Monday, July 11, 2011

Psychobabble’s 150 Essential Horror Movies Part 5: The 1960s

In this feature, Psychobabble creeps through more than 90 years of horror cinema to assemble a highly personal list of the genre’s 150 most monstrous works, decade by decade.

51. Eyes Without a Face (1960- dir. Georges Franju)

Hammer may have upped the level of horror movie gore in the previous decade, but nothing the studio produced reached the graphic heights of Blood of the Beasts, Georges Franju’s 1949 documentary about a slaughterhouse outside Paris. While Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux Sans Visage) does not repeat that short’s realism it does display the same icy, graphic violence in ways Hammer would never dare try. The film stars Pierre Brasseur as a doctor suffering terrible guilt after causing the car accident that monstrously scarred his daughter, Christiane. Convinced he can restore her beauty and prove his own godly powers as a physician, Docteur Génessier makes numerous attempts at the world’s first face transplant with skin from young women procured by his assistant, Edna. Franju executes this potentially schlocky plot with hardcore explicitness and mesmerizing poetry. The operation scenes still have the power to disturb, particularly since contemporary audiences would never expect such graphic material in a black and white, French film from 1960. Those sequences are potent, but it is Edith Scob’s ethereal portrayal of Christiane and Alida Valli’s Edna that are most impressive. Like the classic monsters, both are frightening and sympathetic, though not in equal measure. The climax of the film in which Christiane commits some unexpected acts of vengeance, as well as real heroism, is only topped by the haunting final image of her floating into a dark forest and an uncertain future with a white dove perched on her finger. The beautiful, horrible, and artistically rich Eyes Without a Face received notoriously shabby treatment in the U.S., where it was dubbed into English, given the idiotic title The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus, and run as a double-feature with a cheapie called The Manster. In the ensuing years it achieved 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. Regardless of its reputation, Eyes Without a Face got one of horror’s most fruitful decades—and one of its most spectacular years—off to a striking start.

52. Peeping Tom (1960- dir. Michael Powell)

At the same time Alfred Hitchcock was making the film that would revolutionize the horror film in the ‘60s—and earn four Oscar nominations— Michael Powell was making the film that would nearly ruin one of the most prestigious careers in cinema. The maker of such British institutions as The Red Shoes and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp was now treading through murky waters, indeed, choosing to tell the tale of Mark Lewis (Karl Böhm), a serial killer who photographs his victims at the moment of their deaths using a dagger concealed in his camera’s tripod. By emphasizing the link between sex and violence even more explicitly than Hitchcock (among Mark’s victims are a prostitute and a model who performs a frenzied, impromptu dance), Powell took his content several ticks beyond even Hammer’s controversial pictures. The film was ravaged by U.K. critics (Derek Hill of the Tribune wrote that it should be “shovel[ed] up and flush[ed]… down the nearest sewer”) and butchered in the U.S. where it was dumped in the grind houses. That’s rough treatment for perhaps the first film to examine the filmmaker’s responsibility in presenting violent material to audiences, as well as the audience’s own dicey desire to look at the sick and the horrible. Mark is not a peeping tom at all. Like Norman Bates, he is a voyeur who derives the pleasure of looking with debilitating guilt. The sexual feelings his gaze stirs moves him to murder. Unlike Norman Bates, Mark is given a richer and more convincing back story, one we see played out in one of the disturbing films he owns rather than hear from the mouth of a longwinded psychoanalyst. Critics also missed the sly humor that offsets the horror and despair, Moira Shearer giving a particularly delightful performance as dancer Vivian before Mark cuts her down. When she dies, we feel far greater remorse than we do after the deaths of Marion Crane and Arbogast in Psycho. Hitchcock is a cynic who wants us to feel complicit in Norman Bates’s crimes. Powell wants us to feel for his killer. Böhm helps accomplish this with a tortured performance, but we also sympathize with Mark because he is loved by a kind woman named Helen, played with charisma and vulnerability by Anna Massey. When Mark is outed as a murderer and meets his inevitable end, we feel reluctantly sorry for him and downright crushed for Helen. Peeping Tom has its flaws. Like so many of Powell’s films, it is slow. There is no explanation for why Mark speaks with a thick German accent even though he lived his entire life in London and we hear his father speak with a British accent in one of his films. And as always, the explicit correlation between sexual women and extreme violence is off-putting. In this way, Peeping Tom may be a clearer progenitor of the slasher film than Psycho. Depending on your opinion of that subgenre, this is either a distinction to be celebrated or shamed.

53. Psycho (1960- dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

The past five years had seen numerous innovations in horror, and none of them arose from the major Hollywood studios that had ruled the genre since the early ‘30s. It took a British director to give Universal another shot at the thorny crown it once wore. Actually, Alfred Hitchcock made Psycho at Universal Studios but produced it under his own Shamley Productions, which was responsible for his popular macabre series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (Paramount distributed the film). One certainly could not mistake Hitch’s follow up to the ultra-glossy North by Northwest for a big Universal or Paramount production. Inspired by the low-budget intimacy and gimmickry of William Castle’s recent schlocker shockers, Hitchcock used his TV crew to shoot Psycho in simple black and white with a small cast, small sets, and on a miniscule budget. He even employed a Castle-esque shuck to promote the picture (“No one... but no one will be admitted to the theater after the start of each performance…”). Hitchcock may have scaled way back on the frills and felt it necessary to use a bit of corny hucksterism to sell tickets, but he’d never made a picture more suspenseful, disturbing, or brilliantly plotted than Psycho. Of course, Joseph Stefano deserves a lot more credit for the picture’s greatness than he usually receives. The screenwriter exaggerated the pacing of Robert Bloch’s novel to build the film’s ingenious structure: get the viewers so involved in the story conflicted thief Marion Crane (Janet Leigh, the film’s one big star) for the first half hour that they forget they are even watching a movie called Psycho, then… SLICE!... carve up their expectations by having Norman Bates carve up Marion in cinema’s most famous shower scene. 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 uncomfortably empathize with him even when he is committing the most heinous deeds. The most striking example of this is when the director manipulates us into rooting for Bates as he rolls Marion’s car, which contains her dead body, into a bog. 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 least 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. Roger 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, though none of them came within a mile of Psycho in terms of quality, style, or smarts.

