The entertainment industry, with its long-established allergy to new ideas, often mines the bestseller list for source material. Studios are more likely to greenlight a scary story after it has been officially vetted by the reading public. They're also less likely to interfere with a proven earner, which is why the most interesting and distinctive films are usually literary adaptations. In horror cinema, however, the filmmaker's vision of a story so often becomes definitive in the minds of viewers that it overshadows the books that inspired that vision in the first place (unless of course, those books were written by Stephen King).
With that in mind, the Westword Book Club has compiled a list of five cult classic horror movies that were inspired by novels and short stories, deliberately avoiding canonical works like Dracula and Frankenstein as well as blockbusters like The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby in favor of slightly obscure titles that deserve more eyeballs. Then we Lars von Trier'ed ourselves into a corner by only selecting movies that are available to stream instantly, so readers can easily check out these great films before their Halloween spirit is buried beneath the snows of November. Read on, and enjoy your nightmares.
The Wicker Man Based on the novel Ritual by David Pinner
Though the 1973 version of The Wicker Man has been eclipsed in the public consciousness by the bug-fuck crazy remake starring Nicolas Cage, the original, directed by Robin Hardy, is scarier, less misogynistic and more faithful to Ritual, David Pinner's 1967 novel that inspired it. The Wicker Man is a thoroughly British tale of a moralistic Scotland Yard detective who travels to a remote island in the Hebrides to search for a missing girl. The islanders deny the girl's very existence, and seem to be in the strange thrall of Lord Summerisle, a man whose absolute evil is made immediately evident by the fact that he is portrayed by Christopher Lee. Lee, who most viewers will recognize from his role as Saruman in the Lord of the Rings series, makes a meal of this sinister character, imbuing his every line with genteel menace and carrying off some rather on-the-nose dialogue with little more than his bone-chilling baritone. We won't spoil the end, but let's just say it involves sacrificial pagan rituals and not sleeping for days.
Available on Amazon Instant Video.
Let the Right One In Based on the novel Låt den rätte komma in by John Ajvide Lindqvist
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Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In isn't a horror movie in the traditional sense, though there are plenty of shocking scenes of violence in the film. The plot centers on the burgeoning relationship between Oskar, a twelve-year-old boy from a Stockholm suburb and Eli, the seemingly pre-adolescent vampire who moves in next door. While Oskar enjoys Eli's help when she's defending him from bullies, he soon realizes that caring for someone who feeds off of human blood is messy work fraught with moral compromises. The script, adapted by John Ajvide Lindqvist from his own 2004 novel, whittles down some of the backstory and supernatural world-building and instead focuses on the tentative friendship of his lead characters. Alfredson's film, steeped in the melancholy of a sunless Swedish winter, subverts the conventions of horror movies and vampire mythos, making Eli into one of the most relatable vampires in film history. A bloodthirsty monster lurking beneath a cute-kid exterior, Eli is all the more terrifying for being so sympathetic. It should be noted that we're discussing the 2008 Swedish film, and not its well-meaning but pointless American remake starring Carrie's Chloe Grace Moretz, cinema's poster child for well-meaning but pointless horror remakes.
Available on Netflix.
Eyes Without a Face Based on the novel Les yeux sans visage by Jean Redon.
Eyes Without a Face is similarly concerned with sympathetic monsters, this time in the form of Dr. Génessier, a mad scientist who kidnaps and experiments upon young women in an attempt to perfect a heterograft facial transplant surgery for his disfigured daughter. Delivering a heartbreaking performance with her face completely obscured by a creepy-looking prosthesis, Edith Scob plays Génessier's daughter as a living ghost, hidden away from the world, struggling to reconcile with the atrocities her father commits for her benefit. When it was released in France in 1960, Eyes Without a Face was met with widespread criticism, as many critics felt director Georges Franju had abandoned his documentarian roots to create a pulpy horror film. Others found the film so unsettling that reports of audience members fainting survive to this day. For the American version, censors excised the disturbing heterograft sequence and cut around the scenes that made Dr. Génessier seem more sympathetic. The movie was re-titled the Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus and exhibited as part of a B-movie double-bill with The Manster. It wasn't until the film was rediscovered by cineastes in the 1980s that Franju's achievement got the critical reappraisal it deserved.
Available on HuluPlus.
The Dunwich Horror Based on the short story by H.P. Lovecraft
Inspiring everything from Evil Dead to the Call of Cthulu video-game series, H.P. Lovecraft is arguably America's most influential writer of scary stories. The Dunwich Horror is regarded as one of the central texts of Lovecraft's Cthulu mythos. While Lovecraft's prose is too cerebral and un-cinematic to ever truly come across on screen, The Dunwich Horror does manage to convey the creeping sense of unease as its characters slowly realize they're faced with an ancient evil beyond their comprehension. Even with its literary pedigree, however, The Dunwich Horror is unmistakably a Roger Corman B-movie from 1970, with the requisite body-double nudity and numerous acid freakout sequences designed for drive-in movie prurience. The script, adapted by a young Curtis Hanson, takes significant departures from Lovecraft's short story, adding a naive librarian character portrayed by Sandra Dee and altering the character of Wilbur Whately to make him less outwardly freakish. The results are a fascinating unholy hybrid of Lovecraftian mythos and '70s grindhouse sleaze, all set to a pretty awesome Les Baxter score.
Available on Netflix
Kairo (Pulse) Based on the novel by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
During the J-horror remake trend of the mid-2000s, Hollywood studios were scooping up Japanese horror properties and churning out English-language remakes that often barely resembled the original films, much less the books that inspired them. Because so few of these novels are translated into English, the books that inspired movies like The Ring, Audition and Ju-On (The Grudge) have been entirely eclipsed by their cinematic adaptations and remakes of those adaptations. One film that is particularly short-changed by the remake industrial complex is 2001's Kairo (Pulse), which director Kiyoshi Kurosawa adapted from his own novel. While Kairo is the scariest film on this list from moment-to-moment, the true measure of its impact is the unshakeable sense of surreal dread, a fear that persists long after the credits roll.
Available on Netflix
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Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.