OK, it's the Halloween season, the pumpkin is carved, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and Snickers stand at the ready and the subject of the ritual sacrifice is locked up in the basement awaiting the stroke of midnight. What to do to kill some time? Watch a scary movie, of course, but what kind? Horror is like a diamond and each of its facets reflects a different brand of terror. It all depends on what you're in the mood for.
1. Creepy Little Kids
I guess there's something innately horrific about the idea of our own offspring turning on us. That's why there's so many creepy little kids in horror movies. One of my favorite examples is 1960's Village of the Damned (the 1995 remake should be avoided) and its sequel Children of the Damned (1963) in which children who are the offspring of human women and an unseen alien intelligence threaten to take over with their psychic powers. The are few kids creepier than little anti-christ Damien as he appeared in the original 1976 version of The Omen. While one might not think of Night of the Living Dead as an entry in this sub-genre, Kyra Schon's performance as the plucky little girl who doesn't let being dead stop her from chowing down on her father and running her mother through with a gardening trowel makes for a creepy kid indeed. The Other (1972) tells the story of ten-year-old twin brothers Niles and Holland. Holland is the troublemaker of the two, a fact made even more bizarre when we learn he only exists in Niles' mind. Other primo examples include The Shining (1980), Kill Baby Kill (1966), The Children (1980) and Children of the Corn.
Zombie flicks are certainly nothing new. Bela Lugosi himself starred in 1932's White Zombie and in 1943 Jacques Tourneur brought us the haunting I Walked With a Zombie. The modern zombie film began with Night of the Living Dead, despite the fact that the zed word is never once used and the walking dead in Romero's film actually more closely resemble ghouls. That's the film that set the ground rules for the sub-genre: reanimated corpses, a contagion, flesh eating, the potential end of humanity. Not every modern zombie film contains all these ingredients, of course, but that's the basic template. Some of the earliest films to draw an obvious influence from Night of the Living Dead were Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things (1972) and Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974). The sub-genre really hit it big when Romero's sequel Dawn of the Dead became a hit in Italy under the title Zombi and spawned a slew of imitators. Lucio Fulci directed some of the best of this wave like Zombie (called Zombi 2 in Italy to fool people into thinking it was a sequel to Dawn), The Beyond, and City of the Living Dead (a.k.a. The Gates of Hell). Other Italian zombie movies like Burial Ground and Hell of the Living Dead are far less worthy of your attention. The 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead spawned another zombie renaissance, which included the brilliant horror comedy Shaun of the Dead and Romero's Land of the Dead, to say nothing of countless direct to DVD schlock-fests.
3. Lesbian Vampires
It's got vampires, it's got lesbians, what's not to like? It's been a tradition as far back as Universal's Dracula's Daughter, though the lesbian elements were pretty subtle back in 1936. The sub-genre really came into its own with the 1970 release of Hammer's The Vampire Lovers, one of many adaptations of J. Sheridan Le Fanu's 1872 novella Carmilla, and the film spawned several sequels. Jose Larraz's hauntingly erotic Vampyres (1974) was far more explicit than anything Hammer would put out, with its sex scenes bordering on softcore porn. Daughters of Darkness, a Belgian film from 1974, managed a successful fusion of lesbian vampires and arthouse style, while Jess Franco's Vampyros Lesbos (1971) makes no pretense at being artsy but still manages to be good trashy fun. And while I know absolutely nothing about 2004's Vampire Lesbian Kickboxers, you have to admit the title stirs the imagination.
While it's my least favorite kind of horror film, I certainly can't argue with its influence. The American slasher film has its roots in an Italian genre called giallo which usually combines elements of the crime thriller with stalk and slash style scares. John Carpenter got the sub-genre off the ground with Halloween in 1978, and pretty soon films about teenagers being stalked by knife/axe/garden tool wielding psychopaths were popping up all over the place. The first Friday the 13th hit in 1980, launching one of the most prolific horror franchises of all time. Happy Birthday To Me (1981) always stuck in my mind because it featured Little House on the Prairie star Melissa Sue Anderson as a deranged slasher. The Burning (1981) was essentially a Friday the 13th knock-off, but not a bad one and it had gore effects from Tom Savini. Lucio Fulci's The New York Ripper (1982) is worth a look for being so unapologetically gruesome, as is the insanely gory Pieces (1982). Wes Craven's Scream (1996) embraced all the conventions of the by-then done-to-death sub-genre and launched a new wave of slasher films including I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) and its sequels and the Urban Legend series.
"Even a man who is pure of heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright," or so we were told in all those Wolf Man movies from Universal that featured Lon Chaney Jr. as the tormented Lawrence Talbot. Chaney's take on lycanthropy was actually preceded by Henry Hull's performance in Werewolf of London (1935) but the classic Jack Pierce makeup that Chaney wore in The Wolf Man (1941) and its sequels was far cooler. Michael Landon had a memorable starring role in I Was A Teenage Werewolf (1957), which successfully mixed the juvenile deliquent formula of the period with horror elements. The Howling (1981) and An American Werewolf in London (1981)made werewolves cool again in the 1980s with what was then state of the art transformation and creature effects. More recent takes on the formula include Skinwalkers (2006), Blood and Chocolate (2007) and Underworld (2003).
6. Horror Comedy
Perhaps you like to combine laughs with your scares. It's a tricky mix, with the comedy threatening to dilute the horror and vice versa, but when a balance is achieved it can actually work pretty well. If you feel like taking it old school there's always Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), in which the comedy duo crosses paths with the classic Universal Monsters, including Bela Lugosi as Dracula and Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolf Man. On a much gorier note we have Evil Dead 2 (1987) in which director Sam Raimi essentially remakes the previous entry in the series with more money and more Three Stooges inspired humor. 1981's An American Werewolf in London showed us the lighter side of lycanthropy. Return of the Living Dead (1985) has spawned some of the absolute worst sequels in horror history, but the original has laughs and scares and is probably best known for coining the term "Braaaaaaiiiiinnnss!" For something more recent there's Shaun of the Dead (2004) a hiliarious tale of a man trying to patch up his relationship with his girlfriend amidst a zombie apocalypse.
7. Anthology Horror
At last, a horror sub-genre for those of us with short attentions spans: multiple stories told in a single feature. The earliest example I'm aware of is 1945's Dead of Night in which an architect arrives at a country house and recognizes the people there from a recurring nightmare. Each of the characters at the house in turn relates their own bizarre tale. Like most films of this type, the initial story serves as a framing device for the subsequent tales. Mario Bava's Black Sabbath (1963) which uses a Rod Serling-esque narration by Boris Karloff to tie together three tales of terror is another fine example of the form. 1980's The Monster Club offers a tongue-in-cheek take on the format, as does 1982's Creepshow. Horror anthologies were the bread and butter of Amicus Productions, a British company that turned out scads of these in the 60's and 70's. Probably the best known of these are the E.C. Comics adaptations Tales From the Crypt (1972) and The Vault of Horror (1973), but Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965) and The House That Dripped Blood (1971) are also among the studio's finer efforts.
So what sort of horror movie gets your blood percolating?