I consider 1968-1988 to be the Golden Age of Horror.
There were certainly concentrated bursts of artistic brilliance and innovation before that: the pre-code classics of the early 1930s, Val Lewton’s horror-noir masterpieces of the early 1940s, and the taboo-shattering period of 1957-60 that began with Hammer’s first Technicolor terrors and ended with “Mrs.” Bates not swatting that fly.
In viewing 1968 as the start of the golden age, I’m not overlooking Mario Bava’s edgy, sometimes kinky gothic horrors, H.G. Lewis’s invention of the splatter genre, or the significance of early ‘60s classics like The Birds and Eyes Without a Face. I am saying, though, that these films had to stand out against a wash of movies that seem rather dated today.
Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein shared 1957 with a barrage of now archaic-looking giant-monster flicks like The Deadly Mantis and The Giant Claw, for example. Bava competed against Roger Corman’s assembly line of Poe-themed costume dramas, which we can admit are fun and nostalgic but hardly pushed the art of film forward.
Then, in 1968, horror cinema turned postmodern. The Vietnam War, the bloody civil rights struggle, nuclear proliferation, and a series of history-altering political assassinations made movies about haunted castles appear silly. In short order, graphic violence and nudity became commonplace on theater screens, and films were suddenly imbued with social commentary.
In the ensuing twenty years, the concept of the horror icon was born and spawned franchises, and directors and make-up FX artists became the stars of the genre. By 1981, it seemed as if at least one new horror film hit movie screens per week. The flood of theatrical releases reached its crest in the mid 80s and then began the inevitable run off. By 1989 and into the early ’90s, most titles ended with a Roman numeral and had largely faded into a blur of forgettable direct-to-video-store shelf filler.
Legendary horror films have been released throughout cinematic history, from Nosferatu in 1922 to The Ring in 2002. But there’s something about the 1968-88 era that many horror film fanatics, including me, hold in especially high regard.
Going forward, I make no attempt to mention every film you might have heard of, nor do I claim my choices are “the best.” They are merely my favorites. We begin:
My Top 6 Horror Films of 1968
- Night of the Living Dead
George A. Romero’s debut feature is a nihilistic masterpiece that eviscerates government authority and white cultural hegemony even more savagely than the featured undead do their on-screen victims. This movie both wrote the zombie rule book and created the blueprint for low-budget, drive-in horror.
- Rosemary’s Baby
In his harrowing study of paranoia and isolation (which may be even more relevant today), Roman Polanski takes us from wanting to save Rosemary, to thinking she’s loony, to having no idea what’s real and what isn’t. Sounds a bit like everyday life.
- Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell
Placing the adjective “bizarre” in front of the phrase “Japanese horror film” has been a superfluous act from the get go. As is typical of East Asian genre movies, Goke is visually captivating while making no attempt to depict anything naturalistically. Director Hajime Sato is every bit as effective as Romero at generating paranoia within a group of isolated survivors (this time of a plane crash in the mountains).
- The Living Skeleton
When Japanese horror isn’t being bizarre, it’s being eerie, and The Living Skeleton is among the eeriest. Is there a better film about a ghost ship? Well, Matango is pretty great (and bizarre and eerie).
How wonderful is it that Boris Karloff, after decades of acting in generally artless B-movies, got to deliver one of his greatest performances at the end of his life? Playing an old, forgotten horror actor, Karloff comes face to face with a disaffected young killer bent on committing a mass shooting. It’s like director Peter Bogdanovich knew he was documenting a paradigm shift in the genre.
- The Devil Rides Out
I’m partial to movies about witchcraft and devil worship. Add Christopher Lee and stir until scary.
Honorable mention (a.k.a. I must be an idiot for not choosing these movies instead)
- Witchfinder General
This film is one of the most talked about “subversive” horror films ever made, and its director, Michael Reeves, had all the tragic qualities we like in a tortured (pun intended) artist. Honestly, though, I find it a bit boring. Hey, it’s my list!
- Dracula has Risen from the Grave
The second sequel to Horror of Dracula somehow escapes the rambling/sloppy storytelling of the other films in the series, and the character dynamics are legitimately interesting. However, for a film that cast a Roger Daltry lookalike for the lead and tried super hard to make the adults look like squares, its “brush your teeth and eat your vegetables” message at the end seems like a bait and switch.
- Brides of Blood
I almost bumped The Devil Rides Out from my top 5 list in favor this utterly trashy Filipino monster flick, which I adore on many levels. Better judgement won out (barely).
Next time, I name my favs of 1969 (duh)!