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Friday, May 27, 2011

Decades of Horror: The Allure, The Danger & the Cycle of Fear & Fantasy In Film & the Media Part 3 Chapter 1

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"During the 1960s, I think people forgot what emotions were supposed to be and I don't think they've ever remembered."--Andy Warhol

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The 1960s was a decade of chaos as well as change. It was also an era that severed ties with post war paranoia and threats of atomic extinction as presented in countless science fiction movies depicting the Earth in constant mortal combat with threats from both outer and inner space. Now, America would soon become involved in a divisive war with itself as well as a devastating conflict in Vietnam, the crippling effects of the latter still being pervasive today. With the advent of American anarchy, the 1960s brought with it a maelstrom of calamitous events including assassinations, race riots, anti-war protests, the sexual revolution and culminated with a sadistically merciless cult execution that rocked the nation.

"We've got this gift of love, but love is like a precious plant. You can't just accept it and leave it in the cupboard or just think it's going to get on by itself. You've got to keep on watering it. You've got to really look after it and nurture it."--John Lennon

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In between these shocking and sensational events, 60s cinema eventually adapted from kiddie matinees and big Hollywood historical epics to a fateful changing of the guard by the end of the decade with a radical transformation towards onscreen violence and adult material. Brought about by a number of increasingly volatile series of events, the vision of the American Nuclear Family was drastically altered steering far away from its popularly perceived 50s incarnation. Now the nation was systematically being stripped of its outer skin giving everyone a good long look at who we really are as a people--and it was anything but pretty. The widespread split of the American people into various conflicting social groups (racially, politically and personally motivated) was still a few years off. Until then, The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave enjoyed its plethora of escapist entertainment while the problems of the world gestated.

"Let's all go to the lobby...to get ourselves a treat!"--intermission time

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Drive In theaters, having gained momentum during the latter part of the 50s, continued to grow in popularity during the 1960s. With television sets invading more and more homes, movie studios began to flounder losing much of their audience, at least for a time. The Drive In itself began to peter out once the multiplex began to take hold towards the end of the decade. Still, Drive In's were ideal for family get-togethers and also for young lovers, hence the classic term,"Passion Pit". Furthermore, some of these outdoor theaters were more financially viable than some indoor theaters. Movies regularly had regional distribution at the time and studios like American International Pictures made their name with Drive In fare. Many of the low budget cult movies celebrated today likewise made their coin and their name by being bicycled from one rural region to the other.

"You buried your own sister alive!!"--HOUSE OF USHER (1960)


During this time, Roger Corman and AIP changed from rebel youths and cheapo monster flicks to spooky castles and lots of fog with a series of hugely successful box office sensations based on the works of Edgar Allen Poe. With nearly all of them starring the vaunted Vincent Price, these movies USHERed in a spook-tacular Technicolor triumph not seen since Universal's early B/W horror days and their late 50s color resurgence at the hands of Hammer in Great Britain. The big difference here is that these kinds of movies were so unlike anything Roger Corman had produced or directed up to that point.

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Essentially fanciful yet dark fairy tales, Roger Corman displayed a new side to his cinematic personality with these compact creepfests showcasing a unique side to his filmmaking oeuvre. These cult films dominated the first half of the decade and Roger Corman, backed by American International Pictures, led the charge. While the big studios packed heavy artillery with examples of jingoistic bravado such as THE LONGEST DAY and HELL IS FOR HEROES, Corman and company showed that determination paired with limited resources could wage war at the box office against any of Hollywood's big guns.

"Evil? How strange you are. Where I come from, nothing is evil. Everything that gives pleasure is good."--SODOM & GOMORRAH (1962)

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Meanwhile, a handful of big studio productions would help mold what was to come later in the decade as well as decades later. Big, boisterous and loud costume epics stood their ground during the first half of the 1960s with such efforts as Kubrick's SPARTACUS (1960), the sexually charged US-Italy-France production of SODOM & GOMORRAH (1962) from Robert Aldrich and Joseph Mankiewicz's CLEOPATRA (1963). The latter two are of special interest. The Aldrich picture foreshadows the coming surge of sexuality in cinema and CLEOPATRA, one of the most bloated Hollywood spectacles, notoriously became the blueprint for the many runaway productions that bled green profusely and threatened bankruptcy to nervous production companies. These risky endeavors usually led to the big studios using their low budget exploitation/horror troops to recoup their losses from the extravagant productions with little returns.

