When most people think of Gothic horror films, chances are they think of the Thirties and the Forties when such classic horror films as Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and The Wolf Man were released by Universal Pictures. It would be in the late Fifties that Gothic horror would return to the silver screen in a boom that lasted longer than either the booms of the Thirties and the Forties. Unlike the Gothic horror booms of the Thirties and Forties, the boom of the very late Fifties and the Sixties would not be started by a major Hollywood studio such as Universal Pictures, but rather by a small, British studio called Hammer Films.
The Curse of Frankenstein would prove to be a smash hit not only in the United Kingdom, but in the United States as well. While Gothic horror films had been shot in colour before, the practice was by no means common. It was not simply the colour photography of The Curse of Frankenstein that set it apart from previous Gothic horror movies, however, as the film contained much more violence and sexual subtext than previous Gothic horror movies. Indeed, there was much more blood in The Curse of Frankenstein than previous Gothic horror movies, and, what's more, that blood was in Eastmancolour red.
Because of the success of The Curse of Frankenstein, Hammer Films decided to produce its own version of Dracula. Despite the success of The Curse of Frankenstein, Hammer had difficulty getting financing for Dracula. Finally Hammer Films received financing from the National Film Finance Council as well as Universal Pictures, who gave Hammer money in exchange for the movie's worldwide distribution rights. Dracula (1958), retitled Horror of Dracula in the United States to avoid confusion with the 1931 Universal movie, proved to be even more successful than The Curse of Frankenstein. Along with The Curse of Frankenstein, it would lead Hammer Films to produce a series of Gothic horror films that would last into the Seventies. The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula would also set Peter Cushing and Sir Christopher Lee (the stars of both movies) on the path to becoming horror icons to rival Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. The two movies would also spur other studios to produce their own Gothic horror movies, creating a cycle that would last for the whole of the Sixties.
Of course, for a brief period Hammer Films would remain the only studio which produced Gothic horror films in any numbers. In 1959 they produced The Mummy and The Man Who Cheated Death. In 1960 they produced The Brides of Dracula and The Two Faces of Dr. Jekylli. Even after other studios began producing their own Gothic horror movies, Hammer would remain the dominant force in the genre. They would produce remakes of The Phantom of the Opera (1962) and The Old Dark House (1963), as well as originals such as Kiss of the Vampire (1963) and Curse of the Mummy's Tomb (1964) over the next few years.
While Hammer Films remained the dominant studio in the production of Gothic horror films, they would not remain the only studio that produced Gothic horror movies for long. In fact, their first major competitor in the production of Gothic horror movies would start producing movies in the genre in 1960. That competitor was American International Pictures. It was Roger Corman who had the idea of taking Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Fall of the House of Usher" and turning it into a feature film. Aside from being a property with a recognisable title, it also had the advantage of being in the public domain. In other words, AIP would have to pay nothing in the way of licensing. House of Usher (1960) looked very much like a Hammer film. Although produced on a low budget, the sets were lavish and shot in luxuriant Technicolour. And while the Hammer Films boasted Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, House of Usher boasted Vincent Price. An actor with a long career in film, by the late Fifties Mr. Price was firmly identified with the horror genre. It was quite natural, then, that he should be the star of House of Usher.
Like Hammer's Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula, House of Usher proved extremely successful. American International Pictures was then able to produce further Gothic horror movies based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe: Pit and the Pendulum (1961); The Premature Burial (1962); Tales of Terror (1962); The Raven (1963); The Masque of the Red Death (1964); and The Tomb of Ligeia. Roger Corman would turn to another writer besides Edgar Allan Poe for The Haunted Palace (1963). Although the title was taken from a Poe poem, the movie itself was based on The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H. P. Lovecraft. Vincent Price starred in all of the films except The Premature Burial, which starred Ray Milland.
