Early ’60s Horror (1)

By: David Smay
October 31, 2011

Of all the high-lowbrow movements to streak across the back half of the twentieth century — the French New Wave, Brazilian Tropicalia, Underground Comics, Punk — it’s the early 1960s revolution in horror which is least recognized, least known and least understood. Even the savviest critics of the era missed this tidal change because the very breadth of it rolled in behind larger cultural and generational waves, and what critical focus it drew came wrapped in moral panic and disapproval.

[First in a series of posts by David Smay on horror movies of the early 1960s.]

Blood and Roses

In 1960 alone, Psycho, Peeping Tom, Black Sunday, and Eyes Without a Face played in theaters. Yet that clutch of five-star masterpieces only represents a fraction of that year’s important work which also saw the Japanese vision of hell, Jigoku, two Hammer horrors in The Brides of Dracula and Two Faces of Dr. Jeckyll, Roger Corman’s first gothic, The Fall of the House of Usher as well as his cult cheapie Little Shop of Horrors, Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses, and Village of the Damned.

There was really no way to see this happening as it occurred. Psycho dominated both the box office and the mainstream press, and the avid and active horror fandom of the time was too busy looking backward in a happy wallowing glut of old horror movies on television. Even as late as the ’80s with Stephen King’s Danse Macabre and the ’90s with David Skaal’s The Horror Show that early 1960s era was seen as a period of horror quatschification, the uncanny cozily commodified by “Monster Mash” and Famous Monsters of Filmland, horror hosts like Ghoulardi and model kits of The Mummy.

The years between 1960 and 1963 not only saw an unprecedented explosion of masterful film horror, but it was also the golden age of the television horror anthology with great work airing on The Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, One Step Beyond and the Boris Karloff-hosted Thriller. Even Roald Dahl hosted his own series for one season in 1961, Way Out. If you think of Psycho as the Never Mind the Bollocks of the era, with Black Sunday as The Ramones’ Leave Home, you can see the shorter, sharper shocks of TV horror as the ceaseless spew of fantastic punks singles by Stiff Little Fingers and The Ruts and The Only Ones. (By this analogy, The Twilight Zone stands as the great singles band of the era. In short, it’s the Buzzcocks’ Singles Going Steady.)

Another complicating factor in the invisible ubiquity of early ’60s horror were the censors’ scissors which snipped away the most potent scenes in Eyes Without a Face and Black Sunday which toured in butchered versions. (Eyes Without a Face infamously played across the south as The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus coupled on a double-bill with The Manster.) It was only in the early twenty-first century when Criterion released definitive DVD releases of Eyes Without a Face, Jigoku (long rumored and rarely seen in the West), Carnival of Souls and Peeping Tom and Mario Bava’s work came out in uncut, remastered editions that the impact of the work came into focus.

The Innocents

And still, it’s difficult to wrap your brain around the era because not only did it produce an arterial spray of great films, and iconic television episodes, but it came in such an unwieldy, critically resistant mass. Black Sunday and The Fall of the House of Usher both consciously copied the success of Hammer’s gothics, but one launched the Italian horror industry, while the other set off the most important horror cycle in American independent film. Psycho and Peeping Tom both circled around mentally bent protagonists in mundane, contemporary settings, but Hitchcock had his greatest success, while Powell’s career was destroyed. No single critical theory encompasses the high literary adaptation of The Innocents (based on James’ Turn of the Screw), Psycho killers, the Poe/Stoker/Shelley gothics, the era-capping gore of Blood Feast, the camp satire of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, the Cocteau-derived Eyes or the dreamy Val Lewton influence on The Haunting and Night Tide.

The critical language itself fumbles trying to parse these distinctions. In Danse Macabre Stephen King articulates a difference between “horror” and “terror” which parallels a long-standing divide between “body horror” and “psychological horror.” But even “psychological horror” is a baggy term that conflates Crazy Killers (i.e., Psycho and its many imitators) with narratives wavering on the edge of the supernatural (i.e., “The Turn of the Screw” and its many imitators). The longstanding middlebrow bias against body horror, violence and gore fueled outright censorship and also a kind of tut-tutting disdain. Both Georges Franju and Michael Powell suffered critical hits for lowering their distinguished careers into the horror gutter, a move seen as both unseemly and crassly money-grubbing.

Within just this four-year span from 1960 to 1963, horror covers a vast landscape, so in my next section I’ll carve a narrower path, looking at the films The Haunting, The Innocents, Blood and Roses, Night Tide, Eyes Without a Face, Carnival of Souls and Burn, Witch, Burn. These movies are linked by an emphasis on uncanny dreaminess over body horror (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), and women who aren’t running from chainsaws, but walking slowly towards their fearful desires.

I’ll explore the porous boundaries between the art film and horror in this era, recruit Italo Calvino to explain the difference between “the fantastic” and “the marvelous,” and make compelling yet insupportable claims for the unethical virtues of horror.


MORE HORROR ON HILOBROW: Early ’60s Horror, a series by David Smay | Phone Horror, a series by Devin McKinney | Philip Stone’s Hat-Trick | Shocking Blocking: Candyman | Shocking Blocking: A Bucket of Blood | Kenneth Anger | Sax Rohmer | August Derleth | Edgar Ulmer | Vincent Price | Max von Sydow | Lon Chaney Sr. | James Whale | Wes Craven | Roman Polanski | Ed Wood | John Carpenter | George A. Romero | David Cronenberg | Roger Corman | Georges Franju | Shirley Jackson | Jacques Tourneur | Ray Bradbury | Edgar Allan Poe | Algernon Blackwood | H.P. Lovecraft | Clark Ashton Smith | Gaston Leroux |

OTHER HILOBROW SERIES: FITTING SHOES — famous literary footwear | POP ARCANA — spelunking weird culture | SHOCKING BLOCKING — cinematic blocking


Movies, Read-outs

What do you think?

