Frightening is fun

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By James Roberts

I've been a horror film fan for as long as I can remember. And, as a result, the month of October remains my favorite time of year. In addition to cooler weather, the month also brings us Halloween, which means horror movies rule the airwaves.

Unfortunately, recent years have found me dipping into my own collection for my fear season frights, as the classics that once dominated the TV screen have been replaced with newer films. In this case, newer isn't better.

Maybe I'm just out of touch, but when I settle in to watch the latest Hollywood horror offering, I find myself reaching for the eject button within the first 15 minutes. Currently, we're in the midst of a torture movie trend, with trash like "Saw" and "Hostel" clogging up Hollywood's creative arteries.

What filmmakers have forgotten is that a horror film doesn't always have to be a grueling, disgusting experience. A great horror film is like a rollercoaster. It's frightening, but it's also just as fun. And when it's over, you want to experience it again.

With that in mind, I'd like to offer up three of my favorites for those readers looking for a different type of treat this Halloween.

And why not start with "Halloween," the original, not the remake. Propelled largely by its sparse musical score - which director John Carpenter composed and performed himself - "Halloween" tells the familiar tale of a disturbed young man who breaks out of an asylum and returns home to wreak havoc on a few babysitters on Halloween night.

Though "Halloween" kick started the "slasher" sub-genre, it bears few of its followers' trademarks. Excessive violence and sex are swapped for tension and suspense.

While there's admittedly little story, it's the talent involved that makes "Halloween" what it is. Carpenter went on to become a true master of terror cinema. Jamie Lee Curtis' role as the heroine made her a star. Veteran actor Donald Pleasance turned in what is arguably his most famous role as obsessed doctor Sam Loomis. Last, but not least, the creative and atmospheric camerawork of cinematographer Dean Cundey helped push the film beyond its low budget origins.

Another favorite, which is also light on story but heavy on talent, is 1977's "Suspiria." Directed by Italian master of suspense Dario Argento, "Suspiria" concerns an American girl who attends a dance school in Germany that happens to be run by a witch.

What happens after the set-up doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but when a movie offers one classic image after another, one doesn't have much time to ponder the plot. Add to the arresting visuals a truly one-of-kind score by Italian rock group Goblin and "Suspiria" still stands as a startlingly original, nightmarish vision, unlike any other.

Speaking of an original vision, in 1979 director Don Coscarelli unleashed his sci-fi/horror hybrid "Phantasm."

In truth, I have about 10 all-time favorite films, but "Phantasm" likely stands a hair above the rest.

The film follows Mike, a boy who recently lost both of his parents and now lives in fear that his older brother is going to leave home. While spying on his brother, Mike discovers the town's sinister-looking undertaker, known only as the Tall Man, is not what he appears to be.

"Phantasm" is famous among many fear film fans for the sentinels, softball-sized silver spheres that stand guard over the Tall Man's domain, quickly dispatching any intruders with their spear-like blades and drills.

Like "Suspiria," "Phantasm" employs a nightmare narrative. In such an approach, nothing is what it seems and anything can happen at any moment. It's a seldom-used horror movie device that frustrates many, but inspires devotion from others, myself included.

Coscarelli mastered that approach, which he honed and refined over the course of three more "Phantasm" films, all equally entertaining but none as great as the original.

There so you have it. Three films that, in my humble opinion, are sure to be a highlight of anyone's Halloween movie marathon.