54. The Brides of Dracula (1960- dir. Terence Fisher)

There was no way its sequel would fully recapture the power of Hammer’s Dracula, because Christopher Lee refused to revisit the count for fear of being typecast (his stance would crumble soon enough). Still there’s a lot of what made Dracula great in The Brides of Dracula. Not suffering any of his costar’s reservations, Peter Cushing happily returns as Van Helsing, and he gets more opportunities to display undeath-defying heroism than in the previous film. His showdown with a dashing non-Dracula vampire is likely Terence Fisher’s most thrilling sequence, climaxing with Cushing getting chomped and taking some rather extreme measures to ward off his own vampirism. Marita Hunt is nearly as arresting in the role of the eccentric Baroness Meinster, while Fisher’s trademark mastery of color and artificial environments provides further distraction from Lee’s absence. The screenwriting team, led by Hammer Stalwart Jimmy Sangster, also came up with an intriguing mystery (why is the Baroness Meinster keeping a young man prisoner in her sprawling castle?) that arguably makes the film more engaging than Hammer’s previous horrors to those already well familiar with how Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy pan out. As is the case with most Hammer pictures, the main allure of The Brides of Dracula is that it provides yet another opportunity to gawk at marvelous sets and costumes rendered in glorious Technicolor and gloriously Gothic images of vampire brides rising from the grave.

55. Jigoku (1960- dir. Nobuo Nakagawa)

Shintōhō was essentially the Japanese equivalent of Britain’s Hammer, grinding out bloody, low-budget exploitation with offbeat audacity. After a mere eleven years of movie making, the studio was in dire shape. In 1960, Nobuo Nakagawa made his final picture for Shintōhō. Jigoku delivers much of the shock for which the studio was known, but it does so in a completely unexpected package. The first half of the film follows Shirô Shimizu, a theology student with the worst luck in the world, beginning with his involvement in a tragic hit-and-run accident. The supernatural element of this opening movement is limited to a general air of uncanny unease and an encounter with a doppelgänger. In the second half, Shirô has his own fatal encounter, after which he is demoted to Hell where he is set loose in an environment straight out of the right-hand panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights. Nakagawa unleashes his imagination to fashion the most disturbing portrait of Hell yet to be splattered across a cinema screen. There’s a field of needles, brutish blue demons baring truncheons, surreal decapitations, a screeching baby floating on a river of blood. Ferocious as all of this is, Nakagawa realizes his nightmare images with great artistry. The film’s jarring movement from relative normalcy to utter horror heightens its power to unnerve and presages the work of a filmmaker born less than a month after its release: Takashi Miike, who would grow up to make the similarly plotted and even more disturbing Audition twenty nine years later.

56. The Mask of Satan (1960- dir. Mario Bava)

While Japanese horror was moving into the contemporary age and staking out its identity, so were Italian scare flicks. The genre’s first superstar had made a couple of science fiction films, but his first to revel in the Gothic creepiness for which he’d be renowned was La Maschera del Demonio, The Mask of Satan, or as it is better known in the U.S., Black Sunday. Under any name the film is a tale of witchy revenge told with the queasy deliberateness of a bad dream. Barbara Steele takes her destined role as horror’s first great female star by bringing Princess Asa Vajda to life. We first meet the princess on route to the stake where she’s to have a spiked mask hammered to her face before being burned to death (the latter component of this sentence doesn't go quite as planned). Accused of commingling with Satan, the Princess vows the requisite revenge rigmarole on the bloodthirsty mob sentencing her to death. Years later she is resurrected as a puncture-faced vampire/witch intent on achieving eternal life. Adapted liberally from Nikolai Gogol’s short story “Viy”, the plot is slim, but Bava’s masterpiece is more about meditated pacing and ghastly visuals than story, which only contributes to its logic-damning nightmarishness. The gloomy castle interiors and gloomier graveyard exteriors are exquisitely designed, only rivaled by Steele’s mesmeric presence.

