You’ve seen Night of the Living Dead, Psycho, and Rosemary’s Baby. But have you seen a pre-Star Trek William Shatner being chased by a succubus in a movie filmed entirely in Esperanto? Or a made-in-Japan (with a non-Japanese cast) alien creature feature with the grooviest theme song ever? Read on!
Leslie Stevens, the creator of sci-fi series The Outer Limits, wrote and directed this, shall we say, conversation piece; it features black-and-white cinematography by future three-time Oscar winner Conrad Hall, an earnest lead performance by future Captain Kirk William Shatner, and a script penned entirely in Esperanto (“the international language”). Add to that a plot about alluring succubi who hunt for hellbound souls around a stream blessed with magical powers, and you’ve got a movie that is mind-blowing in concept while actually being pretty terrible in execution. Fifty-four years after its release, it’s safe to say there’s no other movie like Incubus—nor (perhaps thankfully) will there ever be.
There’s no supernatural menace in this legendary team-up of Hollywood divas Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, playing sisters whose troubled relationship transcends mere sibling rivalry and becomes something so twisted it lurches into the surreal. But What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, which has become a camp classic, gets dark as hell as Davis’ character, a booze-soaked former child star, puts Crawford’s character, a former screen star who now uses a wheelchair after a mysterious car accident, through absolute hell. There’s torture, murder, some ghoulish song-and-dance routines, and imagery you will not be able to banish from your brain, possibly ever.
Herk Harvey wrote, directed, and has a spooky co-starring role in this tale of terror, said to be an inspiration for George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and certainly influenced itself by The Twilight Zone. After she emerges the sole survivor of a tragic car accident, aloof church organist Mary (Candace Hilligoss) picks up and moves to a new state but finds a fresh start is hardly in the cards. She can’t shake the feeling that something malevolent is stalking her every move, or figure out why she’s drawn to an abandoned carnival pavilion just outside of town. The fact that Carnival of Souls was made on an ultra-low budget is actually a good thing—its cruder technical aspects only enhance its waking-nightmare quality. A feeling of dread clings to every frame.
Kinji Fukasaku (a versatile director, equally known for his yakuza epics as he was for 2000's ultra-violent cult classic Battle Royale) directed this Japan-U.S. co-production that begins with astronauts setting out to blow up a rogue asteroid before it annihilates Earth. Their mission becomes something far weirder when a squishy alien substance follows them back to their space station—then starts to mutate into screamy monsters that are (quite obviously) people in rubber suits flinging tentacles around. The urgently jangly theme song (“What can it be, what is the reason? Is this the end of all that breathes? Is it just something in your head, will you believe it when you’re dead? Green sliiiiime!”) preps you for the delicious cheese to come, but you still may not be ready for it.
In the early to mid-1960s, director Roger Corman and star Vincent Price churned out several films based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. The Masque of the Red Death is maybe the most scarring from a horror standpoint, especially since it concerns the spread of a hideous plague. The reliably great Price plays the cruel Prince Prospero; his name perfectly aligns with his lavish, Satan-blessed lifestyle, which is in stark contrast to the poor people who live in the village he lords over. When the dreaded disease appears, the prince shuts himself and a gaggle of nobles inside his castle for a debauched staycation, but you just can’t stop the Red Death, who party-crashes just in time to make sure everyone who deserves it meets a gruesome fate. The story is set in medieval times, but the production design—stuffed with luridly bright colors and trippy freak-outs—is a psychedelic delight.
Italian horror master Mario Bava takes one of his sci-fi detours for this unsettling tale of space travelers who head to Aura, an uncharted planet, to answer a strange distress call—years before Alien’s doomed crew would undertake a similarly ill-advised mission. The movie’s title kind of gives the game away, but it turns out that Aura is home to supernatural beings who’re capable of manipulating dead bodies (among their other talents). Seems they’ve been spending quite a bit of time trying to hitch a ride off Aura—preferably to a more populated planet, full of fresh new bodies, with a landscape that isn’t quite so riddled with the bones of their previous victims. “Directed by Mario Bava” means guaranteed eye candy, and between the costumes (so many structured jumpsuits!), the artful lighting (primary colors galore), and the stylized set design (with a fog machine on overdrive), Planet of the Vampires does not disappoint.
