Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Top 10 Horror Movies of 1964

I'm probably going to forego the part 2 on this one, as I don't really have much to say about a lot of the other movies that missed the countdown, but that doesn't mean I don't genuinely like every movie on this list. It just means my top 10 definitely stand out better than the ones that didn't make it. So, take that as you will. These are my top 10 favorite horror movies of 1964 -- and a pretty solid year for horror it was.

10. Strait-Jacket

This is the third top 10 horror list in a row that has featured at least one movie by William Castle, and I don't regret that for a second. Though this one was a more serious and significantly less gimmicky attempt than many of my favorites of his, I can say that the charm and general silliness is still there, though slightly more under the surface this time. One of the early "hag movies", it still becomes fairly evident while watching this that it would not have existed had it not been for the success of What Ever Happened To Baby Jane from 1962, which essentially established this very specific horror/thriller sub-genre. Though some of the dialogue is corny, Crawford's Lizzy Borden-inspired performance is enough to elevate the material in a way that really works. Joan Crawford, who was a Pepsi spokeswoman at the time, was given script and cast approval for the film and used her role here to insert plenty of Pepsi product placement, and even went so far as to give a key supporting role to a non-actor Pepsi executive. This doesn't take away too much, luckily, as the movie is clever and full of enough twists to keep you distracted from its misgivings. Not one of Castle's very best efforts, but still a lot of fun. Definitely a rental more than a purchase, though.

9. The Long Hair Of Death

An Italian horror film much in the vein of Mario Bava's Black Sunday (both of which even star Barbara Steele), this story isn't one that's full of shock and amazement, but rather old school thrills and heaps of atmosphere. Directed by Antonio Margheriti, one of the earlier pioneers in Italian horror/giallo films isn't quite able to live up to the precedent set by his incredibly talented peer, but still offers up a solid Edgar Allen Poe-esque story that utilizes its sets well and features a pretty strong cast of largely unlikable and vile characters. The first act is a definite highlight, but the progression of the story is so fluid and intriguing, you never really find yourself wanting or expecting much more. If I had one complaint it would be that I was hoping for a walking decomposing corpse/skeleton with long hair. I feel this was a missed opportunity that could have led to some truly terrifying moments, but that's not what this movie is all about. Much like most Italian horror films, this one relies more on the setting and mood more than satisfying audiences through simple jump-scares and conventional horror standards. And for that, it has my respect. I'd hold off on buying this one, as it can be seen online for free.

8. The Last Man On Earth

Vincent Price was a force to be reckoned with throughout this era of horror, and while he starred in as many duds as he did gems, he still had the ability to carry entire films on his own. This movie, if anything, serves as a demonstration of that. Based on the 1954 Richard Matheson classic 'I Am Legend', this adaptation more closely follows the source material than any of the other versions I can recall having seen, but still takes different steps that may be improvements over the novel -- at least, changes that translate better to screen. Most of the dialogue here is done through narration, with Price's character talking to himself for the first hour of the movie, trying to find a cure for the zombie-like vampirism that has taken the lives or minds of nearly everyone else on the planet. It isn't as good as the book, but it honestly couldn't have been. Price does a great job, and the sense of dread that he lives with can be felt in every mundane activity throughout his life. As far as public domain horror goes, this is among the better ones. It can be found everywhere and is worth the virtually non-existent cost to buy it in a collection.

7. Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte

I find it hard to put this one higher on the list mostly due to how long it's been since I've seen this. Though it's been a handful of years, it's still been imprinted in my mind, leaving images and memories that once scarred me as a child. In a lot of ways this is basically the better version of Strait-Jacket, a fact that's solidified by the mere presence of Bette Davis, who is largely responsible for the hag movie genre thanks to what she did in Baby Jane. But in this role, she is a little less Baby Jane and more the sister who's being terrorized, and she's just as great doing that. I can't speak for too many specifics with this one, but when I rewatched it as I was slightly older (I was too young the first time, and some of the haunting images terrorized my dreams for a long time afterwards) it managed to retain a good deal of its creepiness. This isn't a typical horror movie, but more of a psychological thriller, and one I can definitely recommend to fans of Davis. Plus, it can be found on DVD for less than $10, so it's a pretty easy one to come by. Watch along with Baby Jane or Strait-Jacket for a pretty great double feature.

6. Two Thousand Maniacs!

The second entry in Herschell Gordon Lewis' unofficial "Blood trilogy", this gore fest with a southern backdrop is both hilariously campy and effectively suspenseful. Set during a 100th anniversary celebration in a rebel flag-waving small town in the deep south, this movie is given plenty to work with and does more than you might have guessed, especially considering Lewis' tendency to heavily rely on gore, gore, and more gore. Don't be mistaken, this movie is an incredibly gory and does rely on that a lot, but it's not to the extreme of something like The Wizard Of Gore, and also does serve more of a purpose here apart from just wanting to be gory. The effects are as cheesy as you could possibly imagine, and the acting is equally as hokey. But that doesn't stop me from calling it pretty extreme, especially for the time. This can be found on blu-ray in a pack with the other films in the Blood trilogy, and it's all actually pretty cheap. I can't really say these would need to be on blu-ray, but who am I to decide that? Maybe they look really "good" in high definition. Either way, this isn't a super expensive movie, so if you can get your hands on it for $5-10, I'd say go for it. But only if you like unrealistic gore and stiff acting.

