Introducing four of the best British psychological horror films from the early 60s- The Innocents, The Haunting, 80,000 Suspects and Repulsion.
……from Professor Spool’s archive
At Halloween most television and cinema schedules will be dominated by the usual ‘scary suspects’ – Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, werewolves, Freddie, Jason and maybe even a Mummy. Such horror creations are so readily visible on the screen whether they are steeped in folklore like vampires or based on real life Jack the Ripper type serial killers.
In concentrating on these overt, bloody and often very gruesome depictions, schedulers frequently overlook the primal basis of all horror – fear itself. The very fear that lurks deep in our psyche and that can manifest itself in so many different ways. One such manifestation is that which is unseen – you may be able to sense danger, your sub-conscious may play tricks on you, the sounds you hear may add to the dread and foreboding that occupy your thoughts. What you can’t see can hurt you – it can produce irrational behaviour, questions our very sanity and understanding of what is real or a figment of our fevered imagination.
Let me now recommend four fine celluloid examples that are immersed in the very atmospheric fear I have just described. This quartet of black and white ‘mind-chillers’ were all made in Britain in the early sixties.
The Innocents (1961)
Henry James’ Edwardian supernatural story ‘The Turn of the Screw’ has never been better adapted for the screen than this unsettling eerie version directed by Jack Clayton. Is Deborah Kerr’s repressed governess losing her mind, or are her all too knowing young charges (Mark Stephens and Pamela Franklin) really possessed? Are ghostly apparitions in broad sunlight and the sound of sobbing real, or is this just a conventional household with two mischievous children? The pin sharp monochrome photography from Freddie Francis (who would go on to direct horror films of his own) complements the disturbing feel as the tension mounts towards the chilling climax. The Innocents will leave your mind racing well after the end credits have disappeared.
For best viewing effect, bolt your doors, ensure your windows are locked and watch it on your own with the lights off or at least turned down very low!
The Haunting (1963)
With exterior scenes shot at Ettington Park near Stratford-Upon-Avon, this haunted house mystery stars Royal Shakespeare Company duo Claire Bloom and Richard Johnson as part of a small group investigating the existence or otherwise of the paranormal at the gothic Hill House.
Like The Innocents, this film builds up the suspense by staying within the house and grounds and relying mainly on what is heard and implied rather than what is seen. A combination of unnerving sounds and claustrophobic camera angles add to the uncomfortable atmosphere. A great example of this is a night scene where Julie Harris and Bloom are in a bedroom and the sound of thumping can be heard outside their door. The camera pans in and out with the rhythm of the increasingly intense threatening noise.
When this film was made, censorship meant that Bloom’s character’s sexual attraction to Harris had to be played down, but this does not apply to the fear and foreboding that is ever present throughout the story telling.
In The Haunting, it is evident that director Robert Wise had learnt much from his time in the early forties working at RKO Pictures, where Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton were pioneering their subtle atmospheric ‘B’ movie chillers. Wise would go on to direct The Sound of Music two years later.
80,000 Suspects (1963)
Claire Bloom and Richard Johnson also appear in this gripping race-against-time thriller directed by Val Guest (who also directed The Quatermass Xperiment and The Day the Earth Caught Fire), and featuring Guest’s real life wife Yolande Donlan. Set in and around the historic English city of Bath, the fear here is very much one of contagion -a deadly disease that cannot be seen unless observed under a microscope. The story unfolds with a semi documentary style narrative focusing on the medical authorities’ attempts to contain the outbreak and their subsequent hunt for a prime suspect – the carrier. There is a struggling marriage of a doctor and nurse included in the mix to heighten the melodrama.
The winter setting and the black and white photography add to the bleakness of the situation, but it is the fact that Smallpox is a real disease and not the product of a writer’s imagination that strikes genuine fear.
Ever been left at home on your own with only your nightmares and irrational fears to keep you company? French manicurist Carole (Catherine Deneuve) is such a person in what is perhaps director Roman Polanski’s best film.
New to England, Carole slowly loses her sanity while left alone in the London flat she shares with her sister (Yvonne Furneaux) when the latter goes way on holiday with her boyfriend. You feel like a voyeur as you watch this young woman’s fears manifest themselves in terrifying hallucinations. As her self imposed confinement continues, Carole’s grip on reality disintegrates and what is actual and a product of her disturbed mind becomes a test for the viewer as well. The dripping of a tap, the buzzing of a fly, the corridor of hands and Patrick Whymark’s sweaty predatory landlord add to the discomfort in this well crafted gem of a psychological tour de force.
At the time of going to print, all these films are readily and cheaply available on Region 1 and Region 2 DVD, and in some cases Bluray (the only exception being 80,000 Suspects, which is only available on Region 2). So, trick or treat yourself to some mind chilling horror this Halloween!