10/13/2018 – 1960s: Kill, Baby… Kill! (Operazione paura) (1966)
Directed by Mario Bava
The 1960s were an important decade for film as a whole. While we’ll get to the ’70s in a couple days which rightly maintains its reputation for quality and the independent spirit, the ’60s were the beginning of the modern era of cinema. The studio system had dominated almost all film production since the early days of the art form and along with its adoption of the Hayes Code, imposed strict moral standards on movies. No genre felt that restriction harder than horror, a genre which needs to be pushing the edge and constantly innovating. One in which mature themes and depictions of violence are an essential part of the horror director’s tool-set and yet were severely restricted.
Following in the footsteps of the films of Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, and Suddenly, Last Summer, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho became the first major studio horror title in 1960 to challenge the code. The pinnacle of Hitch’s exemplary career, the Robert Bloch adaptation was shot in black and white and on a low budget yet turned into a massive box office hit and made Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates into an iconic villain. Hitchcock would go on to direct a second classic horror title three years later with his Tippi Hendren starring natural horror The Birds. While one boundary pushing proto-slasher film from an esteemed director released in 1960 saw major success right away, another’s content killed the career of its director. The British Peeping Tom from Michael Powell (co-director of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and The Red Shoes) was no less a masterpiece and brought even more sexual themes and depictions of violence to the genre.
The third masterwork of the decade would come only a year later when Room at the Top director Jack Clayton adapted the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw into The Innocents. It’s a fantastically tense psychological horror film starring Deborah Kerr with some wonderful atmosphere. 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde is generally considered the start of the modern era of film, but if you want a good starting point for horror, look no further than George Romero’s classic zombie film Night of the Living Dead (which thanks to a mistake, is now in the public domain). An independently produced classic (and one of the few horror films I’ve rewatched numerous times), it basically invented our current conception of the zombie while bringing in new levels of gore for most horror fans and an undercurrent of social satire. The style was distinctly different from the classic studio films (which even the other three above were clearly apart of), moving to a more natural and raw horror that would define the independent film scene and influence New Hollywood.
As we move into the ’60s, it also starts to get harder to talk about horror in one grand, sweeping, unifying theme. There are subgenres building beneath it, but the variety has increased exponentially already and would only do so more going forth. We’ll start in the US which for three decades was the center of the horror universe. It’s hard to argue for that as changing in this decade, but the parity has greatly increased. Universal’s presence continued to drop here as their horror output almost entirely consisted of imported titles and the 1960 film, The Leech Woman.
Another talent from the ’50s in Roger Corman would move from merely producing shovelfuls of cheap crap (including horror) for drive ins and the like, to directing the typically Vincent Price starring Poe cycle and X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes solid to enjoyable films among his usual crap. He also, among the many people whose careers started under him, produced Francis Ford Coppola’s mediocre first film Dementia 13 and the first two pictures from Peter Bogdanovich including highly acclaimed Boris Karloff starring Targets. Speaking of AIP, which Corman worked for at the time, they would also make 1962’s post-nuclear survival film Panic in Year Zero!
William Castle too would continue his career into and throughout the ’60s and though his gimmicks continued to get weirder, his films, highlighted by Homicidal, Mr. Sardonicus, and Strait-Jacket did not live up to them. One film he produced, however, would turn out to be a classic. He would hire Roman Polanski to direct Rosemary’s Baby and as awful a person as Polanski is (which makes it easier to dismiss the Repulsion and The Fearless Vampire Killers since I find the former overrated and the latter lackluster), as a work of fiction separate from the artist, it is an essential of paranoia and satanic horror.
The success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962, which revived the careers of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford ushered in a series of horror and thriller films starring older actresses (the Psycho-biddy genre) of which only the at best horror adjacent Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte came close to matching the original. Wait Until Dark, from Bond director Terence Young, cast Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman targeted by criminals and builds to a thrilling conclusion. The decade also got a bit weird at times with Herk Harvey’s cult classic Carnival of Souls and the bizarre, aptly named Spider Baby or, the Maddest Story Ever Told. Herschell Gordon Lewis further challenged the standards of gore with his invention of the splatter film with Blood Feast, a trend he’d continue with a number of just as poorly received (to this day) films. It was also the generation of some of the worst films ever made including The Castle of Fu Manchu, The Beast of Yucca Flats, and Manos: The Hands of Fate.
The British were continued to be led by Hammer if not in quality, then at least in notability and production. They produced three more each in their Frankenstein and Dracula series, two sequels to their Mummy films, and a third and final Quatermass title. They also made their answer to The Wolf Man with The Curse of the Werewolf (one of their better titles) and churned out solid titles in their remake of The Phantom of the Opera, The Damned, The Gorgon, and The Devil Rides Out. Outside of Hammer, the country also produced the great creepy kid films Village of the Damned and Children of the Damned (the former is the superior title), Robert Wise’s unsettling The Haunting (which just saw a new adaptation released), and Eye of the Devil.
The country that experienced the biggest wave of success outside those two English speaking ones would be Japan. We already saw last decade the beginnings of the Godzilla franchise and that franchise would only increase in production here. Eight in total would be produced including the introduction of two of his most famous allies/adversaries in Mothra (who originated in her own film first) and King Ghidorah). He’d also receive competition in the form of Daiei’s Gamera series which saw the first five entries published in the ’60s. Other Kaiju films such as the Daimajin series and War of the Gargantuas would also sprout up and even other countries would take their crack at the genre including the UK (Gorgo), Denmark (Reptilicus), and South Korea (Yongary: Monster from the Deep), but none would achieve the success of their major Japanese counterparts. Japan also produced a handful of stellar films in t Jigoku, the bleak Matango, the great Noh influenced Onibaba, the anthology movie Kwaidan, and finally the quiet, atmospheric, and fantastic Kuroneko.
