I can’t believe it’s been a week since my last post! Sorry about that. I really do try to keep up with this thing, but sometimes I get busy with all my other endeavors (writing, book promotion, graphic design work) and run out of hours in the day. When it finally came time to do a new post, I was scrabbling for a subject, so I just decided to do something fairly pedestrian by discussing my ten best horror films based on novels. I’m not dropping my nuts here and proclaiming that these are the BEST ADAPTATIONS EVAR, but they’re certainly my favorites, and before anyone argues, YES, I know there are lots of other great horror films that were based on books, but I wanted to showcase great movies that were made from novels that were themselves fantastic and familiar to me (for example, while John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of my favorite horror movies of all time, I’ve never read the book it was based on, and as far as The Exorcist goes, I actually thought the movie was light years better than the novel). So now that we’ve got all that out of the way, allons-y.
10. The Girl Next Door (2007)
Based on Jack Ketchum’s horrific, you’ll-need-a-shower-afterwards novel (made all the more squicky by the fact that it was based on a true story), this 2007 adaptation mostly doesn’t shy away from the more terrible aspects of the book, and is all the more powerful for it. While I admit I found the novel a great deal more disturbing, the film is a worthy addition to the evil-that-humans-do canon. Some of it is a little too aw-shucks, fifties-stereotypical, but Blanche Baker is chilling as Aunt Ruth, and the mostly young actors are great, particularly 21-year-old Blythe Auffarth as the doomed Meg.
9. Hellraiser (1987)
Adaptations of Clive Barker’s infernal works are generally hit or miss, but I think we can all agree that this is the best by a mile (though I have to say that Candyman is also in the running). Based on his 1986 novella The Hellbound Heart, and directed by Barker himself, Hellraiser is filled to the brim with sadomasochism, buckets of gore, that genius puzzle box conceit, and one of the most recognizable horror baddies of all time. While the sequels couldn’t begin to approach the original classic, it’s easy to see how the detailed world Barker created in his short work demanded much more screen time. Jesus wept, indeed.
8. Ghost Story (1981)
As much as I adored the spooky, low-key adaptation of Peter Straub’s 1975 novel Julia (known as The Haunting of Julia in the US and Full Circle in the UK; you can find my analysis here), I find that Ghost Story, based on his 1979 book of the same name, just barely edges it out. The novel is so rich, complex, and over the top that the film couldn’t help but streamline the thing and leave several plot tendrils out, but I love it anyway, and I think director John Irvin was wise to focus solely on the central conflict of the book, that of the men of the Chowder Society battling the shapeshifting she-demon known by different names through the years. Some fantastically eerie scenes, and it was nice to see a band of dignified old codgers playing the heroes.
7. Stir of Echoes (1999)
I’ve talked about this criminally underrated film before, but I try to pimp it at every opportunity, because it’s so great and I’m still pretty bummed that it sorta got lost in the shuffle due to its simultaneous release with The Sixth Sense. Somewhat based on Richard Matheson’s short 1958 novel A Stir of Echoes, the film takes the basic plot of the book and builds an intensely frightening tale of hypnosis, psychic visions, and murder upon it. I’m not scared easily, but seeing this film in theaters gave me the heebie-jeebies big time, and it holds up remarkably well. Props also for the very Lynchian sound design, which ramps up the scare factor considerably.
6. The Innocents (1961)
Directed by Jack Clayton and starring Deborah Kerr as governess Miss Giddens, The Innocents is one of those rare films that wrings the scares from subtle atmosphere. Based on Henry James’s classic 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, with a screenplay co-written by Truman Capote, the movie is chock full of spooky children, secrets, ghosts, and eerie goings-on, amplified into skin-crawling terror by the use of music, lighting, and ambiguity.
5. The Other (1972)
Based on former actor Thomas Tryon’s 1971 debut novel (and if you’d like to read a rundown of the lackluster adaptation of another of his fabulous novels, Harvest Home, I’ve got you covered), this Robert Mulligan-directed film is one of the best examples of the good/evil twin trope. Set in 1935 and starring Chris and Martin Udvarnoky as the conflicted Holland twins, the movie is a golden-drenched slab of uncanny mystery and horror, painted in hues of perverse nostalgia. Tryon, who wrote the screenplay, was reportedly not happy with the adaptation, but for my money the film more than did the novel justice.