Legendary gothic horror purveyors Hammer produced multiple Frankenstein and Dracula films in the 1960s, but we’re singling out macabre entry The Plague of the Zombies because it’s a pre-Night of the Living Dead entry in a genre that continues to endure. Mystified by a series of deaths in his village, a doctor contacts his mentor for assistance; the older physician soon arrives with his pretty daughter (Diane Clare), who catches the eye of the local squire (John Carson). As The Plague of the Zombies cautions, wherever there’s a rich guy with an unwholesome interest in “voodoo” (1966 British movie = not exactly culturally sensitive), walking corpses will soon follow. A crucial graveyard scene, which sees multiple ghouls creep up through the dirt, perfectly captures the exquisite terror of being pursued by something very slow-moving; it also offers a textbook demo on why you should always go for the head when you’re trying to fend off the undead.
Filmmaker José Mojica Marins—known far and wide by horror fans by the name of his alter ego, Coffin Joe—launched himself into instant notoriety with what’s considered Brazil’s first horror film. It’s the grim tale of an undertaker named Zé do Caixão, or Coffin Joe, whose quest to find a suitable woman to bear what he believes will be his supernaturally gifted child leads him down a very dark path. Clad in Coffin Joe’s signature top hat and cape, Mojica Marins gleefully rips up the scenery of his own movie. But even though Coffin Joe is a beastly, bullying menace throughout, that glorious title—which is realllly more of a threat—drops a pretty bold hint about his fate.
The full title of Jack Hill’s pitch-black comedy is Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told, and the movie more than lives up. It’s about the Merrye family, all of whom suffer from a disorder so unique it’s named for them: “Merrye Syndrome.” Basically, it means you start aging in reverse once you hit your tween years, eventually transforming into a feral, sub-human sort of creature. They’ve been keeping to themselves, attacking the occasional unfortunate delivery person here and there, but trouble eventually arrives when some greedy but otherwise “normal” distant relations barge their way into Merryes’ rundown mansion. Big mistake. The cast features horror icons Lon Chaney Jr. and Sid Haig, but the standout character is Virginia, played by Jill Banner, whose nickname is “Spider Baby” because not only does she love spiders, she acts a lot like one too, which is indeed as disturbing as it sounds.
In a bizarre incident, a town’s entire population suddenly passes out cold—only to revive a few hours later. Not long after, every woman within the right age range realizes she’s knocked up, a worrisome development to say the least, and things only get worse once the kids are born and mature at an accelerated rate into pale-blonde, emotionless, telepathic, hive-minded little monsters. Oh yes, and they’re also homicidal maniacs. Their parents are thrust into the uncomfortable position of fearing their own offspring, and then into the even ickier position of needing to destroy them all. Spooky kids are now a horror movie trope, but these glowing-eyed imps are among the OGs, and they’re just as alarming now, even 60 years after making their debut.
Exploitation master Herschell Gordon Lewis, also known as the “Godfather of Gore,” cranked out several future cult movies in the 1960s, including Two Thousand Maniacs!, Color Me Blood Red, and the immortal Blood Feast. But The Gruesome Twosome is a particularly off-the-wall entry, even for Lewis. It’s about a sweet old lady who runs a wig shop out of her house, which is also occupied by her childlike adult son and “Napoleon,” her pet stuffed leopard. To make a little extra money, she rents out a room in the house to local college girls. Just kidding! That’s just how she lures fresh heads to supply her “100 percent human hair wigs.” Gruesome is right there in the name, and with Lewis behind the lens, you know the scalping scenes are going to be gushing with fake blood the color of bright-red poster paint. You also know there’s going to be terrible acting, a cheerful tone despite all the exaggerated violence, and some glorious plot tangents. Who’s up for a rock n’ roll beach party?
Georges Franju’s elegant body-horror masterpiece is remarkably light on gore, considering it’s about a doctor (Pierre Brasseur) who sends his female accomplice (Alida Valli) out to kidnap beautiful women, searching for an unwilling face-transplant donor for his disfigured daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob). After multiple failed surgeries, Christiane begins to lose her mind, feeling massive guilt over the dead women and depression over having to hide out and pretend to be dead, unable to tell her fiancé she’s actually alive. Adding to the atmosphere of eerie madness, Christiane spends most of the movie wearing a blank white mask, freezing her face in an expressionless stare that’s far more haunting than any scar could ever be.
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