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Horror Begins at Home With This Spooky List

Kenneth Williams is a staff writer for The Times Orange County Edition.

When it comes to horror videos, quantity most often supersedes quality. So finding a really good scary movie to snuggle up with on Halloween can be a nightmare in itself.

Four videos that stand out from the crowd are “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956 version), “Black Sabbath,” “The Omen” and “Re-Animator.”

In his 1981 treatise on the horror genre, “The Danse Macabre,” Stephen King writes that all horror stories are elemental, containing “three separate levels, each one a little less fine than the one before it.” At the top is terror--that pure, crystalline emotion that comes solely from the speculative quality of the human mind. Right below it is horror--the mental and physical reaction to seeing things that terrify us. And at the bottom is revulsion--the morbidly fascinating gag reflex we get when we experience something we find physically or emotionally revolting.

The films listed above are all great because they were crafted by people who understood the essence of each of these elements and were able use them--to greater or lesser degrees--with masterful results.

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One vein that creators of horror fiction have mined with varying results over the years is the exploitation of our subconscious fear of loss of normality. Few films have touched on this quite as effectively as Don Siegel’s 1956 classic “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” In this science-fiction thriller (based on Jack Finney’s novel “The Body Snatchers”), the residents of a small town are absorbed one by one and replaced by inert, lifeless drones incubated from mysterious alien pods that resemble giant cucumbers.

The terrifying aspect is not that the pod people are physically threatening but that their dull, unemotional behavior threatens our perception of normalcy. The horror element comes in realizing that the deception has been discovered too late to stop the pods from spreading.

From pod zombies we move to two classic archetypes of horror literature: the ghost and the vampire. A list of films that deal with these two cousins could fill a book bigger than a New York telephone directory. But if you want a good film that gives you chilling stories about both in one package, check out Mario Bava’s 1964 “Black Sabbath.” Also titled “The Three Faces of Fear,” this atmospheric thriller of three separate tales features Boris Karloff (in one of his last movie roles) acting as narrator and, in the final segment, as a verdulak , an Eastern European vampire who is cursed to drink the blood of his loved ones.

Bava is a master of cinematography. His ethereal use of light and shadow and his pioneering “shock zoom” technique offer some of the best cinematic translations ever produced of the DC horror pulp comics of the 1950s. The movie’s first tale, about a woman scared to death by the ghost of a creepy old psychic whose ring she stole from the corpse’s hand, is one of the most terrifying pieces of horror ever put on film and is alone well worth the price of the rental. This film may be a little difficult to find, but U.S. Video in Costa Mesa carries it.

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In 1973, William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” introduced us to a new kind of film bogyman--the biblical Satan--and spawned the release of a handful of devil movies of varying quality. Of these, far and away the best was Richard Donner’s 1976 thriller “The Omen.” In it, Gregory Peck and Lee Remick star as the unwitting adoptive parents of Damien, the child Antichrist, whose coming is foretold in the book of Revelations. What really makes this film work is its beguiling use of Scripture to raise the audience’s suspension of disbelief to staggering heights. And as the story sweeps us along, Donner skillfully piles on meaty chunks of cinematic shock (one spectacular scene shows a man being decapitated by a runaway plate-glass window).

Few filmmakers have mined revulsion with greater finesse and style than Stuart Gordon, whose 1985 cult favorite “Re-Animator” is a paeon to cinematic spatter. Based on a tale by H.P. Lovecraft, “Re-Animator” tells the story of Dr. Herbert West, a scientist and sociopath who discovers a serum that can restore life to dead tissue. Predictably, West runs into trouble when he starts experimenting on human cadavers.

“Re-Animator” is a well-acted, suspenseful horror movie that is both substantive and entertaining. But it is not suitable for children or the squeamish.

A quick list of other scream greats:

* “The Thing” (1982 version). With apologies to fans of Christian Nyby’s 1951 classic, John Carpenter’s version is a more faithful and horrifying adaptation of John Campbell Jr.'s Kafkaesque story “Who Goes There?” It’s about researchers at an isolated Arctic outpost who are stalked by an alien fiend that can assume the form of its victims, with over-the-top special effects and a plot that keeps you guessing.

* “The Legend of Hell House,” John Hough’s 1973 gem about a group of researchers terrorized by a malevolent spirit while spending a week in a haunted house, is richly crafted, quirky and very scary.

* “The Sentinel,” Michael Winner’s 1977 thriller about a New York model who inadvertently becomes guardian of the gates of hell, is a fast-paced, creepy shocker with a host of bizarre characters that could have been created by David Lynch.

* “The Haunting,” Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel “The Haunting of Hill House,” is a wonderfully eerie, atmospheric ghost story about a group of people chosen to spend a few nights in a haunted house.

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* “Return of the Living Dead” is Dan O’Bannon’s 1985 shock-rocker about a group of teens pursued by a legion of brain-eating, walking dead brought to life by a chemical that finds its way into a local graveyard. It’s a masterful blend of horror, black comedy and gore, with a great score that includes music by Orange County rockers T.S.O.L.


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