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These chilling, low-budget flicks are right on fright

With all the buzz about "Paranormal Activity," you'd think it was the first low-budget horror film that ever managed to get a rise out of audiences. In fact, it's the latest in a long line of cheaply made chillers.

For decades, the horror genre has drawn talented, usually fledgling directors with limited means. Francis Ford Coppola made his mainstream debut with "Dementia 13," a Gothic-style quickie, and Sam Raimi launched his career with "The Evil Dead," making his own gore from corn syrup and food coloring. (Try sewing your own costumes for a period drama - it probably won't fly.)

So with Halloween upon us, here are 10 bargain-basement screamers, listed from least to most horrific. Just remember: Sometimes the best thrills are cheap.

 

Dementia 13 (1963). Working with an initial budget of about $20,000, Coppola roughed out a blood-and-guts script in mere days. You can sort of tell. But the film's foreboding atmosphere and startling brutality make it effective even today.

 

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973). It's unclear how much this made-for-TV movie cost, but the plot isn't much: Kim Darby moves into a house where nasty little munchkins keep jumping out at her. As ridiculous as it sounds, the film is surprisingly scary; Guillermo Del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth") is set to produce a remake.

 

Phantasm (1979). This highly bizarre film, set in a local mortuary, features a highly memorable gizmo: a flying chrome sphere that sucks blood from skulls. Don Coscarelli directed, wrote, photographed and edited.

 

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Back before Johnny Depp became expensive, writer-director Wes Craven cast him in this inventive horror film about the power, and terror, of dreams. Critics and scholars pondered the philosophical implications, but it was strong word-of-mouth that turned "Elm Street" into a profitable franchise and made the blade-fingered Freddy Krueger a household name.

 

Night of the Living Dead (1968). Zombie movies have been around a long time, but this one, by director and co-writer George A. Romero, seems like the very first. Shot in black and white for about $100,000, it remains a classic: lean, mean and meaty.

The Evil Dead (1981). Like Craven, director Sam Raimi would see this early effort (which cost about $375,000) become a successful franchise. But the best is still the original, whose eye-popping gore and grotesque sexuality (can trees really do that?) are still startling today.

 

The Blair Witch Project (1999). The budget: less than $1 million. The plot: Three people with handheld cameras run screaming through the woods. The result: a terrific hair-raiser that preceded "Paranormal Activity" by a decade.

 

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). This grainy, grisly flick gets down to bare bones - literally. Though it may not be readily apparent, director and co-writer Tobe Hooper used the Vietnam War, the emerging Watergate scandal and even the oil crisis as influences, resulting in a nihilistic classic.

 

Halloween (1978). John Carpenter directed, co-wrote and even scored this iconic movie, which stars Jamie Lee Curtis as a young girl stalked by a psychopath. The key terms in modern horror cinema - baby-sitter, masked killer and franchise - can trace their etymologies right back here.

 

Eraserhead (1977). David Lynch's first feature may be an art film, but it's also one of the most unsettling horror movies ever made. A surreal nightmare shot in stark black and white, it includes a lobotomy, a bleeding chicken dinner and - most famously - a gargling, pus-filled mutant baby. Even more disturbing than that creature: Lynch still won't say what it was made of. Best not to think about it.

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