This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.
Another year of grab-bag variety, 1963 gives us a wealth of new films from Italy, including what is generally regarded as the birth of the giallo genre. Elsewhere, Hitchcock unleashes another classic, Roger Corman goes into total overdrive, and Herschell Gordon Lewis releases what is often referred to as the first “splatter” film, Blood Feast.
Obviously, Hitchcock’s The Birds is a major co-headliner here. Its allegorical tale of birds that go berserk and attack the residents of Bodega Bay presaged the coming 1970s wave of ecological horror films, which would be endlessly imitated in the wake of Spielberg’s Jaws. Here, the birds’ attack would seem to represent both an antibody-like response to mankind’s ungrateful pillaging of the natural world, and a visual representation of the blossoming relationship between the characters portrayed by Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor. It lacks some of the human-driven suspense seen in Hitchcock’s best thrillers, but who can forget the sight of Hedren, ironically trapped in a phone booth like a parakeet, watching as a swarm of birds tears the world apart around her?
In Italy, meanwhile, Mario Bava is having one of the most dynamic single years that any horror director has ever had, helming three different films: Black Sabbath, The Whip and the Body, and The Girl Who Knew Too Much. Two of them are gothic revival horror films starring icons of the genre—Christopher Lee as a masochistic aristocrat in Whip, and a revitalized Boris Karloff as the creepy host of horror anthology Sabbath. The other, released in the U.S. as Evil Eye, is the least known today, but ultimately was among the most influential films in the history of Italian cinema, given its reputation as the first true giallo. This thriller-horror sub-genre blossomed throughout the 1960s and became extremely popular in the 1970s, incorporating elements of murder mystery and detective fiction into crime, psychological thriller and occasionally overtly supernatural stories. The name, which is the Italian word for “yellow,” refers to the fact that giallo films were often evocative of the cheap, sensationalized mystery/crime paperback novels that were popular in post-war Italy, which were printed with yellow covers. Bava can be considered the genre’s godfather, but subsequent giallo films will give us some of the most notable works from the likes of Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Ruggero Deodato and Umberto Lenzi.
In the U.S.A., Roger Corman is riding high as the country’s preeminent schlock artist of the day. His The Haunted Palace takes the Poe Cycle in an odd new direction, adapting the H.P. Lovecraft novella The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and claiming it as a Poe creation, while X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes is a classic bit of sci-fi pulp that feels like it would have fit in neatly among the science fiction horror films of the previous decade, but for the considerably more lurid tone. At the same time, Corman’s status as producer willing to give chances to new talent is already being established, as he gives the leftover budget of the film The Young Racers to a 24-year-old Francis Ford Coppola, who uses it to write and direct his low-budget debut, Dementia 13. In the coming years, Corman productions will essentially give first chances to a who’s who of American directorial and acting titans, from Martin Scorsese and Ron Howard to Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, James Cameron, Nicolas Roeg, Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone and more. Together, they’re often referred to as graduates of “The Roger Corman Film School,” denoting what has arguably been Corman’s deepest contribution to American filmmaking.
1963 Honorable Mentions:
The Birds, Black Sabbath, The Whip and the Body, The Girl Who Knew Too Much, The Haunted Palace, Paranoiac, The Raven, X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes, Blood Feast
Director: Robert Wise
Thematically, The Haunting is a bit like the American answer to The Innocents in the U.K. two years earlier. Both are psychologically driven, seemingly classical ghost stories that use the possibility of the supernatural to tease out modern revelations. Both feature a central, female viewpoint character who is characterized by her psychological and emotional fragility, struggling to reconcile her own desires against her societal responsibilities. Both leave ample room for discussion on the nature of what actually occurs in their plots, and how many of the events are imagined.
As for which is out and out more frightening, though? Well, that’s when it gets hard to deny The Haunting. Robert Wise’s film is one of the genre’s most effective chillers, and one of its most enduring masterclasses in getting the maximum amount of tension and suspense out of the slightest instances of suggestion and supernatural phenomena. It’s an inhumanly patient film, repeatedly luring audience members into lowering their defenses before springing another jolt on them.
Adapted from the same Shirley Jackson source material that gave us Netflix’s (reimagined, but effective) The Haunting of Hill House, Wise’s adaptation hews much closer to the novel on which it was based. It follows a nebbish young woman, Eleanor, who is experiencing a crushing degree of guilt over her mother’s recent death, coupled with the life-long anxiety she’s experienced after a childhood poltergeist experience. Invited to join a paranormal investigation of the infamous Hill House, Eleanor feels compelled to accept, even as her misgivings flare constantly. Arriving at the house and meeting her fellow researchers, she’s torn between feelings of terror and an intense longing to be somehow possessed by the force she feels there. Is it simply a reflection of Eleanor’s repressed self, begging for release from the pains of her life? Or has a dark force awoken in the bowels of Hill House, intent on making Eleanor its own?
Unlike The Innocents, where almost every instance of supernatural activity could theoretically be explained away by Deborah Kerr’s mental instability, there certainly does seem to be something unexplainable happening in Hill House. Doors open and close of their own accord. Loud banging issues from unknown points of origin. People behave strangely, seeming to lose track of their own wills. The house has a powerful force of personality, and few seem capable of resisting its gravitational pull.
As Eleanor, actress Julie Harris gives one of the horror genre’s most vulnerable, emotionally affecting performances. The audience both empathizes with and is unnerved by Eleanor from the start, owing partially to her strange, disembodied voiceover sequences, which seem filled with dreamy non-sequiturs that force the viewer to immediately question her state of mind. Even more than her voice, though, it’s Harris’ rheumy, plaintive eyes that hint at the way she’s desperately trying to hold herself together in the face of forces both external and internal that seem to want to tear her apart. Her denouement at the end of the film captures its spirit in the most perfectly creepy manner: “Silence lies steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House. And we who walk here, walk alone.”
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.