What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, and Beheadings?
By Desmond Reddick
06 October 2009 — The 1970s were a decade where it seemed there were no limits. Decency and subtlety were often thrown to the wind for the sake of sheer terror and unbridled exploitation. It was a dangerous time that most look upon as a revolution in genre filmmaking. Gone were the sympathetic monsters of yesteryear; hello to the madman hiding under your bed, in your closet, in your head. But, where did this "revolution" come from?
American cinema already had a strong run of terror-tinged baddies back into the 1950s. It was a time when the innocence of a society was dying. Fear of an evil ideological threat was creeping into Anytown, USA well before people were asked, "What are we fighting for?" After all, what would The Last House on the Left be without Cape Fear, or The Exorcist without Rosemary's Baby? Let's take a look at some of those avant-garde nasties from the era of Leave it to Beaver, shall we?
I don't see a better place to start than 1955. In one of only two films directed by Quasimodo himself, Charles Laughton, the establishment was shaken and the most effective boogeyman in cinematic history to date was not an ancient monster, but America's own twisted morality. The Night of the Hunter is all the more effective for being told from the children's perspective when a pious preacher marries a young widow so he can kill her for her dead husband's money. Charming fellow, huh? Well, he believes he's doing God's work. Tell me this film is any less relevant today than it was when it came out, and I've got some tattooed knuckles to slap across your face. Beyond the stark black and white look heavily influenced by the German Expressionists — a theme we're going to see popping up a few times here — this Southern Gothic is driven by the villainous portrayal of Harry Powell by the legendary Robert Mitchum. Mitchum was fond of pointing out that the difference between him and other leading men was that he'd spent more time in prison. It shows.
While I consider the actual birth of the modern horror film to be in 1955, it does not discount the impact made by another such revolutionary film: Hitchcock's 1960 masterpiece, Psycho. There. Can we move on? It is impossible to say anything new about Psycho, but the danger and uncertainty left in this film after its lead actress is killed off in the iconic shower scene at the end of the first act is only overshadowed by perhaps the greatest film portrayal of all time in Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates. With John Gavin, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Bloch, and Bernard Hermann all involved in one film, it would normally be difficult to give the lead actor all the credit, but there has never been a film role as convincing, unnerving, and sad as poor Norman.
And that was it, all bets were off. Once you kill the beautiful lead actress at all — let alone before the film's plot really gets going — the rules no longer apply. Fresh off directing The Guns of Navarone, J. Lee Thompson — who would go on to direct two Planet of the Apes sequels, a bizarre supernatural Western in White Buffalo, iconic slasher Happy Birthday to Me, and then fail to keep Charles Bronson interested in the fourth Death Wish film — amped up the sexual torment, and put a typical family in peril in one of this columnist's favorite films: Cape Fear. Robert Mitchum delivers another hard-as-nails performance as Max Cady in a role so over-the-top not even De Niro could match it in the remake. Mitchum also got to apply some of his prison experience as he made Gregory Peck pay for his mistakes. It's not a horror film in the traditional sense of the word, but as you can see, this is a time when "the traditional sense of the word" no longer makes sense. America was realizing that extraterrestrial blobs and giant ants weren't what they had to worry about, it was someone they wronged or the corruption and safety of their families.
I believe it was these three films that set off the avalanche of human horror films in the following years. The monster was beginning to go away, and the twisted psyche of the individual was stepping forth. Psycho itself spawned a glut of imitators, many of them notable: Dementia 13 (Francis Ford Coppola's twisted family drama); Robert Aldrich's back-to-back psycho sister dramas, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte; Michael Powell's psychosexual Peeping Tom; and the list goes on. Most of these provide the framework from which the 1970s defined the slasher film.
But the 1960s weren't all shower-stabbings and heads rolling down the stairs; there's plenty of revolutionary supernatural terror to be had as well. Robert Wise's The Haunting from 1963 is probably the best example of this. It takes all the classic tropes of the haunted house film and injects a bit of 1960s nihilism with madness and suicide tied into said haunting. The film is also ahead of its time for the idea of paranormal investigation. We take this for granted nowadays — consider Ghost Hunters and the fact that anyone could probably find a paranormal investigator in the yellow pages — but in 1963, this was wild stuff.
In fact, there was another bend towards mysticism in the 1960s as is wont to do in times of social upheaval. This led to a rise in cults and non-Christian spirituality. Two of the best examples couldn't be more different: Rosemary's Baby and Blood Feast.
Rosemary's Baby is a dark and dour fable of the fears of childbirth. The cult overtones are kept to the background, as Polanski decided instead to focus on manipulation and built-in human fears rather than the outward threat of the cult itself. Its hauntingly quiet set and cinematography leads to the eerie lullaby at the end when the absolute terror of what has been happening to Rosemary Woodhouse is finally unleashed.
The other side of the spectrum introduces perhaps the most influential filmmaker of the overt gory 1970s: Herschell Gordon Lewis. Blood Feast, from 1963, tells the quaint little tale of an Egyptian caterer, Fuad Ramses (these are not racially sensitive times), who's sacrificing his victims to an Egyptian god and cooking up their remains for public consumption. It's not very good — and I don't think there's actually a winner in the 22 films in his catalog — but it was the first genuine appearance of gore. Before HG Lewis, no one had ever died with their eyes open, and villains often died in a hail of gunfire without a drop of blood. This was the turning point.
The end of the flower power era has never been better signified in film than in the culmination of the 1960s horror revolution. There was blood, terror, and nihilism, as well as generational, sexual, and racial struggle in the film that wrapped shooting only days before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down: 1968's Night of the Living Dead, one of the most influential horror films of all time.
Dr. Leary urged the counterculture to "turn on, tune in, drop out." This signified a change in the status quo even in that very counterculture. What started as the hippie movement of protestation and fighting the power became retreating from society altogether. This took place both physically (through communes) and mentally (through acid trips). This change from "reject society" to "forget it entirely" spawned as many social ills as it aided. The "cult" phenomena of the 1960s is one of those social ills, and is a direct result of both physical and mental societal retreat. But I don't necessarily think that it's the case of taking something happening in society to its negative extreme; it's a reflection of the real horrors that existed in the Manson Family, Jonestown, and elsewhere. The psychological aspect is much more put-upon by your intrepid columnist, but I stand by it — and that is the introspection and psychological retreat seen in characters like Norman Bates.
The bottom line really lies in the fact that America was no longer innocent. Or at least no longer under the guise of being innocent in a time of sordid secrets and underground terror. We can then look to the films of the 1970s as an extension of what had already begun a decade and a half earlier; revolutionary films were out there getting inside their audience's heads when most of the films of the time refused to get heady at all.