Top 5 Horror Movies of the 1960s

The sixties were a decade of extremes. The joys of The Beatles and the British Invasion, the wild, cool, and swingin’  excess of Frank Sinatra’s Ratpack, the birth of Marvel Comics, the Space Race, and trippy, free-loving hippies were opposed and even overshadowed by the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy Assassination, The Martin Luther King Assassination, the Viet Nam War, and dirty, smelly, evil hippies. Historian Mark Kurlansky alleges that 1968 is when things took a turn for the sober because it was the year that television started showing uncensored and unfiltered images of the Viet Nam war and other important news from the other side of the world, and those real-life horrors certainly colored and shaped the events of subsequent decades.

I don’t think that the sixties was ground zero for the birth of pop culture as we know it, but I do think it started to codify around college campuses and having access to more forms of mass media. Books were cheap. Comics were everywhere. Nearly everyone could read and most folks had access to a television. Airlines were flying people from Los Angeles to New York. Pop art was emerging. The Cult of celebrity was nascent. It was a groovy, happening time, driven mostly by the ever-mercurial “Youth Market” and it drove the first tentative wedge between the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers.

This decade, then, was the battle ground between generations, as the protests on college campuses later in the decade would attest. Things changed, seemingly overnight, and the world became a darker, more frightening place. It made the Elvis movies and the Beach Romp Teenie Bopper Comedies seem more vacuous and out of place, but there were suburbs everywhere that these movies were playing to packed houses. In some ways, the decade was also the last hurrah for the American Dream; the bill of goods that Generation X would inherit bore little resemblance to what the Greatest Generation or even the Baby Boomers had access to. The myth of America had been exposed, but it would take a few decades more to fully die. The horror of the 1960s is largely about exposure, metaphorically or otherwise and commentary on our collective impressions of the status quo. We don’t know who the monsters are anymore, and that’s because we are the monsters.

5. Carnival of Souls (1962)

A young woman survives a serious car crash and, presumably to make a fresh start, moves to Salt Lake City, Utah, where she gets a job as a church organist. Her efforts to regain some normalcy are disrupted by the appearance of a strange, pale man she keeps seeing intruding on her daily life. Disturbing dreams and visions leave her increasingly rattled. The pale-faced man continues to plague her and this is putting a damper on her relationships with the church minister, the guy in her boarding house, and the psychiatrist trying to help her. She finds herself drawn to an abandoned resort pavilion and runs to it, looking for answers, and boy, does she find them.

Carnival of Souls is impressionistic and surreal ghost story that does a lot with very little. The director was a man named Herk Harvey, who was a producer and director of educational and industrial films. Carnival of Souls was his only feature length movie, and he made it for a pittance. Years of no-budget filmmaking allowed Harvey to pull off some cool technical tricks that would have ballooned the budget, and he made the most of his three-week shooting schedule by shooting on the fly, asking permission from local shops and places and filming quickly so as not to disrupt their business. In this regard, Carnival of Souls doesn’t look like it was made for $33,000, though it’s hard to put a finger on what it does look like. One of the most unsettling things about the movie is the musical score that was written for the organ. The part of Mary is played by Candace Hilligoss, a classically trained actress who manages to hold attention throughout the movie. She plays a woman trying to return to normal, only to find she has crossed a threshold and can’t go back. Some of the shots are brilliantly executed, and others have that flat, shallow artifice that you see in, oh, say, industrial and educational films. The ghoul(s) in the movie are inexpertly made-up, but sufficiently creepy. The whole movie feels like an extended Twilight Zone episode, and some folks consider it an example of late Expressionism, which is a bit of a stretch. Carnival of Souls takes the standard ghost story and tells it in a really interesting and eerie way.

4. The Last Man on Earth (1964)

Vincent Price is a man on a mission. Every day, he begins by making wooden stakes. Then he gathers supplies and broadcasts on his radio…and then he waits.  They come at night, these vampires, or maybe they are ghouls, but he just calls them mutants. They come for him, and he fights back all through the night and then starts over again the next day. It’s a lonely existence, made better by the appearance of a woman who does not seem to be infected like the others. Despite his suspicions, he brings her back to his home, and the true nature of the world is revealed to the Last Man on Earth.

Price is great as Dr. Robert Morgan, one of the scientists who was working on the plague before it took over the world, killing his wife and daughter, who then later came back and attacked him as the undead. He had to kill them all over again, and he’s been a little nuts ever since. Price is mostly alone, talking to himself, and he’s acting the hell out of it, so the movie is highly entertaining. But Ruth, played by Italian actress Franca Bettoia, is the one who sends him down the rabbit hole and her double-cross is what triggers the last act, and frenzied chase sequence with more than one “What the Hell…?” surprise.

This is the best adaptation of the quintessential 1960s horror novel I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson. That’s not quite damning with faint praise, but of the three movies to attempt to make a movie out of the book, this one comes the closest by comparison. That Dr. Morgan is an unreliable narrator is one of the more interesting twists in the novel, and one that no filmmaker has yet to get right. But in the end, the status quo has been restored, and its implications are well-executed.

3. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford are “Baby Jane” and Blanche Hudson, two elderly sisters with fading careers in show business. The younger sister, Baby Jane, was a Vaudville star in the mold of Shirley Temple. The older sister, Blanche, was initially pushed aside as a child to make room for her famous sister, but found success as an actress as an adult, when, coincidentally, Baby Jane’s act had fallen out of favor. When a car crash leaves Blanche paralyzed, it falls to Baby Jane to take care of her, and that’s when things go off the rails. Betrayal, mental torture, and murder are all part of Baby Jane’s plan to restart her career, a la Sunset Boulevard, but all Blanche wants to do is survive. Events pile up and drive the sisters to the brink of psychosis (and over) and the ending is both perfectly ambiguous and eerily satisfying to watch.

