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This is the first entry in a five-part series highlighting some of the best horror films ever made, listed by decade. We’ll start with the 1960s and catch up to the 00s before those Halloween marathons get in full swing.
The 60s saw a different standard emerging for the horror genre. The fantastical monsters and outer space creatures that had been haunting drive-ins for years were being replaced by more intelligent sources of terror. Hitchcock did his part to inject psychological themes into the genre, while directors such as Roman Polanski and George Romero introduced new methods of getting beneath the audience’s skin.
You won’t find too many shock value techniques or buckets of blood in the following movies. All the scares seem to brew beneath the surface and multiply in the imagination, making these oldies even more unsettling than their more modern counterparts. They’re listed in chronological order.
10) Peeping Tom (1960)
This sadistic and masterfully-executed descent into murder, voyeurism, and sexual desire put director Michael Powell on bad terms with UK critics and proved to be a fatal blow to his career. It follows in the steps of a serial killer as he preys on women and tapes their expressions just before they die. If you dig past its gruesome surface, you’ll find a compelling commentary on the nature of filmmaking and the role of audiences as entertainment-seeking “peeping toms.” Though it has since become a cult hit, it was simply too heavy for its time and Powell never recovered his career.
9) Eyes Without a Face (1960)
When a plastic surgeon’s daughter becomes severely deformed after a brutal car accident, he decides to kidnap a beautiful woman and rebuild her face with their skin. The ensuing freak-outs, suicides and emotional trauma are only heightened by the beauty and elegance that French director Georges Franju brings to the film. Chase with something light; this may leave you queasy and shaken up.
8) Little Shop of Horrors (1960)
This bizarre, low-budget horror farce began its life hidden in B-grade double feature sets, eventually rising to its status as a beloved cult gem. It’s about a plant that eats people, and combines black comedy, wacky performances (including a cameo from a fresh-faced Jack Nicholson) and memorable gross-out moments to make for a delightfully disturbing experience. Best viewed with beer and friends.
7) Psycho (1960)
Hitchcock’s practical joke on the movie-going public. This became more than the slash-fest it was thought to be when, only thirty minutes in, Hollywood royalty Janet Leigh is stabbed to death in the shower. If you don’t know the rest of the story – and the secret behind Bates Motel – put this one on your list. “Psycho” helped set the stage for countless psychological thrillers.
6) The Birds (1960)
Another Hitchcock classic. The concept of humans being outnumbered and outsmarted by animals was nothing new, but this introduced a new level of sophistication. Pay close attention to the sky: the slow assembly of Hitchcock’s bird army is merely the backdrop of early scenes.
5) The Haunting (1963)
Arguably the first great haunted house flick, and arguably one of the last. Several remakes and partial remakes have come and gone, but Robert Wise’s original take is still the most disturbing. An anthropologist and an ESP expert team up to uncover the secret behind a house with a supernatural presence. It evolves into an intriguing character study in an eerie setting.
4) The Last Man on Earth (1964)
In this faithful adaptation of Richard Matheson’s grim novel, I Am Legend, Vincent Price plays a scientist who survives a plague that turned the rest of the population into vampire-like creatures. The latest remake, starring Will Smith, is faster and more intense, but this brooding, black and white original leaves a lasting impression.
3) Repulsion (1965)
Roman Polanski couldn’t have had a more impressive introduction to mainstream audiences than the one he arranged with this mysterious nightmare. A young virgin becomes increasingly violent as her mind deteriorates in her lonely London apartment, setting the stage for one of the greatest psychological horror films to date.
2) Night of the Living Dead (1968)
The zombie craze started here, and has been going strong for over forty years. Originally discarded by most critics as worthless torture porn, successive viewings reveal political and societal undertones that speak to life in 1960s America and still resonate today. Unlike Michael Powell, Romero was able to rebound from the torture-porn accusations to expand his zombie world in several more films (five of which have titles that end in “…of the dead”).
1) Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
How did Polanski follow up his incredibly disturbing Repulsion? With a story about a young woman who comes to believe she’s pregnant with Satan’s offspring. The direction is precise and affecting, the acting exceptional and the script ripe with intrigue, horror, and even some humor. The bizarre climax may leave you wondering how the whole thing came across so convincingly.