4. The Legend of Hell House (1973)
Another Richard Matheson adaptation (this time of his 1971 novel Hell House), this one takes obvious cues from The Haunting, but goes in a splashier direction with much effectiveness. Directed by John Hough and featuring great performances from Roddy McDowall and the impossibly adorable Pamela Franklin, the story takes the standard horror-movie plot of a group of ghostbusters investigating a scary house and does all kinds of weird shit with it. Baroque, overwrought, and lots of creepy fun.
3. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Capturing the sly, blackly comic edge of Ira Levin’s 1967 book while maintaining a sense of slowly building tension and paranoia, there’s a reason this Roman Polanski-directed classic ends up on so many “best horror films” lists. I absolutely love Ruth Gordon as the lovably terrifying Minnie Castavet, and Mia Farrow is perfect as the fragile, waifish Rosemary, a protagonist you can’t help but sympathize with and be afraid for as everyone in her life seems to turn against her. If you’re a fan of Polanski’s films, check out my previous writeup on his deliciously creepy 1976 movie The Tenant.
2. The Shining (1981)
What can I say about this masterpiece that hasn’t already been said? (Well, I said this and this, but y’know.) Taking what is arguably Stephen King’s best novel and using it as a springboard to explore universal themes, myths, and existential terror, Stanley Kubrick created a timeless, iconic piece of art that still has the capacity to enthrall and horrify, more than three decades later. Easily one of the five best horror films ever made.
1. The Haunting (1963)
You just knew this was gonna be my number one, didn’t you? I admit I talk about this book and film a lot (such as here and here, for example), but that’s only because I am in awe of the subtle dread and psychological depths this story plumbs in both mediums. Based, of course, on the hands-down best haunted house novel ever penned, 1959’s The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, the casting in Robert Wise’s masterful adaptation is spot-on, and he deftly drenches the film in chills and atmosphere while essentially showing nothing, an astounding feat and one that is right in line with the source material. I really can’t recommend book or film enough, in case you hadn’t noticed. Oh, and I mentioned this before, but skip the lame-ass remake.
And just because I can, here are twenty more that were eliminated for the sake of brevity:
The Exorcist (1973, based on the 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty)
The Hunger (1983, based on the 1981 novel by Whitley Strieber)
The Birds (1963, based on the 1952 short story by Daphne du Maurier)
Nosferatu (1922, based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1897)
Frankenstein (1931, based on Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel)
The Phantom of the Opera (1925, based on the 1910 novel by Gaston Leroux)
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945, based on Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel)
House of Usher (1960, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher,” 1839)
Duel (1971, based on Richard Matheson’s 1971 short story)
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983, based on Ray Bradbury’s 1962 novel)
The Entity (1981, based on the 1978 novel by Frank De Felitta)
Village of the Damned (1960, based on John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, 1957)
Masque of the Red Death (1964, loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, 1842)
Re-Animator (1985, based on the H.P. Lovecraft novella Herbert West—Reanimator, 1922)
Cemetery Man (1994, based on the 1991 novel Dellamorte Dellamore by Tiziano Sclavi)
Misery (1990, based on Stephen King’s 1987 novel)
Carrie (1976, based on Stephen King’s 1974 novel)
The Prestige (2006, based on the 1995 novel by Christopher Priest)
The Lair of the White Worm (1988, loosely based on Bram Stoker’s 1911 novel)
Horns (2014, based on Joe Hill’s 2010 novel)
Keep it creepy, my friends, and until next time, Goddess out.
February, in case you hadn’t heard, has been designated Women In Horror month, and even though I gotta admit I’m kinda longing for a future where female horror writers will be so commonplace that it will be unnecessary to even remark upon them, I do feel like we vagina-havers still need our own month for now. That’s because, for whatever reason, women who write horror are still thought of as something of a novelty, or at very least a tad oddball. It’s a lot better than it used to be, sure, but even in this enlightened year of 2015, it’s not unusual for a horror anthology to come out containing no women authors at all, and there’s still a lingering perception that women don’t like horror as much as the guys do, or they don’t write it as well, or something, since apparently we’re all just precious delicate flowers who could never possibly enjoy the song of the chainsaw, the call of Cthulhu, the visceral thrill of seeing someone’s spine forcefully extricated through their mouth. I guess there’s a similar bullshit thing going on with female comedians and “girl geeks,” but I’m not really gonna go into all that because this is a horror blog, and I gotta stay focused on the topic without going off on a rant. Anyway, since I’m a woman who has always loved everything to do with the horror genre, I’ve decided to celebrate Women In Horror Month by honoring a few of my favorite “girl” writers in the genre with this humble blog post. So here we go.
