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Horror films are the roller-coasters of movies.  You buy your ticket and climb aboard, knowing full well that you are going to be frightened right out of your socks.  But you just have to do it!  There is undeniably something that draws us to “…ghoulies and ghosties, and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night…”.  And so, ticket in hand, we enter the theater for the Saturday matinee.

One of the common elements of a good horror film is the setting.  Whether it’s an ancient, creepy castle, or a dimly lit laboratory, or a fog shrouded graveyard, or even an average-seeming home, the mood is dark and menacing.  The bleak, shadowy areas or sometimes gloomy, violent weather instill a feeling of apprehension and dread.

Another element is the characters.  The main characters are usually average people-people just like us.  But the other characters, the cause of our fears—they can be anything—vampires, werewolves, ghosts, mutant animals or insects.  Or they can appear to be people just like us, but with something twisted and evil inside.

As the stories unfold the suspense builds.  We never know when someone, or something, will leap out of the dark.  Menacing, threatening, they are the force we must fight for our lives or our souls.  Often the creature (whether human or otherwise) is supernatural, or has supernatural powers.

The earliest, classic horror movies from the late 19th and early 20th centuries were generally based on gothic literature about creatures like Dracula and Frankenstein.  Edison Films produced the first film version of Frankenstein in 1910, and Quasimodo, the hunchback of Notre Dame, was featured in the first full-length horror film.  “Nosferatu”, in 1922, is thought to be the first vampire movie.  This era also produced the first American horror movie star, Lon Chaney, Sr.

Universal Pictures and other studios continued the gothic horror movie trend into the 1930’s and 1940’s, including “The Wolf Man” in 1941.  These films helped provide successful careers for brilliant actors like Boris Karloff and Béla Lugosi.  “M”, released by Fritz Lang in 1931, starred Peter Lorre.

By the 1950’s and 1960’s , although the classic gothic horror films were still being made, popular horror films were generally divided into three sub-genres; the personality-based horror film, the end-of-the-world horror film, and the demonic horror film.  Films of this era took advantage of improving color technology, and in many cases became more sadistic than supernatural in nature, and more graphic in depicting splattering blood and dismemberment.

An example of a personality-based horror film is Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, where mental illness leads to murder, as opposed to “The Shining”, directed by Stanley Kubrick and released in 1980, where the dwelling drives Jack mad.  The evil emanates from what appear to be normal human beings, living in what appear to be normal houses, etc.  “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane” (1962), and “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte” (1964) also fall into this sub-genre.  This type of film was, and still is, popular, and includes more recent films like “The Silence of the Lambs” from 1991.

As an end-of-the-world movie “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) took advantage of the Cold War’s paranoid effects on society and the fear of living in the atomic age to build the suspense.  “The Birds” (1963) is another example of this sub-genre, where the forces of Nature (in this case, animal behavior) become twisted and hostile toward people.

The demonic sub-genre focuses on a horror of evil spirits, and often hints that the “devil” has taken human form to wreak evil.  An example of this is “Night of the Living Dead” from 1968 where zombies roam, and “when there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth” (from 1978’s “Dawn of the Dead”).  Whether the demons are spiritual, or whether they appear in the form of witches or humans or devils, the apprehension and fear factor is there.

The 1970’s and 1980’s brought an emphasis on movies featuring occult themes, such as “Rosemary’s Baby” of 1968 (directed by Roman Polanski), and “The Exorcist” (directed by William Friedkin) in 1973.  (In part, these movies were the result of the ending of the Production Code in 1964.)  Children were also portrayed as evil in some popular movies of the time in films like Robert Wise’s “Audrey Rose” in 1977 and “The Omen” in 1976.  The era also included slasher films such as “Halloween” (1978) and “Friday the 13th” (1980), and “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (1974).

The years following, from the 1980’s forward, saw the making of many sequels to already popular movies.  “Poltergeist” (1982) was followed by “Poltergeist II: The Other Side” (1986) and “Poltergeist III” (1988), and even a television series.

There were three sequels to “Psycho”; “Psycho II” (1983), “Psycho III” (1986), “Psycho IV: The Beginning” (1990), and even a remake of the movie in 1998.

“Halloween” (1978), featuring the Michael Myers character, spawned a series of sequels; “Halloween II” (1981), “Halloween III: The Season of the Witch” (1982), “Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers” (1988), “Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers” (1989), “Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers” (1995), “Halloween H20: 20 Years Later” (1998), and “Halloween: Resurrection” (2002).  There was a remake of the original, “Halloween” (2007), which was then followed by a sequel, “Halloween II” (2009).

