Sequels are now facts of life in the movie world, and that goes double for horror movies. But franchises, well, they’re something else altogether. It takes real staying power for a character to remain vital year after year, movie after movie. The fact that we’re still watching Dracula and Frankenstein movies is all the proof you need that there’s still life in the classic monsters. But the ongoing success of the Saw series says that the new world of monsters is equally durable. So screw up your courage and explore the ten best horror franchises — if you dare.
One word: Cenobites. Clive Barker cheekily borrowed the name from
Christian monastic tradition, gave it to a passel of elegant
self-mutilating monsters in fetish gear, and voilà: a horror franchise was born. Overall, the Hellraiser (1987)
sequels are a sorry bunch (many never even made it to theaters),
and the first movie’s delightfully creepy S&M vibe got lost along
the way. But the pallid leather-clad Pinhead (Doug Bradley) is the star. When he’s onscreen, no one’s looking anywhere else, and he’s seriously sexy — in a thoroughly screwed-up way, of
course. There aren’t many horror characters so magnetic as to stay relevant through multiple iterations, but Pinhead is one of them, and that means you can’t have a horror-franchise list without Hellraiser.
Let’s face it: when you think of the famed green-hued monster, you see Boris Karloff in Jack Pierce’s iconic makeup: flattened head, black lips, metal neck bolts, and all. James Whale’s version (1931) of Mary Shelley’s novel is one hell of a monster movie, and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is every bit as good and twice as perverse. It’s downhill from there, but even the least-distinguished Universal movie has plenty going for it: the sets are consistently gorgeous, and the mix-and-match casts are a Who’s Who of classic horror stars, including Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., and Vincent Price, who lends his uniquely mellifluous voice to the Invisible Man in Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), widely considered the scariest horror-comedy of its day.
8. Child’s Play
Between 1988 and 2004, writer-director Don Mancini’s original story about a fatherless 6-year-old boy and a Good Guy doll possessed by the soul of a serial killer (voiced by the ever-creepy Brad Dourif) morphed from a psychological horror story to a campy comedy. But that’s just fine; it means there’s something in the series for everyone. Lots of fans got as big a kick out of the foulmouthed Chucky’s smarty-pants remarks as his bad behavior with his girlfriend (voiced by the helium-toned Jennifer Tilly). But the Chucky franchise merits a No. 8 ranking thanks, mostly, to the the original, which brilliantly conflates two horror staples — the evil child and the living doll.
7. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) series continues to pioneer and was the first to establish the seventies as the decade when horror stopped screwing around and started going straight for the throat. Inspired by the real-life crimes of a cannibal, the movie popularized the meme of dumping four young people into a rural hell to encounter a hillbilly family that slays together to stay together. The sequels came slowly, perhaps because the franchise is so unpleasant: one in 1986, another in 1990, and a half-baked 1994 do over featuring genuine Texans Renée Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey. Neither the 2003 reboot — mostly notable for kicking off the tsunami of seventies-horror remakes and reimaginings — nor its 2006 sequel really did anything new, but they didn’t have to, as they’re equally disturbing as the original.
A bit like Texas Chain Saw, James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s Saw (2004) simply changed the way horror movies are made and has managed to pump out a heart-stopping sequel each year. The movies are officially iconic, as is principled villain Jigsaw (Tobin Bell). The Saw movies may have lapsed quickly into grim predictability, but they never stopped delivering on their signature invention: flawed victims forced to endure bizarre, sadistic tests of nerve and physical fortitude in an atmosphere of gloomy pop nihilism. Saw 3D (2010) is supposedly the end of the line, but it doesn’t take a cynic to wonder how long it’ll be before there’s a new beginning.
5. A Nightmare on Elm Street
Writer-director Wes Craven helped define seventies horror with flicks like The Last House on the Left (1972), but his career was in the doldrums when he came up with the idea of a scarred, sardonic killer who stalks teenagers in their dreams. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) was both a hit and a critical success and made a genre star of hardworking character actor Robert Englund, who nailed the mix of dark humor and seething malevolence that added up to Freddy Krueger. The original’s very eighties vibe was easily adapted in the later years, but the key is always Krueger, whose mix of humor and horror beats the dour likes of Jigsaw any day.
A small outfit specializing in low-budget genre movies, Hammer Film Productions followed The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) with Horror of Dracula (1958), a revolutionary and sexed-up version of the Dracula legend starring Christopher Lee as the count. With Lee in tow, no one can wonder why all those buttoned-up Victorian wives and fiancées went weak in the knees when he swept into a room. The Hammer movies rank so high because they were truly shocking at the time: in Scars of Dracula (1970), Lee plays the count as a true monster rather than a darkly romantic lover, and The Brides of Dracula (1960) is driven by a barely concealed incestuous subtext that was incredibly daring then and still pretty unsettling now. That’s no mean feat for a 50-year-old vampire movie.
3. Friday the 13th
In the original (1980), Jason was long dead and the killer is his crazy mom, but twenty years and a dozen movies later Jason’s hockey mask — which he didn’t even get until Friday the 13th Part III (1982) — is a Halloween-costume staple. How’s that for adaptability? The Friday the 13th series is all about a simple and brilliant formula: isolated location, a group of young and attractive victims-to-be, and Jason dispatching them one by bloody one. Horror fans want imaginative, well-staged murders, and few series deliver them as consistently as the Friday the 13th franchise.
Like some of the other franchises in the top ten, John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s Halloween (1978) has proved influential beyond the scope of the series, kicking off the slasher-movie trend that dominated American horror in the eighties, transforming 19-year-old Jamie Lee Curtis into a scream queen with brains bigger than her boobs, and turning an off-the-rack Captain Kirk mask into the new face of horror. Suburban serial killer Michael Myers stalked and slashed his way through eight more movies, including two reboots by shock rocker Rob Zombie, who closely followed the plot of the original while exploring the roots of Myers’s homicidal rage. The Halloween reboots are the best and most original of the rash to hit theaters in the past decades, and it’s Zombie’s cool exploration of Myers’s roots that propels Halloween past contemporary Friday the 13th, to No. 2.
1. Night of the Living Dead
George A. Romero’s zombie standard dumped the walking dead on Middle America’s doorstep and made them the go-to metaphor for privileged malaise. Romero’s original trilogy charted the end of world civilization, starting with the dissolution of the nuclear family in Night of the Living Dead (1968), continuing with the collapse of consumer culture in Dawn of the Dead (1978), and ending with the destruction of military and scientific establishments in Day of the Dead (1985), working on a seriously literary-metaphorical level that few horror movies dare to touch. For originality, sheer terror, and intellectual weight, no horror franchise can touch Night of the Living Dead, plain and simple.