When cinephiles of a certain sensibility talk about the best decades for horror, they’ll probably point to the 1980s with its explosion of cutting-edge special effects and home video-induced demand for material. Or they might point to the era of Universal Pictures’ domination in the 1930s, followed up then by the moody Val Lewton thrillers of the 1940s. Maybe even a very unpopular kid will try to make an argument for the 2010s, at least until everyone pulls the A24 hat over his eyes and kicks him out.
But moviegoers would be foolish to overlook the 1960s. The decade saw not only two amazing horror flicks from Alfred Hitchcock but also caught the genre in an interesting time of transition. Filmmakers built on the Gothic approach of previous decades by adding a psychological dimension, finding new chills in an established model. Furthermore, the decade saw the first steps toward the ho, Peeping Tom, and even Blood Feast.
Here are 20 of the best movies from this important period in cinema sure to thrill horror fans of every stripe.
20. The Curse of the Crying Woman (1963)
La Llorona has been the subject of multiple horror movies, ranging from the awful Conjuring-verse entry, The Curse of La Llorona, (2019) and the excellent Guatemalan film, La Llorona (also 2019). The Mexican film The Curse of the Crying Woman from director Rafael Baledón isn’t the first in this genre, but it is among the best.
Baledón succeeds by putting La Llorona into a familiar horror structure as established by Universal Pictures. The film follows a married couple Amelia and Jaime (Rosita Arenas and Abel Salazar) as they visit his Aunt Selma (Rita Macedo), a witch who wants to resurrect the Crying Woman in the body of Amelia. Baledón emphasizes the haunting elements of the tale, accentuated by the Crying Woman’s striking design.
19. The Masque of the Red Death (1964)
When most moviegoers hear the name “Roger Corman,” they think of super cheap and quickly made movies such as Teenage Caveman or Gunslinger. However, Corman teamed with the great Vincent Price for a series of eight stately Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, including House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum. The Masque of the Red Death stands out over all others though thanks to its perfect deployment of Price’s screen persona and its luscious colors.
Price stars as hedonistic Prince Prospero, who throws a massive party for nobles within his castle while his subjects suffer from a plague outside his walls. Screenwriters Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell flesh out the story by drawing from Poe’s “Hop-Frog” and Torture by Hope by Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam. But the real draw is the amazing visuals from the legendary Nicolas Roeg, who serveed as cinematographer.
18. Black Sabbath (1963)
Few formats trouble filmmakers like the anthology movie, which tries to tell multiple stories within one entry. Italian director Mario Bava makes Black Sabbath work not only with three strong individual tales but also from a compelling frame story with Boris Karloff in the lead. Karloff proves to be an ideal host, bringing a balance between class and menace and inviting the viewer to participate in its surprisingly cosmopolitan approach.
Karloff also helps elevate the weakest of the three stories, “The Wurdulak.” The other two don’t need a ringer like Karloff, as they get by on their own strengths. “The Telephone” tells a slick, tense slasher tale while “The Drop of Water” makes full use of its spooky setting. Thanks to this breadth, Black Sabbath will satisfy every type of horror fan.
17. The Innocents (1961)
The Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw did psychological horror before psychological horror was a thing. So it’s no surprise that so many filmmakers have brought it to the screen. But none have been as successful as Jack Clayton’s version The Innocents, which stars Deborah Kerr as troubled governess Miss Giddens. As Giddens befriends children Flora and Miles (Pamela Franklin and Martin Stephens), she suspects a corrupting influence in the form of ghosts of Mr. Quint (Peter Wyngarde) and Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop).
The James’ novella elevated its spooky story by refusing to confirm that the ghosts actually exist, suggesting that Miss Giddens may be going mad. Burdened with the need to visualize the story, filmmakers cannot use the unreliable narrator in the same way. Working from a script by William Archibald and Truman Capote, Clayton erodes viewers’ trust in Miss Giddens through Kerr’s unnerving performance, forcing us to question what we see with our own eyes.
16. The Haunting (1963)
Shirley Jackson followed Henry James’ lead with The Haunting of Hill House, which also used a haunted house story to explore the fragile psyche of her characters. Screenwriter Nelson Gidding and director Robert Wise don’t try to play the same unreliability game as Clayton did in The Innocents, making the ghosts of The Haunting seem (possibly) much more real. But that allows Wise to lean into the Gothic tropes of his tale, creating a very satisfying and very scary ghost movie.