American International would also produce original Gothic horror movies, such as Tower of London in 1962, The Terror in 1963 and The Comedy of Terrors in 1964. American International Pictures stopped making Gothic horror movies in 1964, but would return to the genre with another Edgar Allan Poe movie starring Vincent Price in 1969--The Oblong Box. Over the next few years American International Pictures would produce a few more Gothic horror movies, although some would be set in the present day. The Dunwich Horror (1970) was based on the H. P. Lovecraft story of the same name. Cry of the Banshee (1970) starred Vincent Price and was set in Elizabethan England. The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and its sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972) were set in the Twenties, but also had Gothic overtones, albeit among Art Deco sets. Sadly, by the early Seventies the cycle towards Gothic horror was nearly over and American International Pictures would not venture into the genre again.
Among the individuals who joined the Gothic horror boom of the Sixties was producer, director, screenwriter, and all around showman William Castle. Mr. Castle first ventured into the horror genre with Macabre in 1958. With House on Haunted Hill (1959) he moved into the area of Gothic horror. Although set in the present day, House of Haunted Hill was set in a positively ancient and haunted house, in which five people must remain if they wish to win $10,000. While it could be argued that House on Haunted Hill only bordered on Gothic horror, there can be little doubt that Mr. Sardonicus (1961) was Gothic horror. Set in 1880, the movie dealt with the rather sadistic Baron, Sardonicus, whose face was frozen in a perpetual grin. The movie was based on the short story "Sardonicus" by Ray Russell. William Castle would join forces with Hammer Films for their remake of The Old Dark House, which he directed. It would be the last Gothic horror movie he would produce and direct.
The United Kingdom and the United States would not be the only countries to take part in the Sixties boom in Gothic horror movies. Italy would also produce its share of Gothic horror movies. Among the Italian filmmakers the pioneer in the genre may well have been Mario Bava. Nineteen sixty saw the release of La maschera del demonio (best known in English as Black Sunday). Although most of Black Sunday was set in the present day, the film had a definite Gothic feel. It also had much more blood than the movies from Hammer or AIP, so much so it was banned in the United Kingdom until 1968. In 1963 Mario Bava followed Black Sunday with I Tre volti della paura (literally Three Faces of Fear, but best known in English as Black Sabbath). Black Sabbath was a portmanteau movie with three different stories, two of which were firmly in the Gothic genre. "The Wurdulak" starred Boris Karloff and was set in 19th Century Russia, and dealt with vampires. "The Drop of Water" was set in Victorian England and dealt with the death of an elderly medium. Mario Bava would direct two more movies that could either be counted as Gothic horror or at least touched upon the genre: The Whip and the Body (1963) and Kill, Baby, Kill (1966).
Mario Bava would be followed by other Italian directors in making Gothic horror movies. While Riccardo Freda preferred sword and sandal movies, he would direct Gothic horror movies at times, including The Horrible Dr. Hitchcock (1962) and The Ghost (1963). Antonio Margheriti ventured into the realm of Gothic horror with Danza Macabra (1964, known in English as Castle of Blood). Mario Caiano directed the Gothic horror movie Amanti d'oltretomba (1965, known in English as Nightmare Castle).
In many respects the boom in Gothic horror movies in the Sixties differed a good deal from the booms in the genre of the Thirties and Forties. Indeed, the boom of the Thirties was largely fuelled by the major Hollywood studios. While Universal Pictures produced by far the most horror movies in the Thirties, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, RKO, and even MGM also provided entries in the genre. Similarly, the Forties saw horror movies produced by Universal and RKO. The boom in Gothic horror movies in the Sixties was powered almost solely by independent studios, namely Hammer Films and AIP. In fact, it must be pointed out that while the boom in Gothic horror films in the Thirties and Forties was largely an American phenomenon, the boom in Gothic horror movies in the Sixties was to a large degree a British one. After all, Hammer Films started the cycle and would see it to its end. And there would eventually be other British studios that would begin producing Gothic horror movies as well.
