There’s something you should know. In claiming that the Golden Age of Horror is 1968-1988, I face an inconvenient truth: 1969 was a pretty weak year for genre movies. 1970 offered a few memorable titles, but the greatest films of the era were yet to come.
To me, a “golden age” requires a sustained volume of greatness, not mediocrity punctuated by occasional quality. In that sense, 1971 is the year the gates of horror opened. But 1968’s Night of the Living Dead isn’t just a great film; it’s a paradigm shift that redefined the genre forever. As such, it begins the golden age and will have to carry the weight of 1969 and 1970.
One thing I neglected to write last time: My tastes lean toward a low-budget and often trashy aesthetic. If you find my frequent preference for grindhouse/drive-in flicks over slick Hollywood productions baffling, it’s my punk-rock sensibility in play.
Let’s get down to business. Once again, I don’t claim these are the best films released in their respective years, merely my personal favorites.
My Top 6 Horror Films of 1969-1970
- The Bird with the Crystal Plumage
Rarely does a directorial debut announce itself with such panache. Dario Argento’s taut and stylish giallo drove the genre to unexpected heights, and the man himself remains a beloved filmmaker to this day across all horror fandom.
- Count Yorga, Vampire
Robert Quarry’s turn as the charismatic, contemporary Count struck a chord with horror fans and provided a wake-up call to Hammer. The famed British production house was still churning out colorful gothic horrors that may have been fresh in the late 1950s but were staid by 1970. Speaking of Hammer…
- The Vampire Lovers
The company was missing the boat in terms of contemporary settings and themes, but they did hit on something pretty brilliant: An erotic vampire trilogy loosely based on the character of Carmilla Karnstein from the Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu story “Carmilla” published in 1872. The producers cut back on the howling-wolves-and-full-moons element and replaced it with nudity and graphic violence. They also established the character depth missing from many of their previous vampire entries, an effort aided immensely here by the yearning performance of Ingrid Pitt as Carmilla.
- Five Dolls for an August Moon
Mario Bava may have hated his own film, but I don’t. It’s weird, it’s kitschy, it’s darkly humorous, and it’s got Edwige Fenech. While the plot gets lost a few times, the stylish set pieces and off-kilter storytelling make for a delightfully odd viewing experience. Not pretentiously odd like Alejandro Jodorowsky’s film released that same year, El Topo (during which one is compelled to ask “WTF?” every three seconds), but just off-level enough to intrigue the curious cinephile.
- Night of the Bloody Apes
That’s right; I just wrote that a movie about a guy who turns into an ape after a heart transplant, and which includes a subplot about a masked female wrestler, is one of my favorites from 1969. Sometimes you can’t put it into words, mate.
Reminder: 1969 was a weak year for horror
- Mark of the Devil
Yesterday I apologetically admitted I’m iffy on the acclaimed Michael Reeves film Witchfinder General, and now here I am including a far trashier, less substantial, and sleazier grindhouse flick based on the same concept. Well, only one of these films stars Udo Kier and Reggie Nalder, so there you have it.
Honorable mention (a.k.a. how could I be so clueless; these films are clearly superior)
- Blind Beast
This erotic, surreal film by Yasuzô Masumura is a captivating watch, but I’m not sure it’s a horror film. If Boxing Helena and Dead Ringers are horror films, I guess this might be. I’m keeping it down here for now, though.
- Frankenstein Must be Destroyed
I’ve been a lifelong fan of Hammer films’ horror oeuvre, but from a historical perspective, I’m critical of their tendency to churn out repetitious material throughout the 1960s, along with their failure to adapt to changing tastes. With all that said, it’s impressive to see Peter Cushing deliver one mature, nuanced performance after another. He was seldom stronger than in this role as the titular antihero.
- Top Sensation
For 60 minutes, it’s a racy, eyebrow-raising sex comedy and then shifts jarringly to a psychological horror film for the last 30. Given the overall tone, I’m not sure I can include it on the main list. Regardless, it’s another of those delightfully warped, loopy productions that only Italians seem capable of producing, and it’s a quality I find captivating as a viewer. The pairing of Edwige Fenech and Rosalbi Neri as morally bankrupt rich girls is reason enough to watch.
Next time: 1971