57. The Little Shop of Horrors (1960- dir. Roger Corman)

Roger Corman directed and produced so many movies (over 390 and counting according to imdb!) that some were bound to be good. In fact, Corman was responsible for more cool Rock & Roll musicals, sci-fi quickies, teen exploitations flicks, and B-horror classics than some critics liked to admit, but because he often worked with questionable actors and scripts and had his films made for pocket-change often in just a few days, he has often been denigrated— and by certain fans, praised— as a purveyor of schlock. Like the similarly exploitative though less prolific William Castle, Corman also possesses a genuine talent for making the kinds of pictures he sets out to make. He has a keen eye for new talent: Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Ron Howard, and John Sayles all made movies for him early in their careers. None of the movies those guys made for Corman were as good as Corman’s own Little Shop of Horrors. The story goes that he actually shot his first great movie in just two days (not including reshoots) in order to beat new film industry rules giving actors more equitable contracts and pay; a sleazy motive, but one that allowed him to make his films on such miniscule schedules and budgets. Whatever the reality of its production, The Little Shop of Horrors is a brilliant specimen of B-movie making with man-eating Venus flytrap Audrey Junior growing to massive proportions on a diet of local folks. Charles B. Griffith, the writer responsible for some of Corman’s best horror/comedies, whipped up a script rippling with absurd situations and priceless shtick. The movie’s most famous performance is that of young Jack Nicholson as an enthusiastically masochistic dental patient, but Jonathan Haze as Audrey’s keeper/slave, Jackie Joseph as his gal, Mel Welles as his boss, and Corman-fave Dick Miller as a flower-munching customer are just as memorable. Still very funny with some marvelous craft-shop special effects, The Little Shop of Horrors is wonderfully entertaining and a wonderful role model for fledgling filmmakers.

58. The City of the Dead (1960- dir. John Llewellyn Moxey)

A good deal of the praise Psycho receives is owed to its ingenious structure. A lot of critics cried “rip off!” when The City of the Dead (U.S. title: Horror Hotel) appeared with a similar plot featuring a pretty young woman in the seeming lead role who is dispatched in grisly manner 30 minutes 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. Historical significance aside, Moxey’s movie is an atmosphere-rich tale of satanic cults, witchcraft, ghosts, and graveyards that will delight horror buffs looking for a lesser-known nugget. With shades of La Maschera del Demonio, the film begins with accused witch Elizabeth Selwyn being burned at the stake for allegedly consorting with Satan. Disgusted by her religiously crazed neighbors, she vows allegiance to the Devil as she burns, her terror turning to elated vengeance. Cut to that same town some 200 years later when a woman, who looks suspiciously like Selwyn, is running a creepy hotel in the foggiest little nook in New England. Like so many horror films of its era, The City of the Dead was produced on the cheap, but Desmond Dickinson’s bold, black and white cinematography is strictly A-grade. As Selwyn’s co-conspirator, Christopher Lee gets a meatier role than he did in most of his previous Hammer films. However, the picture belongs to Patricia Jessel. Tough and self-possessed in a stately manner, Jessel makes Elizabeth Selwyn cinema’s strongest female counterpart to Lee’s Dracula.

59. The Curse of the Werewolf (1961- dir. Terence Fisher)

With its conceptions of Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy out of the way, Hammer naturally had to take a shot at The Wolf Man. Unlike the studio’s other loose but still recognizable adaptations, Hammer’s werewolf movie bears no resemblance to Universal’s. The Curse of the Werewolf is an odd duck. It did not spawn any sequels as the previously mentioned movies did. There’s no sign of Cushing or Lee—only stalwart bit player Michael Ripper links this picture with earlier Hammers. Jimmy Sangster had no hand in the script, in which its monster only makes a very brief parting appearance. In adapting Guy Endore’s novel The Werewolf of Paris, Terence Fisher and writer Anthony Hinds (the film’s producer working under the pseudonym John Elder) constructed an ingenious— and genuinely disturbing— generation-spanning family epic that ends up as a werewolf story. And they do it all in Hammer’s standard 90-minute running time. Everything we’ve come to know about werewolves is irrelevant here. The boy Leon is born a beast after his mother is raped by a beggar, whose inhuman treatment by Spanish royalty has devolved him into a feral state. The earlier Hammers derived much of their power from gore, action, and comic-book art design. The Curse of the Werewolf has all of these things, but it also has complex characters and a thoughtful message about the haves’ responsibility for the criminal actions of the have-nots.

60. Mr. Sardonicus (1961- dir. William Castle)

William Castle had toyed with some pretty edgy material in films intended for pre-teen B-monster audiences: suicide in House on Haunted Hill; LSD in The Tingler. All that seems positively kiddie friendly in the shadow of the S&M decadence depicted in Mr. Sardonicus. The title character is a sadistic aristocrat with a hideous smile patterned on Conrad Veidt’s in The Man Who Laughs. He employs a brilliant doctor to cure him of his affliction, but when the doctor fails to massage away the gruesome grin, Sardonicus ups the incentive by threatening to mutilate his own wife if the doc doesn’t deliver a cure. The story is luridly nonsensical— brimming with torture and leeches and sketchy science —but that’s never really a detriment in a William Castle film. If you think Mr. Sardonicus is unduly sadistic for its young audience, you don’t understand kids. This time Castle’s gimmick is “The Punishment Poll”, a glow-in-the-dark card depicting Roman thumbs up and thumbs down, so the audience could “decide” Sardonicus’s fate at the movie’s climax. Supposedly, Castle didn’t even bother shooting an ending in which the villain is allowed to live, because he knew the little sadists who loved his movies would never show him such mercy. Gruesome, sleazy, and certainly appealing to its audience’s basest instincts, Mr. Sardonicus is great fun for those reasons, and because it sports lavish period sets and delightfully phony backgrounds, an ace monster, splendid black and white cinematography, and Castle’s most incongruously charming onscreen appearance. And has eating a muffin ever been used to more sinister effect?