There have been thirteen “Friday the 13th” (Jason) movies, beginning with the original in 1980.  It was followed by “Friday the 13th Part 2” (1981), “Friday the 13th Part III” (1982), “Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter” (1984), “Friday the 13th: A New Beginning” (1985), “Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives” (1986), “Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood” (1988), “Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan” (1989), “Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday” (1993), “Jason X” (2002), and “Freddy vs. Jason” (2003), and then remade as “Friday the 13th” in 2009.

A Nightmare on Elm Street” (the Freddy Krueger movies) was also an opportunity for sequels for the studios.  The original “A Nightmare on Elm Street” was released in 1984.  The sequels are “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge” (1985), “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors” (1987), “A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master” (1988), “A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child” (1989), “Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare” (1991), “Wes Craven's New Nightmare” (1994), and “Freddy vs. Jason” (2003).

The Phantom of the Opera” starring Lon Chaney as Erik, the Phantom, is a 1925 silent film.  The film was directed by Rupert Julian, and distributed by Universal Studios.  The Phantom is facially disfigured and wears a mask, and he haunts a Paris opera house, in love with the beautiful Christine (Mary Philbin).  There is mystery and murder as the Phantom tries to make Christine the star of the opera, and as he tries to separate her from her love, the Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry).  Universal made a replica of the movie in 1929, with sound effects.  The movie has been remade several times, including “The Phantom of the Opera” (1943) starring Claude Rains and Susanna Foster, “The Phantom of the Opera” (1962 by Hammer Horror), and “The Phantom of the Opera” (1989) directed by Dwight H. Little.  It was also made into a made-for-television movie in 1983, and as an NBC miniseries in 1990.

In 1931 Universal Pictures released “Dracula”, casting Béla Lugosi as Count Dracula, Helen Chandler as Mina Harker, and Dwight Frye as Renfield.  Count Dracula, living in Castle Dracula in the Carpathian Mountains in Eastern Europe wants to buy property in England.  Renfield, a British solicitor, travels to Castle Dracula, having been warned to beware of vampires.  Dracula feasts on Renfield’s blood, thus turning him into a vampire also.  Serving Dracula, Renfield escorts him aboard ship to England, where Dracula meets Mina Harker, and he is determined to transform her into a vampire also.  Having discovered Dracula’s intentions, Mina’s fiancé, John Harker (David Manners) teams up with Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) to destroy Dracula, and save Mina and others from a vampiric fate.  There have been many remakes and sequels in the Dracula saga, including “Dracula” (1958) starring Christopher Lee, “Dracula: Prince of Darkness” (1966), “Dracula vs. Frankenstein” (1971), and several others.

Directed by James Whale and distributed by Universal Pictures in 1931, “Frankenstein” is possibly the first movie with a monster that comes to mind for many of us.  Young Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), with the help of his hunchbacked assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye), is consumed with the idea of creating life using electrical devices he has invented.  Once they “build” a human and bring it back to life, misunderstandings and murder follow the Monster (Boris Karloff) as he escapes and terrorizes the village.  There were two earlier silent film versions of the movie, and a series following the 1931 film by Universal Studios including “Bride of Frankenstein” (1935), “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man” (1943), and “House of Frankenstein” (1944).

King Kong” is a 1933 release, co-directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack and distributed by RKO Radio Pictures.  Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) and Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) are on their way via the S. S. Venture to a mysterious island in the Indian Ocean to film a movie Ann is to star in.  During the voyage Ann falls in love with the ship’s First Mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot).  Upon arriving on the island, the natives capture Ann, intending to sacrifice her to the great Kong, a monstrously huge gorilla.  Ann is rescued by Driscoll, and the movie’s director, Denham, decides to capture Kong and bring him back to New York to be put on display.  (Several years ago a three-sheet movie poster for the movie set the auction record at $453,000.)

Although not the first hunchback movie, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” directed by William Dieterle and distributed by RKO Pictures in 1939 is certainly one of the best.  In Paris in 1482, the lovely gypsy dancer Esmeralda (Maureen O’Hara) is tried for witchcraft and murder.  Esmeralda was once kind to the hunchback, bringing him water when he was tied and being whipped.  The grotesquely deformed ward of the cathedral, Quasimodo (Charles Laughton) rescues her from the gallows and takes her to sanctuary in the cathedral to protect her from the lustful attentions of Frollo (Sir Cedric Hardwicke).  There was a silent version of the movie made in 1911, in 1923 Lon Chaney was Quasimodo in another version, and in 1952 Anthony Quinn was Quasimodo to Gina Lollobrigida’s Esmeralda. 