Despite its more straightforward take on the supernatural, The Haunting does not lack for style. Cinematographer Davis Boulton and set designer Elliot Scott created an off-kilter mansion in which Elenor (Julie Harris) and others stay the night at the invitation of Dr. Markaway (Richard Johnson). Thanks to this strange design, we viewers sympathize with the characters, feeling ourselves like we’re thrown into the world of the uncanny.
15. Witchfinder General (1968)
Most people think of Vincent Price as a master of arch characters, a guy whose tongue never leaves his cheek, even when delivering a spine-chilling cackle. But Price gives one of his most contained, and chilling, performances in Witchfinder General. Price plays Matthew Hopkins, a self-righteous witch-hunter who dispenses his cruel form of justice to anyone he suspects of practicing sorcery.
Anyone reading the plot summary for Witchfinder General may dismiss it as a dry bit of historical fiction, as it involves a clash between Hopkins and Roundhead Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy) during the English Civil War, but director Michael Reeves, who co-wrote the screenplay with Tom Baker, keeps things tense and terrifying, reminding viewers that no monster is more frightening than a man convinced of his own goodness.
14. Repulsion (1965)
Where other movies on this list struggled to portray psychological horror as depicted in literature, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion remains one of the best movies about the horror of a breakdown. Polanski’s film succeeds where others fail because the screenplay he wrote with Gérard Brach and David Stone remains focused on the central character Carol (Catherine Deneuve) and her perspective. Without other characters’ mindsets to get in the way, we viewers understand the film’s strange imagery as manifestations of Carol’s shattered psyche.
And what wonderful imagery it is. Shots of rotting food and hands protruding from a close hallway remain among the most haunting in horror cinema. To this day, the entire A24 brand tries to do what Polanski mastered almost 60 years ago.
13. Hour of the Wolf (1968)
For its first 40 minutes, Hour of the Wolf plays like any other Ingmar Bergman picture. It stars two regular members of the Swedish master’s recurring players, Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow, as a couple struggling to stay together on an idyllic island. Even the scary scenes in the first half, flashbacks of horrible actions done by painter Johan (Sydow), feel more like the same dark nights of the soul seen in Bergman’s most famous works, such as The Seventh Seal.
But in the second half, Hour of the Wolf connects Johan’s strange behavior to a cult living on the other side of the island and takes on more traditional horror elements. For some, the second half sells out the first, cheapening the existential terror for which Bergman is best known. But for others, it shows how even the most respected directors use horror tropes to tell unique and terrifying stories.
12. Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968)
Most Americans think of Bela Lugosi as the ultimate movie Dracula, but he only donned the vampire’s cape and teeth for two films. English actor Christopher Lee quadrupled that count, most often in garish and gory movies for Hammer Films. Lee brought a unique mix of sophistication and savagery to the part, highlighting both the elegant and animal aspects of Count Dracula.
Lee best embodies both of those elements in his third outing as Dracula, 1968’s Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, directed by Freddie Francis. The titular rising occurs when an exorcism goes wrong, allowing Dracula to return and menace the denizens of an early 20th century church. Placing Dracula in this religious context allows Francis and screenwriter Anthony Hinds to emphasize the sacrilegious nature of Dracula, something earlier movies only hinted at.
11. Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)
Thanks to technical and censorship limitations, most of the horror movies of the 1960s leaned toward psychological terror and thrills. But director Robert Aldrich more than compensates with his extreme gothic approach in Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, thanks to a sleazy script by Henry Farrell and Lukas Heller. Stars Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland more than meet the challenge, finding notes of humanity without sacrificing the arch requirements of the tale.
Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte follows the reunion between elderly spinster Charlotte (Davis) and her New York City cousin Miriam (de Havilland) decades after the former was suspected of murdering her married lover. When Charlotte learns that her dilapidated Louisiana mansion will be demolished to make way for a new highway, the two women must face their past and their own dark hearts.
10. The Birds (1963)
How great is Alfred Hitchcock? He’s so great that he makes birds scary. Birds! They don’t call him the Master of Suspense for nothing.
Of course, it helps that Hitchcock has a stellar cast and story to work with on The Birds. Adapting the short story by Daphne du Maurier, screenwriter Evan Hunter keeps the tale focused on believable characters, namely socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and lawyer Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). The smitten Melanie drives to Mitch’s seaside home to apologize for her behavior during their first meeting, just as the birds on the island begin to act strangely.