61. The Innocents (1961- dir. Jack Clayton)

The 1960s dragged in a new era of horror no longer dependent on the traditions of Gothic literature. Even Hammer and Roger Corman’s updates of the classics were suffused with very non-traditional heaps of sexuality and gore. Ironically, in an era when horror films were really starting to test how much they could get away with, one of the most disturbing was an adaptation of a hoary and rather dry Henry James novel without a lick of graphic violence and only the slightest hints of supernatural terror. What The Innocents (its title culled from William Archibald’s ‘50s stage adaptation) lacks in sensationalism, it makes up for in nearly unendurable tension. As governess Miss Giddens, Deborah Kerr exudes unease even before she discovers there may be ghosts roaming the Bly estate. When she begins seeing fleeting phantom images and enduring the very strange behavior of her young charges Flora (Pamela Franklin) and (especially) Miles (Martin Stephens), the film pulls piano-wire taut and does not relent until the fatalistic finale. Although the film keeps the themes of pedophilia present in Turn of the Screw ambiguous, Miles’s inappropriate behavior is as shocking in its own way as anything in Psycho or Eyes without a Face. Young Stephens sells the boy’s sociopathy with chilling subtlety—one of cinema’s great child acting feats. Fans of the film are usually quickest to point out how unsettled they are by a spectral face that drifts in from the darkness to peer through a window, though Kerr’s sighting of a ghostly figure hunched in reeds across a pond is equally chilling. Freddie Francis’s deep-focus, high-contrast cinematography further elevates this frightening, brilliantly acted ghost story to high art.

62. Night of the Eagle (1962- dir. Sidney Hayers)

Two years before “Bewitched” played the same premise for giggles, Britain’s Night of the Eagle introduced Tansy Taylor (Janet Blair), a pretty witch whose supernatural pursuits helped boost husband Norman’s (Peter Wyngarde) career. When rationalist Norman learns of his wife’s transgressions against science, he has her burn all of her talismans, potions, and witchy doodads. The consequences are dire, though not for the reasons we viewers are first led to believe. Based on Fritz Leiber’s novel Conjure Wife, Night of the Eagle is unique for its time because it does not take a wholly negative stance on witchcraft. Tansy is a good woman possessing powers her dopey hubby just doesn’t understand. When he forces her to remove the good-luck spell she cast on him, everything positive in his life unravels. Had the film run its course on that premise alone, it would still be praiseworthy, but screenwriters Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont make it even better by tossing in a third act twist that enhances the intricacy and makes way for one hell of a villain. Anyone familiar with the writers’ celebrated work on “The Twilight Zone” should have suspected Night of the Eagle might not follow a straight line. That clever, wordplay-rich script powers the film, while Sidney Hayers’s inventive direction, Reginald Wyer’s deep-focus cinematography, and razzle-dazzle performances from Blair and Margaret Johnson as the bitter wife of Norman’s rival are also integral to its excellence. Paul Frees, Phantom-in-Chief of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, provides the opening narration creepily recited over a blank, black screen. AIP provided the less-subtle title Burn Witch Burn by which the film is known in the U.S.

63. Carnival of Souls (1962- dir. Herk Harvey)

Roger Corman and William Castle were clever enough to drape their cheapest movies with a shroud of daffy humor. Delightful as much of their work is, they didn’t necessarily need to be so self-conscious just because their budgets were next to nil. Case in point: Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls was made for around thirty grand— the majority of which was probably spent on film stock and white grease paint— and is the most effectively creepy B-movie of the early ‘60s. After walking away from a drag race accident, Mary the Church Organist starts seeing dead people. Decades before The Sixth Sense, audiences likely knew exactly where this plot was headed, as the inevitable twist had been done many times before in various ghost stories and installments of “The Twilight Zone”. Yet the predictability of Carnival of Souls doesn’t hurt it, nor does the Halloween-costume quality of the phantoms Mary encounters, because Harvey strikes such an eerie tone. The film swells with funereal dread abetted by Gene Moore’s appropriate pipe organ score. Candace Hilligoss is suitably soulless as Mary. As her lecherous hipster neighbor, John Linden provides some welcome period humor without defusing Harvey’s chilling stillness. Proving a low-budget horror picture could get away with being deathly serious, Carnival of Souls mesmerized a new crop of genre filmmakers, and its influence would be palpable in the debut film of young George Romero a few years later.

64. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962- dir. Robert Aldrich)

Roles for aging actresses weren’t much more plentiful in the ‘60s than they are today. Both in their fifties, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford had to take whatever parts were available to them if they wanted to work. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? did not present either actress, or middle-aged actresses in general, in a very flattering light. Paralyzed after a car crash, Crawford’s Blanche Hudson is self-pitying and obsessed with her more glamorous days. Davis’s “Baby Jane” Hudson is a lot worse, once an obnoxious child star, now a delusional creep slathered in pancake makeup who terrorizes her bed-bound sister by slapping her around and serving her dead rat for lunch. The violence and psycho head games increase when Baby Jane convinces herself she’s on the verge of a big comeback and hooks up with an opportunistic pianist, played with unctuous glee by Victor Buono. The concept is exploitative and unkind, but What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? became a sensation because Crawford and Davis are sensational as the Sisters Hudson. Both actresses dig into their meaty roles with nothing-left-to-lose zeal, and neither were ever as dynamic in the more glamorous parts of their younger days. Davis, in particular, is a one-woman storm, careening from high-camp comedy to pathos to terrifying menace. The incredible tension throughout may be a side effect of the leading ladies’ reported hatred of each other, but Robert Aldrich also deserves much credit, staging sequences with disorienting, carnivalesque loopiness. The director is less sure handed with the pacing; the film is a good twenty minutes too long. That gripe aside, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? remains a great black comedy and a groundbreaking picture for actresses on the other side of fifty, spawning the short-lived and nastily named “hagsploitation” genre that gave us such unmissable flicks as Dead Ringer, Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and The Nanny.

