The Ten Best Years for the Horror Film, Part 1: 1963

Greetings and salutations, Terror-Fiends! The new year is upon us once again, a time to indulge in reflection and introspection minus the benefits of confection (until next month, when those “earnest” resolutions bite the dust!). In honor of the new decade, your horrible host has painstakingly perused his burgeoning collection of horrors with pencil and paper firmly in hand, to distill the top 10 years of pinnacle horror production (in terms of quantity + quality) since the inception of feature length films (1911). In these sorry days when terror-fiends can go months without a quality horror film being released, the petrifying (pod)people here at Terror Transmission thought it might be a horrific hoot to revisit the halcyon days of yesteryear, when quality and quantity went hand in boney hand and well before the advent of bubonic remake-itis cast its solemn shadow over the land. Feel free to rant and rave over the inclusions/exclusions and gross injustices, but bear in mind this is just one opinion amongst opinions (assholes?) the world around!

10.) 1963

The early 1960’s were a buzz of international creativity in the annals of horror filmdom. Hammer studios had thrust itself onto the stage with a series of Universal Monster remakes, in glorious color (mostly red!) and featuring the heaving Hammer bosoms that shaped the erotic fixations of a generation. Spaghetti-splatter was in full force thanks to the efforts of a chap named Mario Bava, his mentor Riccardo Freda, and newcomer (to the horror fold, at least) Antonio Margheriti, who were giving us great gothic chills and busily laying the cornerstones for a new genre-within-a-genre, the Giallo. The Japanese were relentlessly pummeling their beleaguered isle with an ongoing series of kaiju eiga (giant monster) flicks, while at the same time influencing “high-minded” filmmakers around the globe with their stunning and precocious eastern-gothics. Our sombrero-sporting neighbors to the south were churning out some of the best (and most criminally ignored) gothics since the glory days of Universal Studios, und zee Germans were riding on a crest of Edgar Wallace mysteries with horrific overtones. At home, American International Productions was deep into their Poe/Lovecraft cycle (and delivering much more to boot), Hitchcock administered two hugely influential horror masterpieces to welcoming audiences, Bill Castle was thrilling and shocking (literally) adolescents across the country, and the southern gothic was revitalized (some say created) with the introduction of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford to le fantastique. The sci-fi horror hybrid was still limply wagging its moribund tail, but had suffered a huge lapse in quality since its heyday and dormancy was imminent (until 1979, that is!). All of this and fervent fans were just around the corner from Amicus, H.G. Lewis, the Spanish explosion and some serious Asian diversification, all of which came together to rip your spooky scares from the days of yesteryear and firmly entrench them in hair-raising modernity. And all in full color! 1963 – it was… a very good year…

(It should be noted that the films included below finished their productions in 1963, but were not necessarily released theatrically in the same year)

At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul – Brazil
Jose Mojica Marins bursts upon the scene with one of my favorite philosophical horrors and creates one of the most iconic characters in the history of the genre with Ze do Caixao (Coffin Joe). It should be noted that (as of this writing) he is still looking for that perfect vessel into which to plant his superior satanic-seed (as is your other horribly handsome host, Matt)! Applicants should respond to info@terrortransmission.com for more information!

The Birds – USA
Hitch had unleashed Norman Bates just a couple years prior, which, combined with Powell’s Peeping Tom, Castle’s Homicidal, Bogdonavich’s Targets and The Sadist (see below) sparked the psycho-killer genre. With The Birds, Hitch revisited the Man vs Nature themes of King Kong, throwing implausibility out the window in favor of psychologically flavored screams delivered by innocuous everyday realities. I still cautiously leave my abode by checking the skies for killer raptors (wouldn’t you want to kill us if roles were reversed?).