"We all go a little mad sometimes...haven't you?"--PSYCHO (1960)

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PSYCHO (1960) was a big studio movie that opened doors for all manner of depravity in the coming years--films that would quickly begin pushing boundaries till finally exploding during the early part of the 1970s. Hitchcock's 'Killer Thriller' gave birth to a slew of like-minded serial murderer movies and a sub genre of 'Crazy Old Lady' films signified by the classily grotesque WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962). Movies such as the controversial PEEPING TOM (1960) and Tony Curtis as THE BOSTON STRANGLER (1967) saw its somewhat subtle, yet horrific subject matter and violent content taken to all new levels by the start of the next decade. This "Serial Killer Sensation" would reach a deplorable apex in 1969 with the shocking news of the Manson Murders. After that, the way America viewed its mass murderers and the general scum of the Earth would never be the same. The media, as well as Hollywood filmmakers were only too eager to rub our faces in an onslaught of high profile atrocities.

"When I speak of time, I'm speaking of the fourth dimension."--THE TIME MACHINE (1960)

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George Pal's THE TIME MACHINE (1960) got science fiction off to a thought provoking start, the likes of which wouldn't be touched upon till later in the decade. This was fantasy of a more mature level revealing startling concepts while retaining a level of creature feature refinement to keep the kiddies entertained and the adults enthralled. On the opposite end of the coin, Irwin Allen, a man who would make the term "Disaster Movie" a household name in the 1970s, directed one of the flimsiest excuses of a remake that was ever excreted from the Hollywood movie machine. 1960s THE LOST WORLD was, like so many of today's remakes, a pale imitation of its source material. Instead of the painstaking process of stop motion animation, Allen's "effects artists" go the Bert I. Gordon route of dressing up lizards to look like dinosaurs, or macro enlarging real critters to look menacing. Even with all this plethora of escapism at the movies, America had something else on its mind--pushing the boundaries of the human body and exploring sex on screen.

"A sexual revolution begins with the emancipation of women, who are the chief victims of patriarchy, and also with the ending of homosexual oppression"--Kate Millett, activist

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The conservative values of the 1950s were tossed out the window with the advent of the birth control pill in 1960. This contraceptive was unable to prevent giving birth to the sexual revolution and the burgeoning counterculture that exploded with orgasmic sensation by the end of the decade and beyond. This openness of sex and the exploration of our bodies was laid bare in an abundant amount of nudie pictures from the likes of such exploitation luminaries as David F. Friedman, Doris Wishman and most famously, Russ Meyer. The "One Man Show" became well known for shooting high camp on a G String budget delivering heavy revenue for little money with a slew of sleaze hits championing well endowed women that gave new meaning to making it "Big" in Hollywood. One of his most famous pictures was the cult smash FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! (1965).

"Being a sex symbol was rather like being a convict."--Raquel Welch

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Raquel Welch took the 60s by storm with her iconic fur bikini publicity shots for the 1966 prehistoric epic, ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. Following in the footsteps of sex goddesses such as Bettie Page, Marilyn Monroe and Bridget Bardot, Welch's image and sensuality was exploited to the limits in both the market ballyhoo of her movies and the films themselves throughout the remainder of the 60s and into the 1970s.

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Jayne Mansfield raised some eyebrows and areas below the belt with her racy, raunchy nude scene in PROMISES! PROMISES! (1963). Other more serious films like the controversial British horror thriller PEEPING TOM (1960) had a brief scene of nudity. Of course, these new liberated practices attracted a good deal of controversy. Meanwhile, in Japan, the proliferation of a new style of sinematic subculture was molesting Nipponese movie screens. Extreme violence had already been explored in Japanese movies no doubt the subconscious ramifications in the aftermath of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Sex on screen was now coming of age. Japanese "Pink" films, Sadomasochistic pictures that showcased torture and titillation brought big bucks and showed that the Sun wasn't all that was Rising in the Land.

