Horror and sex in movies, circa 1960
June 20, 2018
My favorite genre of fiction literature and motion pictures has always been horror. From Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories to Anne Rice’s novels, and from F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu to Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, I am immensely entertained by tales of horror. I am not sure why. I can’t say that I am frightened by such stories, because I am not. Rather, I somehow seem to be titillated by them. They stimulate certain dark and morbid synapses inside my brain, and I find this stimulation to be satisfying. Perhaps horror stories also appeal to me as an outsider. I’ve always been a loner who has felt outside the mainstream, and maybe the monsters, freaks, outcasts, and other socially rejected characters that populate stories of horror are relatable to me at some level. Or perhaps I simply enjoy the fun of a good, or even a so-bad-it’s-good, horror flick! And there is no doubt that such films are a form of escapism. Real life can be much more frightening than any horror movie!
Horror movies have evolved in interesting ways over the decades. The silent films from the 1920s—such as Nosferatu (with Max Schreck as the most disturbing vampire ever), The Phantom of the Opera (starring Lon Chaney, Sr.), and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (John Barrymore)—retain a special, unmatched creepiness. The classic films from the 1930s and 1940s—such as Frankenstein (Boris Karloff), Bride of Frankenstein (Karloff and Elsa Lanchester), The Mummy (Karloff), Dracula (Bela Lugosi), and The Wolf Man (Lon Chaney, Jr.)—will always rank as among the best. In those masterpieces, the key, essential elements of movie horror became firmly established. There was the monster or villain—an obvious outsider, often misunderstood, and doomed to meet an unpleasant end. There were the mad men, perhaps a brilliant but unethical scientist or a deformed, demented servant of the villain. There were the innocent, helpless victims, typically including at least one attractive young woman. There were the brave heroes, maybe the victim’s boyfriend or a wise, older figure, like Professor Van Helsing. And there were the dramatic visual atmospherics—usually with exaggerated shadows and contrasts (all in awesome black and white)—and eerie background music to further darken the mood.
These elements have remained generally constant in horror movies over subsequent decades, though the genre has developed in other ways. The 1950s and 1960s saw the development of such oversized monsters and freakish creatures as Godzilla, The Blob, Giant Leeches, and Killer Shrews. The ‘70s and ‘80s became known for their slasher movies, most notably The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and the Halloween and Friday the 13th series. During the 2000s, much of horror has become steadily more gross, blatantly depraved, and/or over-the-top ridiculous, from Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses (2003) and The Devil’s Rejects (2005) to Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror (2007) to the incredibly bizarre Dutch film, The Human Centipede (2009). I do enjoy many of these newer crazy gross-out movies. But they definitely belong to a different category of horror than the classics. Recent times have also brought some rather thoughtful horror, such as It Comes At Night (2017). The intellectual and probingly psychological aspect of horror is nothing new, with Rosemary’s Baby (1968) serving as a late ‘60s example. Horror has always been a diverse genre, contrary to common denigrations.
During the past few days, through rewatching some of my DVD collection (specifically Horror Classics, Anniversary Edition, Mill Creek Entertainment, 2009), I have rediscovered the joy of horror and sex in movies, circa 1960. That happens to be the year I was born. This was a ring-a-ding-ding swingin’ time in American history, transitioning from Eisenhower to Kennedy; from Sinatra, the Rat Pack, and cool jazz to Elvis, the Beatles, and rock; and from black and white to color. Judging from movies of the era, the sexy female ideal was a curvaceous woman with large breasts in a pointed bra, and round hips and shapely legs draped in a tight mid-length dress. She almost always wore high heels and hosiery, her eyes were lined in black, her mouth was colored with lipstick, and her hair was stylishly coiffured and sprayed into place. (Hey, I still like that ideal!) This dolled-up chick was either out to get her man or out to screw over some sucker. The male ideal was presented as a square-jawed rugged yet smart character, always with a perfect short haircut, and often wearing a suit. Alcohol and cigarettes seem to be in about 80 percent of the scenes. There is a film noir feeling to some of the horror movies of this time.
It’s fascinating to see these cultural and sexual representations as they are portrayed in horror movies of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. I believe that these movies’ overt sexuality, though dated by modern standards, makes them more accessible and relatable to the modern-day viewer, drenched as society is today in flagrant, ubiquitous sexuality. At the same time, the typically black-and-white production allows the movies to retain a superior aspect of the classic horror era. It is one of the basic facts of life that horror is almost always better in black and white. And although the special effects of these old movies are usually crude and simple, this adds to their distinctive appeal, which the aficionado can deeply appreciate. Thus, the combination of sex with horror in this circa-1960 period makes for a uniquely attractive product.
The horror superstars of this era were such actors as Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee. However, movies with lesser known actors and actresses are fascinating to explore, and some of those movies capture what I am talking about especially well. Here are descriptions of eight of them. These selections would make for an excellent movie marathon. Purchase the DVDs, download from Netflix, or get the movies in some other way… Then wait until nighttime, turn out the lights, get out the popcorn, and enjoy!
