In the course of writing this blog, it dawned on me that most of the movies I was praising fell in one decade. But it was not the 1930s, during the height of Universal Studios’ horror cycle, or the 1980s, as the Academy Awards would have us believe. No, in my opinion, the 1960s was the Golden Age of Horror Movies.
The ground for a horror renaissance was laid in the prior decade. Horror went through a long drought in the 1950s, as science fiction took its place at the dark end of the cinema production line. Even movies like The Werewolf (1956) or Frankenstein 1970 (1958) had to provide a scientific basis for their monsters. Universal Studios turned away from mist shrouded castles and flapping bats to the creeping cold war paranoia of Jack Arnold.
Then in 1957 Hammer Films released The Curse of Frankenstein, launching a whole new horror cycle. The timing of the film was perfect, aligning with both the release to TV of Universal’s monster classics and the loosening of limitations on sex and violence in movies worldwide. Hammer quickly followed up with Dracula (1958) and science fiction began to fade before the onslaught of blood, cleavage, and the undead.
The decade of the 1960s opened with two startling classics: Peeping Tom and Psycho. Both were sexually frank shockers helmed by highly regarded directors; Psycho was a smash at the box office, Peeping Tom was buried under a wave of revulsion by critics. The success of Psycho created a wave over the next few years of one word/insane killer movies: Paranoiac, Strait-Jacket, Berserk!, Homicidal, Maniac, etc…
The rest of the year included such minor gems as: Blood and Roses, Eyes Without a Face, and Black Sunday. But most significantly, spurred on by the success of Hammer, in 1960 Roger Corman began his Poe cycle with The Fall of the House of Usher.
1961 ushered in Jack Clayton’s subtle masterpiece, The Innocents and Curtis Harrington’s equally subtle Night Tide. 1962 featured the eerie minor classic, Carnival of Souls and introduced Bette Davis and Joan Crawford to horror with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? In 1963, Alfred Hitchcock returned to horror with The Birds, Robert Wise paid chilling tribute to his days with Val Lewton with The Haunting, and Francis Ford Coppola got his break in movies with Dementia 13.
Japan contributed two classics in 1964: Kwaidan and Onibaba. Roger Corman released the twin apogees of the Poe cycle: Masque of the Red Death and The Tomb of Ligeia.
1965 featured Roman Polanski’s masterpiece of degenerating sanity, Repulsion. Two minor, overlooked films, The Nanny with Betty Davis and The Collector with Terence Stamp provided nice bookends for Polanski’s masterwork. Milton Subotsky, taking his cue from Dead of Night (1945) established the horror anthology film with Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors.
In 1968, two sub-genres of horror films were spawned by Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (The Religious Horror Movie) and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (Zombies).
All throughout this period, Hammer was releasing a flood of movies, some of which (Brides of Dracula, Curse of the Werewolf, The Gorgon, Plague of the Zombies, The Devil Rides Out) were really terrific. The Italian Horror Film industry churned out a steady stream of titles, of variable quality. Hundreds of lesser films rounded out double bills at drive-ins with titles like Spider Baby, I Eat Your Skin, Blood Feast, or the memorably named Face of the Screaming Werewolf.
This was the period when sex and violence were married to horror films forever. Hammer’s trailblazing moved from cleavage to nudity and their trickles of blood on Dracula’s chin or severed limbs in Frankenstein’s lab were quickly surpassed by others, like Hershell Gordon Lewis, with fountains of blood and heaps of guts. It’s interesting to note, however, how few of the movies I highlighted were explicit, although most at least featured suppressed but tangible sex, violent shocks, or both. Note also how many of these movies were filmed in black and white and did not need to show red blood or naked pink skin to achieve their ends.
You could put together a list of the best Horror Films in other decades, and it would be likely be an impressive list. But the high end of the 1960s horror cycle surpasses any other decade because it includes the greatest number of intelligent and artistic Horror Movies ever attempted. These movies often featured real characters in situations where the supernatural element was suggestive or missing completely. Some of these movies were directed by men who were either at the height of their skills or just beginning their brilliant careers.
As the doors to more explicit violence and sex opened wider in the 1970s, Horror Films began to settle into the modern pattern of gore effects, gratuitous nudity, and not very subtle shocks. What was left behind was a sense that the Horror movie was not a restrictive, cheap form, but a vehicle for the highest levels of expression. There have been exceptions since then, of course, but these were exceptions. In the 1960s, Horror as Art was the rule, and that is why the 1960s ruled as the Golden Age of Horror Movies.