A Brief History Of Horror – Psycho And The 1960s

By my reckoning three masterpieces of the genre were released in 1960. All three involve a character with obsessions that eventually destroy him, but only after a string of other deaths.

Adam Whyte

Contributor

By my reckoning three masterpieces of the genre were released in 1960. All three involve a character with obsessions that eventually destroy him, but only after a string of other deaths. All three got, at best, mixed reviews on their release, as edgy horror movies almost always get. And the three stand up as proof of what the genre can be in the hands of the right artists.

The centrepiece of this triptych, of course, is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho, which marks a turning point. Norman Bates goes in the list with Frankenstein’s monster and Nosferatu, but this time the monster had a perfectly normal, even likeable, face and voice, and an innocent charm. Many horror and crime movies since have been about characters with multiple personalities, but I struggle to think of any such movies made prior to this. Suddenly the danger had shifted from an external monster into the interior of someone’s mind, which made it less tangible and predictable.

I don’t know if much else can be said about the movie on a technical level. It was shot quickly and cheaply, with Hitch’s TV crew and is as elegantly put together as any horror movie ever made. It opens with a great act of misdirection, masterfully drawing the audience into the plight of a character (she has stolen some money) only to bump her off. The shower scene, though it’s been analysed to death, is still so frequently discussed because despite the analysis it still works brilliantly, and the scene is a masterclass in sound and editing. My favourite shot is the final one from this sequence, where the drain hole in the bath dissolves into the eye of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), then the camera pulls backwards, gradually rotating on its axis.

The ‘twist ending’ appears on this list as early as the first movie (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) but Psycho is also significant for its anti-spoiler campaign; famously, audience members were denied admittance after the movie started (in the days of, ‘oh, this is where we came in’). I imagine very few people watch Psycho now with no idea what they’re in for; the shower scene, Anthony Perkin’s brilliant performance as Bates and Bernard Herrman’s unforgettable music are all recognisable to people who’ve never seen it. I envy anyone with the chance to see it with no prior knowledge. Nevertheless it continues to work, and the early scene between Crane and Bates is more unsettling once you know what lurks behind that awkward smile.

Norman Bates casts a long shadow over the history of horror, particularly slashers; so many later movie killers were influenced by the character, itself inspired by real-life killer Ed Gein. There’s an argument in Scream 4 about what the first slasher movie was: someone answers Halloween, but of course the movie geeks know it’s obviously Bob Clark’s Black Christmas. The killer in the movie, in an attempt to outgeek the audience, suggests this is wrong: the first slasher movie, he says, is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. While that’s a contentious distinction, it certainly influenced the genre and continues to exert an influence on modern movie psychos.

It is curious that while Psycho was an audience hit, Powell’s great movie was so venomously reviled by British movie critics that it effectively ended the great director’s career. Like Norman Bates, its lead character Mark Lewis is voyeuristic, probably the result of bad parenting and, most significantly, fairly sympathetic. The reviews, possibly in reaction to this sympathetic portrayal, were so bad it was pulled from wide release and people simply didn’t get the opportunity to see it. It goes on the What Were The Critics Smoking? list along with Charles Laughton’s (also unsettling) The Night Of The Hunter. Its story is still fairly chilling, and the direction and lead performance (Mark is played by Karlheinz Böhm, a German actor with the mad glint of Peter Lorre in his eyes and voice) fully deserve mention beside Hitchcock and Perkins.

Finally there was the horrifyingly beautiful Eyes Without A Face, George Franju’s French classic. Of the three movies on this list, this might be the one that still makes modern audiences most uncomfortable, not least for a surgery scene which makes you grateful the movie is in black and white. It tells the story of a young girl whose father, a brilliant surgeon, tries to find her a new face after a disfiguring car accident. This involves having his wife (a great performance from Alida Valli, halfway between The Third Man and Suspiria) find him unsuspecting, attractive young women who are disposed of, one way or another, after his various attempts at a transplant. The movie’s focus on the human face is part of what gives it a disturbing power, and some of the scenes of the daughter (Edith Scob) wearing the mask that covers her disfigurement ought to be iconic. They’re certainly creepy.

The ’60s also contained some of the most fun horror movies I’ve seen: the Vincent Price/Roger Corman adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe. As with the 1930s Universal adaptations of Poe (like The Black Cat, 1934), these movies bore little resemblance to the original stories, and were more interested in macabre set pieces and scenery-chewing Price performances. The three best are The Fall Of The House Of Usher (1960), The Pit And The Pendulum (1961) and The Masque Of The Red Death (1964), although horror-comedy The Raven (1963) is also worth checking out for a Vincent Price/Boris Karloff showdown and a very early Jack Nicholson performance.

Robert Wise made one of the best haunted house movies in 1963 with The Haunting, with its spooky spiral staircase and bendy, bulging doors (it also features, for the time, a surprisingly frank treatment of homosexuality). If Psycho is the most important horror movie about psychosis, the ’60s can also boast the most important zombie movie, and one of the best: George A. Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead (1968). That same year, Roman Polanski made his dark, witty Rosemary’s Baby.  In Italy, Mario Bava made Blood And Black Lace (1964), still perhaps his most famous movie and a precursor of what is thought of as the golden age of Italian horror.

Previously:

Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and the 1950s

Cat People and the 1940s

Frankenstein and the 1930s

Nosferatu and the 1920s

The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari and the 1910s