How appropriate that 1960 saw the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. The classic film neatly separates the more subdued and fanciful horror of the 50s and all that came before from the intense, at times harrowingly realistic movies that followed. It’s easy to forget how groundbreaking Psycho was when first released, as is often remarked. Besides the obvious, innovative brutality of the shower scene, there’s a cornucopia of previously taboo subjects on display: premarital sex! Drag! Voyeurism! Grave robbing! Oedipal fixations! The list goes on and on, up to and including frisky costars depicted in their underwear and the screen debut of a toilet. None of this would seem nearly as striking now, but at the time, Psycho shocked audiences and heralded the breaking down of cinematic barriers. More adult, previously verboten topics were starting to come front and center.
The Birds (1963). While not quite as taboo-busting, the story still involves lusty unmarried lovers—one critic noted that it “starts out like a sex comedy.” The most provocative element, perhaps, is the ending: an utterly ambiguous final scene in which the central characters drive uneasily away from their farmhouse, surrounded by hordes of birds that might strike again at any moment. If you were looking for the good guys to win, or for any sort of resolution for that matter, you were out of luck. Hitchcock’s coda ensured that The Birds’ eerie spell would follow audiences right out of the theater. The silence that greeted this coda—broken only by the sounds of the car trucking along—enveloped much of the film, which had no musical score.
If anyone really picked up where Psycho’s startling frankness had left off, though, it was Roman Polanski with his adaptation of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, released in 1968. The stylish and deeply disturbing tale of a young woman (Mia Farrow, never better) who comes to realize her unborn baby is the Antichrist is as emblematic of the 1960s as anything could be. The film manages, in an un-showy, naturalistic way, to challenge religion, modern medicine, the relationship between the sexes, and a multitude of other hot button issues. Watching the movie for the first time, my boyfriend was impressed by how openly topics like birth control were discussed in the movie. The trippy sequence in which Rosemary dreams of boarding a yacht with JFK, which plays like a bad LSD trip, is a bit dated, but through its terrifying exaggeration of the fears every woman has when pregnant, Rosemary’s Baby remains relevant and electrifying, and no mere cultural artifact. For an in-depth look at this seminal film, look no further than this very blog and Jeffery’s recent post on it.
Rosemary’s Baby brought horror into respectable mainstream theaters, but the year’s other horror classic, Night of the Living Dead, aimed explicitly for the drive-in. George Romero was a director of commercials who pooled talent and resources to make a cheap “Monster Movie” that changed the face of the horror genre. Shot, like Psycho, in stark black and white and with a cast of unknown but wholly convincing actors, Living Dead depicted the absurd so matter of fact that it felt terrifyingly real. A group of disparate people hole up in a farmhouse when the dead inexplicably come to life and seek out human flesh. The radio and television reports watched by the survivors add verisimilitude, but the characters are what make Romero’s opus so convincing. Like us, they fight, bicker, and get hysterical. Director John Landis declared that Night pulled an even more shocking twist with its apparent leading lady than Psycho: rather than die, Barbara (Judith O’Dea) goes catatonic after the opening sequence.
That Night of the Living Dead was “read” for a multitude of political meanings probably says more about the 60s than about the movie itself. Romero and his cohorts just wanted to make a good, scary flick, but in the contemporary climate, having a black lead (Duane Jones) who is accidentally shot by a white zombie killing unit/lynch mob felt like some kind of statement. So did the dazed, rampaging hordes who could have stood for—take your pick—hippies, antiwar protesters, druggies, and on and on. Beyond the alleged subtext, Night put a graphic new spin on the horror genre with its vicious gore and relentless nihilism. This is a film in which there is no escape, no hope. Its ironic finale was even bleaker than that of The Birds.
If the 60s horror films have one thing in common, it was their refusal to end happily or neatly. Norman Bates goes completely mad, revisionist 80s sequel notwithstanding. Rosemary decides to raise the Devil’s baby. The birds overrun the planet. So do the zombies. After this decade, horror stopped pulling punches and started taking audiences into wholly nightmarish worlds they’d have trouble shaking long after the fade to black.