Sunday, July 25, 2010

February 16, 2010: Psychobabble’s 10 Greatest Horror Movies of 1960!

The Gothic horror pictures that were the bread and butter of the genre’s 1930s golden age were practically extinct by the ‘50s. Monster fans had to sate themselves with the giant ants and spiders of nuclear-age sci-fi flicks like Them and Tarantula. While fairly entertaining, such movies completely lacked the creepy atmosphere, the delicious gloom, the iconography of Universal’s classics or the more recent films of Val Lewton. In 1957, Hammer studios in England finally gave horror fans an alternative to big bugs with The Curse of Frankenstein, the first in its smashing series of bloody, sexy, beautifully filmed and designed homages to the monster movies of the ‘30s. Hammer’s horror pictures were internationally popular (well, popular with audiences. Critics, not so much) and revitalized the genre for a true renaissance in the ‘60s. Filmmakers wasted no time flooding cinemas with a new crop of pictures that picked up on the Gothic décor and buckets of blood of Hammer’s films while also pushing the genre into new realms of artistry. Revered filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell made their first horror films, with varying effects on their careers. William Castle and Roger Corman proved that entertaining, witty, and inventively shot horror pictures could be made on loose-change budgets. Mario Bava, Chano Urueta, and Georges Franju took horror international with wildly individual and influential results. All of this went down during the first year of the ‘60s. The debuts of future masters of the genre like Romero and Polanski were soon to come, as were late-night movie packages like “Chiller Theater” and monster fan-mags like Forest J. Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland, which would soon turn a whole new generation of creeps on to the classics. So let’s take a peek back fifty years to the ten greatest movies to debut during the first year of horror’s new age. Here are Psychobabble’s Ten Greatest Horror Movies of 1960!

10- El Espejo de la Bruja (Chano Urueta)

Chano Urueta was to Mexican horror what Mario Bava was to Italian, and there is a definite similarity between their shadowy aesthetics and obsessions with the occult. But whereas Bava’s films were serious and mythic despite their schlocky obsessions, Urueta’s were schlocky all the way, with silly characters glowering through silly plots that reach the silliest of conclusions. Yet his films are also loaded with style, his best known being El Espejo de la Bruja (released in the U.S. as The Witch’s Mirror in 1962). It’s a wild mash-up of Karl Freund’s Mad Love, Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, and particularly, Bava’s Black Sunday. Urueta differs from Bava, and aligns himself more with the classic monster movie makers of the ‘30s, by clearly asking us to identify with his vengeful witch even though the prologue establishes witches as the worst of the worst. Ureta also moves his picture along at a sprightlier pace than Bava tended to. While The Witch’s Mirror cannot compete with Black Sunday in terms of artistry or influence, it is a little seen gem worth seeking out.

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9- Brides of Dracula (Terence Fisher)

There was no way the second installment of Hammer’s Dracula franchise would ever compare to the first since Christopher Lee was not present to reprise the title role (he’d be back though). Still there’s a lot of what made Horror of Dracula great in Brides of Dracula. Peter Cushing returns as a far sprier Van Helsing than Universal’s Edward Van Sloan, and his showdown with a dashing non-Dracula vampire is genuinely thrilling, especially as it climaxes with Cushing getting chomped. Terence Fisher, the backbone of Hammer horror, takes the canvas chair again and infuses the film with his trademark air of baroque decadence. The screenwriting team also came up with a sufficiently intriguing mystery (why is the Baroness Meinster keeping a young man prisoner in her sprawling castle?), which is a nice change of pace after yet another reinterpretation of Stoker’s overly familiar tale. But as is the case with most Hammer pictures, the main allure of Brides of Dracula is that it provides yet another opportunity to gawk at marvelous sets and costumes rendered in glorious Technicolor and indelible images of vampire brides rising from the grave.

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8- 13 Ghosts (William Castle)

William Castle was Hitchcock for 8-year olds, crafting gimmicky, violent horror flicks and thrillers for popcorn-tossing matinee crowds. Yet he also took great care in shooting his movies, even when working with the scantiest of stories, as he was with 13 Ghosts. A family moves into a house haunted by an unlucky number of spooks, which can only be seen after popping on a pair of “Illusion-O” glasses. Theater goers in 1960 were given their own Illusion-O glasses through which they could either see the ghosts through one set of lens, or if they were too chicken, nothing through another set. The 3-D-like gimmick is what drew the most publicity, but the film is tremendous fun even without the flimsy hook. The prologue in which Mr. Castle explains how to use those goofy glasses and an appearance by Margaret Hamilton as a grumpy housekeeper, who may be a witch, are a hoot.

