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From Halloween to Horror: Hollywood’s best scary movies from A to Z

Brian Doxtader | Friday, October 27, 2006

Horror comes in all forms, from psychotic slashers, to evil demons, to aliens and monsters. Over the last century, numerous films in the genre have been made – some genuinely scary, some just cheesy and boring. For anyone looking for a good fright this Halloween, here are some classics – the scariest movies in one of the most popular film genres.

The Slasher Movie

Halloween (1978, John Carpenter)

The film that unleashed the William Shatner-masked Mike Myers on the world and launched a spawn of imitators, “Halloween” remains the original and the best in the genre. Myers stalks his prey, especially Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), over the course of a brief, scary 93 minutes. Though the countless followers and its own less-than-stellar sequels have diluted its impact, “Halloween” remains an indispensable classic.

Memorable moment: When Mike Myers attacks Laurie when she’s in the closet.

Friday the 13th (1980, Sean S. Cunningham)

“Friday the 13th” was something of a follow-up to “Halloween,” and its financial success firmly established the teen slasher genre as a film phenomenon. A psychotic killer hunts teenagers at summer camp, with all the right clichés in all the right places. Cunningham’s direction is tense and taut, though anyone looking for Jason Voorhees needs to wait on the sequels – he’s nowhere to be found in the original, a bit of trivia that’s often forgotten.

Memorable moment: An axe-in-the-face murder.

Scream (1996, Wes Craven)

More of an homage (or even parody) than a legitimate horror film, “Scream” has achieved classic status for its playful deflation of horror movie norms. Wes Craven, one of the founding fathers of the slasher film, completely revolutionized the horror genre for contemporary teenagers. Surprisingly, “Scream” is a scary and fun picture that collects horror movie cliches and celebrates them. A game cast, led by Neve Campbell and Skeet Ulrich, makes “Scream” as effective as a “real” slasher film, though “Scream” is clearly a much better made movie.

Memorable moment: Drew Barrymore’s brief appearance at the opening of the film – “Do you like scary movies?”

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, Tobe Hooper)

A cult classic upon its original release, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” helped revolutionize the horror genre. A low-budget film made in a documentary style, it follows a group of teens who stumble into the lair of Leatherface, a chainsaw wielding psychopath. Its stark, realistic style and sudden violence was divisive in 1974, but the influential “Chainsaw Massacre” continues to resonate with audiences, precisely because the film is so visceral and disturbing.

Memorable moment: The first appearance of Leatherface, one of the screen’s greatest villains.

A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984, Wes Craven)

Created after the success of both “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street” quickly developed into one of the most successful horror franchises, spawning not only numerous sequels but a television show as well. Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) is the star of the show as the child molester who was burned to death by the parents of the children he attacked. He comes back to the nightmares of those related to his killers, vowing to kill them in their sleep.

Unlike the slashers who came before him, Freddy is scary and funny at the same time, having plenty of actual dialogue and banter with the other characters. His burned and mutilated face and long knives where fingers should be create one of the perennial images of horror. Also noteworthy is a young Johnny Depp starring in his first feature film.

Memorable moment: “One, two, Freddy’s coming for you. Three, four, better lock your door. Five, six, grab your crucifix. Seven, eight, gonna stay up late. Nine, ten, never sleep again.”

The Supernatural Movie

Rosemary’s Baby (1968, Roman Polanski)

A disturbing and affecting examination of late 1960s paranoia, “Rosemary’s Baby” was adapted by Ira Levin’s bestseller. The story of the pregnant Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) and her actor husband Guy (John Cassavetes), “Rosemary’s Baby” is a film about the occult, as Rosemary begins to learn the satanic truth about her titular child-to-be.

Memorable moment: Rosemary’s disturbing, hallucinogenic dream sequence.

