Classic Horror Flicks Offer Autumn Chills

ByABC News
October 18, 2005, 12:35 PM

Oct. 24, 2005 — -- You want to be scared, don't you?

A little supernatural sustenance, a touch of haunting horror, a dose of deadly drama. What could be more fun on Halloween than some shivers up your timbers?

For the fright-deprived we offer a roster of some of cinema's finest horror tales. [Also see our slideshow, Halloween Horror Classics.] So turn out the lights, lock your doors, curl up under the covers, and fire up the remote. And remember: If it gets too terrifying, there's always the "stop" button. Go on. We dare you.

"Never take candy from strangers" simple and well-meaning advice about placing too much trust in the unknown, advice that characters in horror films rarely take to heart until it's too late. Sometimes people deemed most trustworthy are actually the ones you have to watch out for, and therein lies a time-honored trait of horror films: the scariest characters are not the gooey, slime-infested creatures from other planets, but the nice guy next door who just happens to have bodies accumulating in his basement.

Robert Mitchum was a consummate player of characters who lived slightly off the edge, whether it was gumshoe detectives or laconic rebels. In "The Night of the Hunter," a Gothic tale directed by Charles Laughton, Mitchum plays a murderous preacher on the trail of two children he believes are harboring a bank robber's loot. A mischievous mixture of wide-eyed, childlike innocence and stark horror, the film is the most riveting portrayal of a psychopath ever.

Alfred Hitchcock claimed that his 1960 film "Psycho," shot on a minuscule budget and released with a sensational marketing campaign, was done as a joke, after the seemingly more ambitious "Vertigo" and "North by Northwest." But Hitchcock showed that high art could come from low material (a morbid tale of a serial killer inspired by Ed Gein), and many consider it his masterpiece. Audiences who followed the events at the Bates Motel doubtless developed a lingering fear of showers, or at least of quietly nervous young men who practice taxidermy.

Many filmmakers make the mistake of thinking horror can only be found among the horrible. Novelist Ira Levin made the inspired decision of setting "Rosemary's Baby," his tale of a woman impregnated by Satan, in a familiar, comfortable apartment building on Manhattan's Upper West Side, inhabited by friendly, doting seniors. After Roman Polanski's creepy film version, sweet little old ladies led by Oscar winner Ruth Gordon will never be viewed the same way.

Other notable examples of the beware-the-neighbor genre: "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" (definitely, definitely not for the squeamish); "The Wicker Man," in which a policeman investigating a girl's disappearance on a remote Scottish island finds more than he bargained for; and "The Silence of the Lambs," which gives cannibalistic psychiatrists a really bad name.

Haunted house stories are as old as well, haunted houses. One of the best of the genre was the 1963 chiller "The Haunting," based on Shirley Jackson's classic novel "The Haunting of Hill House." Set in a New England mansion, its protagonists must survive unearthly cries and bumps in the night. Not as easy as that might appear.

Director Stanley Kubrick's trademark precision brought an unsettling edge to "The Shining," a tale of a marriage gone very bad set within the confines of a hotel shimmering with ghosts of sorrow and pain. The best adaptation of a Stephen King thriller to date, it stars Shelley Duvall as a wife and mother, emotionally abused and threatened, who is trapped when her husband, Jack Nicholson, becomes unhinged by his own personal demons.