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The genre of the horror film, as old as the medium film itself, has evolved immensely since the beginning of the 20th Century. A single monster may have been enough to put an audience in a state of horror in the past, while these days, mass murderers and a spate of victims are needed to frighten.
Classic Hollywood horror film from the 1960s employed psychological mind games that inspired fear in the victims as well as the viewer. Precisely because they are simple in their narrative and structure, they remain the most harrowing till today.

To highlight this, let’s look at two films from the 60s: Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby.

 

Psycho

Psycho is one of Hitchcock’s most highly acclaimed films though it was a struggle to even produce it. While Hitchcock was fascinated by the novel it is based on, his studio refused to finance it.
The film starts with an aggressive soundtrack that sets the eerie mood right away, and introduces the viewer to the protagonists. Marion Crane is a girl next door, who lives an unremarkable life, working in an office, until she decides to steal money from her boss and leave town. She has to turn into the Bates Motel on her rainy drive late at night.
The mood is set by the remote motel, far away from the nearest town and the sinister Victorian Bates house that sits above it. The nervous character of the motel owner, Norman Bates adds to this; both the viewer and Marion are irritated by his behaviour and opinion. His psychological issues, centring on his affection for his mother give way for the most famous scene in film history.
Marion is murdered by a shadowy mother figure while taking a shower. The high-pitched violins, along with Janet Leigh’s screams underline the shocking images of the young woman being slaughtered and her blood running down the drain. This pivotal scene occurs even before the first half of the film is over and creates all the more suspense on the question of which Bates is the murderer.

Psycho - Classic HorrorThe discovery of the victim by Norman strengthens the assumption that it was his mother but seeing as one only ever hears her voice, without actually seeing her, she remains a mystery.
The second highlight of the film reveals the truth, when Marion’s boyfriend and her sister find out just how disturbed Norman is and that his mother is actually dead. He kept her corpse, mummified, as he was not able to let go of her.
It is thus the familiar, the people next-door, combined with the psychologically challenged murderer that horrify in Psycho. The key idea is that this could happen to anyone.

 

 

Rosemary’s Baby

This brings us right to Polanski’s first American film, Rosemary’s Baby, also based on a horror novel. This 1968 film also sets its eerie mood right in the title sequence, with a woman’s voice singing a melody while the camera travels over New York, with the credits reading in pink writing. The melody, sounding like a lullaby is the first clue as to what will happen.
As in Psycho, the protagonists Rosemary and Guy are ordinary people who are looking for a flat and planning to start a family. Their neighbours an eccentric elderly couple who, along with their building the Bramford, are enigmatic.
A root, the tannis root, becomes the symbol of the satanic endeavours the Castevets pursue. It seems to drive their protégé Terry to suicide and its foul smell irritates Rosemary.
Rosemary is haunted by Minnie and the tannis root that will not stop following her. It is put in her drinks and food, which leads to her being raped by the devil himself. It seems to be the root of all evil as it gives her insufferable pain.
The horror of the film also lies in the fact that Rosemary repeatedly tries to escape the Castevets and their cult but is always lured back. It is a never-ending back and forth, as the couple seem so innocent but practice their Satanism secretly. Everything she does is for her baby. She is terrified about its safety, so she is easily convinced to do anything for the wellbeing of the baby.
The baby is born and taken away from her but she can hear it cry at the Castevets’. When Rosemary finds her baby (whose father is Satan himself) she is horrified. Torn between horror and motherly love, she starts rocking its cradle.
The potency of these films lies in the evil that induces fear by dumb luck. Their victims stumble into jeopardy by sheer coincidence and it is this simple yet effective horror that makes them so powerful to this day.

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Lynn Klein is a journalist currently doing a print journalism MA at Sheffield. Unsurprisingly, she's a film buff with a love for art and indie film. Her favourite cinema is the Duke of Yorks in Brighton. Other interests include books, coffee and travelling.

Posted on Oct 27, 2013

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