Shirley Jackson – The Haunting of Hill House
I know I talk about this book a lot (and I wrote a whole blog post about the fantastic film adaptation as well), but that’s because it is probably my favorite horror novel of all time, and easily one of the best horror novels of the 20th century. In Ms. Jackson’s capable hands, something as pedestrian as a haunted house story becomes a multilayered, intensely terrifying study of psychological breakdown. Her masterful characterization of Eleanor Vance is one of the best in literature of any genre, and I would defend that statement to the grave. If you love Haunting of Hill House, and I know I do, also check out her other novels The Sundial and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which explore similar themes.
Anne Rivers Siddons – The House Next Door
Another haunted house story (because you know how much I love those), but from the completely opposite side of the spectrum as Jackson’s novel. The haunting in The House Next Door takes place in a fancy, newly-built contemporary pad thrown onto an odd-shaped lot by a hot-shot architect in a chi-chi Atlanta suburb. The main players are agonizingly upper-crust, status-conscious, and at times completely snobbish and obnoxious, but their unlikeability makes their fates that much more devastating. The cursed-from-birth house next door doesn’t contain anything as gauche as a spirit, exactly, but more like a force that somehow knows and plays upon the residents’ deepest fears and insecurities, and dishes out scares accordingly. A fresh take on the subgenre, and a satisfying one.
Doris Lessing – The Fifth Child
A supremely literary horror story, and a short one clocking in at only 150 pages, but its tentacles grasp tightly. Somewhat reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby, The Fifth Child sees “perfect” married couple David and Harriet pushing out one kid after another, much to the consternation of their extended families, who fear that the couple cannot care for the ones they already have. The first four kids are pretty much okay, but that fifth one, as the title suggests, is a doozy. A concise and terrifying examination of family dynamics and the social expectations surrounding the bearing of children.
Poppy Z. Brite – Exquisite Corpse
Perhaps this isn’t a fair choice for a “women in horror” post, since Poppy (born Melissa Ann Brite) has since undergone gender reassignment and now prefers to be known as Billy Martin, but at the time this novel was written she was still identified by a female pronoun as far as I know, so I’m going to include it. It’s a shockingly sick tale of two serial killers (based on real-life nutcases Dennis Nilsen and Jeffrey Dahmer) who join forces in order to find “the perfect victim.” They find their unicorn in the form of a pretty Vietnamese boy named Tran, and the story spirals into horrific madness from there. All of Brite’s trademarks are present, from the obsession with twisted killers to a fixation on the darkest and seediest underbellies of New Orleans. This is an intensely gory and profoundly fucked-up (but fantastic) novel.
Caitlín R. Kiernan – The Red Tree
Kiernan has written a lot of great books, including several pleasingly Lovecraftian ones. The Red Tree is the creepy tale of a woman named Sarah who moves to an old house in the woods after a terrible breakup and becomes obsessed with the ancient tree growing in the backyard, and the manuscript she finds that seems to hint that the tree conceals some terrible secret. If you like this one, I’d also recommend Silk and Low Red Moon by the same author.
Until next time, Goddess out.
In my previous post on Burnt Offerings, I mentioned that haunted house movies were my very favorite subgenre of horror film. I’ve also discussed on more than one occasion my belief that the best horror is achieved through suggestion and subtlety, through the principle of “less is more,” through manipulating the viewer’s (or reader’s) imagination to engineer the scares. I think I’ve also mentioned once or twice (in my entry on The Tenant, for example) that I love ambiguity in horror films, of never being sure if what we’re seeing is really happening to the protagonist or is simply a figment of his/her fevered brain.
In this entry, I’d like to focus on a film that is sort of the ultimate distillation of all of these themes. Even though — at odds with my loose “rules” about posting discussions of better-known movies — this film is generally considered to be one of the scariest ever made, and even though scenes from it have appeared on other lists around the internet, I really, really want to talk about it anyway because it’s probably my favorite horror movie of all time and it’s my blog anyway and SO THERE.
The 1963 film The Haunting (masterfully directed by Robert Wise) is like the granddaddy of creepy, atmospheric haunted house films that achieve their effect through nothing but insinuation. The movie appears on pretty much every legitimate list of the scariest films ever, but, spoiler alert: IT NEVER SHOWS A THING. There are no phantoms drifting through the hallways, no blood dripping from the walls, no demons leering from the mirrors. That overwhelming feeling of dread you feel as you watch it is entirely down to camera angles, strategic shadows, sound design, and the terrified reactions of the actors.