Another great monster horror film is “The Wolf Man”, directed by George Waggner and distributed by Universal Pictures in 1941.  (This was Universal’s second werewolf movie, following “Werewolf in London” in 1935.)  After Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) returns to the home of his father in Wales, he is bitten by a werewolf (Béla Lugosi) and he becomes a werewolf himself.  Cursed to become a two-legged wolf at each full moon, he roams the countryside searching for a cure.  Talbot’s father, Sir John Talbot was played by Claude Rains, and his romantic interest, Gwen Conliffe was played by Evelyn Ankers.  There was a silent version of “The Wolf Man” in 1924, and the film was remade as “The Wolfman” in 1979.  (A werewolf was also featured in “I Was a Teenage Werewolf”, a 1957 movie starring Michael Landon.)

Directed by Gordon Douglas and distributed by Warner Bros. in 1954, “Them!” tells the story of irradiated ants the size of automobiles terrorizing New Mexico, and later an ocean liner, and the City of Los Angeles.  When a little girl is found wandering, in shock in the desert, Sgt. Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) investigates and finds her parents missing from the trailer where they had been vacationing, with the trailer ripped to pieces.  When more deaths occur and people begin disappearing FBI Agent Robert Graham (James Arness) is called in to head the investigation, which leads to the discovery of a mutant species of ants.  The use of the echoing, clicking noises the ants make provides a chilling backdrop to the action.

In 1958 Paramount Pictures released “The Blob”, which was directed by Irvin Yeaworth.  When young Steve Andrews (Steve McQueen) and his girlfriend Jane Martin (Aneta Corsaut) see a meteor crash to earth, they drive out to see where it landed, only to find an elderly man there, poking at it with a stick.  The thing breaks open, revealing a blob of a jelly-like substance, which attaches itself to the old man’s arm and begins consuming him.  When Steve and Jane take the man to a doctor to save him, the doctor and his assistant are also attacked and eaten.  Each time the blob feasts it grows in size.  As the blob continues to feed as it roams the town, Steve and Jane try to enlist help to stop the menace.  A sequel was made to the movie in 1972 titled “BewareThe Blob”, which was directed by Larry Hagman, and a remake was made in 1988 and distributed by Tristar Pictures.

Terence Fisher directed “The Mummy” which was distributed by Universal Pictures in 1959.  Mehemet Bey (George Pastell) is controlling Kharis (Christopher Lee), the mummy of the eternal guardian of the tomb of Egyptian Princess Ananka (Yvonne Furneaux).  Mehemet has brought the mummy to England to kill the three men who desecrated her tomb, John Banning (Peter Cushing), Stephen Banning (Felix Aylmer), and Joseph Whemple (Raymond Huntley).  John eventually convinces Scotland Yard Inspector Mulrooney (Eddie Byrne) that there is a mummy stalking him.  Earlier “mummy” movies were “The Mummy” (1932), “The Mummy’s Hand” (1940), “The Mummy’s Tomb” (1942), and “The Mummy’s Curse” (1944).

Psycho” is a 1960 psychological horror film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and distributed by Paramount Pictures.  The action evolves around Marion Crain (Janet Leigh), who has embezzled money from her employer in order to marry her lover.  On the way to her lover Sam’s (John Gavin) house, a storm causes Marion to stop for the night at the Bates Motel, operated by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins).  During the night Marion is murdered while taking a shower.  When her sister Lila (Vera Miles) realizes Marion is missing, she contacts Sam and, together with Detective Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam), they begin searching, which leads them to the eerily bizarre Norman and the Bates Motel.

Night of the Living Dead” is a 1968 horror movie directed by George A. Romero and distributed by The Walter Reade Organization.  The main characters are Ben (Duane Jones), Barbra (Judith O’Dea), Harry (Karl Hardman), and Bill Heinzman (S. William Hinzman), the first zombie encountered in the cemetery.  The film relates the story of a group of people blockading themselves in an abandoned house which is besieged by zombies, the “living dead”, even as they hear reports on the news about zombies killing and eating the flesh of their victims elsewhere.  George A. Romero made five other zombie movies, including “Dawn of the Dead” (1978) and “Day of the Dead” (1985).

If you are ready for a roller-coaster ride of thrills and chills that will make you break out in goosebumps, check out a few of these creepy monsters in some of the scariest movies ever made.

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