The Exorcist (1973 William Friedkin)

Easily one of the most famous horror films of all time, William Friedkin’s 1973 classic about priest Father Karras (Jason Miller) and his run-in with a demon possessing the child Regan (Linda Blair). Featuring some fantastic performances by Ellen Burstyn as Regan’s mother and Max Van Sydow as the exorcist, Father Merrin, “The Exorcist” is still a shocking and scary film, despite being over 30 years old.

Memorable moment: “The power of Christ compels you!”

Carrie (1976, Brian DePalma)

Based on Stephen King’s first novel, “Carrie” follows the eponymous character (Sissy Spacek), a shy and repressed teen whose supernatural powers come to vengeful fruition during the iconic high school prom. As much a film critiquing the social class system as it is about the scares themselves, “Carrie” remains equally effective for its portrayal of high school politics and religious guilt. Also noteworthy is a young and poorly-acting John Travolta.

Memorable moment: The epic shower of pig’s blood during the prom’s fateful final moments.

The Shining (1980, Stanley Kubrick)

Kubrick’s classic, based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, is about the haunted (and fictional) Overlook Hotel in Colorado and its effects on writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson). With its bravura performance by Nicholson and creative and creepy use of the camera, “The Shining” is superior cinema, as well as a superior horror film.

Memorable moment: “Here’s Johnny!”

The Monster Movie

Alien (1979, Ridley Scott)

Claustrophobic and atmospheric, “Alien” ushered in a new era of outer space horror. Profiling the last voyage of the starship Nostromo, “Alien” follows Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and the crew of the Nostromo as they try to stop the alien (frighteningly and memorably designed by H.R. Giger) that has invaded their ship. Followed by an equally classic sequel (directed by James Cameron), “Alien” remains a gold standard of monster horror to this day.

Memorable moment: the literally chest-bursting appearance of the alien.

Jaws (1975, Steven Spielberg)

“Jaws” was more than a movie, it was a cultural phenomenon. Enhanced by John Williams’ legendary score, it follows police chief Brody (Roy Schneider) of the idyllic Amity Island, as he hunts down a shark terrorizing the beaches. Though filled with its share of scary moments, “Jaws” cuts to the center of the horror genre by concentrating on character, specifically the three terrified men on a small boat.

Memorable moment: the point-of-view shots of the shark, bolstered by Williams’ pounding score.

Night of the Living Dead (1968, George A. Romero)

A landmark picture and the defining zombie film, “Night of the Living Dead” remains one of the longest-lasting and most successful horror franchises of all time. The movie opens with Barbara (Judith O’Dea) and her brother almost immediately attacked by a horde of cannibalistic zombies. Narrowly escaping, she meets Ben (Duane Jones), the hero of the film. The human side of this film is an interesting and accurate character study concerning what happens to people whose very lives are threatened.

The horror of this film is less a matter of blood and gore than a matter of the real active horror of realistically depicted scenes of murder, death and cannibalism. Though the more gory footage is certainly effective, there may not be quite enough of it for today’s average horror fan. The photographic techniques of this film are innovative and powerful – showing just enough of the sheer hideousness of the film’s basic concepts to disturb viewers, but not enough to allow them to detach from the film’s protagonists.

Memorable moment: Ben’s fate.

The Evil Dead Trilogy (1983 – 1992, Sam Raimi)

The first “Evil Dead” movie was a low-budget cult classic about five teens who accidentally unlock an evil spirit deep in the woods. By “Army of Darkness,” the third film in the series, it had become a joking, stylish homage to, and parody of, the classic zombie movie. “Evil Dead” was effective because of its simplicity – Raimi depends on the camera and the paranoia of the atmosphere, which drove the series throughout its three-film run.

Memorable moment: the flying eyeball in “Evil Dead 2.”

The Classic Movie

Psycho (1960, Alfred Hitchcock)

Among Hitchcock’s most famous film, “Psycho” is responsible for one of Hitchcock’s most famous creations, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) of the Bates Motel. “Psycho” set new standards in horror, as it pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in 1960. With its Oedipal overtones and Perkins’ genuinely scary portrayal, “Psycho” remains the gold standard in modern psychological horror.