"There is no heaven, there is no hell, except here on Earth."--Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan

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With this new-found openness to skin and sin thrusting its liberating ideals onto the American populace, it wasn't long before the devil made his presence known. The subjects of satanism and witchcraft had been broached before, but during the 60s, the movies became more and more prominent. This new style of satanic cinema was harmless enough as any other picture that dealt with the subject from decades prior. During the latter part of the 60s, this sub genre took on a far more adult and sinister approach to the material. One of the key titles regarding satanism was Polanski's ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968). The founding of the Satanic Church by Anton LaVey in 1966 brought about a good deal of notoriety in the media and continued to do so well into the 1980s. A number of pop culture figures have been associated with the church including musicians, professional wrestlers and even Hollywood actors such as Sammy Davis Jr.

"What the camera sees, it films pitilessly...without sympathy...without taking sides..."--AFRICA ADDIO (1966)

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With sex and free love exploding out of the American consciousness and seeping into the moving image, it wasn't long before graphic depictions of violence and death followed suit. The shock value of Mondo movies widened the cinema playing field of good taste and soon after, a lack of taste took over as extreme gore assaulted censorship borders in America. The dynamite duo of Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi made a controversial name for themselves beginning with the foreign trendsetter, MONDO CANE in 1962. An incredible movie that still possesses the power to shock and awe all these years later. Amidst obvious claims of setting up galvanizingly sensational set pieces to evoke any number of emotional responses from viewers, Jacopetti and Prosperi represented the obsessed, selfish and self absorbed reporter willing to do anything for their story. This type of rapacious behavior has been adopted by the media for decades since and has spewed forth a seemingly never ending and nauseating onslaught of "Reality TV" programs. Ruggero Deodato's CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980) is a fascinating, but controversially two faced film about this topic, exploring "faked" violence that is born out of the all too real cruelty created by supposedly civilized man.

"Many small people who in many small places do many small things can alter the face of the world."--Quote on the Berlin Wall

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With both nudity and a steady increase in big screen shocks pushing boundaries, a continuing and steady flow of tragic and trendsetting events would eventually transform American's perception of the world around them. Furthermore, these changes weren't relegated to the United States alone as a series of celebrated and catastrophic events shaped other countries view of us as well as the world. The Soviets launched the first man into space and the Berlin Wall is built in 1961. The first casualty attempting to cross it is announced the following year. Nelson Mandela is sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964. Marxist revolutionary, Che Guevara is executed and the daughter of Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin defects to the western world in 1967.

"His brain has not only been washed, as they say...it has been dry cleaned."--THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962)

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THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE marched on movie screens in the latter part of 1962. Packing a wallop with its highly charged political intrigue and frightening view of a government secretly conducting experiments in turning men into assassins, the Cold War and McCarthyism parallels are unmistakable. This strikingly provocative and unusual movie was well ahead of its time and is truly one of the greatest American films ever made. Frankenheimer's film is one that's just as relevant 50 years later in our volatile political climate of today. A little over a year later, President John F. Kennedy would be assassinated in Dallas, Texas by Lee Harvey Oswald on November 22nd, 1963. Numerous conspiracy theories arose regarding the truth behind the President's death ranging from the involvement of multiple gunmen, the US government backed the killing, an organized hit by communist dictators and even that the Mafia were responsible.

"Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend"--Martin Luther King Jr.

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Race relations had long been a topic of contention and the subject would explode in violence throughout the 1960s. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 successfully put an end to racial segregation, but failed to quell racial enmity between blacks and whites. Race riots rose to alarming numbers in the 1960s on both sides. Meanwhile, influential advocates for black America like Martin Luther King Jr. preached peace between all races and condemned violence. Malcolm X was another highly respected leader of the African American community, only he took a different approach to gaining true freedom. His methods were frequently perceived as perpetuating racism instead of eradicating it, although his beliefs changed later in his life from being vocally aggressive to a more passive, enlightened state. On February 21st, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated by members of the Nation of Islam, a group the leader was formerly a member of.

