Every Halloween, Hollywood inundates us with the same candy that rots our teeth year after year, and this round there were several big-studio releases intent on recycling scares with the same diligent and flavorless regularity of a morning trip to Starbucks. Yet audiences can't seem to break away. Is it just because people like familiarity that the latest Paranormal Activity scored $30 million in its opening weekend, while the far more original (but still pretty derivative) Sinister floundered?
Halloween is a holiday based on mimicry, so it's not any surprise we're constantly rehashing the same themes. But that doesn't mean there aren't films worth revisiting—this season, ditch the megaplexes for Portland's second-run theaters, which are screening the flicks that invented the scares.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Spawn: Every zombie you've ever seen.
Legacy: Even discounting the endless academic analyses of its subtext (it's about Vietnam! No, it's about racism!), George A. Romero's definitive masterpiece is, at its very core, a horrifying exercise in low-budget terror wherein humanity turns upon itself. The heroine is catatonic within the first five minutes…and so is the audience. It's also one of the most replayed films of the season due to a copyright snafu that put it in the public domain upon its release, meaning everybody owns the rights to the film, so anybody can screen it—or rip it off—whenever they want. Bagdad Theater.
Return of the Living Dead (1985)
Spawn: All Return of the Living Dead films that came after; Shaun of the Dead.
Legacy: With its nihilist punk-rock attitude and gnarly zombie effects, Return of the Living Dead is the rare hybrid of horror and comedy that takes both genres very, very seriously, from the cast of stock characters/meat that lampoons everything from hicks to New Waver art kids, to some serious zombie carnage. During a ghastly interrogation, a dismembered ghoul explains that human flesh acts like morphine to ease the pain of decomposition and so coins the popular "braaaaaaains" moan forever associated with the undead. Bagdad Theater.
Evil Dead 2 (1987)
Spawn: Army of Darkness; endless fanboys talking about boomsticks.
Legacy: Having perpetrated one of the ghastliest and most infamous "video nasties" ever made, young Sam Raimi made the odd choice of remaking his notorious classic as a slapstick comedy soaked in more blood and guts than a Takashi Miike marathon. The film's most gruesome moment comes when Bruce Campbell chainsaws his own hand. But when he's forced to fight his dismembered appendage, well, that's when a classic was born. Hail to the king indeed. Hollywood Theatre.
Blair Witch Project (1999)
Spawn: Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield, [Rec].
Legacy: It's hard to explain the Blair Witch phenomenon to younger fans. Released at the dawn of the dot-com boom, the flick is the first real example of viral marketing, having duped audiences into thinking it was a documentary with this new invention called the interwebs. Other found-footage horror came before (Cannibal Holocaust and The Last Broadcast), but Blair Witch was a phenomenon that showed the true potential of its nauseating aesthetic. It may not have aged well, but it still has the power to send chills through the uninitiated. Academy Theater.
Spawn: Evolution; every âfamily-friendlyâ horror flick since; endless online speculation/arguments about the third installment.
Legacy: Bill Murray. Bustin' ghosts…that'd be enough to make Ghostbusters a classic in its own right, but the seamless mix of comedy, excellent special effects and some solid scares (if you saw it as a kid, you'll forever be extra quiet in the library) make it timeless. Laurelhurst Theater.
Spawn: Jason Voorhies; any maniac with a mask and a machete.
Legacy: Marred by endless sequels and remakes, John Carpenter's original is a masterpiece because it's so bloody simple. Its villain isn't an invincible killing machine or some sort of demon (not yet, anyway)—he's just a lunatic silently stalking and slaying with no motivation. He simply is, and what makes the film consistently scary is that it never relies on gore or jump scares. What makes the stomach turn is the inevitability of senseless death lurking in the shadows. Living Room Theaters.
The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Spawn: Too soon to say.
Legacy: Avid horror junkies Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard toss every cliché imaginable into a blender and pour out the most surprisingly batshit horror cocktail imaginable, one that at once embraces convention and lovingly flips it off. Since it was released this year, it's hard to measure its impact, but Cabin's most unfortunate aftereffect may be a deluge of winking, ultra-meta horror flicks trying to cop its ideas the same way every crime film after Reservoir Dogs featured talky criminals. Frankly, given the rowdy joy of watching (and rewatching) Cabin, it'll be worth enduring the copycats. Fifth Avenue Cinema.