This combination of mundane characters and absurd threat, as well as Hitchcock’s first-rate direction, makes The Birds an uncanny horror film, more unsettling than most overtly grisly flicks.
9. The Devil Rides Out (1968)
The Devil Rides Out stars Christopher Lee in a story about a secret Satanic cult. And believe it or not, Lee plays the hero, not one of the devil worshippers! No, instead, Lee plays Nicholas Duc de Richleau, a sort-of detective who discovers the devil worshippers and must rescue young friend Simon (Patrick Mower) and others from evil leader Mocata (Charles Gray).
Despite its somewhat overheated title, The Devil Rides Out is more of a stately film in the mode of Lee’s work for Hammer. Adapted by the great Richard Matheson from a novel by Dennis Wheatley, The Devil Rides Out was directed by Hammer mainstay Terence Fisher. Fisher brings the same sensibilities that made his films The Horror of Dracula and The Curse of the Werewolf so memorable, giving Lee the chance to play an imposing man on the side of the angels, just this once.
8. Blood Feast (1963)
While ‘60s horror tended to be less gory than that of the decades that followed, filmmakers of the era didn’t avoid blood altogether, especially not those by Herschell Gordon Lewis, aka the Godfather of Gore. Throughout the ‘60s and early ‘70s, Lewis created tasteless, lurid films that splattered the screen with vibrant technicolor red goo. None of these movies have much to offer in terms of character or theme, but they deliver all the shock value one could get during that era.
Lewis began that approach with 1963’s Blood Feast, which stars Mal Arnold as Fuad Ramses, the psychotic proprietor of a catering business. Through his business, Ramses encounters victims to mutilate as a sacrifice in an Egyptian ritual to the goddess Ishtar (who is actually Mesopotamian goddess, not an Egyptian goddess, but no one goes to Blood Feast for theological accuracy!). From that preposterous and probably problematic plot, Lewis indulges impulse, resulting in a movie that makes up for its lack of skill with pure audacity.
7. Carnival of Souls (1962)
Carnival of Souls is the only narrative feature director Herk Harvey ever made. He spent most of his career directing educational and safety films, including the award-winning “Shake Hands With Danger,” immortalized by Mystery Science Theater 3000 reunion on Rifftrax. And that’s a shame because Carnival of Souls has a straightforward approach to the central haunting that makes the movie feel all the more surreal.
Co-written with John Clifford, Carnival of Souls stars Candace Hilligoss as Mary Henry, a young woman who escapes a seemingly fatal car accident at the start of the film. To heal the trauma of the event, Mary moves to Salt Lake City and tries to begin again. However, she finds herself haunted by a grinning ghoul. Mary’s slow unraveling and the man’s uncanny appearance (played by Harvey himself) chills the viewer, in part because of the dispassionate manner in which Harvey tells the tale.
6. Peeping Tom (1960)
For most of his career, English director Michael Powell worked with Emeric Pressburger on rich and respected films such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and The Red Shoes. In Peeping Tom though, Powell takes a hard turn toward the trashy, with his story about a photographer (Carl Böhm) who films the young women he murders. Despite the less than prestigious subject matter, Powell retains all of his skill as a director, giving Peeping Tom a chilling sense of reserve.
Böhm plays Mark Lewis, an aspiring filmmaker whose retiring demeanor hides a troubled psyche, not unlike that year’s other slasher killer, Norman Bates. Lewis’ troubles stem from the experiments performed by his psychologist father, stripping him of the ability to empathize with others. Despite what the film’s first audiences thought, Peeping Tom reveals itself to be a rich and terrifying psychological portrait.
5. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
George A. Romero didn’t set out to reinvent the zombie genre. In fact, he thought he was making a movie about flesh-eating ghouls. And yet, Night of the Living Dead forever changed not just the zombie subgenre, but all of horror. Using equipment he borrowed from his day job as a camera operator on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Romero shot the script he co-wrote with John Russo on the cheap, working with non-professional actors from the Pittsburgh area.
The power of Night of the Living Dead comes from both its shocking imagery, including a young girl turning on and murdering her parents, and its exploration of society. Romero insisted the production cast Black actor Duane Jones as Ben, who takes charge of a group of survivors in a farmhouse, simply because he had the best audition. But there’s no denying the power of seeing America’s racism show itself in light of the ghoul’s attack, especially in the movie’s final moments when the whites see Ben as just another zombie.
