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Need a Scare? Frightening Films from the National Film Registry

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 As we head into Halloween weekend, there is nothing better than sorting your candy stash and watching classic Halloween movies. Get your popcorn balls and candy apples ready because we are presenting (in no particular order) some of the Library of Congress National Film Registry’s scary and not-so-scary Halloween films. Movies inducted into the National Film Registry are “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” even on the spookiest night of the year.

“Psycho” (1960)

If Halloween had a Godfather, it would be Alfred Hitchcock. A bloody shower scene, an abandoned hotel and a psychopath with a controlling mother makes for one of the most successful and famous slasher films of all time.  Read more here.

“Rosemary’s Baby” (1968)

Mia Farrow, in her first starring role, comes to believe that a cult of witches in her apartment building is plotting against her and her unborn child. If that doesn’t scare you, then the film’s sense of unease, claustrophobia and paranoia certainly will.

“The Shining” (1980)

Director Stanley Kubrick’s take on Stephen King’s terrifying novel mixed with iconic performances by Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall.  An increasingly unstable husband and father, an abandoned hotel, a child with horrific psychic abilities, and an isolating snowstorm will leave you haunted well into November.

“The Exorcist” (1979)

A film about a 14 year-old girl (played by Linda Blair) whose mind and body become possessed by the Devil is scary enough, but that it’s based on a real life story makes this film even more uneasy. Some unforgettable and disturbing scenes include watching the girl, a veteran exorcist (Max von Sydow) and a young priest (Jason Miller) suffer numerous horrors during their struggles with the demon.

“House of Wax”  (1953)

If Alfred Hitchcock is the Godfather of Halloween, then Vincent Price is the Consigliere.  This horror tale of a mad sculptor, who encases his victims’ corpses in wax, is the film that solidified Price’s new role as America’s master of the macabre and was the first full-length 3-D color film ever produced by a major studio.  Read more about it here.

“Dracula” (two versions: English and Spanish) (1931)

Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Dracula defined the ultimate vampire characterization in all of cinema, theater and beyond. The Spanish version of the film was shot at the same time on the same set. The Spanish version of the film, which is 20 minutes longer, has been lauded as superior in many ways to the English one, some theorizing that the Spanish-language crew had the advantage of watching the English dailies and improving on camera angles and making more effective use of lighting. The Spanish version starred Carlos Villarías as Conde Drácula.  Learn about the US version here and Spanish version here.

“Halloween” (1978) 

The setting is Halloween night. A homicidal maniac, Michael Myers, has escaped from an institution and is hunting teenagers in his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois. Tense editing with a haunting frantic synthesizer score makes this uniquely artistic and frightening.  Learn more here.

“Freaks” (1932)

Horror film director Tod Browning assembled a cast of genuine sideshow performers for this chilling tale of camaraderie, persecution and revenge with Olga Baclanova as the cruelly manipulative trapeze artist and Harry Earles as the “freak” she torments. The film’s subject matter, its unusual cast, and its nontraditional moral sympathy created a cult following for this film, which was severely edited in the US at the time of release and banned in the UK for 30 years.

“Alien” (1979)

With commercial interstellar travel now before us, it may be time to revisit this classic that has been referred to as “a haunted house movie in space.” Directed by Ridley Scott, the film follows the crew of the commercial space tug Nostromo, who encounter the eponymous Alien, an aggressive and deadly extraterrestrial set loose on the ship.

“Night of the Living Dead” (1968)

This horror film starts when a brother and sister make an innocent trip to a cemetery. A strange, ashen-faced man wearing a tattered suit kills the brother and attacks the sister as she flees. She takes shelter in a farmhouse, where she finds the home owner dead and half-eaten.  A small group of survivors join her in this abandoned farmhouse as they struggle to fend off a zombie attack. Read more here.

“The Fall of the House of Usher” (1928)

Edgar Allen Poe’s classic tale serves as the foundation for this 13-minute avant-garde film by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber. Startling style in composition, costume and set design, this version of the horror classic shows the tale’s psychological underpinnings as well as its haunting story.  Learn more here.

“Silence of the Lambs” (1991)

Jodie Foster, Sir Anthony Hopkins and director Jonathan Demme won accolades for this chilling thriller based upon a book by Thomas Harris. Foster plays rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling who must tap into the mind of imprisoned cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter in order to aid in her search for a murderer and torturer still at large. Now might be a good time to go lock your door.