65. The Birds (1963- dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

In Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock explored the most insular horror imaginable: the human psyche revolting against normalcy to become an engine for killing. In his adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s story “The Birds”, he turned his attention to the most outward horror: the world in revolt. The Birds is a tale of apocalypse. Hitchcock being Hitchcock, he still manages to reduce it to an intimate, psychological level. The attacking flocks reflect the chaotic personal life of Tippi Hedren’s spoiled socialite Melanie Daniels, though the film works better as disaster flick than Freudian psychobabble. In light of the current environmental crisis, The Birds is chillingly prophetic. Nature’s most seemingly benign creatures marshal together and rebel against humanity. The birds squawk “enough is enough” to a humanity built on narcissism (as embodied by Melanie) responsible for so much greed and cruelty, exhibiting such a lack of consideration for the natural world. Melanie and Mitch’s romantic complications are suddenly made irrelevant by the birds’ violent onslaught. Hitchcock executes these attacks with a number of signature strokes: the ominous gathering in a playground, the dive attack during a children’s party, Melanie’s terrifying encounter in Mitch’s attic. The animal brutality of Psycho is even more disturbing when enacted by actual animals, because unlike Norman Bates, the birds are utterly unpredictable and motiveless. Hitchcock is brutal too, assaulting his audience with the eyeless face of a victim revealed in a disturbing series of jump cuts. He was equally merciless with his cast; legend has it that Tippi Hedren was really forced to fend off live birds during the protracted filming of the attic scene. The final image of the few remaining humans skulking away quietly while the birds release a collective wail of triumph is a moment of supreme pessimism for the human race and victory for nature. Yet the fact that little Cathy’s pet lovebirds remain unaffected may suggest a glimmer of hope for the future, or at least, Mitch and Melanie’s relationship.

66. The Haunting (1963- dir. Robert Wise)

Robert Wise learned much during his days with Val Lewton, who so believed that true terror lays in what we don’t see. Wise brilliantly channels that philosophy into a film that, unlike Lewton’s, makes its supernatural intentions clear as soon as Hill House begins its symphony of nocturnal thumping and bumping. The Haunting possesses such a dynamic soundtrack that the viewer barely notices how few ghostly doings we see. A door swells unnaturally. Phantoms drafts rustle houseplants. A message scrawled in a chalky substance appears on a wall mysteriously (which could easily have been left by one of the cheeky psychics taking part in Dr. Markway’s investigation of the supposedly haunted house). The specters spooking that Gothic mansion may not be very visual, but Wise’s film certainly is. The eccentric framing and high contrast cinematography is disorienting. The acrobatic, swooping camera gives us a ghost’s-eye view of the house and its colorful inhabitants. There’s Richard Johnson as the charming, possibly manipulative doctor who organizes the gathering at Hill House, Russ Tamblyn as the snappy college boy who will inherit it one day, Claire Bloom as a slinky psychic who may have designs on Julie Harris’s petulant, sheltered woman that seems to be the target of the house’s unholy energies. Tamblyn, Bloom, and Harris all give stunning performances, establishing their characters as archetypes, then subverting those archetypes with unexpected flashes of vulnerability or nerve. The relationships among them are intense and complicated: sometimes they butt heads; sometimes they come together in alliances twisted with barely concealed agendas. The Haunting works beautifully as a piece of cinematic art and a character piece without shirking an iota of its horror-flick duties. Ghostly whispers; claims of being held by icy, invisible hands; forbidden rooms and stairways spiraling to nowhere; a disturbing back story; a cadaverous housekeeper given to grave mumblings (“In the night… in the dark”); and one great big shocker that occurs during a moment of respite following a bowel-strangling passage of danger and suspense. The Haunting is the finest ghost story ever filmed.


67. Witchcraft (1964- dir. Don Sharp)

The producers of Witchcraft must have had little faith in its power, hence the William Castle-esque “witch deflector” (a green badge reading “Only the witch deflector can save you from the eerie web of the unknown”) theatergoers were given. Such lame consolation prizes were hardly necessary and cheapened what is one of the scariest movies of its B-grade ilk. The plot is nothing new: religious freak family buries suspected witch alive in 17th century; witch returns in the present to take revenge on family’s descendents. Witchcraft rips off scenes from Dracula and Horror Hotel. The non-horror scenes are talky and static; the horror scenes are brilliantly realized, ripe with subtle detail and sumptuous photography, creating the sensation of constant seesawing between mundane wakefulness and nightmare-soaked sleep. Director Don Sharp stages a chilling sequence in which we see a potential victim chatting away on the telephone while the witch’s shadow appears on a background staircase. It’s a quietly terrifying moment, and all the more so since the expected attack does not immediately follow. Sharp’s way with rainy graveyards, misty roads, weird landscapes, crypts, and catacombs contributes much spooky atmosphere. The terror most often flows from Yvette Rees’s arresting performance as witch Vanessa Whitlock. Without uttering a word of dialogue, Rees commands the screen whenever she materializes in the darkest corners of the frame. Her extraordinary, cadaverous face and wan presence are unforgettable. Scary as Vanessa is, modern audiences may find themselves rooting for her to dispatch of the ostensible heroes, who derive from a family line of murderers and have such little respect for the victim that they plow right through the graveyard where she was buried alive to develop on the land. Doing so, the Lanier family unearths her casket, enabling her violence spree. Initially, the film seems to want us to side with the wronged witch, allowing her descendent Morgan (Lon Chaney Jr. in one of his final roles) to deliver an impassioned screed against the Laniers’s callousness. But this is still 1964, and the “monster” and her Satanist kin must be punished, causing a last minute shift in tone. It’s shameful that women who were so persecuted and treated with such unconscionable violence centuries earlier continued to be victimized in such a way, but the majority of Witchcraft plays like a righteous revenge tale.