"You can't separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom"--Malcolm X

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The Far Leftist group known as the Black Panther Party was created in 1966 and was a militant group designed to protect black neighborhoods from racially infused, unfair treatment from civic authorities. While advocating socialism, the party's mantra of promoting violence kept the group in turmoil that frequently ended in death and murder. The party eventually turned on itself with one side preferring to focus on aiding black communities while the other promoted revolution. The Party dissolved in the early 80s, but has emerged again in recent years. From the Civil Rights Act to the continued troubles with race relations, African Americans in the movies was about to take on an all new approach that was vastly different from the controversial depiction of blacks onscreen in the 20s through the 40s.

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Sidney Poitier was the first black actor to gain both a critical and social degree of respectability for his work in motion pictures. In 1967 Poitier would star alongside Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in the taboo trashing comedy drama about interracial marriage. The film dealt with the subject matter seriously and respectfully and was one more step towards racial harmony--ever futile a notion as it may be.

"I hope you're better with that knife than you were that big black car...cuz I'm gonna jam it up your ass."--SLAUGHTER (1972)

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Jim Brown, an ex football player, soon followed in Poitier's footsteps and armed with a good deal of charisma, quickly became a man of action and headlined his own string of movies that carried on well into the 1970s when black themed action films took Hollywood by storm. Brown also broke some boundaries with his romp with Raquel Welch in the 1969 western, 100 RIFLES. Throughout his career, Brown frequently had love scenes with his white co-stars such as Marianna Hill and Stella Stevens. During the late 60s and especially throughout the 70s, interracial relations became an oft used plot device in movies and was also breached on the small screen on the sci fi classic show, STAR TREK. William Shatner shared the first interracial kiss with Nichelle Nichols in the season three episode, 'Plato's Stepchildren'.

"Not since Dracula stalked the Earth, has the world known so terrifying a day...or night."--BLACK SUNDAY (1960) trailer

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Even with the steady rise in violence, social climate change and ever increasing division amongst society, fantasy and adventure were still big crowd pleasers during the early to mid 60s. These cinema styles both foreign and domestic became ingrained in the American visual vocabulary for decades to come. An influx of imports (particularly from Italy and Japan) aided immeasurably in making sure the Passion Pits and movie houses had plenty of paying customers made up primarily of youngsters with big imaginations and even bigger aspirations. From Italy, it was a combination of Mario Bava, Greek mythology and Sergio Leone. While Roger Corman created atmospheric horror based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Mario Bava, having toiled away on other directors movies was finally given the greenlight to evoke his own nightmarish moving images onscreen. The result is the haunting black and white poetry of the horror classic, BLACK SUNDAY.

"This is the night fear and horror walk hand in hand."--BLACK SABBATH trailer

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Italy's most famous purveyor of Gothic terror followed up his supreme classic of witchcraft, vampirism and vengeance from beyond the grave with the unique and sense shattering goose-bumpery of BLACK SABBATH (1963) aka THE THREE FACES OF FEAR. This anthology, Bava's first full fledged horror picture in color, is a masterpiece of malevolence and one that still has the power to make the skin crawl nearly 50 years after its original release. The US theatrical cut, while still worth watching, was mangled from its Italian original. The order of the stories was switched around and 'The Telephone' segment was re-edited from its Giallo origins into a tale with a supernatural slant. A lesbian sub plot was eliminated as well. This picture is what Gothic horror was all about and was as good as any Hammer production.

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Atmospheric tales of terror were also a popular convention South of the border. Mexican horror took the small screen by storm in the 1960s with televised attacks by various vampires, murderous, diminutive doll people, Brainiacs and Mayan mummies. Mexi-horror was very much in the style of Universal's monster classics, but with a violence level that occasionally matched the Technicolor terror of Hammer. What set the black and white Hispanic horror from its Euro and American contemporaries were their frequent tinkering with the mythology of its monsters. German Robles earned himself a small cult following outside his native land of Mexico with his energetic portrayal of Count Llavud in two popular bloodrinkers and again in a vampire tele-series as the creature of the night, Nostradamus.