I will, for a moment, deign to acknowledge that there was an intensely stupid (and Razzie-nominated!) remake of this film in 1999, directed by Jan de Bont. I am only mentioning its vile existence in order to draw a stark contrast with the original. The remake essentially showed EVERYTHING…there were CGI ghosts flitting around everywhere, I think some dragonlike something-or-other flew out of the fireplace at one point (I honestly can’t remember and I refuse to rewatch it to check), there was a big purple mouth in a ceiling or some shit, I really just can’t even. This right here is a cautionary tale: the remake saw everything that was atmospheric and spooky and frightening about the original and took a giant ectoplasmic dump all over it. MOAR GHOSTS!!! MOAR FIRE!!! MOAR MONSTERS!!! CAN WE PUT SLIMER FROM GHOSTBUSTERS IN THERE??? HOW ABOUT A BED THAT’S LIKE A BIG-ASS SPIDER OR SOMETHING??? WHY THE FUCK NOT? HERP DERP. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but as you can tell, the emotions are still a little raw. So let’s just go back to forgetting that festering pile of feces pieces ever got made and get on with the good stuff, shall we?
The Haunting was of course based on Shirley Jackson’s spectacular 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, which I heartily recommend. Stephen King rightly chose it as one of the best horror novels of all time, and discusses its themes at length in a chapter of his 1980 book Danse Macabre. The 1963 film hews very closely to the plot of the book. It’s a fairly standard haunted-house type of story: Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson) is doing a paranormal investigation of the infamous Hill House, which has been the scene of many mysterious deaths and creepy happenstances since it was built. Joining his ghostbusting posse are heir-to-the-owner Luke Sanderson (played by Russ Tamblyn of West Side Story fame), free-spirited lesbian psychic Theodora (Claire Bloom), and sheltered, mentally unstable poltergeist focus Eleanor (Julie Harris). Markway’s wife Grace (Lois Maxwell) joins the fun later on in the film.
Elevating the story from a run-of-the-mill spooky-house romp into an artful masterpiece of terror are not only the gorgeous cinematographic flourishes, but also the layers of uncertainty surrounding the character of Eleanor, and the way her own past seems to mirror that of the dreadful house. She is summoned to the investigation by Dr. Markway because of an incident in her youth where stones fell on the roof of her house in an apparent poltergeist attack, though she never experienced paranormal activity again until arriving at Hill House. Eleanor herself is intensely reflective, perhaps even self-absorbed, and insecure to an almost monstrous degree. She is working through her feelings of guilt and inadequacy following the death of her mother, who she had wiled away years of her life caring for. Because Hill House’s history boasts a similar situation of a suicidal companion, Eleanor feels an immediate affinity with the house, and senses that her destiny is there, and that she has “come home.” The house, for its part, seems to play upon this connection she feels, as Eleanor becomes the main focus of the activity. There is banging on the walls that reminds her of the way her mother would bang on the walls to call to her, and at one point writing appears on the walls of Hill House, chillingly reading, “Help, Eleanor, come home.” Is the entity in the house using Eleanor for its own nefarious purposes? Or is Eleanor unconsciously projecting her own fears and insecurities onto the house and manifesting an entity that was never really there? The film never takes a stand either way, and this is one of its great strengths.
Filmed in luminous black and white, the whole movie is a study in atmosphere and escalating tension. The vast interior of the house itself is often shot from unsettling angles and skewed perspectives, and there are always eerie shadows populating the corners. There are many, many scenes of skin-crawling dread, but there are really two I’d like to discuss here. In the first, Markway and the two women are downstairs. Luke has come downstairs to raid the bar (as you would), and as he stands there chugging straight out of the bottle (classy), suddenly we see (and hear) a door slam by itself. All four of our heroes are naturally wigged out, and as they stand there frightened, wondering what to do, they begin to hear another sound, a sort of strange, windy shuffling that then resolves itself into a steady bang…bang…bang. Like loudly echoing footsteps, coming toward them down the hall. Markway initially thinks it may be his wife Grace wandering the halls (she had been sleeping in the nursery) and goes to open the door, but Luke stops him, saying that the sounds were not coming from anywhere near the nursery. The steady banging gets louder and closer. Eleanor and Theodora are huddled up in blankets on the couch, terrified. The banging is joined by that weird windy noise again. Eleanor thinks to herself (in voiceover), “It knows my name. This time it knows my name.” Markway, fearing that his wife is in danger from whatever is out there, lunges toward the door. Eleanor