Cinema Gothic: The 1960s

The 1960s produced another true golden era for the horror genre, producing staple pieces from filmmakers who would leave their fingerprint on the genre. Two monumental ghost stories were put to film, the modern concept of the zombie was given life, the term “shower scene” was given new meaning, and Satan sired a child. These five films of the 1960s run the expanse of subject and style, but each one has the ability to rattle our sensibilities.

Psycho (1960)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay: Joseph Stephano. Based on the novel by Robert Bloch. Starring: Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Janet Leigh. Studio: Paramount/Universal. Country: USA.

The truest terror from the master of suspense, Psycho is perhaps Alfred Hitchcock’s Pièce de résistance. Many scenes, including the infamous shower sequence, are now forever embedded in the subconscious of the moviegoing public’s psyche. Expertly cast with Anthony Perkins as the seemingly innocent young motel clerk and with Janet Leigh as his anything-but-innocent guest, the cast is rounded out by a host of well-played characters. No one knew how to make an audience tense at just the right time as Hitchcock, or makes them dreadfully uneasy. The film is not just a suspense thriller, though. There are disturbing things under the surface: what was going on in the mind of Norman Bates, and what was his real relationship with his mother? There are also dreadfully macabre visuals, such as the car seeping very slowly into the swamp. It’s all practically perfect in every way, as far as such a film can go.

The Innocents (1961)

Director: Jack Clayton. Screenplay: William Archibald and Truman Capote. Based on the novella The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. Starring: Debora Kerr, Michael Redgrave, Megs Jenkins, Martin Stephens, Pamela Franklin. Country: United Kingdom.

This is an unnerving film wrought from one of the most psychologically probing ghost stories ever written. Are two innocent children being possessed by the spirits of their former governess and gardener, or is their new governess a victim of paranoid delusions? With a remarkably dark and potent script bearing the unmistakable fingerprints of Truman Capote (particularly in dialog), the work becomes a gothic masterpiece. Particularly impressive are the performances of Kerr and the children, and the relationship between the three itself becomes more and more unsettling by each scene. Meanwhile, the dark, shadowy shots within the country house with its lofty staircases and candle-lit rooms is creepy good fun. Jack Clayton knows just how to pace such a film to bring an eerie sense to the whole work. Enhances by a particularly chilling score (and the song “O Willow Waly,” a brilliant piece composed for the film), this film chills on multiple levels.

The Haunting (1963)

Director: Robert Wise. Screenplay: Nelson Gidding. Based on the book The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Starring: Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, Russ Tamblyn. Country: United Kingdom.

If there is to be any number one on a list of haunted house films, this has to be it. Without ever showing a single ghost, Robert Wise crafts a house of such dread that you will want to run outside yourself by the end. A doctor has three guests stay in a house with a strong reputation of being haunted as part of an experiment. There are great performances all around, with Julie Harris being particularly magnificent as the troubled Nell. In a change of pace from most haunted house films preceding it, the assumption from the beginning of the film is generally that the paranormal exists, with only one real skeptic.

The film plays beautifully with lighting and with hauntings mainly exhibited through noises and the behaviors and remarks of the main characters. This film still holds up extremely well half a century later. Pay no attention to the 1999 remake, which, despite its superb cast, fails because of unnecessary “updates.” All the subtlety of this film is lost in that one, and it ultimately fails as a film because of it.

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Director: Roman Polanski. Screenplay: Roman Polanski. Based on the novel by Ira Levin. Starring: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer. Studio: Paramount. Country: USA.

When Roman Polanski tackles the horror film, you know you will get something both bizarre and memorable. With Rosemary’s Baby, we get exactly that. Using real New York City settings, there is a realism about the film that is warped by truly unsettling performances by Cassavetes as Farrow’s husband and Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer as the conspicuously over-involved neighbors. Farrow, herself, gives an amazingly vulnerable performance that carries the film through to the end, making the extremely bizarre more believable. When all the pieces start coming together for Farrow, the film becomes quite frightening, and you fear for her life. A well-shot film in the usual pattern of Polanski (for whom this was his first American film) and featuring fine performances all-around, the film opened up doors for many other horror films to explore issues of the Occult, Satanic offspring, and related issues. Now with an exceptional release by the Criterion Collection, this is a milestone in the genre that can’t be missed.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Director: George A. Romero. Screenplay: George A. Romero and John A. Russo. Starring:  Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea Karl Hardman. Country: USA.

There are very few films that I dread to watch. I dread Night of the Living Dead. There is something so unsettling about this particular film that, although I own it, I rarely watch it. There is a nihilism to the film, a raw, uncompromising savagery to the plot that turns the stomach more than any gore (of which, except for a couple of brief instances, there is little). The style is remarkably simple and, set in rural Pennsylvania in the late ’60s, is very identifiably homey to anyone who grew up outside the city and suburbs, even those born a couple of decades later. For this reason, it is particularly creepy and downright disturbing. I knew houses that looked remarkably like this one, down to the furnishings. I knew cemeteries that looked remarkably like the one at the beginning of the film. Much of my extended family rests in such surroundings. Unlike many of Romero’s later films, this one underplays its hand, and it is creepier as a result. There may never be another film like Night of the Living Dead. Remade twice, neither film nor any of the many spinoffs of the original come anywhere close to it. I don’t watch this film often because, even as a horror movie buff, it shakes me to the core.

(Cover image: a still from Psycho)