"I've always acknowledged my debt to Hammer. I've always said I'm very grateful to them. They gave me this great opportunity, made me a well known face all over the world for which I am profoundly grateful."--Christopher Lee

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Hammer Films in Great Britain continued to prove that Gothic horror was still a viable commodity on the world market with their lavishly produced, if meager budgeted frightening fairy tales including numerous vampire movies and Frankenstein flicks. The more popular of these were usually headlined by the Gruesome Twosome of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Hammer Films had a unique quality about their pictures that belied their modest budgets. Even the lesser pictures were of interest particularly if either Cushing, Lee, or both were present--the fans were at least assured an entertaining performance.

"There was a gap of seven years between the first and second Dracula movies. In the second one as everybody knows, I didn't speak, because I couldn't say the lines."--Christopher Lee on DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS


Lee ended up becoming the cinemas most famous Dracula and Cushing became the screens most famous Frankenstein and the ultimate representation of Professor Van Helsing, Vampire Killer. Both actors are universally recognized predominantly for their indomitable horror films and the roles in which they played. The trendsetting production company enjoyed their most financially prosperous period during the 1960s as well as maintaining backing from major American studios for the remainder of the decade. Hammer productions were viable escapism for theater goers wishing to be taken away to a time long past populated by fog enshrouded castles, cobblestone city streets, superstitious pub patrons, women in diaphanous gowns and of course, monsters of the tall, dark and gruesome sort. By the end of the decade, though, audience tastes were slowly beginning to shift away from this sort of thing, clamoring for horror of a far more visceral variety.

DECADES OF HORROR: 1960s CONTINUED HERE IN CHAPTER 2....

4 comments:

Shaun [The Celluloid Highway] said...

I'm surprised nobody has paid tribute to yet another excellent article Brian. A fascinating period in American cinematic history (arguably THE most fascinating). So many external and internal pressures, a melting pot, which finally let off steam when Bonnie and Clyde were blown to pieces in slow motion, and The Wild Bunch strolled purposefully to their violent destruction.

venoms5 said...

When I first got the idea to do something like this (not that there aren't other similar articles out there, just the one I wanted to do), I thought it would be cool and something different. I was a bit surprised, too, that few participated in the discussion, but then I had to remember I'm doing it just for fun and throwing some of my own perceptions out there and if it gets read fine, if it doesn't, fine, I just enjoy doing it! Hopefully, I'll have the second half up by tonight or tomorrow.

Thanks a million times over for your thoughtful and always welcome insight, Shaun!

Shaun [The Celluloid Highway] said...

I have exactly the same attitude, you're building up your own written archive, so its a very worthwhile, and I'd argue, important thing to be doing. Another major event that rocked American filmmaking in this decade was the arrival of imported art films from Europe. The early films of Arthur Penn are instructive in witnessing the tensions between a more European sensibillity and more traditional Hollywood modes of address. THE CHASE, though not a particularly good film, makes for an interesting case study of this.

Penn deserves far greater credit than he ever recieved. He genuinely managed to absorb a multitude of influences from overseas without actually losing that essential quality which made his films American. This is very different to William Friedkin for example whose desperation to be the 'star' of his productions led to a self-conscious attempt too emulate certain European auteurs (most notably Antonioni and Henri-Georges Clouzot). But Penn films like LITTLE BIG MAN, NIGHT MOVES and THE MISSOURI BREAKS bridged the traditions and feel so much more genuine and richer as a result. There is a very strong case for suggesting Penn was the greatest filmmaker of the New Hollywood period....sorry for rattling on!

venoms5 said...

No, you're not rattling on at all, Shaun, you're adding a layer that I am mostly ignorant of. I've never been into the art films outside of a mild curiosity. Roger Corman apparently was fond of them as he imported a handful of them to America.

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