NEW YORK — The toughest part about making a truly frightening film, according to director John Carpenter, is keeping a straight face.
"The movies that are the most fun are horror movies -- you laugh a lot, they're fun," says Carpenter, who should know -- his resume of terror includes classics "Halloween" with Jamie Lee Curtis, "The Fog" with ex-wife Adrienne Barbeau and "Vampires" with James Woods.
The director might be smiling, but the audience at a good horror flick is cringing, or gasping, or covering their eyes. Horror fans get a chance to do all three, over and over and over, when the 10th annual "Monsterfest" arrives Sunday on AMC.
The 24-hour-a-day, nonstop festival of fright runs through Halloween and covers more than 70 years of horror, from 1931's "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" through 2003's "Gothika" -- more than 230 hours of films over 10 days. Three horror films will make their "Monsterfest" debuts: "The Exorcist," "The Lost Boys" and "Wolfen."
"The Exorcist," one of the all-time great horror films, is a perfect example of a scary movie that leaves Carpenter in stitches. From laughing, not slashing.
"I love watching that movie," said Carpenter. "The dialogue the devil has, the bad language used by the devil, is hilarious."
For Carpenter, making a good horror movie involves creating anxiety for the audience.
"They should be frightened that you're going to show something they don't want to see," Carpenter said. "You need to go off the tracks, do something grotesque, something they don't want. They like that."
Carpenter, whose work outside the horror genre included "Starman" with Jeff Bridges, the original "Assault on Precinct 13" and the Kurt Russell vehicle "Escape From New York," is a fright film aficionado.
His favorites include old Roger Corman classics like "It Conquered the World," along with movies such as "Bride of Frankenstein." Although a fan of early monster movies, he believes the modern horror movie began in 1960 with Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho."
"Before then, there was a lot of gothic horror -- monsters, like Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman, the Mummy," Carpenter said. " 'Psycho' was modern, deliciously directed, with well thought-out scenes."
It was that sensibility that Carpenter wanted to bring to his low-budget "Halloween." Made in 1978 on a budget of $320,000, the film grossed an estimated $55 million and spawned an assortment of sequels.
On Oct. 31, AMC will air all five "Halloween" movies along with a behind-the-scenes look at Carpenter's classic original with Curtis and Donald Pleasence. Among the fun facts revealed: the mask sported by murderous Michael Myers was a Captain Kirk mask, covered in white spray paint. ("Halloween" also is being released in 150 theaters nationwide for special screenings on Oct. 30 and 31.)