This movie opens with jazz pianist Tom (played by Richard Carlson) being confronted at the top of a dilapidated old lighthouse by his former girlfriend, a sultry blonde bombshell nightclub singer named Vi (played by Juli Reding). She’s wearing a very low-cut tight dress, and her boobs look like they could poke out your eyes! She threatens to blackmail Tom to his fiancée, a wealthy socialite named Meg (Lugene Sanders), with an old love letter she has saved—unless he marries her instead of the socialite. As she leans against the outer railing on the lighthouse’s top platform, the railing breaks and she falls over the edge. She dangles from the broken railing, holding on with one hand and pleading for Tom to save her. But he hesitates, and she plummets to her death in the ocean below. He keeps the death a secret but becomes overwhelmed with guilt at letting Vi die. He is haunted by Vi’s ghost and plagued by hallucinations, ultimately leading to his own doom at the same lighthouse.
The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, 1962
In this mix of horror and science fiction, a brilliant but overzealous surgeon/scientist named Bill Cortner (Jason Evers) is conducting secret experiments on the transplantation of body parts. His fiancée Jan (Virginia Leith) is his surgical assistant, though she is unaware of his secret work. She longs to marry him, and the two carry on in a rather naughty manner in front of Bill’s father. For example, as they are smooching and hugging in front of the father, she promises the old man that their children will not be test-tube babies. Pretty funny stuff! Later, as the young lovers are speeding along in Bill’s car, the car crashes and Jan is decapitated by the broken glass. Bill runs with her severed head to his clandestine laboratory, where he keeps it alive and conscious with infusions of his special formula. Meanwhile, he visits strip clubs and other adult venues in search of a sexy new body for the head. One risqué scene shows two strippers wrestling on the floor with each other in the dancers’ dressing room. But back in the lab, Jan’s head is disgusted with the situation and wants to die. It plots revenge against the mad surgeon by using its new telepathic powers to communicate with another one of Bill’s monstrous creations, which is locked up in a closet. As the surgeon is preparing to operate on the shapely young brunette model (Adele Lamont, looking like Elizabeth Taylor) that he brought back to the lab, the severed head orders the monster to break out of the closet, kill Bill, and save the model. The lab is destroyed and the head finally perishes in the resulting fire—a timeless way to end many a horror film.
Carnival of Souls, 1962
This genuinely excellent horror movie is the only feature film directed by a man named Herk Harvey. Like George Romero’s later Night of the Living Dead (1968), it was an independent film produced on a shoestring budget. It begins with a car of young women drag racing a car of young men. The girls’ car plummets off a bridge into a river, apparently killing all passengers. But as police continue their search for the car, one of the young women, a beautiful blonde named Mary (Candace Hilligoss), miraculously emerges from the water, shaken and confused. She later drives to her new job as a church organist in another town, getting a room in a boarding house across the hall from a horny young guy named John (Sidney Berger). John has the hots for her. Mary spends the rest of the movie fighting off his creepy, feely advances, as well as struggling with visions of what appear to be dead people calling her to come join them. As her organ music takes on a demonic sound, she is fired from her church job. She finds herself mysteriously drawn to the shuttered former site of a carnival, where the souls of the dead overwhelm her. At the end of the movie, the police finally pull the car from the river. Inside is Mary’s dead body, along with those of the other girls.
The Last Woman on Earth, 1960
This odd movie was directed by the legendary Roger Corman, with both black-and-white and color versions. The swingin’ Sinatra-like mood of the time is clearly reflected in the film, about a tough, wealthy, risk-taking, law-bending businessman named Harold (Antony Carbone), his dolled-up but dissatisfied trophy wife Evelyn (Betsy Jones-Moreland), and his meek and mild lawyer Martin (Robert Towne). The three go diving together in the ocean during a vacation in Puerto Rico. When they surface, they find that the oxygen in the atmosphere has somehow become depleted, and they need to keep using their tanks to breathe. By the time they get back to town, the air’s oxygen has apparently been replenished, but everybody in the area is already dead. There is no radio or television reception, implying that the same strange calamity has also struck the rest of the world. As the three try to survive in the apocalyptic conditions as seemingly the only humans left alive, it is amusing to watch how the woman continues to doll herself up in makeup, heels, and a fresh dress every day, and the men still put on suits and ties! Martin and Evelyn are increasingly drawn to each other as Harold is busy developing survival strategies, and the guys wind up fighting each other for the chick. Needless to say, things do not end well for the rather wimpy lawyer.
Dementia 13, 1963
This is an interesting film, produced by Corman, that was an early directorial effort of Francis Ford Coppola, who achieved great fame later with The Godfather. It features scheming, conniving blonde Louise (Luana Anders), whose husband dies of a heart attack brought on by her nagging. Unfortunately for her, his death eliminates her from collecting any financial benefits from the will of his wealthy mother, Lady Haloran (Eithne Dunne). So Louise dumps his body into the lake to hide his death, before traveling to the mother’s estate in Ireland to win over the affections of the family and make sure she gets in on the family fortune. But she gradually discovers that just about everyone in the family is crazy. The mother is obsessed with the memory of her youngest child, a little girl who drowned several years ago. Both of the dead husband’s younger brothers seem unbalanced and capable of murder. The mother’s doctor is also pretty strange. The conniving blonde ultimately meets a shocking end, but—no worry–the blonde fiancée, Kane (Mary Mitchel), of one of the weird brothers provides eye candy for the rest of the film.
