It's that time of year again, when our thoughts start to turn to the macabre, we start planning costumes for all those end-of-month parties, and we re-watch all those great horror films from the past.
It's hit or miss, though, and even films that would seem to have a leg up in the quality department doe to the fact that they're based on successful novels don't always make the cut.
Here then, are five horror films based on literature that you should take time to see, and five more that you really ought to give a miss to.
Photo: New World Pictures
The best horror films based on books
Bram Stoker’s Dracula: Say what you want about this 1992 version of the infamous proto-vampire, there’s a lot to like here. Directed by auteur-extraordinaire Francis Ford Coppola, it also starred Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, and Anthony Hopkins. In this film, Dracula comes to England an old man, growing younger by the minute, and turning into a monster in the process. It’s a lush, operatic film with some serious eroticism to it. Coppola uses old-school film tricks like reversing the film, multiple exposures and varying shutter speed to create a visually stunning movie about the seriously overplayed vampire king that tries to re-create the original novel via its multiple points of view. While it’s frequently campy, this big budget film is worth a re-watch.
Photo: Columbia Pictures
The Exorcist: William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel about demonic possession and exorcism was based on an actual 1949 case that the author heard about while attending Georgetown University in Washington, DC, leading him to set his book there. The 1973 movie, directed by William Friedkin and written by Blatty himself, is a faithful re-telling of the horrifying story about a young girl’s rapid transformation into a vomit-spitting, head-rotating demon from hell, scaring the crap out of everyone who went to see it in theaters. It stars Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, and Linda Blair, The Exorcist is an exercise in tight, creepy horror storytelling with solid practical special effects that still look convincing today.
Photo: Warner Bros.
Frankenstein: The original film based on the original novel by Mary Shelly, 1931’s Frankenstein, stars Boris Karloff in the tale of the proto-mad scientist who creates life in his lab from an assembled collection of body parts gathered from corpses. What makes this film still worth the watch is both the superb make-up effects and the inherent loneliness of Karloff’s portrayal of the monster. When it happens upon the young girl at the pond and exchanges the flower, you’ll be hard pressed not to empathize with the creature, even as he tosses the child into the pond.
Let the Right One In: If you like atmospheric genre films, you’ll love this 2008 film from Sweden, written by John Ajvide Lindqvist, the author of the book its based on. The acting is subdued and the two young leads are absolutely mesmerizing as the human and vampire protagonists. Oskar is a 12-year-old pacifist of a boy who’s constantly bullied in school. Beautiful 12-year-old Eli moves in next to him at the same time a series of gory deaths and attacks start to happen around town. It’s a beautiful meditation on friendship, loneliness, and adolescence that also happens to be an incredibly scary movie. Be sure to have someone with you when you view it, so you can hold hands and scream together in fear.
Photo: Magnet Releasing
The Legend of Hell House: This 1973 horror film was produced in the UK and directed by John Hough. Starring Roddy McDowell and Pamela Franklin, it’s based on the 1971 novel Hell House by Richard Matheson, the same guy who wrote I Am Legend; he also wrote the screenplay. A group of both physicists and parapsychologists spend a week in a English manor house that they’ve been told is haunted, and at which previous researchers were horribly murdered. It’s a haunted house movie done right, with plenty of over-the-top acting and sweaty ‘70s actors, and I mean that in a good way.
Photo: 20th Century Fox
The worst horror films based on books
The Wicker Man: This 2006 re-do of the 1973 classic horror film stars Nicolas Cage as a sheriff investigating the disappearance of a young girl on a small island. He finds out there’s a bigger mystery to be solved, though, among the secretive neo-pagan islnd community. It sounds like a ton of fun, right, but ends up detouring into a crazy, barely comprehensible mess of a plot with enough misogynous activity from Nic Cage in a bear suit than you can handle. When you set out to remake a classic of the genre, you need to bring more to the table than director Neil LaBute (In The Company of Men) was able to.
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures
Queen of the Damned: While Interview with a Vampire was a low point for both Tom Cruise and Anne Rice fans, the second movie to come from her novels is an utter travesty. Starring Aaliyah, the young R&B singer who was tragically killed in a plane crash in 2001, the film plays more as a goth-club flavored TV movie with Rice’s famous vampire Lestat taking up much of the overwrought screen time. The soundtrack is awful, the special effects questionable at best, and the dialogue super melodramatic and cheesy. Stay away from this one.
Photo: Warner Bros.
Dreamcatcher: Even the acting chops of Morgan Freeman and Demian Lewis combined with the directing talent of Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back) and a screenplay by William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) can’t save this awful adaptation of one of Stephen King’s worst books, Dreamcatcher. The original novel is about a young man with mental retardation who becomes a group of boys’ unofficial mascot. When the men reunite for a hunting trip decades later, they discover an…alien invasion. Yeah, it’s that disjointed. USA Today called it “A moviegoer's nightmare,” writing that “the story is incoherent, inane and interminable.” Honestly, there’s no need to watch this one.
Photo: Warner Bros.
30 Days of Night: As someone who lives in Alaska and has visited Barrow, where this horror flick about zombies in the coldest, darkest place in the US, is supposed to be set, I found it to be utterly unrealistic. Sure, I can handle supernatural killers who lurk in the dark to eat human beings during the longest night of the year during the winter, but — seriously — Barrow isn’t a frontier town anymore with Western movie-style saloons and such. I could probably even forgive that horrifying oversight if this 2007 movie based on a fantastic graphic novel (written by Steve Niles, illustrated by Ben Templesmith, and published by IDW Publishing) itself wasn’t a long slog through a lot of half-hearted attempts and jump scares and tons of “shredding and gurgling,” as Entertainment Weekly calls it, saying, “30 Days of Night is relentless, but it's also relentlessly one-note.” Pass.
Photo: Columbia Pictures
Pet Sematary: I really wanted to like this movie, since I enjoyed the heck out of the 1983 Stephen King novel of the same name. The 1989 movie was directed by Mary Lambert, whose resume includes 1992’s Pet Sematary II and 2005’s Urban Legends: Bloody Mary, so you know how she rolls. Add to that a screenplay by the master himself (have you seen Maximum Overdrive? It's awful) and a set of actors that no one knew, and you’ve got yourself a pretty horrible movie. King’s novels are so successful because they give readers a sense of the inner fear of their characters, something we can all relate to. Translating that to the screen is hard, as evidenced by the incredible hit or miss quality of the cinema adaptations of King’s work. This one? Don’t bother.
Photo: Paramount Pictures