leaps to her feet to stop him. “NO! NO! It hasn’t hurt me, why should it hurt her?” Markway points out, “She may try to do something about it.” Before Markway can get the door open, though, the noise stops, and he hesitates. Eleanor turns and addresses Theodora. “Is it over, Theo?” Theodora says no, that she still feels cold, and that she senses that “it’s going to start everything all over again.” And sure enough, the next second there comes a volley of metallic-sounding blows on the back of the door that Markway and Luke are still standing in front of. “Don’t let it get in!” Eleanor pleads. Then…silence. Everyone looks at the door, their faces hopeful but still contorted with fear. And then the doorknob begins to rattle, ever so slightly. Luke’s eyes get as big as saucers. Eleanor, her hands clutched in front of her mouth, mews, “Oh God, it knows I’m here!” The doorknob stops rattling, but then the door itself starts to…breathe. There is no apparition, there is no sound other than a slight creaking. There is only that door, bulging weirdly out and then back in. Out, and then back in. It’s such a creepily affecting visual, and so simply done. There is a closeup of Luke’s hand as he drops the liquor bottle on the floor, and then he attempts a little levity by choking out, “Hey Doc. I’ll let you have the house cheap.” There is another moment of silence when they think the terror has passed, but then the banging starts up again, moving across the floor above them this time. All four stare at the ceiling, following the progress of the thing that haunts Hill House. Eleanor thinks that the entity will keep going on until it finds her. Bang…bang…bang…and then there is a strange, sort of rolling metallic sound, almost like thunder but more like someone plowing through pieces of sheet metal. Dr. Markway is staring up at the ceiling and following the sound, and he suddenly knows where the entity is heading. “It’s at the nursery!” he says, and then lunges for the door. Spoiler alert: when they get to the nursery, Grace has disappeared, and we don’t find out what happened to her until the very end (or do we?). Mwahahahaha.
The second scene is even better. It starts with a gorgeous night shot of the exterior of Hill House, accompanied by a creepy soundtrack that sounds sort of like church bells. We pan into Eleanor’s shadowy bedroom, and focus on a sort of raised floral pattern on the wall. Eleanor wakes up and peers over her shoulder at the section of wall. She thinks she hears a man’s muffled chanting coming from behind there, though she can’t make out the words. The camera closes in on the pattern as the voice gets louder, and we start to imagine we can see things in the wall, like a single disapproving eye in the top right corner. In reality there is nothing there, but the way the sequence is shot makes you think there may be. Closer still, and we can almost see another eye, and perhaps even a gaping mouth in the floral pattern. Frightened, Eleanor whispers for Theo, who is sleeping in another bed across the room, though it is too dark for Eleanor to see her. “Are you awake?” she whispers. “Don’t say a word, Theo, not a word. Don’t let it know you’re in my room.” Theo doesn’t answer, but then Eleanor hears a woman’s eerie laugh coming from behind that creepy-ass wall. Eleanor, the covers pulled up to her chin, sticks her hand out into the darkness. “Hold my hand, Theo,” she whispers. “And for God’s sake, don’t scream.” The muffled chanting gets louder, and there’s more of that laughing, and now the pattern on the wall REALLY looks like a horrible face, even though it’s exactly the same pattern as it was before. The noises stop, and Eleanor asks the psychic Theo if it’s over. Then she winces. “You’re breaking my hand!” she says. Then she hears a child crying from behind the wall, and the way the shadows fall on the pattern now makes it clear that there are two eyes and a mouth. She thinks to herself how monstrous and cruel the entity must be, to hurt a child, and how no one should ever do such a thing, and how it’s probably only doing it to scare her but it isn’t succeeding. Then she thinks again that Theo is hurting her hand by squeezing it so tight. She thinks that she will put up with a lot from the house for the sake of the experiment, but that the house hurting a child to get to her is going too far, and she insists she’s going to yell, and indeed, that she does; she screams, “STOP IT!” And then the shot quickly pulls back to show her in her bed, and the lights come on, and there’s a spinning shot across the room to show that Theo is still in her bed across the room, and has just woken up, disoriented. Eleanor gazes down in horror at her hand, which is still extended out and loosely closed, exactly as if someone had been holding onto it. She gets out of bed, still staring, transfixed and disgusted, at her hand. “Oh God,” she says, extending her fingers. “Whose hand was I holding?”
Meeeeeeeeeeep. Think about THAT next time your foot comes out from under the covers in the middle of the night. Yes, it’s true, everybody…THE MONSTERS UNDER YOUR BED WILL GRAB YOUR SHIT IF IT COMES OUT FROM UNDER THE COVERS.
And with that, I bid you adieu. Goddess out.