Atom Age Vampire, 1960
This is a bizarre Italian movie, originally titled Seddok, dubbed in English in the version I saw. The “vampire” in the English title is highly misleading. The story is about sexy blonde exotic dancer Jeanette (Susanne Loret), who is in love with seaman Pierre (Sergio Fantoni). Pierre interestingly objects to her job but spends a lot of time with the girls at the club, whether she is there or not. After Jeanette’s face becomes horribly scarred in a car accident, she seeks out the help of mad Professor Levin (Alberto Lupo), who promises to restore her beauty with the amazing serum he created through radiation. The serum works, but its effects are only temporary, and repeated procedures are necessary to prevent the scars from returning. As the professor becomes increasingly infatuated with the blonde, he shoots himself up with another concoction to turn himself into a wild Mr. Hyde-type character, who then proceeds to kill prostitutes to obtain the glands he needs to make the beauty procedures work. To turn back into his normal crazy self, he sits inside some kind of radiation contraption. The blonde grows increasingly frightened by all the goings-on. But just in the nick of time, the seaman boyfriend arrives to save the day. And, fortunately for the blonde, the treatments she received from Professor Levin finally have permanent effects on her lovely face.
Nightmare Castle, 1965
This is another Italian film—a period piece set in the late 1800s. It stars Barbara Steele, a popular actress of many horror films during the 1960s and 1970s. Count Arrowsmith (Paul Muller) suspects his ravishing, sensual young wife with the long black hair, Muriel (Steele), of cheating on him with the hunky greenhouse keeper, David. After he catches them making out in the greenhouse, he imprisons them in the castle’s dungeon, chaining them to a wall and torturing them. The torture includes beatings, acid, and, finally, electrocution, which results in the gruesome deaths of the lovers. Arrowsmith then uses his dead wife’s heart and blood in some kind of weird medical procedure to restore the youth and beauty of his elderly house servant, who desires to have the count for herself. However, to obtain the wealth of his murdered wife, he marries her sister, to whom Muriel left her fortune. The sister, Jenny (Steele again), looks exactly like Muriel, but with long blonde hair. Jenny is mentally unstable, which the count hopes to exploit by driving her mad with drugs. But the spirits of Muriel and David arise to seek their revenge. Muriel’s spirit inhabits Jenny’s body, causing her to attack the count. Then Jenny and her handsome young doctor friend plan to flee the castle together, but the count tries to stop them. When the spirits of Muriel and David materialize, everything goes to hell, leading to the fiery demise of the count and the instant aging and death of the house servant.
The Screaming Skull, 1958
This brief film—a little more than an hour in length—begins with an announcer telling viewers that the movie is so frightening that they may die watching it, in which case the movie producers will pay for their burials. Ha Ha! The opening scene then shows a young newlywed couple arriving on the country estate of the husband’s deceased first wife. They emerge from a supercool Mercedes-Benz sports car with “gull-wing” doors that open upward, like the later DeLorean. The wife, Jenni (Peggy Webber), is depicted as understanding that her husband, Eric (John Hudson), is still in love with his dead wife but also very much in love with her. She doesn’t realize yet that both “loves” are nothing but acts on the part of the deceptive, murderous husband, who really married both women for their money. Jenni has a history of mental instability, which Eric stokes by placing scary skulls throughout the house and grounds. Her worries are worsened by the presence of the first wife’s grave on the grounds and by the strange groundskeeper, Mickey (Alex Nicol), whose long shaggy hair makes him look like he was a few years ahead of his time. Jenni spends much of the movie running around screaming in a sheer negligee, revealing her fetching figure beneath. The terrible truth about evil Eric is eventually revealed with the help of the local reverend and his wife.
Sexier, naughtier, and sillier today
There are many more fun and sexy horror movies from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s that could be added to this list. The eight selections discussed here are merely a sampling of a few of my favorites from my collection. The list could be expanded much further by moving into the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when horror became even sexier and naughtier. Any horror fan who has not seen Ingrid Pitt as the seductive lesbian vampire Carmilla in The Vampire Lovers (1970) is missing a real treat! And of course, the stereotypical slasher movie—featuring beautiful but not-very-bright young people running away from the crazed killer wearing a mask and armed with a chainsaw, knife, or some other weapon—is heavily dependent upon sexual imagery for its thrills. More recently, sex and horror have been taken to hilariously silly extremes in such flicks as Zombie Strippers (2008), featuring porn star Jenna Jameson. Those movies are enjoyable but outside the focus of this essay.
Horror and sex always make for an appealing, entertaining, wonderfully escapist combination. For my tastes, this combination is most captivating in the horror movies produced around 1960.