68. Masque of the Red Death (1964- dir. Roger Corman)

Roger Corman distinguished himself beyond fun cheapies like A Bucket of Blood and The Little Shop of Horrors when he started adapting Edgar Allan Poe. Corman’s Poe pictures owed a lot to Hammer’s horrors in their use of primary colors, elaborate Gothic sets, and kinky luridness. All of these movies are worth seeing, but Corman really went above and beyond with his version of The Masque of the Red Death. The film’s excellence has a lot to do with the director’s support system. Charles Beaumont, one of the top writers on “The Twilight Zone”, co-wrote the clever script, which remains very faithful to its namesake story while also drawing in elements of Poe’s final published story, “Hop Frog”. Beaumont and Corman created a thick, sustained aura of decadence, particularly during the orgiastic masque in which the ruling classes shelter themselves from the plague decimating Europe. The cast is top notch, led by the face of Corman’s Poe films—Vincent Price—while also featuring memorable turns by Patrick Magee, Jane Asher, Hazel Court, and Skip Martin as the slightly renamed Hop Toad. Perhaps the contributor most responsible for making Masque of the Red Death a thing of beauty is cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, who would go on to be a major filmmaker in his own right (and will make another appearance on this list soon enough). The distorted, weirdly racist hallucination sequence in which Hazel Court weds the devil may be cinema’s first realistic approximation of an acid trip. The colored rooms through which Price and Asher pass is a striking visual device pulled right out of Poe’s story.

69. Repulsion (1965- dir. Roman Polanski)

Roman Polanski envisioned Repulsion as a crowd-pleasing genre film that might allow him to continue making more “serious” pictures. Yet it is more enduring than stuff like Knife in the Water and Cul-de-Sac because its horror elements strike a more immediate chord and its artfulness is undiluted. Repulsion might be the first real horror art-film, exploring complex themes with cerebral ambiguity and impressionistic visuals. The story works as a sort of gender flip of Hitchcock’s Psycho and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom: an attractive young person’s unhealthy attitude about sex fuels some seriously anti-social behavior. Catherine Deneuve plays Carol Ledoux, an uptight French émigré living in Swinging London with her sexually liberated sister Hélène. When Hélène takes a weekend trip with her lover, Carole is left in their creepy flat to stew in her delusions, which gradually boil over into shocking acts of violence. Polanski shows an environment in which women are sexualized targets of lecherous men, then turns that environment surreal with nightmare images of disembodied hands reaching from walls and phantom rapists tumbling out of thin air. Cracking walls and ceilings obviously but effectively illustrate Carole’s cracking psyche; a rotting, skinned rabbit represents her bodily disgust and feelings of vulnerability in a world of carnivorous hunters. Regardless of the ugly crime that would make the director infamous many years later, Polanski is critical of the misogynist environment that fuels Carole’s attitude about sexuality, making Repulsion a progressively minded picture in the vein of Cat People. The film also pioneers a new brand of urban horror, moving beyond Gothic castles and primordial swamps to place terror in a contemporary city bustling to Chico Hamilton’s groovy jazz score by.

70. Lovers from Beyond the Tomb (1965- dir. Mario Caiano)

Mario Caiono’s Gli Amanti D'Oltretomba may come closer to approaching the power of The Mask of Satan than any other film in the minor strain of Italian Gothic horror movies that Bava’s classic ignited. Better known as Nightmare Castle and The Faceless Monster, the Italian title translates as Lovers from Beyond the Tomb, and the tale unfurls as the exploitative Edgar Allan Poe knock-off all those titles imply. Mask of Satan-star Barbara Steele does double duty as sisters Muriel and Jenny Arrowsmith. Muriel broods through the first quarter of the film until her sadistic, mad-scientist husband tortures her to death for marital indiscretions. Muriel has the last laugh when she takes possession of the sister who takes her place and returns from the grave as a grotesque ghoul shrieking “It’s my moment now!” with overwrought triumph. Schlockier than Bava’s sedate, artful work, Lovers from Beyond the Tomb absorbs some of the titillation and torture of Terence Fisher and Roger Corman’s pictures, while also baring a very singular stamp in its strange flourishes, particularly an expressionistic nightmare sequence that plays like found footage from some early, lost David Lynch film.

71. Kill, Baby, Kill! (1966- dir. Mario Bava)

In his solo directorial debut, The Mask of Satan, Mario Bava made the most of his skills as a cinematographer to craft black & white visuals powerful enough to overwhelm a sketchy script. Story problems were even more evident when he masterminded Hercules in the Haunted World. Once again, his visuals were not nearly as troubled as the director made a striking transition to color, employing primary-colored lights to create a sort of Gothic psychedelia. With Kill, Baby, Kill!, Bava finally co-wrote a script fully worthy of his visual imagination. In an 18th century Carpathian village, a doctor investigates the death of a woman who leapt from a ledge onto a spiked fence. Suicide? Not exactly. The mystery deepens as a giggling, sallow-eyed girl appears whenever a villager is compelled to take his or her own life. The horror heightens as Bava piles on the startling images: creepy dolls, a swing-set mounted camera swooping over a graveyard, an op-art staircase, a portrait that makes the one in Dorian Gray look like a “Ziggy” comic, and a bounty of cobwebs, crypts, and corpses. There’s also a good witch and a living, breathing dead ringer for the grimacing corpse from Black Sabbath. Just when all the sundry mysteries are explained, a spectacular shock tips the film into its most purely surrealistic sequence, which will tickle anyone who was terrified by the series finale of “Twin Peaks”. Bava knew well that there are few things scarier than the unexplainable.