Elsewhere around the world, there were a number of classics being turned out in by various scattered nations. France started off the decade with the great Eyes Without a Face while the American-Italian co-production The Last Man on Earth (an adaptation of I Am Legend) was made with a mostly Italian crew in English starring Vincent Price and remains the best adaptation of the material. Brazil’s Coffin Joe series started with the delightful At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul and This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse. Europe instead gave us two far bleaker films in Ingmar Bergman’s take on horror in Hour of the Wolf (one of his best) and the should be far better-known Czech classic, The Cremator.
TV also saw a big expansion in the area of horror this decade with The Twilight Zone (which had started in 1959 and often featured episodes in the genre) leading to similar anthology titles such as Thriller (the most overtly horror of them all), The Outer Limits, and Night Gallery. Horror themes would also heavily inform the sitcoms The Addams Family and The Munsters (the latter based on Universal’s classic monsters) as well as the soap opera Dark Shadows. The failed pilot Dark Intruder (starring Leslie Nielsen) was repurposed into a fun TV film, but it’s a shame it was never made into anything more.
One area I purposely skipped (for the most part) was Italy and the work of Mario Bava. His first film of the decade was the fantastic looking gothic horror film Black Sunday. His output was prolific, handling 18 films in the ’60s alone, but his 1963 was perhaps the most influential. That year, he helmed the well-done gothic anthology Black Sabbath, the gothic horror film The Whip and the Body, and finally The Girl Who Knew Too Much, the first giallo film. He’d follow it up the following two years with Blood and Black Lace and Planet of the Vampires, a decent enough and a disappointing film respectively before delivering today’s effort in 1966.
I watched the Italian language version here, because I still hold that is the way an Italian movie should be watched. Yes, I’m familiar with how Italian films were typically made during the period and I hate it. In 1907, a woman runs out screaming and dies, falling on some spikes. The villages rush to try to get a body buried instead of autopsied, but a young doctor insists on performing the autopsy alongside a science student. While the autopsy is inconclusive, they do find a coin in her heart (to keep the demon from answering the call). As the doctor tries to investigate, he finds that no one will testify because they are all afraid of something related to secret of villa of the Graps family. The town is a superstitious lot, preferring the help of a local witch in dealing with the mysterious blond girl who is frightening people into silence and cursing them.
SPOILERS1 The gothic horror shot in color will obviously draw comparisons first to Hammer, but it more visually resembles Bava’s other works. It certainly doesn’t have the same level of violence or especially sex of that studio and the colors didn’t look nearly as bright. None of that is a bad thing and the colors and visuals are stunning. Along with the creeping score, the atmosphere is perfectly done and draws you in. As for the mystery and the characters, they do the job sufficiently. The creepy blond girl (who is played by a boy) and all those dolls may be easy horror, but the film is wise enough not to overuse them. Kill, Baby… Kill!, besides being an awesome title, is also a deeply satisfying experience.
Bonus Episode #20 – A – 1980s: StageFright (1987)
Directed by Michele Soavi
We move twenty-one years into the future, but for our second film of the day, we’ll be staying in Italy. StageFright is the First narrative film from Michele Soavi, director of the not very good The Church and Cemetery Man which was just on the docket a couple days ago. Unlike Kill, Baby… Kill!, this was strictly filmed in English. Also, unlike that film, we’ve traded a gothic horror setting for a giallo/slasher film. I say giallo, but despite typically getting grouped in that category, there’s no mystery elements here to speak of since we know the killer right away.
The film opens on a weird ass stage show complete with dude in an owl mask being held at gunpoint and stripped to a sax backing. I don’t even have to point out that the director is pretentious and being challenged over his nonsense elements. Along with someone who works in wardrobe, a dancer who has hurt her ankle sneaks into the hospital for treatment, a hospital where an actor who went crazy and killed 16 people is being held while the court reviews his case. When they head back, he sneaks back, hiding in their car and murders the wardrobe lady. The director, desperate for a hit, takes advantage of the murder and starts to make the show more resemble reality, preying on his actors’ need to work. They are locked in with the killer who begins dispatching them one by one with cops sitting just outside.
As much as I love a good slasher, I was disappointed how quick they moved getting to that. They wasted a perfectly good plot here with the director, a complicated figure who at once has a grand vision yet knows his true place presently, maintaining a self-awareness of the quality and appeal of his product. He also manages to stay off a simple black and white spectrum to feel like just another person trying to get by, no matter how much character seem to want to portray him as a villain. But they blew through the satire or subversion or anything with the play about the play in less time than it took them to set up the plot.
Once the film decided that it was going to embrace the slasher label, it wears it well. The film is visually impressive with plenty of blues and an emphasis on long corridors complimented by a crazy soundtrack that is all over the place. It is frequently ’80 synth rocking which on a normal day would sound hellish to me, but here it fits the wild tone they are going for. The tone where the killer goes around in that oversized owl mask killing. SPOILERS2 It may have made the tone of the scene hard to take seriously, but the whole movie is like that. It only makes sense that a film set on the stage would embrace some camp appeal and I’m all for it here. The kills are fun, and the dialogue is amusing. It’s about all I can ask for in a nice, simple slasher.
Next up: The no doubt patriotic American Mary from the Soska Sisters.