4. Targets (1968)
No movie captures the transitional nature of 1960s horror better than Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets. The movie contrasts the creaky films of the previous era with the more mundane terrors of the real world, embodied by a cleancut young man who begins sniping random victims. Co-written by Polly Platt, Targets had two very different inspirations: an actual incident involving a mass shooter at the University of Texas and a cost-cutting demand by producer Roger Corman. Corman gave Bogdanovich and Platt the funding to make the film, with the requirement that they incorporate footage from an unsuccessful flick called The Terror, starring Jack Nicholson and Boris Karloff.
Targets stars Karloff as Byron Orlock, a washed-up horror star who plans to leave the industry after the premier of his latest movie (represented by footage from The Terror). As Orlock thinks about the nature of his work, military veteran Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly) suddenly begins murdering people, starting with his family and escalating to random citizens he kills with a sniper rifle. The contrast between real and imagined monsters allows Targets to provide a meditation on the nature of horror without ever sacrificing the chills that the genre demands.
3. Eyes Without a Face (1960)
Anyone not paying close attention might assume that the faceless figure on the poster for Eyes Without a Face must be the monster. After all, she floats through a well-appointed mansion like a ghost, her otherworldly nature heightened by the calliope music by Maurice Jarre. In fact, that girl Christiane (Édith Scob) is the victim of her surgeon father Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), who wants to replace the face Christiane previously damaged in an accident.
From that premise, director Georges Franju and writers Boileau-Narcejac, Jean Redon, and Claude Sautet tell a story at turns haunting and stomach-churning. Most who see Eyes Without a Face recall the surprisingly frank and clinical face transplant scene. But the real horror of the film comes from Scob’s remarkably vulnerable performance, as contrasted to those of Brasseur and Alida Valli as Génessier’s imperious assistant Louise. Together, these seemingly contradictory impulses create one of the best horror films of all time.
2. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Yes, Rosemary’s Baby builds to one of the most disturbing climaxes in cinematic history, in which frail Rosemary (Mia Farrow) first recoils at her Satan-sired son, pleading to know “What have you done to its eyes,” and then slowly agreeing to care for him, showing maternal softness to her Hell-spawn. But Rosemary’s Baby has far more going for it than just its conclusion. Writer and director Roman Polanski retains the paranoia of the Ira Levin novel he adapts, revealing Rosemary to be betrayed by everyone, even her husband Guy (John Cassavetes) and supportive neighbor (Ruth Gordon, in an Oscar-winning turn).
Given its reception and pedigree as an early example of the New Hollywood movement, it might be tempting to position Rosemary’s Baby as some type of pseudo-elevated horror, an early example of that oft-mocked label. But Polanski can’t help but wink at some of the more overheated moments in the film, following chants of “Hail, Satan” with a petulant caretaker giving Rosemary a raspberry. This mixture of dark themes and playful gags, not to mention fallible characters, makes Rosemary’s Baby feel fundamentally human, even when dealing with the demonic.
1. Psycho (1960)
As much as modern cinephiles talk about Alfred Hitchcock in hushed, reverent tones, the Master of Suspense was not above huckster tactics that would fill William Castle with envy. There’s more than a little lasciviousness in his adaptation of the Robert Bloch novel Psycho, from the leering early shot of a defrocked Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) on the bed with unmarried boyfriend Sam Loomis (John Gavin) to the final reveal of Norman (Anthony Perkins) dressed as his mother. Even the movie’s trailer, or Hitchcock’s refusal to admit any latecomers to the theater. borrow a page from carnival barkers.
However, Psycho remains a masterpiece thanks in part to Joseph Stefano’s screenplay, which disposes of Marion halfway through, and Hitchcock’s direction. What could devolve into a simple morality play becomes a complicated exploration into a broken mind, so rich that not even a jarring lecture in psychoanalysis can slow, as it sets up the chilling final internal monologue of poor, sweet, innocent Norman Bates. Hitchcock’s camera has never been as daring, following a victim’s tumble down the stairs or shooting and editing the shower attack to show nothing and imply everything. With Psycho, Hitchcock proves that he’s a genius not in spite of his tawdry indulgences, but because he presented them with such skill.