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7- The House of Usher (Roger Corman)

The influence of Hammer Horror is profound in Roger Corman’s series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. His use of a vivid palette, sex, overwrought music, lush sets, and period costumes is straight out of stuff like Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, but Corman’s films are much more than pretenders. Certainly no one has ever brought the works of horror’s greatest writer to the screen with more flair, and that he did so on such chintzy budgets makes them all the more miraculous. There isn’t a cheap-looking frame in The House of Usher, the first and best of his Poe films. Richard Matheson’s screenplay doesn’t take the radical liberties that many of Corman’s future Poe pictures would, many of which would only resemble the source material in name. This is fortunate as “The Fall of the House of Usher” is arguably Poe’s greatest tale and doesn’t require rejiggering. Like that story, the film is a creepy slow burn that builds to an apocalyptic climax. Matheson and Corman don’t even shy away from the incestuous themes of the original story. As Usher, Vincent Price strikes a wan, haunted figure, and wisely doesn’t sink his teeth into the scenery with his usual resolve. If there was ever evidence that Price was the rightful successor to Karloff’s throne, it’s here in The House of Usher.

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6- Peeping Tom (Michael Powell)

The universe must really be a totally random and unjust place considering that Psycho became a massive hit for Alfred Hitchcock during the same year that Peeping Tom almost destroyed Michael Powell’s career. Powell had been a highly respected British filmmaker most famous for making the gorgeous but interminable classic The Red Shoes. His reputation suffered a near-fatal slashing when he decided to make Peeping Tom, a nasty little thriller about a loony photographer who captures the expressions of his victims’ faces on film just as he skewers them with a blade secreted in his tripod. The uproar over the film’s treatment of sex and violence never touched on its psychological complexity and Powell’s images, which are every bit as sumptuous as those of The Red Shoes. Karl Heinz Bohm is equally sympathetic and creepy as the murderer, not unlike Hitchcock’s Norman Bates, another psychopathic young fellow with serious parental issues. Peeping Tom has since been reevaluated as a great piece of cinema (in 1999, the British Film Institute rated it among the 100 greatest British films of the 20th century) and Michael Powell fought through the controversy to make more pictures. Most impressively, Peeping Tom remains as potent and disturbing today as it was fifty years ago.

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5- The Little Shop of Horrors (Roger Corman)

Don’t be naïve: if plants had the ability to kill us people, you and everyone you love would be in the belly of a Ficus right now. All the evidence you need is in Little Shop of Horrors, in which intergalactic, man-eating Venus flytrap Audrey Junior grows to massive proportions on a diet of local folks. Roger Corman’s original version may not have the snappy song and dance numbers of the terrific ‘80s remake, but it still holds up marvelously well. Aside from inspiring the musical, the original Little Shop is most famous today for young Jack Nicholson’s delirious portrayal of a masochist dental patient, but Jonathan Haze, Jackie Joseph, Mel Welles, and Corman-fave Dick Miller are nearly as memorable in their respective roles. The script by Charles B. Griffith (the man responsible for some of the best Corman-produced horror/comedies, including A Bucket of Blood and Death Race 2000) ripples with priceless schtick. Re-shoots notwithstanding, it took Roger Corman a mere two days to film his most entertaining movie, which has to qualify him for some sort of world record. Right?

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4- The City of the Dead (John Llewellyn Moxey)

Much of the praise Psycho receives is owed to its ingenious structure. A lot of critics to cry “rip off!” when The City of the Dead (aka: Horror Hotel) appeared with a similar plot featuring a pretty young woman in the seeming lead role who is dispatched in a grisly manner a half-hour into the picture. Thing is, both films were produced in the same year and director John Llewellyn Moxey insists that his was actually made before Psycho. If this is true, then The City of the Dead is even more deserving of rediscovery than it already is. Either way, it’s an atmosphere-rich tale of satanic cults, witchcraft, ghosts, and graveyards that should delight any classic horror buff. With shades of another 1960 shocker, Black Sunday, the film begins with accused witch Elizabeth Selwyn (the marvelous Patricia Jessel) getting a dose of capital punishment at the stake in the 17th century. She vows vengeance and we next see her working as the caretaker of a creepy hotel 300 years later. That’s resolve. Like most horror films of the era, The City of the Dead was produced on the cheap, but the star turns by Jessel and Christopher Lee as a co-conspirator and the bold black and white cinematography by Desmond Dickinson are first rate.

