By the late 60s, most horror movies had drifted into the shallow waters of the predictable. The output of Hammer and Roger Corman, so vital and fresh in the 50s, had become repetitive and bereft of ideas, its gothic trappings of castles and capes increasingly antiquated.
Hastened by the success of Hitchcock’s back-to-basics thriller, Psycho, in 1960, the latter part of the decade saw an explosive rebirth of the horror genre, thanks in large part to the low budget, groundbreaking Night Of The Living Dead.
The third and final part of A History Of Horror charts the progress of this genre renaissance, as Mark Gatiss contrasts the expensive, supernatural Hollywood studio movies of the late 60s and 70s (Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen) against the decidedly secular horror of low budget, independent films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
As before, the BBC’s corporation clout allows Gatiss to stalk around the sets of Psycho, and interview such horror luminaries as Tobe Hooper, George A Romero and actor David Warner, the latter providing the documentary’s biggest laugh. When asked if he still owns the rubber head that comes spiralling off his shoulders in The Omen‘s most spectacular death sequence, he quietly replies, “I lost it in the divorce.”
Most horror buffs will find few surprises in Gatiss’ voyage through 70s horror. Few will be surprised at most of the movies Gatiss chooses to cover, though his inclusion of the oft-neglected Martin, Romero’s contemporary, creepily perverted vampire movie, is a welcome one.
Gattis’ series has been driven more by a sense of nostalgia than hard-nosed analysis, and his personal voyage through horror cinema has left some surprising omissions. The immensely disturbing psychological horror Peeping Tom (which ruined the career of its director, Michael Powell) surely deserved a mention, and by concentrating almost entirely on British and American horror, Gatiss leaves out the work of Italian directors such as Dario Argento or Lucio Fulci entirely.
Nevertheless, it’s been an entertaining series, and it’s hard not to agree with most of Gatiss’ opinions on the horror genre’s current trajectory (while he singles out John Carpenter’s Halloween for praise, he later laments that the slasher subgenre has spread “like Dutch elm disease”). It’s troubling to think that, as the 70s era’s intelligent, talented directors such as Carpenter, Romero and Cronenberg reach old age, they’ve yet to be replaced by talent of equal calibre.
But as western horror has become increasingly self-referential and predictable once again, the rest of the world has produced genre movies of startling verve and originality. Barely touched upon in this series, it would be fascinating to see Gatiss return with a more detailed appreciation of horror films from Italy, Spain, Korea and Japan.
Read our review of the second episode, Home Counties Horror, here.