Two horror sequels opening in the next two weeks will, if they follow the lead of their predecessors, take radically different approaches to scaring audiences. The annual Saw sequel (October 29) will aim for the stomach with gross-out gore, the blood spatter flying in 3D this time out. Paranormal Activity 2 (October 21), meanwhile, will try to duplicate the cold dread the original left tingling in viewers' spines.
But before you make an early Halloween pilgrimage to the video store, here's our guide to the best horror.
This sub-genre defined the '80s, but it originated with Alfred Hitchock's cerebral Psycho in 1960. Wes Craven put a fantasy twist on the concept with the dream-stalker Freddy Krueger in the original A Nightmare On Elm Street. But the pasty mask and slow, elegant movements of killer Michael Myers, along with Jamie Lee Curtis' scream queen performance and a genius musical score, make John Carpenter's Halloween the definitive slasher film.
The theme of innocence endangered binds the best of supernatural horror. Poltergeist pushed its PG-13 rating to the hilt with its story of the abduction of a little girl by meanies from another dimension. Rosemary's Baby turned Mia Farrow's body into a vessel for the Antichrist. But nothing beats The Exorcist, the Oscar-winning tale of a girl's demonic possession that milked bodily contortions and Catholic guilt for maximum chills.
We fear what we don't know, and the best sci-fi horror invents new and unusual things to be afraid of. The sweat-inducing suspense of Ridley Scott's Alien made space seem like a scary place, while David Cronenberg's The Fly suggests the horrific possibilities of scientific research.
This sub-genre often cross-breeds with the slasher or the supernatural, but ultimately it's about the terror of watching someone go crazy. The Silence of the Lambs introduced Hannibal Lecter, a homicidal maniac with a professional interest in fellow killers. In Carrie, teenage hormones and religious extremism mix with blood-soaked results. If you're going to watch someone lose their marbles, though, it doesn't get more frighteningly fun than Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Zombies, vampires and creatures George Romero invented the zombie film and his original Night of the Living Dead is still the standard-bearer. Vampires have been cinematic staples for decades, but a couple of chilly recent entries---the Swedish Let the Right One In and the Alaska-set 30 Days of Night---are among the all-time best. Oppressive darkness and some blind, brutal flesh-eaters make The Descent a freaky treat.
Hiding in the dark
Lots of excellent horror films have gone unnoticed or underrated, like the Canadian werewolf movie Ginger Snaps. Like Twilight, but with lots more blood and a much more accurate depiction of teen sexuality. Session 9 concerns a group of asbestos removers who get removed one-by-one while on the job at an abandoned mental institution. That it stars David Caruso is the least scary thing about it.