Memorable moment: the shower scene, perhaps the most famous sequence in Hitchcock’s storied career.

Nosferatu (1922, F.W. Murnau)

When “Dracula” was first put on sale for movie rights, one of the first men to pursue the text was F.W. Murnau. Although he failed to get the rights, Murnau had already started production on the film. To get around the rights issue, they cut out the name Dracula and replaced it with Count Orlok, or Nosferatu (the vampire). What separates “Nosferatu” from others of its time is that most of the film was shot on location in Eastern Europe – the production hardly used any studio sets. It is difficult to find any surviving original copies because when the film was released, Florence Stoker (widow of Bram) pursued the rights case relentlessly and in July 1925 a German court ordered all prints of the film to be destroyed.

Memorable moment: Nosferatu’s first appearance on screen.

Frankenstein (1931, James Whale)

An obsessed scientist creates a living being from parts of exhumed corpses. No longer so much a movie as it is a genuine part of popular folklore, the film itself shows its age, particularly in the absence of a musical score. But the performances by Colin Clive and particularly the great Boris Karloff as the Monster are the whole show here, forgiving a multitude of creaks and groans and more than compensating for any lulls in the narrative.

Memorable moment: When Dr. Frankenstein yells, “It’s alive!”

Dracula (1931, Todd Browning)

Before Bela Lugosi was relegated to starring in Ed Wood films, he was in this career-defining title role. While this version of “Dracula” is far from being the most definitive version of Stoker’s famous novel, it is quite possibly the most memorable one – due in large part to the presence of Bela Lugosi. Born in what is now Romania, Lugosi brings to the character the flavor of his homeland, making him more believable than any of his predecessors. His performance alone is reason enough to watch this monster movie classic.

Memorable moment: Lugosi’s deliverance of the infamous line, “I am Dracula.”

The Halloween-oriented Movie

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993, Henry Selick)

This Tim Burton-written classic tells the story of Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon, Danny Elfman), the pumpkin king of Halloween Town who is bored with doing the same thing each year for Halloween. One day he stumbles into Christmas Town, and is so taken with the idea of Christmas that he tries to get the resident bats, ghouls and goblins of Halloween Town to help him put on Christmas instead of Halloween. In typical Tim Burton fashion, they just can’t seem to get it right, putting their own creepy spin on the beloved holiday.

Memorable moment: Jack discovering Christmas for the first time.

Hocus Pocus (1993, Kenny Ortega)

In the year 1693, three sisters, Winifred, Mary and Sarah (Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker) were executed for practicing witchcraft. Just before their execution, Winifred made a curse – that when a virgin lights the black flame candle on Halloween night, the three will return. Fast-forward to 1993, 300 years later, when newcomer Max (Omri Katz) decides to light the candle in order to scare his irritating sister Dani (Thora Birch) and his wannabe girlfriend Alison (Vinessa Shaw). Together they have to find a way to stop the Sanderson sisters from taking the children of Salem, Massachusetts. “Hocus Pocus” is an instant, fun classic with an outstanding cast, especially the three sisters.

Memorable moment: Bette Midler’s performance of “I Put a Spell on You”

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966, Bill Melendez)

Faithful “Peanuts” companion Linus believes in the “Great Pumpkin,” the Santa Claus of Halloween. He misses out on Halloween to stay in the local pumpkin patch, waiting for the Great Pumpkin to select his particular patch as the “most sincere.” Meanwhile, Charlie Brown and the gang get invited to Violet’s Halloween party. The gang decides to go trick-or-treating, while Sally keeps Linus company as he waits in the pumpkin patch. A classic since it initially aired, “The Great Pumpkin” has ushered in Halloween for many a child.

Memorable moment: When Charlie Brown gets a rock in his trick-or-treat sack.