October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article about the best horror movies based on books is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
They say the book is always better, but who has time to read these days? With all due respect to the Edgar Allan Poes and Mary Shelleys of the world, the horror genre truly started to reach its full potential with the advent of film, when generations of campfire stories, shadow plays, and, yes, novels could be transformed into terrifying visual works that scald an imprint of their images into our brains. Plenty of great horror books have been adapted for the screen, but not all adaptations are created equal. Here are ten of our favorites.
For the book purists out there, it’s worth noting that while some of these entries do compare the on-screen adaptations to their source material, we’re not judging these films solely based on how they handled the material filmmakers and screenwriters were working with. Rather, this is a list of great horror movies based on books, regardless of how much may or may not have changed in translation during the adaptation.
10. The Haunting (1963)
I’m not in the movie adaptation biz, but if I were, I don’t think I’d ever attempt to tackle Shirley Jackson’s works. The horror author’s creepy, largely internal works of fiction seem deeply resistant to on-screen translation, and while great adaptations of her work exist, each one leaves its own distinct mark on the source material while leaving some of it behind. The 1963 classic The Haunting is no different. As retold by director Robert Wise and screenwriter Nelson Gidding, the story of a group of disparate souls who come together to investigate a potentially haunted house is less about real ghosts and more about the ones we create for ourselves. A surprisingly thoughtful portrait of mental illness with a great performance from Julie Harris, The Haunting is a detour from its origin story that’s still stylish, chilling, and supremely entertaining. (Valerie Ettenhofer)
9. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
While Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 horror film didn’t top the list, you could make a strong case that it’s the most vivid film on the list. Literally. Watching Dracula will make you realize that even though most films made today aren’t in black and white, they aren’t exactly in color either. Stoker’s epistolary novel is — and this is actually not hyperbolic — one of the most important and influential books ever written. It’s a cornerstone of horror narratives and has been adapted (ha!) fewer times. For most filmmakers, this would make another adaptation daunting. But then again, Coppola is not most filmmakers. He stays true to the material while invigorating the film with cinematic opulence. The result is something at once faithful and entirely unique. All around, this is one adaptation we love to drink in. (Anna Swanson)
8. Of Unknown Origin (1983)
Here’s the thing about George P. Cosmatos’ rat horror opus, Of Unknown Origin. It may be the only film on this list that truly surpasses its source material in every which way. The original paperback horror novel, The Visitor by Chauncey G. Parker III, is a scattershot of post-Vietnam, angry young man stereotypes – or maybe ‘angry young yuppie’ is a better descriptor – that takes its time getting into the battle of wits between our protagonist and the larger-than-average rat that plagues his New York City apartment. In a way, the novel and the film are in and of themselves riffs on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” where an animal burrows itself deep into the psyche of our audience surrogate, driving him to madness. But where the novel is over 200 pages of 1980s male chauvinism and trite tropes about the dangers of the Big Apple, Cosmatos’ film leans into the ridiculous winds of the film’s underlying “rat horror mayhem,” culminating in Peter Weller donning armor like a DIY RoboCop to go to war with the rodent. In other words, this film gives us what the novel failed to deliver: pure, unadulterated entertainment. (Jacob Trussell)
7. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Jack Finney’s pod people story “The Body Snatcher” is so compelling that it’s inspired not just one great adaptation but two (plus more less-than-great ones and imitators). The best of the bunch may well be 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a bleak and freaky dystopian saga directed by Philip Kaufman. The movie stars Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams as scientist colleagues whose lives are disrupted forever when an alien species starts replacing the people around them with emotionless doppelgangers.
As fantastic as Kaufman and screenwriter W.D. Richter’s take on the material is, there’s one major difference between their story and Finney’s: at the end of the novel, the apocalypse is averted when the aliens decide Earth is not worth the fight they’d have to put up if they stuck around. Invasion of the Body Snatchers makes a bold move changing the ending, as the resulting final scene, featuring one last twist that pretty much extinguishes all hope for our heroes, is an unforgettably haunting horror movie moment. (Valerie Ettenhofer)
6. Hellraiser (1987)
Hellraiser has the distinct pleasure of being the only movie on this list adapted to the screen by its author. Clive Barker both writes and directs the film based on his novella, The Hellbound Heart. He stays faithful to the bones of his story while expanding on the ideas and characters. In the process, he gives birth to one of cinema’s most grotesque monsters, Pinhead. The Cenobite, initially played by Doug Bradley, would appear in nine sequels and one remake (and counting). He’s a proud beastie, who confuses pain for pleasure, and delights in challenging his victims to see the universe through his perspective. Barker’s original movie withholds its leather-clad monsters for only tiny bursts of horror, preferring to revel in human monstrosity through the resurrected Frank and his kill-happy lover, Julia. These are the nastiest of bastards, allowing us to delight in their Cenobite torment, placing our cheers on the hell-born. Hence all the Cenobite-focused sequels. (Brad Gullickson)
This list of the ten best horror movies based on books concludes on the next page…
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