72. Eye of the Devil (1966- dir. J. Lee Thompson)

Anxiety spurred both the production of Eye of the Devil and the finished product. This adaptation of Philip Lorraine’s Day of the Arrow began shooting in 1965 as 13 with Kim Novak taking the lead as a woman whose landowner husband is called back to his village after the local vineyard fails. Concerned, she packs the kids in the car and follows him to a creepy estate where all manner of unholy strangeness is going down. An injury forced Novak to relinquish the role to Deborah Kerr, who doesn’t miss a fretful beat after her similar performance in The Innocents. The film ultimately given the less unlucky and less evocative title Eye of the Devil owes quite a lot to horror films of its era, such as The Haunting, Horror Hotel, Repulsion, and the aforementioned Innocents, while also portending the familial paranoia of Rosemary’s Baby and the folk horror of The Wicker Man. Director J. Lee Thompson casts a relentless spell of dread by unfolding the tale carefully while disorienting the viewer with an onslaught of rapid cuts, canted angles, weird mounted camera shots, and visceral movements. The activity of his camerawork beautifully balances the restrained performances of the excellent cast led by Kerr, David Niven as her husband, Donald Pleasance as a sinister minister, and David Hemmings and Sharon Tate as preternaturally beautiful evil twins. An S&M sequence in which Niven whips Tate caused further problems with British censors, and the film’s release was delayed until the scene was chopped for the first U.K. run. Critics received Eye of the Devil poorly when it finally materialized in 1966. Through the decades it has built a deserved cult among those who dig their horror spiked with a heavy dose of lysergic surrealism. 


73. Viy (1967- dir. Georgi Kropachyou & Konstantin Yershov)

Adapted with greater fidelity from the same Nikolai Gogol novella that inspired La Maschera del Demonio, Viy couldn’t be more different from Bava’s masterpiece. Directors Georgi Kropachyou and Konstantin Yershov favor goony humor and Hammer-style color over Bava’s dour tone and dark shadows. They also shift focus from the aristocratic heroes of the earlier film to a bunch of boozy frocked buffoons. The hybrid creature originally embodied by Barbara Steele becomes a more traditional witch, although her method of flying on priest-back is hardly conventional. The films’ key difference is that its villain fades into the background to allow us to empathize more with the priest who kills her, played by Leonid Kuravlyov with a delightful streak of comic callowness. Upon her death, the old hag (played by male actor Nikolai Kutuzov) transforms into her natural state: a beautiful young woman (Natalya Varley) whose father wants the priest to read her last rites over three nights. When she rises from the dead each night to torment him, the silliness melts away to reveal an effectively creepy core. The demonic orgy she throws on the final night is a tour de force of budget monster design and special effects. The directors’ swirling camerawork is equally sublime.

74. Kuroneko (1968- dir. Kaneto Shindō)

From out of the wind-rustled bamboo grove surrounding a small cottage, a samurai horde creeps. They storm the cottage, rape the mother (Nobuko Otowa) and daughter-in-law (Kiwako Taichi) who live there, and burn the women alive. A black cat surveys the wreckage, crying. When it licks the women’s charred bodies, a demon spirit grants them renewed life in exchange for a vow of vengeance. The women are happy to oblige, as they must now drink the blood of all samurai who cross their vampiric path. Director Kaneto Shindō takes this seemingly simple premise into astoundingly complex territory with Kuroneko (Black Cat). Strategically placed peaks in the sound mix illustrate the animal brutality of both the samurai and their spectral victims. Subtle trick shots transform nature into a predatory entity stalking the samurai who fall into the specters’ trap. Sudden tempo shifts transform their feline attacks into shocking moments of horror. The rapes are so intrinsically horrific that Shindō doesn’t have to do much more than capture them and the leering faces of the onlookers. Most provocatively, his script does not spare these wronged women the dehumanizing effects of waging war. When they reunite with their abducted son and husband (Kichiemon Nakamura), they learn he has been decorated as a samurai during his absence and is now destined to be their next blood donor. Like all great antiwar films, Kuroneko is harsh and profoundly tragic. It is also an eerie horror film and a dazzling showcase of cinematic magic tricks. 


75. Spider Baby (1968- dir. Jack Hill)

Entombed in a discount camp flick that nearly wasn’t released is horror’s first full-tilt plunge into postmodernism. Future blaxploitation pimp Jack Hill completed Spider Baby on a twelve-day schedule in 1964, but financial troubles kept it from being dumped into drive-ins until early ‘68. Even then the movie must have felt ahead of its time. Hill stitches together bits and pieces of horror history with the random delight of Dr. Frankenstein. The doodled credits sequence, with its fab “Monster Mash”-takeoff grunted by star Lon Chaney, Jr., is as tailored to kiddies as “The Munsters”. The film’s themes of incest, genetic mental disorders, kinky sex, cannibalism, and murderous youngsters are anything but tot friendly. Like a collision of Tennessee Williams and Charles Addams, Spider Baby checks in on the totally batty Merrye family, a Southern Gothic clan afflicted with “Merrye Syndrome”. The disorder causes kin to plummet down the evolutionary ladder until reverting to an animal state. Chaney is the family chauffeur and sole “voice of reason”, cult hero Sid Haig is the most far-gone Merrye kid, and spider-wrangling Jill Banner is the most sinister. The film’s shock value and lack of political correctness is tempered by much self-awareness. References to Chaney’s old horror pictures, particularly The Wolf Man, abound. One character goes by the name of Schlocker. Great fun for those with a taste for bad taste, Spider Baby grew into a sizable cult favorite. Its grimy tang is detectable in the future works of Tobe Hooper, John Waters, and Rob Zombie, among others.