“The Phantom of the Opera” (1925)

You’ve certainly heard about it and may have even seen the play, but this is the movie that started it all. (The earlier 1916 German film adaptation of the novel is now considered lost).  When escaped prisoner Erik (Lon Chaney), also known as the elusive phantom of the Paris Opera House, becomes obsessed with an up-and-coming singer named Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin), he kidnaps her and threatens the lives of her lover, Raoul (Norman Kerry), and the other men who come to rescue her. This classic film still dominates the horror and “monster-movie” genre.

“Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” (1948)

What could be better than coupling the comedy of Abbott and Costello with Lon Cheney, Jr, as a the Wolf Man, Glenn Strange as Frankenstein, Bela Lugosi in his final appearance as Dracula, and a cameo voice appearance by Vincent Price? Quentin Tarantino cites it as one of his three most influential films: “I literally thought, ‘Wow this is the greatest movie ever–my two favorite types of movies in one. When it’s scary, it’s really scary, and when it’s funny, it’s really funny.”  Learn more here.

“The Bride of Frankenstein” (1935)

After success with “Frankenstein,” Boris Karloff reprises his role and evolves into a sympathetic character with humor and human-like qualities. Joined eventually by a mate (Elsa Lanchester), the monster learns of love and rejection as he tries to figure out life with living and the living dead.  Learn more here.

“Young Frankenstein” (1974)

It’s hard to believe this movie came out in 1974. The film’s black and white cinematography, set design and costumes are a reflection of the 1930s, and the cast, featuring Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, Teri Garr, Kenneth Mars and Marty Feldman, are some of the biggest names in comedy from the past 50 years. The clever writing of Mel Brooks is unmistakable even today.  If you haven’t seen the film in a while, don’t worry, the classic one-liners will come flooding back and you’ll be repeating them out loud once again in no time.  Learn more here.

“E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial”

If “Die Hard” can be considered a Christmas movie, then “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” can easily be considered a Halloween movie. Directed by Steven Spielberg, one of the most iconic and endearing scenes takes place when the children sneak the tiny alien out of the house on Halloween night dressed up as a ghost, and everyone who sees him assumes that he is Gertie (played by a very young Drew Barrymore).  After trick or treating, Elliott (played by Henry Thomas) and E.T. make their way into the forest on a bike. As E.T. begins to mentally control the bike, he causes it to fly. As the two fly into the night, E.T. successfully “phones home.”  Learn more here.

“Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975)

This cult classic centers on the misadventures of a young couple (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) who find themselves inside a strange mansion when their car breaks down on a rainy night. There they encounter a wild party hosted by a lingerie-clad mad scientist and self-proclaimed “Sweet Transvestite” (Tim Curry). Richard O’Brien (who also plays the butler) wrote the catchy songs that will have you singing along in no time.

“Ghostbusters” (1984)

“Who You Gonna Call?”  One of the most popular and quotable films from the past three decades, “Ghostbusters” can also easily be seen as a loving homage to those earlier wacky horror comedies from Abbott and Costello and others. Three lapsed science academics (Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis) set up shop to handle the underappreciated (and never-ending) task of ferreting out ghosts, and will not rest until the paranormal becomes New York normal once more.  Learn more here.

“Michael Jackson’s Thriller” (1983)

Possibly the most famous of music videos, the 13-minute “Thriller” caused such a buzz that it was also released theatrically in 35mm. As a follow-up to his smash 1982 album and single, Michael Jackson revolutionized the music industry with this lavish and expensive production. Filmmaker John Landis (“Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers”) directed and co-wrote the video.


Finally, Halloween Honorable Mention goes to “The Wizard of Oz” (1939). Yes, there are witches and flying monkeys, but mostly because when you open your door on Halloween night, you will no doubt see a few little Dorothys dressed in blue gingham and sparkling red shoes.  Learn more here.

Trick or Treat!

For more scary and not-so-scary films, visit the National Film Registry,… if you dare!


Comments (2)

  1. Great selection here….but I think the Bradbury’s “Something Evil this Way Comes” should be added to the list. Jonathan Price, Jason Robards and Pam Grier…….quite a terrifying movie without any blood and gore.

  2. Still hoping for the addition of chillers
    “Burnt Offerings” (1976)–which inspired “The Shining”, “Monkey Shines” (1988), “Cujo” (1983), “The Serpent & The Rainbow” (1988), “Carrie” (1976), “Carnival Of Souls” (1962), “The Fly” (1958) & “The Blob” (1958).

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