Groovy Baby, Yeah! Like, hey sweat hogs, what’s shakin’? You, like, totally had to know that when this chapter in your Horror Cinema textbook came around that there would be some choice use of sixties euphemisms as well as some twitchin’ Austin Powers quotes and if you didn’t know that, you’ve totally zoned out in class.
It’s time, once again, to be a total bummer and get heavy on the Horror Movies of the 1960s vibe. Now, I know I’m probably harshin’ some buzzes out there but trust me when I tell you this chapter is outta sight. A gas! Boss, if you will. So tune in, turn on and drop out as we get psychedelic with the gnarly nightmares of the swinging sixties.
“Now more than ever, audiences had a taste for stories that pushed boundaries in entertainment value and social commentary.”
The Times, They Are A-Changing
Like the 1950s, the 1960s was a time for transformation in the horror movie genre. Now, more than ever, audiences had a taste for stories that pushed boundaries in entertainment value and social commentary. Thanks to the fifties’ offering of invaders from space movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and War of the Worlds (1953), and atomic nightmares such as Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) and World Without End (1956), Hollywood upped the ante on audience expectations and with all of the cultural, political and social change that happened in the ensuing decade, the sixties were bound to live up to the turning tides in like, pure far-out fashion.
This was a time when everything from clothing, music, and drugs to sexuality and formalities, all underwent drastic changes. It was a time when a decadent contempt of the establishment and the societal norms established by the status quo gave way to a flamboyant decay of social order. And like any true component of a proper counterculture, the films of the time reflected that in spades.
The Birth of A Subgenre
In May of 1960, a British psychological thriller was released called Peeping Tom, directed by Michael Powell. This could easily be named as the godfather of the slasher sub-genre but a little movie called Psycho (1960) came along later that year and took the wind out of Peeping Tom’s sails. Regardless of semantics, this was the year the contemporary slasher genre was born and while still in its infancy, it would grow up to do many wondrous and wicked things.
While some new subgenres were cropping up, others had a resurgence in popularity. Eyes Without a Face (1960) brought back the old mad scientist trope but jazzed it up a tad with some graphic violence and gore. If you consider images of a girl having her face lifted off of her skull graphic and gory, that is. And Hitchcock offered up a second horror film in the sixties simply titled The Birds (1963). This film housed the typical Hitchcockian staples such as unique camera work, high suspense, and rich character development improving upon the fifties’ “killer animal” subgenre.
Bravo, Bava! Bravo!
Jumpin’ Jota, the Italians really got some global gusto in the sixties and it was all thanks to a new director that pushed the boundaries and helped change the genre. Mario Bava began his filmmaking career as a cinematographer, having lensed thirty films before finally sitting in the director’s chair in his first feature, one he also photographed, called Ulysses (1955). His first genre film, however, came a year later with I Vampiri (1956), of which he also acted as cinematographer.
Despite being in the industry for over fifteen years, as the sixties rolled in, Bava had what was perhaps his most prolific period. His horror contributions were great and many, paving the way for many Italian directors of the future such as Lucio Fulci (Gates of Hell 1980), Dario Argento (Suspiria 1977), Umberto Lenzi (Seven Blood-Stained Orchids 1972) and even Bava’s own son, Lamberto Bava was heavily influenced by the late director.
Black Sunday (1960), The Evil Eye (1963), Black Sabbath (1963), The Whip and The Body (1963), Blood and Black Lace (1964), Planet of the Vampires (1965), Kill, Baby, Kill (1966), are but a smattering of Bava’s horror film body of work throughout the sixties. Each one would have a distinctive visual flair due to the director’s lensman background and they would always distort the lines between illusion, reality and human nature’s penchant for everything around them including themselves.
Bava wasn’t the only name to help place Italy on the movie map in the swingin’ sixties although he may be the most recognizable. Riccardo Freda was a talent in his own right and when it came to genre cinema, he has a pretty impressive resume. The Horrible Mr. Hickock (1962), The Witches Curse (1963) and The Ghost (1963) were his offerings during the decade and while his genre films are nowhere the quantity Brava’s work, they have as much if not more impact in their delivery.
Gimme The Grok on The Gimmick Genre, Pops!
The gimmickry of the fifties still hung in the marketing thoughts of American filmmakers at the turn of the decade. Fifties gimmick guru, William Castle released 13 Ghosts (1960) in “Illusion-O” where audiences used a “supernatural viewer” to spot hidden ghosts within the film.
The following year, Castle unleashed Mr. Sardonicus (1961), the story of a man whose mug becomes frozen in a grotesque grin while robbing his father’s grave to retrieve, get this… a winning lottery ticket. The promotion for the film featured a “punishment poll” that allowed the audience to choose Mr. Sardonicus’ fate in the film in a sort of choose-your-own-adventure type of vibe. The movie played out as if the audience verdicts were real and Sardonicus’ destiny on screen was determined by their choices, which coincidentally were almost always against the man and his dastardly deed.
