Let's face it, Halloween just isn't complete without a scary movie. A crazed killer with a chainsaw is just the thing to round out this ghoulish holiday. Here's a few of our favorite films from the slasher genre, that knife-wielding set of horror flicks that includes the infamous "Friday the 13th" and "Nightmare on Elm Street" series. Read along as we take a stab at the nine of the genre's best moments.
“A Bucket of Blood” (1959) One of the many quickie thrillers churned out by Roger Corman’s factory of B-movies, “Bucket of Blood” is a delightfully quirky early entry in the serial-killer sweepstakes. Like Corman’s similarly offbeat “Little Shop of Horrors,” Blood’s killer is a nerdy social outcast — in this case, Walter Paisley, the hopelessly unhip waiter at a bohemian cafe. Walter dreams of respect, and gets his chance when he accidentally smothers a cat in plaster. Is it art? Well, the resulting “statue” becomes the hit of the local gallery crawl. Where to go from there but bigger, bolder sculpture made out of human beings? A groovy black comedy with some classic beatnik-era parody.
“Psycho” (1960) Alfred Hitchcock’s infamous dip into motel hell can be called — you can see this joke coming from a mile away, but it’s too perfect not to use — the mother of all subsequent slashers. There’s a little bit of Norman Bates in every crazy-killer movie that came afterward. Hitchcock’s expert touch at thrillers is at its very peak here — whether you’ve never seen it or just haven’t in a while, this is one motel you should check into.
“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974) Proving that the family that slays together stays together, “Texas Chainsaw’s” clan of inbred, cannibalistic hicks — including the unforgettable Leatherface — put the scare in filmgoers the way very few others ever have. In fact, except for “Psycho,” no movie in the genre has been so widely influential as “Chainsaw.” That’s what we call good buzz. (By the way, that voice you hear narrating? John Larroquette, in his first film role.) A remake, produced by “Armageddon” director Michael Bay, is due in October — devout horror buffs might find that idea scary for all the wrong reasons.
“Black Christmas” (1974) A psycho stalks a sorority house over the holiday break, stuffing the bodies one by one in the attic as his remaining victims slowly catch on that there’s something nasty going on. Nearly forgotten by today’s audiences, “Black Christmas” was a prescient and unexpectedly classy piece of work — “classy,” in these kinds of movies, means a lot of dead teenagers but not a lot of blood. Instead, director Bob Clark works up some serious gooseflesh with good old-fashioned misdirection, suspenseful atmosphere and an ambiguity about whether the killer’s just a maniac or something more supernatural. Plus, it was one of the first slashers to use the now-familiar killer’s-eye-view camera angle.
The slasher movie’s golden age was the early 1980s, and the enormous box-office success of “Halloween” was the spark that lit the fire, spawning dozens of imitators including the films of our favorite fiends Freddy and Jason. “Halloween’s” main attraction was the utter simplicity of its villain, asylum escapee Michael Myers. He has no personality. He has no face. He has no emotions. He... just... wants... to... kill. As truly scary as “Halloween” is, maybe the most frightening thing is that the producers found just the right prop for Michael’s creepy white-face disguise in a William Shatner mask! It’s worth mentioning that heroine Laurie is played by Jamie Lee Curtis, who, appropriately enough, is the daughter of “Psycho” actress Janet Leigh.
“The Shining” (1980) A hefty portion of the scares in Stanley Kubrick’s chilling adaptation of Stephen King’s haunted-hotel novel don’t come from the murdering itself, but the spooky weirdness of the Overlook Hotel’s ghosts — giving us memorable moments like the elevator of blood, and those two spine-crawlingly creepy little girls. But you can’t beat Jack Nicholson’s performance as the dad with writer’s block who slowly turns insane and goes after his family with a fire axe, chopping through a door to announce “Heeere’s Johnny!”
“Child's Play” (1988)
Nearly a decade into the heyday of the psycho-killer craze, you had to come up with a pretty good gimmick if you wanted to break out of the pack. “Child’s Play” found a ludicrously good one: Evil toys! Brad Dourif, last seen as Wormtongue in “The Two Towers,” is a hoot as the voice of foul-mouthed Chucky, a boy’s doll possessed by the spirit of a serial killer. Only six-year-old Andy knows the truth, but the grownups don’t believe him — until, of course, it’s too late. The movie has a lot of fun with its goofball concept, but doesn’t fail to serve up some sincere scares.
‘Man Bites Dog’ (1992) Long before “Blair Witch Project,” this Belgian film mined terror out of a vein of documentary realism, as a film crew follows charming psychopath Benoit Pooelvorde (played by Benoit Pooelvorde) on a spree of senseless mayhem. At first, “Man Bites Dog” plays its murders for laughs, slyly setting up its audience into not taking the on-screen violence seriously. But that’s a ruse, one that’s either brilliantly subversive or shamelessly exploitative. Benoit’s bloody binge spirals further and further out of control, and you soon realize with a nasty shock that the joke’s on you. That’s exactly the reaction the filmmakers wanted to provoke — a clever way to make you examine your own reaction to the slasher film.
‘Scream' (1996) Though they never completely fizzled, slashers wore out their welcome with most filmgoers around 1989, when “Halloween 5,” “Nightmare on Elm Street 5,” and “Friday the 13th Part VIII” bored a restless nation. Most of a decade later, “Nightmare” creator Wes Craven brought the genre back to life with “Scream,” which wittily embraced its horror-cliche structure by making its own characters just as aware of the “rules” of a horror film as the audience. Not, mind you, that the knowledge always helps the victims last through the night.
We’re still living through the resurgence of public interest set off by “Scream” and its sequels. It’s led to killer-thrillers like “The Faculty,” “Urban Legend” and “I Know What You Did Last Summer” so far — and the box-office success of "Freddy vs. Jason" proves that the old-school bad guys can't be counted out. Who knows how long it’ll last, but if there’s one thing slashers have taught us, it’s that one way or another, the villains always come back for more.