At any rate, despite the success of Hammer Films and American International Pictures' Gothic horror movies, the major Hollywood studios put almost no effort into making Gothic horror movies. In 1961 20th Century Fox produced The Innocents in conjunction with the production company Achilles. The Innocents was based on William Archibald's play of the same name, which in turn was based on The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. Although a Gothic horror movie, the director Jack Clayton went to great pains to make the film look different from the concurrent Hammer Films. He shot the film in black and white, and used deep focus in many scenes. In 1962 20th Century Fox would produce another Gothic horror movie. The Cabinet of Caligari was based on the German silent classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). Like The Innocents, The Cabinet of Caligari was shot in black and white. It also boasted a script by Robert Bloch. Unfortunately, this did not help it at the box office.
In 1963 United Artists released Twice-Told Tales, which adapted two of the stories from Nathaniel Hawtorne's anthology of the same name, along with his novel The House of Seven Gables. The film starred Vincent Price and, like the American International Pictures Edgar Allan Poe movies, it was shot in Technicolour. Curiously, Vincent Price had also appeared in Universal's 1940 adaptation of The House of Seven Gables.In 1966 Warner Brothers released Chamber of Horrors. Originally meant for television, the film was released to theatres instead. Set in the 19th Century, in many respects it owed a bit to the classic House of Wax (1953), with a madman killing those he believes have wronged him with various tools.
Given the success of Hammer Films, it was inevitable that other British production companies would produce their own Gothic horror movies. In 1960 Danziger Productions Ltd. produced an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart. It did not do as well as AIP's adaptations of Poe's works. It was the small company Independent Artists that would produce what is largely regarded as the best adaptation of Fritz Leiber's novel Conjure Wife, Night of the Eagle (1963--known in the United States as Burn, Witch, Burn).
Hammer Films' best known rival in the field of British horror in the Sixties would actually come to the party late. Amicus Productions was founded by Americans Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg. Its first film attempted to capitalise on the then ongoing craze for traditional jazz in the United Kingdom, It's Trad, Dad! (1962). Their second film, Just For Fun (1963), was a teen musical. It was with their third film that Amicus Productions found their niche. Released in 1964, Dr. Terror's House of Horror was a portmanteau horror with three different stories, each with a Gothic feel. Like Hammer's movies, the film starred Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Like Hammer's movies, the film was shot in colour. Unlike Hammer's horror movies, Dr. Terror's House of Horrors was set in modern times. While Amicus Productions' films would often have the feel of Hammer Films and often star many of the same stars, they generally differed from them in that they usually had an anthology format and were set in the present day.
Dr. Terror's House of Horrors would prove successful enough that Amicus Productions would follow it with more Gothic horror, portmanteau movies: Torture Garden (1967); The House That Dripped Blood (1970); Asylum (1972); Tales form the Crypt (1972); Vault of Horror (1973); and From Beyond the Grave (1973). Not every Amicus Productions horror movie utilised the portmanteau format. The Skull (1965) dealt with the accursed skull of the Marquis de Sade. And Now the Screaming Starts (1973) was set in the 18th Century and dealt with a curse. Madhouse (1974) starred Vincent Price as a washed up horror actor who finds himself accused of a number of grisly murders.
The Gothic horror movies produced by Tigon British Lion Productions were very close in style to the Hammer Films. They were often period pieces and they were always shot in colour. In fact, The Creeping Flesh, starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, is often mistaken for a Hammer Film. What set Tigon British Lion Productions' films apart from those of Hammer is that initially the films featured more sexual content and also more violence. Of course, it would not be long before Hammer Films would catch up to Tigon British Film Productions in those departments.
