Just like any other artform, cinema is affected by trends and movements that constantly change the landscape. Some of these developments happen on a technical level (two biggies: the introduction of sound and the use of colour), others are more related to themes, sub-genres that become increasingly or decreasingly popular, storytelling, characters…
When it comes to horror cinema, the changes mentioned above are quite massive, but they’re often brought back to a single movie that innovated a specific aspect of horror. For example, Night of the Living Dead (1968) popularised the zombie sub-genre and set the rules for most of slow-moving zombie films to come; it, also, featured the first African-American actor in a leading role, which is something worth mentioning for sure. The Exorcist (1973), ever since it came out, inspired every single horror flick related to exorcisms or possessions, in a way or another: heck, there’s no horror movie in the sub-genre that’s able to avoid all the “tropes” created by William Friedkin’s masterpiece! The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1975) basically created a sub-genre of movies comprised of a bunch of teens on the road trying to escape from a group of cannibalistic/deranged individuals; yet, Tobe Hooper’s classic showed filmmakers around the world you didn’t need a lot of money to make a great film. Halloween (1978) set the rules for the slasher genre, The Shining (1980) literally invented camera techniques used to this day to make cinema more effective, The Blair Witch Project (1999) popularised the found-footage/1st person perspective technique, and so on.
Continue reading and find out what ground-breaking movies came out in 1960…
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The year of Psycho…
In the examples mentioned above, there is one big film missing: Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which came out in 1960 and has since been considered as the father of modern horror cinema. There are plenty of articles, books, documentaries, studies out there that explain, in detail, every minute aspect that Psycho revolutionised in modern cinema. I, also, wrote essays and studied manuals about Psycho in my university years. Thus, I won’t spend too much time on this game-changing masterpiece. What’s important to acknowledge, for the moment, is that Psycho changed cinema both on a storytelling perspective and on a technical level.
In terms of how movies work, Psycho introduced the concept of a monster living inside men, it deconstructed the linear storytelling by killing the lead actress halfway through the movie and, obviously, it represented the first instance of plot twist, which now has seemingly become mandatory to have in horror movies. On a technical level, Hitchcock’s Psycho features a lot of at the time unique choices and visuals, but the standout is represented by one sequence in particular: the shower scene. Released using 70 different shots and 52 cuts, the “Master” crafted a sequence still studied in film schools for its invention and aesthetic effectiveness. The use of natural sounds mixed together to create such an eerie soundtrack for the specific scene, the frenetic cuts and mysterious objects framed, Marion’s screams and the game of shadows come together perfectly and bring to life one of the most iconic sequences in the history of cinema.
… and its siblings
1960, however, has changed the face of horror cinema even beyond the impact of Psycho. Again, in terms of both technical creativity and storytelling perspective, a bunch of phenomenal horror films came out that year.
These seven horror movies came out in the same year, but in different parts of the world. Which is quite a fascinating coincidence, as though horror cinema decided to change altogether everywhere on the planet. These are the “siblings” of Psycho will talk about in the next paragraphs: Blood and Roses (France, Roger Vadim), Eyes Without a Face (France, Georges Franju), The Housemaid (South Korea, Kim Ki-young), House of Usher (USA, Roger Corman), Jigoku (Japan, Nobuo Nakagawa), Peeping Tom (UK, Michael Powell) and Village of the Damned (UK, Wolf Rilla).
A revolution from the screen to the real world
Of course, the masterpiece by Alfred Hitchcock is so great and influential to the point of making us forget there were other 1960 horror movies that changed our beloved genre… and our lives as well! One of them is, without a doubt, Eyes Without a Face by Georges Franju: in this film, we follow a renowned surgeon going to extremes to give his disfigured daughter a new face. Amidst great character development, beautiful cinematography, unrivalled atmosphere and truly scary moments, we get the face transplant scene: here, the characters use grafts to perform such a complex operation. Guess what? Grafts were theorised in Eyes Without a Face and, only a few years after, actually used in real-life face transplants! This shows how realistic and attentive to detail this masterpiece was. On top of that, the infamous photo-montage sequence showing the daughter’s face deteriorating has inspired tons of movies after, as well as providing ideas for scenes that, today, can only be pulled off using CGI.
