1960s represents a seismic shift in the kind of storytelling that began to be offered to viewers. Gone were the days where blood and gore could not be shown openly on the screen and 1960s released a cluster of classic shockers that ratings boards and audiences didn’t know how to react to many of them other than banning and hoping to not see such horrors again.
It was the Italians and the low-budget exploitation American films that carried the bloody blades the films of 1960 had handed them. Foreign directors took it further and created what we now call slashers (in Italy, they were giallos). By 1968, the American Production Code had ended. And the bloody gates were open.
This list of the best horror films of the 1960s shows the scattershot genre jumping of acceptability at the time. From the shocking to ghost stories, to psychological horrors, we have tried to bring to you 10+ classics of the genre. Hope you enjoy them!
1. “Black Sunday” (1960)
“Black Sunday” begins with a stunning and horrific opening sequence that would get the film banned in the UK for years. In the opening, Princess Asa (Barbara Steele) is convicted of being a witch and has a bulky and spiky satanic mask nailed onto her face by a massive mallet. She’s buried alongside her lover in a crypt. 200 years later, two doctors discover the tomb, are attacked by a bat and blood is spilled on her casket. They curiously pry the mask off of the Satanic Princess’ face and a curse is unleashed, as Asa takes possession of a virginal woman in town (Steele again) and sets out to unleash her revenge. While the story doesn’t score high marks, the chills surely do.
2. “Eyes Without a Face” (1960)
Georges Franju’s eerie film follows a plastic surgeon that specializes in transplanting living skin tissue from one person to another. When he causes a car accident that disfigures his daughter (Edith Scob), he begins to abduct women and flay their skin, attempting to give his daughter a new face; when it doesn’t work, he has his assistant drop their bodies in the river.
3. “Peeping Tom” (1960)
Audiences were so horrified by “Peeping Tom” that it was actually pulled from theaters. They felt violated and betrayed because one of the most revered and hopeful of Britain’s directors, Michael Powell (“The Red Shoes”), had made something perverse and psychotic. He made viewers confront the level of thrill-seeking they hope to get from a moving image by following a smutty photographer/amateur filmmaker (Karl Boehm) who photographs nude pics for side money, but gets his real thrills from filming women while he stabs them to death with a blade on his tripod.
4. “Psycho” (1960)
Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” is the big kahuna of this list. The shower murder of our beautiful heroine (Janet Leigh) features 77 camera angles and almost as many cuts (and string shrieks from composer Bernard Herrmann). It’s one of the most perfect moments in all of cinema. And there’s so much to unpack from those three minutes alone; everything in this scene is so close and jarring it gives the affect of visual processing itself, as the eye funnels the violence down the drain of our own mind.
5. “The Innocents” (1961)
This is one of the most evocatively shot horror films of all time. Both narratively and visually, this ghost tale is about what we do in the shadows. Deborah Kerr plays a governess who believes that the grounds of the house—where she cares for two orphaned children—are haunted, perhaps even working to possess the children. Her first inkling of a haunting comes after she hears the children’s uncle (a lascivious Michael Redgrave) boast of a sexual encounter. There’s further evidence that the previous governess and her brutish lover might have introduced sexuality to the children at a young age. There’s an inkling that Kerr’s governess is so sexually repressed that her desire to take care of children is a substitution for feelings of attraction to their experienced uncle. She sees ghostly spirits, whether they’re there or not.
6. “The Birds” (1963)
“The Birds” is an amazing home invasion thriller more than an average horror movie that greatly influenced every zombie or home invasion film that would come later. The birds, which have begun attacking humans for no reason and seem to have a particular bone to peck with a socialite (Tippi Hedren) who was recently in court for her racy behavior, swarm the house that holds her inside. They peck through the walls, their beaks poking through like a Whack-a-Mole game. Her love interest (Robert Taylor) has to board the doors and nail furniture in front of weak spots. And then the heroine goes upstairs. KABOOM!
7. “The Haunting” (1963)
There’s a spooky mansion with handed down tales of hauntings, death and insanity. Someone’s about to inherit the house, though, so they pay to send researchers of the paranormal to stay in the house and provide him explanations for the haunting. Is the house on the hill actually haunted? Or does being told that it’s haunted play tricks on everyone inside? Some retain skepticism. Others go mad. It seems that if the house wants anything, it’s both of these responses, because both skepticism and belief will continue to send people there for answers.
8. “Blood and Black Lace” (1964)
Mario Bava changed horror forever with “Blood and Black Lace”. Already a horror maestro, Bava kicked off the giallo genre (Italian blood-letters) with highly stylized and gruesome kills, interesting point of view shots that withheld the killer’s identity while also gave up close vantage points for slicing and strangling, and set colors that were as bright as the fake red blood that gushed from wounds.
9. “Hush..Hush, Sweet Charlotte” (1964)
Ah! The mother of all cleaver murders. Family, bloodshed and so much more waits for the viewers in this deliciously campy scare-fest.
10. “Repulsion” (1965)
Roman Polanski’s first English-language film follows a fractured woman who fears penetration from every man she encounters. It’s also a film that breaks into new fractures due to the grotesque and crooked turns in Polanski’s personal life that came later (the brainwashed cult murder of his wife and child, and his drugged rape of a teenager). There’s a sense in “Repulsion” that no one has control of his or her mind. Certainly Carole (Catherine Deneuve) has no control over her fear of sex (with small hints of previous abuse). She has nightmares of hands breaking through the wall and groping her and thinks of men cornering her and raping her. She’s paralyzed and near mute by these visions.
11. “Kuroneko” (1968)
“Kuroneko” (Black Cat) gets the honor to represent Japan’s rise into horror movie-making of the 60s. It is poetic, visionary, haunting and moralistic, but it also features more real horror than any other movie before it.
12. “Night of the Living Dead” (1968)
The zombies in George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” are called “ghouls” but nonetheless this is the film that created the movie zombie as we know them: blank, thoughtless creatures who lumber around with vacant stares and barely retain any resembling sense of their humanity. For this reason, the thrill of the movie zombie has generally been in seeing how our heroes with brains dispatch them with great efficiency and cruelty. They’re no longer human, after all.
So, what do you think of the list?
Sound off with your personal favorites in the comments below!