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Alfred Hitchcock redefined the horror film with 1960’s ‘Psycho’, one of the first films featuring a psychologically complex serial killer.
While it may seem tame in comparison to modern horror films, it was truly shocking upon its release, offending polite society with its depiction of violence and sexuality.
It’s impact on cinema can’t be overestimated, influencing the “slasher” films of the 70s and 80s with films like John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’, ‘Friday the 13th’ and countless others. But there were other impressive button-pushing proto-slasher films from the swinging 60s deserving of attention.
Let’s explore a few.
“Do you know what the most frightening thing in the world is? It’s fear.”
Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) is a filmmaker working on a disturbing secret project: a documentary/snuff film, filming the reactions of women as he murders them onscreen.
Soon, he attracts attention from his neighbor, Helen (Anna Massey), who is intrigued by his secretive nature. But when she discovers his grisly fixation, she realizes that her very life is in danger.
Perhaps the most controversial film of its era, ‘Peeping Tom’ destroyed Powell’s career after critics demonized it as a work of deranged perversion.
But thanks to the efforts of filmmaker Martin Scorsese, it’s been rightfully reappraised as a fascinating film exploring the dangers of voyeurism and sexual repression.
“Castle Haloran is a bit perplexing, a very strange place really, old and musty, the kind of place you’d expect a ghost to like to wander around in.”
After losing her husband, John, to a heart attack, Louise Haloran (Luana Anders) is upset, but for the wrong reasons. Instead of grieving his loss, she’s worried she’ll be cut out of his inheritance, as she can only collect if he’s alive.
To improve her chances, she dumps him in the lake before visiting his family at their Irish estate, explaining that he left for a trip to the States.
The Haloran clan is distracted by another death, John’s sister, who drowned in a lake eight years prior. In an attempt to win over his mentally ill mother, Louise claims she can speak with the dead spirit. But her greedy scheme is delayed once an axe murderer arrives.
‘Dementia 13’ is less focused on gores and jump scares than a sense of atmosphere and dread. That it achieves it on such a modest budget is a testament to Coppola showing considerable skill with his directorial debut.
“That’s what makes them so dangerous. They can change from being your friend into your murderer in a second’s time!”
There’s just something off about Emily (Jean Arless), a disturbed young woman coming between Miriam Webster (Patricia Breslin) and her brother, Warren.
Emily is a caregiver for the Webster’s aging childhood nanny, but she secretly delights in torturing her—and is more preoccupied with the small fortune the siblings are about to inherit.
Miriam is deeply suspicious that Emily is a psychopath who wants her out of the way so she can abscond with Warren and their money.
But why does she look so familiar, and what secret does she hide?
‘Homicidal’ was deeply influenced by ‘Psycho’, and while it can never match Hitchcock’s classic, it has a memorable twist ending that provides quite a jolt.
A filmmaker notorious for memorable marketing gimmicks, William Castle promoted ‘Homicidal’ with a “fright break” which offered a refund for ticketholders too afraid to stay for the big reveal: “You have only sixty seconds to get your money back!”
“The words of a sadist, one of the most disruptive elements in human society.”
Ed, Doris and Carl are high school teachers on the way to a basketball game forced to stop at a gas station due to car trouble.
Their problems go from bad to worse when they’re held hostage by Charlie Tibbs (Arch Hall Jr.), a sadistic delinquent on a murder spree with his girlfriend, Judy.
Looking for a getaway vehicle, he demands the trio hand over their car. When he realizes it needs repairs, he drifts into a murderous rage, taunting them to fix it while torturing them in the process. Will anyone survive his reign of terror?
There is a palpable level of suspense and terror in ‘The Sadist’, with a sense of dread akin to modern films like ‘Wolf Creek’, ‘Funny Games’ and ‘The Devil’s Rejects’.
This was shocking in an era before real life violent crime became so commonplace and movie villains had clear-cut motivations for their crimes. Tibbs simply kills because he enjoys it, and Hall’s performance is truly unsettling.
“Perhaps the sight of beauty makes him lose control of himself, so he kills.”
A masked killer (with a menacing clawed glove) is picking off models at an Italian boarding house. The police suspect a boyfriend of one of the victims after her diary goes missing.
Just what is the incriminating evidence in the diary, and can the police find it before the killer does?
‘Blood and Black Lace’ is one of the most beautifully shot horror films of its day, full of lurid painterly images from director Maria Bava.
The film proved deeply influential in its native Italy, inspiring the Giallo horror sub-genre popularized by filmmakers like Dario Argento (‘Suspiria’) and Lucio Fulci (‘Zombi’).
Be that as it may, it’s more obscure to the world at large, making it a must-see for fans of foreign horror.
While 60s slasher films can’t compete with more recent entries in terms of gore and sexual content, their influence upon modern horror can’t be underestimated.
These films reflected their era: rising tide of homicide, the breakdown of the family unit and the devastating aftermath of the Vietnam War, as well as breakthroughs in psychology and perception through therapy and drugs.
This would lead to even more provocative and unsettling films about disturbed violent killers as the decade progressed. Speaking of which, keep an eye out for my next installment, when I’ll be covering Good Slasher Movies from 1965 to 1970.
But now I turn it over to you. What 60s psycho-killer thrillers do you think are underrated? Be sure to tell me in the comments.
Honorable Mentions: ‘Psycho’, ‘Blood Feast’, ‘Strait-Jacket’, ‘The Evil Eye’, ‘The Hand’, ‘The Thrill Killers’.
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