Despite an initially negative reception from critics, Peeping Tom was equally ground-breaking, both in a psychological way and from a technical perspective. Peeping Tom benefits from a profound psychological complexity, which incorporates the “self-reflexive camera” as a plot device and an innovative point of view in cinema. In fact, Martin Scorsese himself claimed that “Peeping Tom and 8½ [by Federico Fellini] say everything that can be said about filmmaking, about the process of dealing with film, the objectivity and subjectivity of it and the confusion between the two”. Aside from inspiring tons of stalker-type movies, the presentation of Peeping Tom influenced both slasher films (including Carpenter’s Halloween) and 1st person perspective features from the early 2000s. This is, also, one of the very first horror films to deal with themes such as child abuse, sadomasochism, sexual repression and patriarchal obsession.
Adapting stories and creating new sub-genres
Other 1960 horror films may have not revolutionised the genre in broader terms, by introducing new themes and changing the way of shooting scenes. However, their impact was equally ground-breaking, as they either changed the way to adapt source material for the big screen or they pretty much invented a completely new sub-genre of horror. Master of horror Roger Corman took upon himself to adapt Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Fall of the House of Usher into the horror movie titled House of Usher. Before this point, most horror adaptations were very faithful to the source material and displayed in an almost stage-like way, as though they were plays rather than motion pictures. Everything changed with Roger Corman’s amazing film. Even though the story is pretty close to the one in the short novel, style and presentation were modernised and done in a very creative way. Aside from that, House of Usher was one of the very early low-budget adaptations of famous source material.
Just like The Exorcist will do 13 years later, Blood and Roses by Roger Vadim and Village of the Damned by Wolf Rilla created new sub-genres. In the case of the French movie, it represented one of the very first instances of horror-erotica, in which vampires are both charming/sexy and dangerous. This has inspired cinema throughout the years, and the trend can still be found in recent movies, for better (Thirst by Park Chan-wook) or worse (Twilight). On the other hand, Village of the Damned introduced the idea of a children-led cult in horror cinema: from Children of the Corn (either the book or the movie) to the British The Children, all these films owe something to Wolf Rilla’s shocking picture. On top of that, Village of the Damned created many elements that would comprise many folk horror movies, from The Blood on Satan’s Claw to Midsommar.
Changing the horror industry for an entire country
Hollywood in the 50s and 60s was already established as a colossal industry with power and money, therefore even horror – the underground genre at the time – had ramifications and clear sub-genres. This wasn’t the case for other, smaller industries, like Japan’s and South Korea’s. In Japan, horror was rooted in the country’s tradition and culture: it was a poetic, almost delicate genre that aimed to have an emotional impact on the viewer rather than scaring or making them feel uncomfortable. This changed with Jigoku (AKA The Sinners of Hell), a horror film that went for disturbing content and shock value. Through a very graphic and nightmarish representation of hell, Jigoku paved the way for the infamous disturbing horror cinema from Japan: this masterpiece, which you can now watch on the beautiful Criterion edition, inspired some of the greatest Japanese artists working today, like Takashi Miike and Sion Sono.
The Housemaid did the same for South Korean cinema, but in the opposite way. Remade twice (as Suddenly in the Dark in 1981 and as The Housemaid in 2010), this horror-thriller introduced the concept of a family’s destruction by the introduction of a sexually predatory femme fatale into the household. Does it sound familiar? If so, that’s because this has since become a convention in South Korean horror: a convention we can find, in different measures, in the likes of A Tale of Two Sisters, Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, Cinderella 2006 and The Red Shoes. On top of that, The Housemaid fully revolutionised South Korean cinema industry by paving the way for psychological horror in the country, introducing comedic relief in dour stories and intertwining disturbing content with more emotional stuff.
I truly hope you enjoyed this article, as much as it was very different from the usual review of newer horror movies. As a big fan of classic horror, I revisited with pleasure all the movies mentioned in this post, and I was very surprised by how great The Housemaid was – I had only seen both remakes of it, never the original film. In fact, four of these horror films are just perfect in my opinion (Psycho, Eyes Without a Face, Peeping Tom and Jigoku): even the others, though, are worth an 8/10 or higher, for sure.
From a historical perspective, as well as on a filmmaking level, 1960 truly is the single most important year for horror, so I felt like this little tribute was needed. On a personal level, I consider this year to be my favourite in terms of horror cinema, as much as many favourite horror movies of mine came out in 1973, 1977, 1982, 1999 and 2019 as well. If you love horror and you don’t like to stick to modern stuff only, I strongly recommend watching every single horror film featured in this article: aside from having a great time, you would also learn a big chunk of cinema history!
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