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Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Times, They Are A-Changin': A History of Horror Movies, Part 4

Perhaps never in our history was there a time as rife with drastic change as the 1960s. Indeed, the chronology of popular culture can be divided into two periods: before the '60s, and after.
Practically every aspect of our lives were changed, owing to a variety of reasons pundits have debated about ever since: the eye-opening horrors of the Vietnam War--America's most cynical conflict to that point--and the manner in which it was so directly brought into our homes; the brutal assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King; the rise of a youth movement that gave young people more power than ever before; relaxing social mores that led to a sexual revolution and an overall loss of innocence.
Whatever the reasons, America was a very different place in 1969 from what it had been in 1960.
Like everything else, entertainment was not immune to the dramatic changes. And perhaps more than any other genre, horror films underwent a transformation that was as dramatic as it was shocking. By the end of the decade, the modern horror genre would be born.
Even as early as 1960, change was in the air. The first shot would be fired by one of the business' most established and respected directors, Alfred Hitchcock, whose seminal suspense/slasher flick Psycho set a standard that would be a sign of things to come. Here, it was not some outlandish monster, but the guy next door who was the instrument of terror. It was not some baroque fantasy world in which the action was set, but the very real world in which we lived. This would become a hallmark of the modern horror movie.
Still, some vestiges of the old school would persist, most notably in the classic series of Edgar Allen Poe-inspired films from low-budget king Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price. The supernatural aspect of horror was not about to go away in the face of the new reality-based terror. But it was being transformed, as evidenced by films like The Haunting, a superb modern ghost story from 1963.
The modern setting was one thing, but there were many more changes in store. These would be facilitated by the collapse of the restrictive Hays Code in 1964. The code, established 30 years prior by studio heads looking to silence moral watchdogs by toning down the content of their movies, had long held the horror genre in handcuffs. Why it was lifted when it was can be attributed to many causes, but it is impossible to overstate how important the Hays collapse was to the evolution of horror movies. Now the gloves were off.
Two films in particular would signal the arrival of the "new" horror movie. Fittingly, they would also be among the first movies to receive an R rating from the brand-new Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).
The first was actually filmed in 1965, the year after the code fell, but wouldn't be released until three years later. The brainchild of a young Pittsburgh filmmaker inspired by both Vincent Price's The Last Man on Earth (1964) and Hitchcock's The Birds (1963), Night of the Living Dead was the ultimate indicator of where horror movies were headed. Mixing strong social commentary with unprecedentedly horrifying imagery, George Romero's landmark vision was a grim and unrelenting nightmare. And the graphic violence depicted--although somewhat tame by today's standards--was enough to inspire revulsion and even condemnation from many critics of the time. Yet it is quite telling that today that very film is included in the Library of Congress National Film Registry.
The other groundbreaker of the era was Rosemary's Baby (1968) from director Roman Polanski. A product of the culture's growing fascination with the occult, the film was blunt in its depiction of Satanic themes, something that would continue to a much greater degree in the next decade. Also worthy of note was the fact that unlike most horror movies of the past, which were B-level flicks, Roesmary's Baby was a top-of-the-line A-level picture--another trend that was to continue.
By the end of the '60s, the change was complete, and horror was more mainstream than ever before. The limits of what it could portray, both thematically and visually, had been pushed beyond anything anyone could have imagined. The decades to come would feel the effects of this overwhelming shift in tone, and take it still further.
Other major releases:

Part 1: The Silent Dead
Part 2: Gods & Monsters
Part 3: It Came from Hollywood
Soon to come: Part 5 - Blood & Guts

6 comments:

Kelly said...

This was a fantastic post. I was talking to someone recently about Psycho - someone who had only just watched it recently for the first time. They said they didn't get what the big deal was - it just wasn't scary to them. However, I believe I first watched it when I was 12 and it has had a lasting effect on me because I still lock the bathroom door when I shower. Mainly because I always see that silhouette of Norman standing on the other side of the curtain in my head. Hey - some habits die hard.

And having just watched Night of the Living Dead again within the last two weeks, it's hard to imagine a time when that film would have been considered "disgusting." Times definitely have changed.

B-Sol said...

Thanks, Kelly. I agree about Psycho, I don't think I've ever taken a shower without that scene entering my head at least briefly.
As for NOTLD, it is a fact that it was condemned for its violence. Variety practically labelled it pornography, and a young Roger Ebert wrote a scathing diatribe against it for Reader's Digest. You have to remember, nobody had ever seen things like ghouls devouring human flesh, children murdering their parents, etc.

NakaBava said...
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NakaBava said...
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NakaBava said...

Great post. I have to say I'm really liking your site. We need more horror critics like yourself!

B-Sol said...

Thanks, I'm glad you're enjoying it, and I'm humbled by your compliment. My goal was to create a real solid general horror film news/commentary site, and I guess I've done just that. It's very gratifying. Keep checking in, I'm just getting warmed up.

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