  1. “Unethical virtue”—this is very promising!

    David, I’d love to know your take on the NYT review of Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, which Glen Duncan leads off with the assertion that “A literary novelist writing a genre novel is like an intellectual dating a porn star.” The highbrow-lowbrow distinction is deployed there at its most tiresome and unreflective, or so it seems to me. And I want to say that the zombie genre has always been especially resistant to such dichotomization, but I may not be able to support that.

  2. Matthew, Duncan’s review is an almost perfect example of highbrow boundary keeping. Look at how he opens with the implication that Whitehead’s book is both unseemly and dirty, then Duncan argues: “Colson Whitehead is a literary novelist, but his latest book, “Zone One,” features zombies.”

    So first he indicates that the subject matter is itself unfit for literary consideration, but then Duncan says, “Broad-spectrum marketing will attract readers for whom having to look up “cathected” or “brisant” isn’t just an irritant but a moral affront.”

    Since the advent of Modernism the literary threshold is set by language itself. Novels are analyzed and critiqued at the level of the sentence, and all literary effects must generate from the use of language, rather than the 19th century standards of plot, narrative and characterization.

    So Joyce and Woolf reflect the buzzing flow of consciousness itself in the riverrun of their words, and Faulkner and Henry James’ infinitely pliable sentences are folded and folded and folded like pastry dough to create their layered meanings.

    So Duncan is outright acknowledging one thing and implying another. Technically, by high literary standards, Whitehead is “allowed” to write about any subject matter he wants as long as he maintains the linguistic standard signaled by words choices like “brisant.” However, he’s still a dirty, dirty boy for playing with Zombies and (like Franju and Powell) it’s implied that he just wants to make mad monster money.

    Zombie horror as a genre has no literary root – it belongs to lowbrow film and comics. So while Joyce Carol Oates and Patrick McGrath and Angela Carter can play in the gothic space cleared out by Emily Bronte, Charles Dickens and Mary Shelley without tainting their reputations, for a literary writer to write about Zombies is just as eyebrow raising as Michael Chabon writing comic books.

  3. Great conversation so far, though isn’t Chabon quatsch?

    Also — this is my own axe to grind, David, and you don’t need to reply, but because I am inclined to argue that the era known as the Fifties began in 1954 and ended in 1963, and the Sixties began in 1964 and ended in 1973, I am intrigued by your cutoff date of 1963. I wonder if it’s possible to argue that the horror movies from 1960-63 in which you’re interested represent the climax or culmination of a Fifties trend, as opposed to the beginning of a Sixties trend?

    In other words, could it be argued that the 1960-63 horror movies have more in common with Diabolique, The Night of the Hunter, The Bad Seed, and House on Haunted Hill (I’m probably picking terrible 1954-1959 examples, help me out here) than with Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Kwaidan, Two Thousand Maniacs, Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, Repulsion, and Rosemary’s Baby? Or could it be argued that the 1960-63 horror movies were a transitional phenomenon between these two sets of films? Just want to put that out there.

  4. Josh, I don’t think Chabon’s championing of lowbrow, pulpy narrative has the cutesy, kitschy quality of quatsch. He’s too earnest. Aside from that he’s inoculated from a certain level of highbrow critique simply because his prose style is exceptionally profluent.

    Technically, he’s a superior stylist and all you can carp about (if you’re playing fair by literary standards) is that he lacks the gravitas of David Foster Wallace or the density of a Pynchon. If anything his writing is over-pretty, a little too easy on the ear. More Abba than Tom Waits. (That’s not a damning judgment says the guy who has written books about both Bubblegum and Waits.)

    I was conscious of your periodization, but there’s also just a blatant cut-off that begins in ’63 with Blood Feast and is complete by ’64 with titles like Flesh Easters, and I Eat Your Skin and 2000 Maniacs.

    It is a transitional period, and Eyes Without a Face is the fulcrum with its floating lyricism butted up against the still shockingly graphic scene of the face transplant. You’re right to note though that the films that I’m focusing on in particular are defined by a cooler, b/w, fifties aesthetic rather than the hot, technicolor go go gore sixties.

    Another clear example of this transition is that Britain produced two landmark horror movies in 1957 that couldn’t be more dissimilar: Night of the Demon (aka, Curse of the Demon) by Jacques Tourneur, using all of the elegant shadowing effects he learned under Lewton at RKO in the forties, and the very first Hammer gothic, The Curse of Frankenstein, which was vividly technicolor, brightly lit and defined by great gobs of fleshy body horror.

    So, you’re right that we’re seeing two competing aesthetics, one that goes back to the forties RKO movies of Val Lewton and crests during the early sixties, and a succeeding wave that supplants it starting with Hammer Horror.

    The other big influence that I haven’t mentioned, but which also supports your periodization is the loosely grouped Urban Horror writers were ascendent in the fifties and into the early sixties. This would include Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Fritz Leiber, Robert Bloch, Theodore Sturgeon’s “Some of Your Blood.” You might include some of Roald Dahl’s wicked short stories as a fellow traveler with this sensibility, which was consciously anti-gothic, trying to take horror out of rotting castles and set it in a recognizably contemporary setting.

    This movement really begins with Leiber’s forties publication of “Conjure Wife” which is the basis for one of the movies I’m looking at Burn, Witch, Burn. Shirley Jackson, of course, wrote The Haunting. And Bloch (Psycho) and Matheson (I Am Legend) were responsibly for an incalculable number of screenplays both for film and television (Twilight Zone, Thriller, Alfred Hitchcock Presents) during this very stretch.

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