76. Rosemary’s Baby (1968- dir. Roman Polanski)

William Castle had not directed a film since I Saw What You Did in 1965, and he planned to get back in the arena by adapting Ira Levin’s new hit novel about a newlywed and her Satan baby. Paramount Pictures’ Robert Evans was reluctant to allow a director with Castle’s reputation for schlock to direct a film with the potential to become as popular as the novel on which it was based. Castle begrudgingly stepped away from the director’s chair to take a less prominent role as producer. Evans ultimately recruited Roman Polanski, who had such great success with the similarly paranoiac urban horror film Repulsion, to helm Rosemary’s Baby. All respect to Castle, but Polanski was the right director to make this movie. He puts his knack for using absurd humor to heighten scenes of extreme horror and for reflecting a character’s psychological state with distorted lens and angles to astonishing use in Rosemary’s Baby. The pragmatic Polanski seems skeptical about the material with which he is working and comes close to parodying the film’s supernatural aspects by depicting a hulking, hairy demon, and setting Ruth Gordon loose to drop malapropisms as Rosemary’s officious, Satanist neighbor Minnie Castevet. But the quirky, sometimes broad, humor contributes to the film’s canted perspective of reality. Is Rosemary mad? Is there really a plot against her and her unborn baby? The seemingly inappropriate use of humor unbalances us viewers to the point where we can’t be quite sure what is and isn’t real until the plot climaxes during a blackly comic, unholy christening. Casting plays an extraordinary role in the film’s ability to disorient. Kindly Sidney Blackmer and charmingly dizzy Gordon are cinema’s most unlikely Satanists. Mia Farrow’s petite, increasingly sickly appearance makes Rosemary’s concerns seem all the more dire while also making the possibility that she is just imagining it all plausible. John Cassavetes plays Rosemary’s husband Guy as amiable yet opportunistic and slyly sinister, making his motivations difficult to grasp. Could he and the sweet, old Castevets really be capable of orchestrating Rosemary’s demonic rape and subsequent impregnation with the antichrist? Rosemary’s Baby taught film goers that the most seemingly sweet people can be the most horrifically evil and the scariest horror films can arrive in deceptively gleeful packages. Hail Satan!

77. Night of the Living Dead (1968- dir. George Romero)

Hardly a trace of Universal-style innocence remained by the late ‘60s. Horror films can reflect their times powerfully, and the contemporary violence epidemic had been grossly apparent in the decade’s horror films ever since Docteur Génessier sliced off a young woman’s face way back in Eyes Without a Face. As nuclear threats, assassinations, and riots continued to splatter the headlines, Norman Bates wielded his kitchen knife, Princess Asa Vajda took a mask full of spikes to the face, Carol Ledoux sliced her way through real and imagined sexual predators, and Rosemary Woodhouse suffered the most horrid sexual assault imaginable. Less prestigious pictures saw Herschell Gordon Lewis committing the grossest acts of gore yet to be seen in a motion picture. Even the early Hammer films were beginning to seem quaint when compared to Peter Cushing’s rape of Veronica Carlson in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. Peter Bogonovich’s first film eulogized the monster movies of the past, giving Boris Karloff his final great role as Byron Orlok—a very thinly disguised stand-in for the star, himself. Horror’s most beloved actor would die less than six months after Targets was released in early 1969. People no longer had to visit a cinema to see carnage. Television news programs piped graphic war images from Vietnam directly into living rooms every night. George Romero had been making T.V. commercials, and segments for show such as “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” when he decided to make his first feature film. Inspired by his childhood love of E.C. Comics and the nightly news reports plaguing his adult years, Romero went to work on what could pass as the first vérité horror movie. Night of the Living Dead depicts a zombie assault as the latest violent outbreak to rattle an already well-rattled decade. The grainy, black and white footage and interviews with yahoo zombie hunters could have been narrated by Walter Cronkite. The first attack occurs just minutes into the film, and the tension does not abate until the credits stop rolling. Romero did not write the role of Ben for an African American actor, but the implications of Duane Jones playing a hero who survives the zombies only to be gunned down by redneck vigilantes was not lost on the filmmaker or the black audiences who saw Night of the Living Dead play in drive-ins as a double feature with the Ossie Davis vehicle Slaves. Young matinee audiences were shocked and disturbed by the film’s lurid scenes of cannibalism, as detailed in a famous review by Roger Ebert. Clearly, distributors weren’t quite sure how to market a film with B-horror elements, a black lead, a social conscience, and very graphic violence. Night of the Living Dead did not take its rightful place as a cultural phenomenon until theaters in Washington, D.C., New York, and Massachusetts started showing it as a Midnight Movie in 1971. It would then expand from cult flick to one of cinema’s most influential works, particularly in its depiction of zombies as swarming killers with scientific origins rather than the dead-eyed, voodoo slaves seen in White Zombie, I Walked with a Zombie, and countless issues of Tales from the Crypt. The cynicism of late ‘60s horror like Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead would bear some hideous fruit in the coming decade.


Creep on to the '70s…

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