Blood Feast – USA
Lewis set the Gag-Reflexometer on 11 and, rather unwittingly, forever lowered the bar on “good-taste” (whatever that is) in the medium. This one still packs a punch (square in the funny bone) with its ridiculous scenarios and bargain-basement exploitation, and remains a viable guilty pleasure for Terror-Fiends and Gore-Mongers to this day. Sure to convert even the most ardent vegan into cannibalistic carnivore, it must be seen to be believed. “Have you ever heard of… an Egyptian Feast?”

Children of the Damned – UK
Excellent sequel to the brilliant Village of the Damned, Children… worked hard to dismantle the jingoism, xenophobia, and ever-widening generation gap prevalent in not-so Great Britain after the war. Chock full of brilliant set-pieces and top-tier performances, this is one of the finest sequels of this (or any) era.

Dementia 13 – USA
Francis Ford Coppola (at the behest of Roger Corman) puts together one of the finest low-budget thrillers of the decade with his tale of blue-blood madness and murder at a sprawling country estate. While some of its successes are owed to other inspirations (Night of the Hunter, for one), Coppola does a magnificent job with his locations, actors and story, and offers a glimpse into his future genius, all the while admonishing us with the very sound advice of “don’t drink and dinghy.” It should be noted that between this film and Strait-Jacket (see below), the axe-murderer sub-genre became de rigueur and persists to this day.

Devil Doll – UK
Kind of like Svengali meets The Great Gabbo (with a generous dose of 1945’s Dead of Night tossed in), Devil Doll was another important step on the road to the killer-doll genre (after Mexico’s Curse of the Doll People, 1960), which in future years would yield flicks like Magic, Child’s Play, Dolls, etc., and catapult Full Moon Studios to prominence. Reverberantly eerie, Devil Doll is blessed with one of the great comeuppance endings in horror history and its bizarre psychology remains absolutely riveting. Ventriloquists would never again be regarded in the same halo of forgiving light…

The Ghost (Lo Spettro) – Italy
Riccardo Freda and Barbara Steele team up for another installment in the loosely related horrible/terrible Dr. Hichcock series. This one has Babs and her (malpractice prone?) doctor/lover doing away with her crippled tyrant of a hubby and scouring their creepy gothic mansion for a hidden fortune. This film has been severely maligned by the exclusively sub-par prints in circulation, but make no mistake, this is one of the better spectral vengeance pics of the era which features some merciless murders and a delightful twist ending, not to mention a brilliant score and the rightly revered Steele at her macabre best.

The Girl Who Knew Too Much (Evil Eye, La ragazza che sapeva troppo) – Italy
This is the film that gets credit for launching the Giallo genre with its labyrinthine plot, clever set-pieces, taut direction and… John Saxon! Bava would go on to create some more of the horror tropes of the Giallo with the following year’s Blood and Black Lace, but this is where the form first crystallized and broke free from its basic mystery roots. Profoundly influential to everyone from Argento to Scorsese, still just as thrilling and engaging as when it was made, and not to be missed!

The Haunted Palace – USA
My second favorite Lovecraft film (even though it is considered part of the Poe cycle), this one has spooky castles, devil-worshipers, mutant villagers, and features Vincent Price, Lon Chaney Jr., and Elisha Cook Jr., set in the mist enshrouded and splendidly supernatural village of Arkham, and all under the profound directorial talents of one Roger Corman. With its lush sets, macabre matte paintings and creepy characterizations, The Haunted Palace fully realizes the unplumbed depths of otherworldliness found in master H.P.’s tales and is an unsung classic. (For those who care, my favorite Lovecraft flick would have to be Stuart Gordon’s Dagon, a modern gem and soon-to-be classic, with deserving nods going to The Call of Cthulhu, From Beyond, and… Re-Animator?).

The Haunting – USA
The ultimate haunted house film and one of the finest exercises in the art of direction you will ever see, regardless of genre, The Haunting (based on a novel by Shirley Jackson) has indeed lost some of its impact to terrify over the years, but only due to its being rehashed, ripped off and dumbed down innumerable times since its grand entrance in ’63. Robert Wise should be regarded as one of the finest filmmakers who ever lived, and this should be recognized as one of his magnum opuses. Case closed.

