and Carradine) alongside Hell’s Angels and cobbled footage from stalled projects. Their films lack the inspiration of their European counterparts, however, and their punchy titles (Blood of Dracula’s Castle, 1969; Dracula vs. Frankenstein, 1970; etc.) often tried to mask that they were the same film done over and over again.

I’m thinking blood’s not the only bodily fluid flowing in ole Drac’s castle…

Federico Fellini reportedly spent his whole life and career trying to reimagine the film that first excited him as a child, Maciste in Hell (1927), which Riccardo Freda actually remade in 1962. Franco, Naschy, Rollin, and Adamson-Sherman were essentially creating some of film’s earliest fan fiction. At their best, they enthusiastically play with monsters in a childish, amusing, and even endearing manner. At their worst, they churn out slow-paced stinkers with a few dollops of gore and sex and don’t even try to hide that they’re working the same angles of decades prior (Dr. Orloff, Franco’s recurrent villain, is a carbon copy of the Bela Lugosi character from Dark Eyes of London, 1939).

These efforts, combined with the controversy surrounding Psycho, made horror disreputable again. It was the genre degenerates and perverts once more, and yet the crowds still flocked, drawn to these strange films that helped unravel the enigmas of a shifting world. Yet not everything in horror was scoffed by highbrow enthusiasts. The 60’s also saw a minor revival in stately, tasteful shudders that began with Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961), an adaptation of Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw (1898), and Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959). Both are careful, creepy ghost stories, impressively shot in widescreen black-and-white, dealing with complex psychological themes yet still finding time to harbor real, bone-deep chills. James was among the classic canon, but Jackson’s novel was new to the horror library. The success of the film adaptation of Haunting led other filmmakers to finally start paying attention to the wealth of great horror material written since the Edwardian era. Psycho also made Robert Bloch a name worth evoking in a somewhat different manner. Forever after he was known as “Robert ‘Psycho’ Bloch,” a dubious distinction at best. A loose group of writers who come to the fore in the 1950’s started getting more attention in the 60’s, many while working on television for Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1962), The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), and other anthology shows. Through doing script work, many of them were able to then have their own novels and stories filmed, among them Richard Matheson, Jack Finney, Stanley Ellin, Charles Beaumont, Harlan Ellison, Ray Russell, and Ray Bradbury. These were ambitious, well-read authors familiar in what came before in the genre and eager to influence what came next. They scripted adaptations of writers who had yet to achieve the acclaim they deserved; Matheson and Beaumont turned Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife (1943), which had been botched by Inner Sanctum as Weird Woman (1944), into Night of the Eagle/Burn, Witch, Burn (1961). Beumont also did wrote the first screen adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft, although AIP turned “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” into one of their Poe/Price/Corman movies, The Haunted Palace (1963).

The top horror bestseller of the 60’s was, unquestionably, Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, published in 1967 and filmed and released in 1968 for Paramount by director Roman Polanski. Polanski had already made an important psychological horror picture with Repulsion (1965) as well as the charming Hammer spoof Dance of the Vampires/The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967). Rosemary’s Baby became the first “event” horror film since Psycho. Though its vision of a Manhattan coven isn’t far removed from Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim (1943), Rosemary’s Baby works as much on its pregnant heroine’s Repulsion-style nervous breakdown as it does the coming of the Antichrist. This was the sort of horror film that could, and did, get serious Oscar buzz–Ruth Gordon took home the Best Supporting Actress statuette–and was embraced by audiences who wouldn’t have been caught dead at an AIP double bill or an all-night Jesus Franco marathon. Its influence was swift, but wouldn’t truly be felt until the 70’s when writers like Stephen King and Peter Straub became established and films like The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976) made waves by getting back in bed with the Devil.

“Oh shit, he looks like the mailman”

At the other end of the budget range was a very different approach to horror. After running out of ways to film topless women for so-called “nudie-cuties,” Herschell Gordon Lewis turned out Blood Feast (1963). This has been labelled the first “splatter” movie, though the term wasn’t coined until Lewis’s career was long over. The film strings together ketchupy atrocities through a minimal plot about a mad caterer preparing an Ancient Egyptian cannibal feast. Lewis followed this up with Two Thousand Maniacs (1964), in which Confederate ghosts dismember Yankee tourists. Important but not very good, Lewis has his place in horror history, and he helped make room for other auteurs of dementia like Andy Milligan (The Ghastly Ones, 1968; Torture Dungeon, 1969) and Ted V. Mikels (The Corpse Grinder, 1971). This was d-list Hollywood at best, thrown together in unfashionable parts of the U.S. in the certain knowledge that anything can scrape few grindhouse playdates. Other efforts from far outside the studio system began to pop up, sought out by the curious crowds who’d seen enigmatic references in magazines. Among the most popular were Curtis Harrington’s underground Lewton homage Night Tide (1961), Herk Harvey’s artistic chiller Carnival of Souls (1962), Ray Dennis Steckler’s carnival gimmick musical The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies??! (1963), Jack Curtis’s gruesome The Flesh Eaters (1964), Jack Hill’s endearingly demented Spider Baby (1964), and William Grefe’s sleepy Death Curse of Tartu (1966). The important aspect of these films is that you weren’t safe from them. There were no studio executives intent on securing a uniformity of product, no unkillable stars, no submission to the industry’s codes and practices.

The true breakthrough of the decade, commercially and artistically, was George A. Romero’s Pittsburgh-shot Night of the Living Dead (1968), assembled by filmmakers who had worked in advertising and industrial movies. Inspired by Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend (1954), NOTLD depicts modern America overrun by the newly risen dead, who have an insatiable hunger for human flesh. A group of fractious, panicky survivors hole up in an isolated farmhouse, besieged by the living dead, while a posse of tooled-up sheriff’s deputies comb the countryside in a Vietnam-style search-and-destroy mission. Besides inventing a new monster–combining zombie, vampire, cannibal, and pod person–NOTLD strikes a new set of 1968 attitudes: suspicious of authority, disenchanted with regular folk, willing to break taboos (namely the little girl ghoul killing her mother with a trowel), slyly satirical between suspense scenes, terrified as much by the fact that nobody knows what’s going on as by the rampaging monsters, and ultimately pessimistic. Ambiguous and unhappy endings had started creeping into horror in the 60’s with the likes of The Birds and The Fearless Vampire Killers, but NOTLD goes for the throat. The hero, a Black man played by Duane Jones, fails to save any of the others and only survives by hiding in the cellar, a strategy he has argued against. When he shows himself in the morning as the monster-killing posse turns up, he is mistaken for one of the living dead and shot in the head (“kill the brain and you kill the ghoul”) and hauled out by men with meathooks to be tossed onto a bonfire of corpses. It was a devastating ending, then and now.

And so, after that Night, things really changed…

Though the word “zombie” is never used, the modern conception of the monster began here

See just exactly how that change manifested in Part 7, and how that led to the 1970’s being termed horror’s golden age

Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know about Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, An Imprint of Hal Leonard Corporation, 2013.

Newman, Kim, and James Marriott. Horror!: The Definitive Companion to the Most Terrifying Movies Ever Made. Carlton Books, 2013.

Wilson, Karina. “Horror Movies: Our Shared Nightmares.” Horror Film History, WordPress, 7 Jan. 2020, https://horrorfilmhistory.com/wp/.