Another Castle release was Homicidal (1963). A “fright break” was offered where the audiences were shown a timer over the terrifying climax. Those too frightened to witness the film’s horrifying conclusion were given 25 seconds to haul butt out of the theater and into the “coward’s corner” to get a full refund and a free blood pressure test.
Castle wasn’t the only gimmick game in town as Francis Ford Coppola… yes, that Francis Ford Coppola also did a flick in the sixties that had a stunt. Dementia 13 (1963) had a trick where in order to see the film in theaters, audiences had to answer and pass thirteen questions. Questions such as “Did you ever do anything seriously wrong for which you felt little or no guilt?” and “Have you ever been hospitalized in a locked mental ward… ?” were asked. If anyone failed any of the questions they were not permitted into the theater.
The Haunting of Vincent Price & The Dawn of George A. Romero
Vincent Price, despite already being an established star really found his niche during this time, particularly with American International Pictures. With Price hot off of the success of House of Usher (1960), American International signed him to do several pictures in their series of Edgar Allen Poe tales. Tales of Terror (1962) and Masque of the Red Death (1963) were both big hits for the studio and the actor alike. Price went on the star in The Raven (1963), The Haunted Palace (1963), Diary of a Madman (1963), The Last Man on Earth (1964), Witchfinder General (1968) and The Oblong Box (1969) for other studios during the sixties, just to name a few.
The rise of counterculture cinema in the sixties was all the rage as well, with films like Easy Rider (1969), Alice’s Restaurant (1969) and Riot on the Sunset Strip (1967) bucking the status quo and bringing about more liberalistic ideals and gritty realism in the storytelling. Thanks to a renegade group of filmmakers led by a young and daring director named George A. Romero, horror would have its own spot in the counterculture movement with the release of Night of the Living Dead (1968).
Not only did Night of the Living Dead scare audiences with the thought of the dead returning to life to feed on the living, but it also tackled many serious social and political issues of the time. The issue of racism in America came to a violent head in the sixties and the casting of a black man in the lead role of a motion picture was almost unheard of in those times. Not to mention scenes of gangs of white men “lynching” zombies, an image that hit very close to home for millions of African Americans. The reanimation of the dead due to radioactivity from NASA’s space program touched on the anti-nuclear movement and concerns about nuclear armament around the globe, specifically the Cuban Missle Crisis, where Russia was planning on setting up nukes on the Carribean island, well within striking distance of its foe, the US of A. The film even echoes the antiwar movement in a Vietnam War era where the country and the world was deeply divided on said war. Night of the Living Dead with its stark and gory black and white film footage was very reminiscent of the nightly news footage from the war featuring dead Americans and Vietnamese alike.
Sex was another huge part of the 1960’s counterculture. Gone were the puritanical ideals of chastity and monogamy, and in were promiscuity, sexual awareness, and sexual awakenings. The movies caught onto that theme pretty quickly, too and nowhere did it catch on quicker than in horror films. Repulsion (1965) was Polanski’s first English language film and among the obvious sexual overtones, also crafted one of his scariest and most disturbing pictures. While this may be lauded as his scariest, it certainly isn’t his most famous. That credit goes to Rosemary’s Baby (1968) which started a string of popular demonic themed horror films like The Devil Rides Out (1968) and The Crimson Cult (1968).
Pitter Patter, Let’s Get Splatter
I ain’t ‘fraid of no ghosts! Well, the box office of the early sixties would beg to differ with pictures like The Terror (1963), The Haunting (1963) and Tower of London (1962) all giving up the ghost to the throngs of audiences flocking to the many supernatural spectacles of the sixties. And while ghost were sending chills up the spines of audiences across the land, a new subgenre was taking a foothold in the basement of horror’s hallowed halls.
Splatter movies featured a focus on graphic violence and gore in an effort to shock audiences out of their collective minds. The Godfather and undisputed master of the splatter film was none other than Hershall Gordon Lewis. The Sinners of Hell (1960), Blood Feast (1963), Two Thousand Maniacs (1964), The Flesh Eaters (1964), Color Me Blood Red (1965), and The Gruesome Twosome (1967) all held gory, grotesque scenes where copious amounts of blood, guts and other viscera flooded the screens. The subgenre is the precursor to grindhouse and torture porn films, inspiring the likes of Wes Craven, Peter Jackson, and Eli Roth and their films Last House on the Left (1972), Bad Taste (1987) and Hostel (2005) respectively.
Well, gang, I hope you all dug this groovy little trip into sixties horror cinema. It was terrifyingly far out and I had a blast creeping… er… teaching you cats about it. It was a crazy time with so much change that it’s any wonder that anything got done at all. But done it got and out of all of the chaos we were offered some pretty outstanding horror. Strange how a decade that gave us such great scary stuff in fiction also ended with giving us such awful real horror. Two words sum up the summer of love and the death of the hippy movement, Helter Skelter.
Not to bum you out but I have to remind you to like, do your required reading over at our Facebook, Subreddit and Twitter pages. It’s pretty gnarly stuff, I think you’ll dig it, man. It’s totally my bag and I’m sure it’ll be yours, too.