The Horror of Party Beach – USA
Yeah, it’s stupid, it’s sophomoric, and yes, it’s most assuredly gauche, but teenagers across the country were getting their “popcorn buttered” at the drive-in thanks to it, so you can’t dismiss it entirely! Seriously, though, this is one of those guilty pleasures that works as a time capsule, effectively granting us a glimpse into the lighter side of horror’s yesteryear, and Party Beach is every bit as much silly fun as Plan 9 or any of the other edifices of earnest incompetence you can think of. The slumber party scene, the beach party and the mass monster uprising at the quarry will delight you with giggling goose-pimples, and if not, you can always just jump in the back seat to fulfill your quotient of dubious pleasures!

House of the Damned – USA
I can see your eyes rolling now! “Why is this film on here and not ___(insert favorite here)?” This is for all those lovers of quaint haunted castle films, the golden age of unforced happy endings, and for those who sympathize utterly and entirely with the misunderstood (freakish?) outsider. For those who have not had the pleasure, this film has two couples being scared by misshapen things that go bump in the night at their rented castle by the sea and, without giving away the whole shebang, let it be said that Tod Browning would have been quite proud of this one.

King Kong Vs Godzilla – USA/Japan
I know that it’s terrible, ignorant of both context and continuity, and completely disrespectful to both of its esteemed characters, but how can one not love seeing these two horror-heavyweights smacking each other around in the grit and grime of Japan together? This one is simply too much fun to omit from this list, although its merits may be questionable to say the least. Recommended solely to those lucky enough to retain the ability to channel the spirit of that eight year old boy buried under years of assimilation and acquiescence, and leave the expectations of “higher-learning” and cineastic snobbery at the door. For all others, see the next listing…

Lord of the Flies – UK
Mildly departing from the source material (given the restrictions of its era and running time), this film nonetheless manages to distill the essence of Golding’s book and hops mediums without a hiccup. Deeply disturbing to the benighted, and resoundingly truthful in every measured step along its winding way, this film and the book it was based upon are still viable today because they so effectively peel away the veneer of Victorian civility to reveal the savagery that lurks underneath, just a couple of missed meals (and a vacuum of authority) away. Essential to the horror fan and sociologist alike.

Matango (Attack of the Mushroom People) – Japan
One of the most intensely introspective and grim-as-soot productions to ever come out of Japan and it happens to feature people who turn into… giant shambling mushrooms? Only in Japan! Almost too good to be true, this darkly comic and downright disturbing tale (loosely based on a tale by William Hope Hodgson) will have you swearing off mushrooms forever forward. Except the purple ones. Those are fun.

The Raven – USA
Corman gets on this list again, by way of his horror send-up starring Vinnie Price, Karloff, Jack Nicholson, Peter Lorre, and Hazel Court’s ample bosoms (one more glorious time)! The climactic battle royale between magicians (Price vs Karloff) is absolute gold and a huge cinematic triumph that must have been a real spectacle for era theatergoers in all its brightly-lit big-screen splendor, as it remains today. Lorre steals the show (yet again) as the Raven with his blithe delivery squeezing every drop out of riotous lines, Hazel’s bosoms heave in an oh-so-heavenly manner, and almost 50 years later this film still remains upper echelon entertainment in the Hallowed Halls of the Horror-Comedy (along with a couple of others from said cast and crew)!

The Sadist – USA
Ugh, this film leaves me feeling weakened and unclean to this very day! Arch Hall Jr. delivers a hallmark performance as one of the most unctuous and infuriating sociopathic killers you will ever see in what is essentially a psychological study pitting man’s basic nature versus his programmed socialization (at the expense of wits and mettle). Shocking in its day and shocking now, this film deserves a rightful place amongst some of the other titans in the field of psychological horror. A classic!