The cycle towards Gothic horror movies in the Sixties reached its peak in the years 1962 and 1963. Roger Corman of American International Pictures would release his last Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, The Tomb of Ligeia, in 1964. By 1966 the genre of Gothic horror was ripe for parody. Indeed, it would become the target of a Carry On film. Although Carry On Screaming! would draw upon everything from the Universal horror movies (even the Abbott and Costello parodies of the genre) to House of Wax (whose plot it resembles), its primary target was the concurrent Hammer horror movies. Indeed, Carry On Screaming! was shot as if it was a Hammer horror movie, even so far as to be filmed in lurid Eastmancolour. Carry On Screaming! was not the only Gothic horror parody released at the time. Even more famous is The Fearless Vampire Killers, released in 1967. Directed by Roman Polanski and shot in colour, its style was also that of a Hammer production. While The Fearless Vampire Killers looked like a Hammer horror movie, like Carry On Screaming! it lampooned the conventions of the genre.
While the Gothic horror boom of the Sixties was showing some wear by 1967, it would be too soon to say that it had ended then. Hammer Films would continue to produce Gothic horror movies for many years to come. Unfortunately as the Sixties progressed the fortunes of Hammer Films would begin to falter. The studio would begin releasing sequels to its successful Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula, which declined in quality as time passed. Hammer's horror movies would also begin to fail at the box office. Regardless, Hammer Films continued to produce Gothic horror movies into the Seventies. The Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust for a Vampire (1971), and Twins of Evil (1971), together known as "The Karnstein Trilogy," featured much more sexual content than previous Hammer horror movies, but were still in the Gothic horror mould. Vampire Circus (1972) and Kronos (1974), played with the conventions of the genre, but could still be considered Gothic horror. It was in 1974 that Hammer Films would leave the Gothic horror genre, with the release of The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, a co-production with the Shaw Brothers that combined Gothic horror with kung fu action. Hammer Films would produce one more horror movie, To the Devil A Daughter, in 1976. Following the release of a remake of The Lady Vanishes in 1979, Hammer Films would lay dormant until the Naughts, when they resumed film production.
Of course, Hammer Films was not alone in producing Gothic horror movies into the Seventies. Amicus Productions would continue to do so as well, its last Gothic horror movie being Madhouse in 1974. Tigon British Film Productions also continued to produce Gothic horror movies, its last being The Creeping Flesh, released in 1973. American International Pictures would even re-enter the genre, with The Oblong Box, Cry of the Banshee, and the two Dr. Phibes films. Regardless, it would seem that by 1974 the viewing public's love affair with Gothic horror was over.
Indeed, the writing on the wall for Gothic horror films may have been written in 1968 with the release of Rosemary's Baby. Directed by Roman Polanski, the film was set in the present day and dealt with Satanism. The release of Rosemary's Baby would signal a new cycle in horror movies, one towards demonic horror. It would be followed by Equinox (1970), The Brotherhood of Satan (1971), The Possession of Joel Delaney (1972), and similar films. With the release of The Exorcist in 1973 there would be an onslaught of horror films dealing with Satanism, demons, or the Devil. In 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Black Christmas would signal yet another cycle, one towards slasher movies. With the release of Halloween (1978) there would be a boom in slasher films that would dominate the late Seventies and the early Eighties.
Hammer Films began the cycle towards Gothic horror movies with the release of The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957. The boom in Gothic horror films would slow a bit in the mid-Sixties, only to be reinvigorated by the introduction of new production companies such as Amicus Productions and Tigon British Film Productions. Gothic horror films would largely go out of vogue in the early Seventies, and the boom in the genre would slowly grind to a halt in 1974 as Hammer Films produced its last movies that could be considered Gothic horror. While the Gothic horror boom of the Sixties would come to an end, it would not be forgotten. At nearly 17 years in length, it may have been one of the longest cycles not only in the history of horror, but in the entire history of film. It would also produce some of the few films in the history of horror that match the classic Universal films of the Thirties and Forties: The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, Pit and the Pendulum, The Masque of the Red Death, and others. It also produced its own stars. Vincent Price was already identified with the horror genre as the boom in Gothic horror movies began, but the boom would only further cement that identification. Both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee became stars through the Hammer horror movies and would be forever identified with the genre. In the end the cycle towards Gothic horror movies in the Sixties would become one of the most influential cycles in horror movies, perhaps matched only by the cycle towards horror movies in the Thirties.
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