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3- Black Sunday (Mario Bava)

The flick that launched the career of Italian horror maestro Mario Bava is a tale of witchly revenge told with the deliberate queasiness of a lingering nightmare. In a star-making performance, Barbara Steele is Princess Asa Vajda, who enters the picture on route to the stake where she’s to have a spiked mask hammered to her face before being burned to death. Accused of playing footsy with Satan, the Princess vows the requisite revenge rigmarole on the bloodthirsty mob sentencing her to death. Years later the princess is resurrected as a Swiss cheese-faced vampire/witch intent on achieving eternal life. The story is a bit slim, but Bava’s masterpiece is more about meditated pacing and ghastly visuals than plot, which only contributes to its logic-damning nightmarishness. The gloomy castle interiors and gloomier graveyard exteriors are exquisitely designed, as is the puncture-faced make up on Steele, which only emphasizes her creepy allure. For pure Gothic atmosphere, Black Sunday is without peer.


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2- Eyes Without a Face (Georges Franju)

France is not exactly known for its horror movies, but the French Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face) is one the best, most original, most stylish, and most grotesque horror movies ever made. Everyone thinks that the beautiful Christiane (Edith Scob) died in the terrible car accident her father Docteur Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) caused. That’s just what the doctor wants them to believe for, you see, he’s not just a doctor…he’s a mad doctor! And his zany scheme is to replace his daughter’s now horribly scarred face with a brand new one procured from one of the lovely young lasses strolling around Paris. Those face-replacement surgery scenes are shown in surprisingly graphic detail for a 1960 film. A few years ago I saw a revival of the film and was really tickled to see the audience growing increasingly uncomfortable as they realized the camera was not going to turn away from the gruesome face removing. It’s wonderful to see a fifty-year-old film still pack such a punch, but as ghastly as that sequence is, and as seminal it is in the role of graphic gore in horror films, Eyes Without a Face also possesses a haunting beauty. Franju’s richly detailed, Poe-like imagery and Edith Scob’s ethereal presence in her death mask are unforgettable. But it’s the great Alida Valli who steals the film as Edna, the nefarious nurse who does the doctor’s dirty bidding. Unfortunately, when Eyes Without a Face was first released in the U.S., it was dubbed into English, given the idiotic B-movie title The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus, and run as a double-feature with a cheapie called The Manster. That’s pretty shabby treatment for such an artful film. In the ensuing years it achieved a sort of cult classic status, but Eyes Without a Face deserves to be regarded on the same level as any of its contemporary art films by Fellini or Bergman.

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1- Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock)

Although it was made at a fraction of the cost of the average Hitchcock picture, although it utilized a cut-rate TV crew, although it didn’t make use of color or the kind of glorious sets or locations Hitch used in movies like North By Northwest, Psycho is the man’s masterpiece. This is the definitive suspense film and the definitive film by the master of suspense, even though screenwriter Joseph Stefano deserves a lot more credit than he tends to receive. Stefano exaggerated the pacing of Robert Bloch’s novel to build the ingenious structure of the film: get the audience so involved in the story of sexy, conflicted thief Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) for the first half hour of the movie that they forget they are even watching a film called Psycho, then… SLICE!... carve up their expectations by having Norman Bates carve up Marion in cinema’s most famous shower scene. But the twisting and throttling of audience expectations doesn’t end there. Hitchcock cast the boyish, sympathetic Anthony Perkins to play maniac Norman Bates, and we empathize with him uncomfortably even when he is committing the most heinous deeds. There is no better example of this than that very famous scene in which Bates rolls Marion’s car (containing her dead body) into a bog. Hitchcock stages the scene to manipulate us into actually rooting for the car to sink and Norman to get away with his horrible crime. It wasn’t enough for Hitchcock to show us a murder; he wanted us to feel complicit in it. That was also his sense of humor, even though this is one of his less mirthful films (the exception being the very funny early sequence in Marion’s office featuring Hitchcock’s daughter Pat as a self-obsessed chatterbox). What Psycho may lack in laughs, it more than makes up for in incredible performances, fascinating characters, and genius direction. The influence of Psycho would stretch far. Corman, Castle, and Hammer studios all produced self-conscious responses to it. The slasher films born in the late ‘70s owe a direct debt to it, too, even if none of them came within a mile of Psycho in terms of quality, style, or smarts.


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