It’s impossible to watch this movie and separate the actresses from their characters. It can’t be done, especially if you know anything at all about their legendary feud that spanned the length of both of their careers. These women hated one another, and they do their level best to out-act each other in this movie. It drives the performances, sure, and at times they venture into the realm of melodrama, if not outright camp. But fortunately, the situation of the characters, especially Blanche, generates a lot of sympathy and all of her efforts to escape Baby Jane’s clutches are suspenseful and frustrating.

It’s not unfair to point to some of the crime stories of Frederic Brown and Jim Thompson as part of the inspiration for the story; the film was an adaptation of the book by crime writer Henry Farrell. The ending in particular brings to mind the ambiguity of some of Thompson’s or Cornell Woolrich’s more crazed offerings. But the real enemy here is fame and fortune; Baby Jane needs it to feel alive and young again, and she will do anything, and I mean anything, to get it. Equal parts demented character study and psychological horror, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is an unhinged indictment of celebrity and its ravages.

2. The Haunted Palace (1963)

In Arkham, Massachusetts, a 17th century warlock named Joseph Curwen is burned alive on his own front lawn, but not before cursing the whole town and vowing to return and make them all pay for what they’ve done. Now it’s more than a hundred years later, and Charles Dexter Ward (Vincent Price) and his wife have inherited the old Curwen place and want to fix it up, and they are baffled by the chilly reception they get from the town when they arrive in Arkham. Many of the townsfolk also have a strange look about them, a kind of fishy deformity. The local doctor explains to Charles and his wife, Anne, all about Curwen and the curse, which the townies blame for all of the birth defects. It’s all poppycock, of course, but Charles is suddenly less and less himself, mostly after staring at the large portrait of Curwen in the house. Curwen finally does take over and makes plans to bring his beloved Hester back to life in the same way. The villagers get wind of all the warlock-related activity in town and storm the place, destroying the painting of Curwen and presumably freeing Charles from the warlock’s influence. Or do they?

Roger Corman was on a creative tear in the early sixties, producing and directing his best work for American International Pictures. He’d just finished The Raven, starring Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre, in addition to Price, who was the marquee draw for these movies. It, too, bore only a passing resemblance to Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, so why not take a chance on another adaptation featuring sorcerers and warlocks? The low budget effects in this movie are well-done, and manage to make the production seem more grandiose in scale as a result. Debra Paget plays Anne Ward in her final film roll, and Lon Chaney, Jr. has a brief but memorable part, as well. Considering the schlock Corman is known for in his later career, the horror movies from this period are some of his best work. The Haunted Palace is an oft-overlooked and hard-to-find cult classic that tries to match up with the Edgar Allan Poe series of films that Corman directed for AIP. The only real problem is, this ain’t Poe, and never was. The title of the movie is taken from 8 lines of poetry that they tacked onto the beginning of the movie. Everything else is liberally adapted from H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” made less cosmic and more demonic, but otherwise was the first and one of the best efforts of adapting Lovecraft in the 20th century to film. It’s certainly one of the best Corman-directed Price movies, played straight, and genuinely creepy and weird. Poe fans might feel cheated, but Lovecraft fans will love it for all that it manages to get right.

1. Psycho (1960)

Marion Crane, a secretary for a real estate company, makes an impulsive and dangerous decision to make off with a bag of the company’s money. She white-knuckle drives out of town, intending to meet her fiancée and marry him and run away together with him to start a new life, presumably as criminals. Along the way we see her making a ton of rookie mistakes, and we cringe at all of them. Finally, she pulls into a roadside motel for the night and rents a room, where she meets Norman Bates, played with sympathy by Anthony Perkins. After an awkward conversation, we see that Norman is more creepy that even we thought, but that’s nothing compared to Norman’s mom, who lives in the big old house behind the motel. Mom doesn’t like the women driving alone, see, and she decides to do something about it. Something permanent.

Psycho is a masterpiece, if ever there was one. It might be Hitchcock’s best film. Who doesn’t know about this movie, thanks to nearly sixty years of popular culture riffing on it? It’s hard to discuss the movie because if someone hasn’t seen it, you don’t want to give anything away, but pop culture has pretty much spoiled it for a true first time viewing anyway.

Psycho is a master class in plot twists and surprising turns and it’s best to walk into it cold. Only, I don’t know if that’s possible anymore; the shower scene is a part of cinematic history, one of the most-oft-referenced scenes ever. But all of the trailers and print ads were adamant about not ruining the movie for anyone who hadn’t seen it. Even Hitchcock’s six-and-a-half-minute tour was more about teasing the audience than spilling the beans. Brilliantly so, I think. The film was based on the book by Robert Bloch, who based his story on the serial killer Ed Gein (who also inspired Leatherface in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, among others). The ending of the film is particularly effective and blood-curdling. It’s unfortunate that succeeding directors and producers tried to make a “franchise” out of the movies, and a little sad that Perkins, who had some personal troubles for many years, felt like he had to be a part of the sequels. They are not good. Thankfully, the original stands head and shoulder above the others and they do not pull Psycho down to their level. If you haven’t seen it, this is one of those can’t-miss films that belong on everyone’s list of Great Movies That I Have Seen.

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