Your costume's ready, the candy dish is full, the jack-o'-lantern's been carved. Looking for that last little push to get you in the proper Halloween mood?
Time to break out the DVDs.
Movie-makers have been focusing on horror at least 1896, when French filmmaker Georges Melies cast himself as the devil in the short Le Manior du diable (The Devil's Castle).
The main problem for horror-movie watchers is deciding which level of fear would be appropriate. Are you looking for something suitable for the entire family? Something aimed at the post-adolescent crowd? Or something that would make even nerves of steel quiver like strings of Jell-O?
Here are a dozen movies that you can get creeped-out by, grouped into four levels of dread-inducing potential. The first consists of horror classics suitable for all but the youngest filmgoers, movies that stand the tests of time, taste and terror. The last is for diehards only, adults who like a good jolt and don't mind if their sensibilities get waylaid in the process. Feel free to cower.
Nosferatu (1922) -- The greatest of all silent-era horror films, and one of the most chilling things ever to come out of the cinema, period.
F.W. Murnau's bootleg adaptation of the original Dracula novel revels in the festering decay one would expect of something that's been undead for several centuries. Max Schreck, as Count Orlok the vampire, looks like something the rat just dragged in, and the whole production -- from the Eastern European settings to the shadow-suffused impressionistic interiors -- looks like something out of a nightmare.
The widow of Dracula author Bram Stoker sued, claiming Murnau never got her permission to use the story, and as part of the settlement, all prints of the film were supposed to be destroyed. Thank goodness, some got overlooked.
Freaks (1932) -- Director Tod Browning did so well with his 1931 version of Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, that MGM gave him carte blanche pretty much to leave Universal and make a horror film for them. The result was Freaks, an unsettling but surprisingly compassionate look at romance and deception within a traveling carnival.
Browning's message, that civility is not restricted to the supposedly "civilized," was lost on contemporary audiences, who were too busy gaping at the real-life sideshow denizens he put onscreen, including Baltimore's own Johnny Eck, born without the lower half of his body, and Prince Randian, the human torso, born without arms and legs. The film ends with a chase through a thunderstorm that's the cinematic definition of creepy.
Cat People (1942) -- This one'll get under your skin. Simone Simon plays a disturbed Serbian woman who marries nice-guy American Kent Smith, then warns him that they can never consummate their marriage, lest she turn into a panther. Darn those Balkan curses! Director Jacques Tourneur delights in playing with your head. Cat People doesn't show much -- you'll have to see Paul Schrader's 1982 remake, starring the erotically feline Nastassja Kinski, for that -- but it suggests everything.
Classic with an edge
Dracula (1958) -- England's Hammer studios cranked out hundreds of horror films from the late 1950s through the mid-1970s, many of them following the same basic formula: A classic horror character (Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, etc.) does his nastiness surrounded by voluptuous women, in wonderfully foreboding, starkly gothic settings guaranteed to get the blood curdling. This one, released in the U.S. as Horror of Dracula, was one of the earliest, as well as one of the best -- if only because it introduced the great Christopher Lee as literature's favorite bloodsucker, and pitted him against the equally impressive Peter Cushing as that most fearless of vampire hunters, Van Helsing.
Rosemary's Baby (1968) -- Poor Rosemary. Bad enough that she's got these nosy neighbors, but now it appears she's married to a latter-day Dr. Faustus. Only it's not his soul he's willing to sell to the devil, but his wife's womb. Director Roman Polanski not only gets a harrowing performance out of Mia Farrow, but he manages to make all of New York City seem like it's in cahoots with Lucifer as well.
Halloween (1978) -- The apogee of modern horror, courtesy of director John Carpenter and a customized William Shatner mask. Jamie Lee Curtis plays a smart, virginal teen who finds herself stalked by a force of pure evil (wearing the aforementioned mask) on Halloween night. Not nearly as gory as its reputation suggests, but every bit as chilling.
The Exorcist (1973) -- Sure, it's scary: You've got the devil, you've got guys falling down flights of stairs, you've got a possessed little girl, you've got crucifixes doing what no crucifix should be asked to do. But the real reason this tale of a 12-year-old girl (cherubic Linda Blair) and the devil inside her is such a gut-wrencher, the real reason it'll never quite leave you, the real reason people have been known to sleep with the lights on for a few weeks after seeing it, is the dread suspicion that ... something like this could really happen.
Alien (1979) -- A monster film grafted onto a haunted-house film grafted onto a sci-fi flick -- director Ridley Scott invented a whole new sub-genre with this one, then dared anyone to match it. Save for James Cameron, who managed to match Scott jolt for jolt with the 1986 sequel, Aliens, no one has. This tale of a decrepit space tanker that picks up some seriously carnivorous cargo set the standard for adult horror, and even introduced a new foe to bedevil mankind: corporate greed.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) -- Before he became a pop-culture joke, Freddy Krueger was a terrifying manifestation of every person's worst fear. Here was a bad guy who killed not when he was least suspected, or when people were at their most vulnerable, or when he could do the most damage. He went after people when they were asleep, and through their dreams, no less. Heck, if that isn't terrifying.
The hard stuff
The Blair Witch Project (1999) -- A pair of first-time directors take a bunch of hand-held cameras, set their story in a real-life Maryland town (Burkittsville), make up a ghost story and get everyone to believe they're watching a first-person documentary with a very scary ending. The marketing was genius, and the film wasn't bad, either. The people of Burkittsville still shake their heads in disbelief at how gullible audiences were. Watch the movie, and you'll understand ... and maybe give that town a wide berth next time you're heading west.
Jeepers Creepers (2001) -- A mysterious figure in a hulking black truck bears down on a brother and sister who just want to get home. Director Victor Salva brought something terrifyingly original to the horror genre -- kind of a cross between a demon and a crow -- but he knew enough not to show just what he had come up with until the film was nearly over. Not for the squeamish.
28 Days Later (2002) -- Zombie movies have always been a mixed bag. Sure, they're horrifying, what with the unstoppable undead all over the place, wanting nothing more than to devour your arms, legs, ears and anything else that's flesh-covered. But they move so slowly; couldn't one simply step to the left and escape? Not so the zombies of 28 Days Later; these guys move like lightning, and they're just as hungry as their more lethargic forebears. Proving, much to the delight of the happily frightened, that there's life in the old monsters yet.