If you followed along with our Best Horror Movies of All Time series by decade, there was an absent decade; the 1960s. But, as the formative bridge between the atomic horror of the 1950s and the new wave of horror in the 1970s, the 1960s deserve inclusion too. The rubber-suited monsters of the previous decade gave way to more psychological rooted fears in line with the social climate nurtured by the Vietnam war, the Kennedy administration, the Manson murders, and a loosening film censorship that allowed more freedom in expression of sex and violence. The 1960s also began with a bang, marking the final and arguably most influential decade of Alfred Hitchcock’s career in film and horror with the release of Psycho. Here’s the best horror the decade had to offer:
Hitchcock’s possibly most accessible horror film set the foundation for slashers that would follow years later. Based on Robert Bloch’s novel of the same name, which was loosely based on serial killer Ed Gein, Psycho was a gamechanger in that its killer was the boy next door type, someone that fit right in among neighbors. It was also shocking in that lead character Marion Crane didn’t even survive past the first third of the film. Her iconic death scene was a true technical marvel, too, shot over six days with 77 different camera angles. Psycho was also transgressive for its depiction of sexuality and violence for its time, paving the way for films that would follow.
Peeping Tom (1960)
A film so effectively scary that it was pulled from theaters and seriously damaged the career of director Michael Powell, Peeping Tom is also considered the first slasher. Powell forced viewers to be complicit voyeurs with his serial killer, who murders women while using a camera to record their dying expressions. Though there are numerous comparisons to be made with Psycho, Peeping Tom bears more in common with typical slashers, namely in terms of the quantity of victims and the sympathetic final girl. Though critics and audiences hated it at the time, it’s since become regarded as a classic.
Eyes Without a Face (1960)
Giving more credence to the theory that documentary filmmakers make for excellent horror movie directors, Georges Franju’s segue into narrative features also brought about his determination to have genre film be taken seriously in native France. His first, adapted from a novel by Jean Redon, minimized the gore and animal cruelty from the novel that would upset censors, instead focusing on a quieter mood. The plot, which sees a surgeon who abducts women to flay their skin in the hopes of giving his disfigured daughter a new face, meant that even with the quieter tone, it still managed to cause controversy over the heterografting scene. Edith Scob gave a tremendous performance as Christiane, the daughter that spends most of the film emoting behind a mask. Like most now regarded classics, Eyes Without a Face has since been re-evaluated as a classic.
Black Sunday (1960)
Working as a cinematographer long before transitioning into the director’s seat, there’s no question that Mario Bava has a stunning eye for visual horror. Such is the case with gothic horror Black Sunday, his directorial debut of striking gothic imagery and a graphic tale of a witch’s revenge. Beautiful as it is horrific, it was banned in the UK for 8 years due to its violence and gruesome nature. Even with censorship issues, it didn’t stop the film from becoming a worldwide critical and box office hit, launching both Bava’s and lead star Barbara Steele’s careers. Shot in black and white, Bava would prove what he could do with vivid color just a few years later.
The Innocents (1961)
Like a classic supernatural horror film that would follow two years later, Jack Clayton’s supernatural horror keeps things ambiguous as to whether the ghosts are real or a mere manifestation of a mind that’s lost its innocence. The plot follows a governess who comes to believe that their large estate is inhabited by ghosts that are possessing the two children in her care. A tale of repressed sexuality made nightmarish by Clayton’s choice to film in black and white, and his choice to keep the film’s ghosts mostly relegated to the dark shadows in the background. Atmospheric, an eerie score, well-executed scares, and a screenplay co-penned by famous writer Truman Capote makes The Innocents an important pillar in supernatural horror.
Blood Feast (1963)
Ok, I know what you’re saying. Herschell Gordon Lewis’ first genre film doesn’t exactly hold up well in terms of plot, acting, and dialogue. And compared to the widely acclaimed films on this list, Blood Feast seems like the oddball. However, Lewis broke into new territory, creating the first ever Splatter film in Blood Feast. He also vastly improved as his work progressed on the sub-genre he created, with much better and gorier films to follow.
The Haunting (1963)
Adapted from Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, director Robert Wise and screenwriter Nelson Gidding took the base supernatural haunting and translated it into a psychoanalysis of character Eleanor Vance in the throes of a nervous breakdown. A rare Hollywood film to depict a feminine lesbian character, though Wise kept Theodora’s sexuality subtle. Favoring mood and atmosphere over overt signs of the supernatural, the film is now widely considered to be one of the most unsettling. Though just an average success upon release, The Haunting was a formative horror film among the likes of Steven Spielberg, and has since become a major cult hit.
Blood and Black Lace (1964)
Considered to be the earliest and most influential of gialli films, Mario Bava forever changed Italian horror with his highly stylized slasher with brutal kills. Already a master of horror, thanks to the successes of Black Sunday and Black Sabbath, Bava was given full creative reign over this film. This meant Bava unleashed; delivering a hyper-gory murder mystery that became the most influential thriller ever made. Bright colors, endless gore, and the giallo killer trademark outfit: black gloves, black hat, and a black trench coat. Complete with switchblades. This film would inspire the works of Dario Argento, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and more.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Not much is left to be said about this seminal film by George A. Romero, the man responsible for the modern-day zombie sub-genre. A film shot among a group of friends on a miniscule budget that wound up portraying progressive themes of prejudice and xenophobia also terrified with its ghouls and gore. As groundbreaking as it was horrifying, Night of the Living Dead created one of the longest lasting legacies in horror. We’ll miss you forever, Mr. Romero.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Horror director William Castle, known for creating theatrical gimmicks around his films, purchased the rights to Ira Levin’s 1967 novel with the hopes of being taken more seriously as a director. Instead, the studio pushed him into a producer role, opting for newcomer Roman Polanski to helm the adaptation. The result is one of the best horror movies of all time. Mia Farrow gives an all-time best performance as Rosemary Woodhouse, the poor housewife unwittingly raped and impregnated by the Devil himself thanks to a selfish, ambitious husband. The psychological horror that ensues, spiraling into full-blown paranoia remains timeless.
Witchfinder General (1968)
A bleak, mean horror film about a 17th-century witchhunter that travels from town to town, condemning accused witches to death and leaving a wake of pain and sorrow. When he victimizes a young woman betrothed to a young soldier, he finds himself in a world of more trouble than he ever anticipated. The 75th role of iconic actor Vincent Price marked a far more serious performance than normal; his Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins one of horror’s most vicious monsters of all time. That he was so convincingly evil likely had a lot to do with his turmoil behind the scenes with director Matthew Reeves, who hated the actor for being pushed upon him by the studios and often lashed out at Price during filming. Their tumultuous working relationship made for an effective film; Witchfinder General is harrowing, vicious, and sadly remains timely. It’s not an easy watch, but it’s among the best.