5. The Masque Of The Red Death

The first on this list that I could call a pretty great movie without feeling the need to attach an asterisk to the title. This was the second-to-last of the Corman/Price/Poe adaptations, and arguably my favorite (though I still feel this and House Of Usher are equally deserving of that title). Visually this is an incredible film, blending gothic elements that make up a majority of the setting with vibrancy and color. It's all very striking and is one of the best-looking gothic horrors of the 1960s. Vincent Price gives an excellent performance in the lead, embodying one of his most truly repulsive roles ever with gleeful ease. It's hard to like horror movies from this era and not be a fan of Price, and this movie is just another example of why. He's over-the-top evil and pure joy to watch. As one of Corman's last "serious" directorial attempts, this movie would have been a great way for him to exit the game on a high note, but instead we got a series of forgettable pictures afterwards. On its own, this movie is pretty rare, but I got it in a 4-pack with Pit And The Pendulum, Madhouse, and Tales Of Terror for $10, and it was worth it even if just for this. The others were just a cool bonus.

4. Onibaba

While I struggle to consider this a horror movie in the truest sense of the genre, this unsettling and grim story about two Japanese women who pillage the corpses of fallen soldiers to survive is just creepy and eerie enough to fit the bill. Directed by the same guy who later made Kuroneko (which I consider one of the finest horror films ever made), Onibaba doesn't fully embrace it's horrific side until fairly late in the third act, which is thrilling to say the least. But for the most part, this is just a really bleak drama, which slowly reveals itself over time as a kind of psychological character study. As far as Japanese horror goes this is relatively tame, visually building up atmosphere as opposed to deliberately scaring the crap out of you, but it's this restraint that makes it work so well. Released on Criterion, this film is readily available to anyone who's willing to shell out $15 on a DVD, or $25 for a blu-ray. While I have some reservations when it comes to spending this kind of money on a single movie, I can say you could do a lot worse than this. Definitely worth checking out if you're a fan of horror at all.

3. At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul

And speaking of Criterion, when is this one going to get a restoration and proper release? The first horror film from Brazil, Jose Mojica Marins co-wrote, directed, and starred in this first ever appearance of underground horror icon Coffin Joe. While I haven't yet gotten around to watching any of the follow-ups, this was one incredible way to start things off, and Marins gives one of the best performances of the year. As a character, you can't get much more horrible, vile, and loathsome than this. I found myself more disturbed by his actions than I ever could have guessed, as he proves his willingness to perform any number of undeniably evil acts for his incredibly selfish reasons. Even though movies of this era aren't often very extreme, this movie does have a few moments that make me feel the need to warn the faint of heart. This movie is pretty shocking and dark, even leaving me cringing a few times, and I'm not the kind to shy away from extreme content. Sadly, it's nearly impossible to find a decent copy of this movie for less than $50, so I can't recommend buying this one until we see a real release. But it can be found on Youtube, although the copy is pretty rough and the subtitles are questionable at best. But the quality of the movie outweighs the quality of the file itself, so it's still worth checking out.

2. Blood And Black Lace

One of the very first giallo films ever made, and still one of the very best. I've made my love of Mario Bava's films fairly clear, but that doesn't mean I'm not going to mention it again. Having recently written about this movie, I don't feel like covering all the same material again, but this was a film that instantly struck me, and it's hard not to see why. I had only seen a couple Italian horror films leading up to this one (Suspiria and Deep Red, I think), and while I have always held Suspiria in high esteem, a decent argument could be made for this being the best of the bunch. Visually speaking, this is even better than you could expect from Bava, which is impressive in its own right. Only 4 years after the release of his unforgettable black and white masterpiece Black Sunday he released this gem, one of the earliest and best slasher films ever made. I know that historically it makes no sense for an artist to have more than one masterpiece, but if you don't mind bending the rules, this would be his other one. I would love to recommend the blu-ray for this movie, but it costs 2-3× as much as the DVD, and frankly I don't know if it looks good enough to warrant that cost. But it's still more than worth buying.

1. Kwaidan

One of the greatest ghost films ever, Kwaidan is actually made up of 4 individual ghost stories. While most anthologies suffer from inconsistency, this one works thanks to Masaki Kobayashi's concise direction and creative design. Each story has a unique look and feel, while also managing to complement each other well as a whole film. Since each segment is directed by the same person, there is never a point where you feel like you're watching a completely different film, and that really does help make this movie stand out. At roughly 3 hours long, this could have been sluggish and exhausting, but the pacing is great and with its multiple stories, we're given plenty of opportunities to be scared in different ways without it ever becoming redundant. It's hard to imagine an anthology of any kind being better than this, as it instantly flew up in my top favorite movies of the 1960s several years back when I first watched it, and has maintained its position ever since. Due to its length, I could see why someone might avoid buying this one, as it's not one you'll be watching very regularly, but when you're in the mood for some genuinely spooky and chilling ghost stories, it's hard to find any better than this. Also it has a Criterion release, so you know the restoration looks great.

So there you go. The top 5 are a definite step above the bottom 5, but these are all good/entertaining in their own ways and I could recommend each of them given the mood and taste of the recommendee. As a whole, this is a pretty solid year for horror, and I had a great time looking back through these movies and watching new ones. I might take a small break from doing these for a bit with Christmas coming up, but I will be back with another year from the late-'50s or '60s soon enough. I've been having way too much fun to stop!

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