Save for seminal films like Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby, or Night of the Living Dead, the ‘60s is a decade we don’t talk much about in horror. Stuck between the wave of atomic monsters in the ‘50s and the formation of modern horror as we know it in the ‘70s, the ‘60s is a little harder to pinpoint. It was a showcase of psychological thrillers focused on ritualistic killers, which would pave the way for the slasher, but it also featured tales of the supernatural, European gothic horror, and cheap B-movie thrills from producers like Roger Corman, who entered into his Poe cycle during the decade. In other words, the ‘60s is an eclectic decade often overlooked. If you’re looking to dive into the many treasures the decade offered, here’s 10 great horror movies you might have missed.
Ok. So, you’ve likely seen this one already, or at the very least you’ve heard of it. But it’s a fantastic horror comedy that’s simply not celebrated enough. Written and directed by Jack Hill (Foxy Brown, Switchblade Sisters), Spider Baby follows a caretaker, Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.), that devotes his life to caring for the three Merrye children in their decaying mansion following the death of their father. The problem is that the children suffer from “Merrye Syndrome,” an affliction that causes the sufferer to regress into a child-like state. When a pair of distant relatives swoop in, hoping to claim the estate and family money for themselves, Bruno’s control over the children wanes as they descend into a depraved, murderous state. Darkly funny and twisted, Spider Baby also features Sid Haig in one of his earlier roles as the eldest, and most far gone, Merrye child.
The Devil Rides Out
Also known as The Devil’s Bride, this cult horror film really delves into the workings of a Satanic worshipping cult and sees said worshippers working to convert two new victims. Christopher Lee plays Nicholas, Duc de Richleau, an investigator that deduces his friend’s son may be one of the cult’s newest inductees. An epic battle of good versus evil, full of chills and adventure, The Devil Rides Out is one of Hammer horror’s best. It also seems to be one of the rarer instances in which Lee plays the good guy.
When it comes to Japanese horror from the ‘60s, Kwaidan tends to hog the spotlight. But Jigoku, aka The Sinners of Hell, is much more memorable in its imagery thanks to its shocking depiction of hell. The protagonist is Shiro, a man who’s a passenger in a hit and run crime after leaving his fiancée’s house. The victim’s mother sees the crime and plots revenge. From there, Shiro’s story is interwoven with connected tales of murder, lies, revenge, and adultery – sins that sees Shiro on a quest through Hell itself. A reflection of life, and the afterlife, but with stark moments of gore and one hellish portrayal of the hereafter.
The City of the Dead
Also known as Horror Hotel, this black-and-white horror movie sees a young college student venturing into the small, foggy town of Whitewood to research its history with witchcraft. Naturally, she uncovers startling secrets about both the town and its inhabitants. A creepy supernatural story where the townsfolk behave very strangely, the poor college student finds herself contending with Satanic witches, none of them very friendly. Low budget, but effective and atmospheric, look for Christopher Lee as witchcraft professor Alan Driscoll, who sends the student to her potential doom. We need more witch movies like this.
The Flesh and The Fiends
Also known as Mania, this horror movie is based on true serial killers William Burke and William Hare, who slaughtered 16 people in Scotland, in 1828, and sold their corpses to Dr. Robert Knox for anatomical research. Peter Cushing plays Dr. Robert Knox, and like his character Victor Frankenstein in The Curse of Frankenstein, he realizes all too late what kind of monsters he’s created with Burke and Hare. While Cushing is always a great draw, the true reason this is worth seeking out is for Donald Pleasence’s performance as the murderous William Hare. The leader and mastermind behind the homidical duo, Pleasence imbues Hare with a sleaziness that’s utterly captivating.
Chances are you either love or hate the showman-like gimmicks of William Castle, but I’m team “love ‘em.” The Tingler, House on Haunted Hill, and 13 Ghosts are his most well-known, but Homicidal is a lot of fun as well. The simple premise begins with a brutal murder that launches an investigation in a small California town. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho played a clear influence on this film, especially in the twist, but Castle makes it his own. As for the gimmick, Homicidal employed a “Fright Break” at the theater. Right before the major reveal, the movie paused and a 45-second timer began; anyone too scared to continue could leave at that moment and request a full refund. Of course, if they did, they’d have to sign a certificate declaring themselves as cowards.
Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte
Just two years after delivering a memorable performance as the unhinged Baby Jane Hudson, Bette Davis would play another aging reclusive, Charlotte, with family secrets. Only this time, she played the victim. The arrival of her distant relative Miriam (Olivia De Havilland) marks a drastic deterioration in Charlotte’s sanity, something that Miriam uses against her in her plot to steal her relative’s money. This gothic story is so over the top in the best possible way. The melodrama, the conspiracies, and Davis and De Havilland delivering fascinating performances, this is fun trip into stylized madness that’s been overshadowed by films like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Blood and Roses
Loosely based on the novella Camilla, this French horror film is absolutely beautiful. Those familiar with Camilla will know that this means that Blood and Roses is also the epitome of slow, and follows rich girl Camilla, who becomes so jealous of her cousin’s recent engagement that she dives headlong into an obsession with an ancestor rumored to have been a vampire. Tragic love story (and some eroticism) meets haunting gothic atmosphere, plus an unexpectedly bloody finale, Blood and Roses makes it easy to see why vampires tend to earn a reputation for romance.
This is one horror film that feels eerily on the nose, even by today’s standards. Or maybe because of today’s standards. Either way, it weaves two parallel stories together, one involving an aging horror film star (played semi-autobiographically by Boris Karloff) preparing to make an appearance at a drive-in theater, and the other a suffering Vietnam vet preparing to go on a mass shooting spree. Based on the case of Charles Whitman, a man who climbed a tower at the University of Austin with a hunting rifle in 1966 and killed 14 people, injuring 31 more, the documentary-like style of Targets makes it even more harrowing. This film also marked Karloff’s last appearance in a major American film.
The very plot of this gem is great; a young priest is offered money to watch over the wake and pray for the soul of a witch in a remote village, and this means he has to spend three nights alone with her corpse. The issue is that he’s also the cause of her death, and his only defense against her wrath is his faith. The moral implications of it all is a doozy. Each night alone with the witch in her coffin grows increasingly more terrifying for the young priest, beginning with small supernatural occurrences and building up to an explosive finale that makes me wonder if this film inspired Sam Raimi in any way. It starts slow, but stick with it- it’s worth the wild ride.