Strait Jacket – USA
Joan Crawford as an axe-murderess? I’d believe it in a heartbeat! Only things aren’t always what they seem in Bill Castle’s fun-filled fright-fest (and first real attempt at raising himself above the B-movie mogul status he was growing increasingly uncomfortable with). Some of it works quite well, some of it not so much, but you get to see Crawford at her clawing-crazy best, and that is always one of life’s true (and entirely unnerving) pleasures! The twist ending is a real gas, but the true horror lies in Crawford’s poodle-cut hairdo, which was re-animated circa 1989 to terrorize rutting teenage males throughout the land! Oh, the horror!

The Terror – USA
Made by the Frugal Gourmet of Film, Roger Corman, with principal photography completed over a weekend(!) on the standing sets of The Raven (as it was being unceremoniously torn down around their ears), this utterly disjointed and downright silly narrative is redeemed by strong performances from Karloff, Jack Nicholson, and Dick Miller who (when coupled with five different directors shooting heterogeneous scenes) manage to unwittingly thrust the film into the realm of high-camp. Completely devoid of any “terror,” the real treat is in seeing the gifted cast busily chewing the posh scenery into pulpy little bits while resisting the urge to break out into uncontrollable peals of laughter. Flippant fun for the accommodating audience.

The Virgin of Nuremberg (Horror Castle, Terror Castle, La Virgine de Norimberga) – Italy
A neo-Gothic gem set in a suitably creepy castle with thunderstorms, disappearing maidens, torture chambers, disfigured Nazis and a devious Christopher Lee furtively traipsing about the gloomy passageways! Margheriti (one year from his masterpiece, Castle of Blood, a.k.a.: Danza Macabre) makes the most of a subplot involving experimental skin-grafting and delivers a real humdinger with the most touching demise ever granted to a Nazi sadist on film. Lee’s rich baritone is (most disappointingly) overdubbed, but this remains one of the better exercises in Gothic chills from the ’60s.

The Whip and the Body (La frusta e il corpo, What!?) – Italy/France
Count Christopher Lee is back (and overdubbed again), this time under the genius direction of Mario Bava, in one of the finest and (mostly) unheralded masterpieces of the era. This one has the spectral form of Lee entangled in a web of murder and deceit, and engaging in some strikingly filmed (and very forward-thinking) sexy sadomasochistic perversions. Romantic, bold, powerful and haunting, this one should be better known and universally embraced as truly sui generis.

X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes – USA
Not just a great “mad scientist” film but also a winning treatise on the speculative effects of an intrepid explorer’s woefully unprepared enlightenment, Ray Milland and Roger Corman team up to deliver one of the most enduring sci-fi tales of the time. Don Rickles exudes his sleazy best and Milland is utterly convincing as the disgraced scientist whose cosmic insight leads to his own unhinging and downfall. Think Faust meets The Invisible Man with a generous scoop of the bizarre and you will still only scratch the surface of this wonder.

Honorable mentions go out to: Black Zoo; The Blancheville Monster, The Crawling Hand; The Day Mars Invaded Earth; The Horror of it All; The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies; Invasion of the Vampires; The Mad Executioners; The Old Dark House; Santo en el Museo de Cera; Twice Told Tales; and Unearthly Stranger.

Stay tuned for Part 2 (of 10)… 1976!


4 comments so far

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  1. Man, what a year 1963 was for horror! You got everything from Babs to mushy Jap mushroom mutants!

  2. I really have to find the time to do a tour of the islands around Japan someday. They’ve got mushroom mutants, Mothra, experimental detention camps and the ghost of Miyamoto Musashi amongst a cornucopia of other irradiated wonders! Maybe I could even get Barbara Steele (circa 1960) to join me and we could make it a sleepover! Oh, reverie…

  3. Sorry, but early 60s Babs is spoken for. I can let you have a slight used Hazel Court if you’re interested.

  4. I’ll trade you a battle-damaged Soledad Miranda (wink) AND a mint Barbara Shelley for the Babs you’ve secreted away. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but that slightly used Hazel Court you are mounting must be a copy because the original is bound and licking honey from my chest as I type this!

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