Essays · Movies

‘Paperbacks from Hell’ Go To The Movies!

A selection of our favorite adaptations from the goldmine that is paperback horror.
By  · Published on August 7th, 2019

The Relic (1997)

The Relic

Whoever says ‘90s horror is bad is wrong. The decade produced an abundance of gems that don’t receive the credit they deserve, and this Peter Hyams-directed monster yarn from 1997 is one of them.

Adapted from Relic by John Preston and Lincoln Child, the film chronicles a detective and an anthropologist who must stop a lizard-like creature that’s offing people in a museum. The premise is fun and outlandish, but Hyams peppers the movie with atmosphere, suspense, action, and thrills to provide a movie that has more of a professional sheen than your average B grade fare. (Kieran Fisher)

Angel Heart (1987)


I’m an absolute sucker for smartly crafted genre mashups pairing horror with detective fiction, and while I will go the mat for films like Cast a Deadly Spell (1991) and Lord of Illusions (1995) my favorite in the sub-genre began life as the novel Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg. It’s a terrifically hard-boiled read that sees a private eye’s missing person investigation lead him into a dark, twisted, and deadly world, and while I wouldn’t have thought it would survive the adaptation to the screen I was proven wrong in 1987.

Alan Parker chased the beautiful and warm Birdy with Angel Heart — that’s range, people — which brought the novel to moody, sexy, sweaty, and atmospheric life. Mickey Rourke has never been better cast than he is here, and while the film features a big reveal in its third act it remains highly re-watchable all the same thanks in part to supporting turns by Robert De Niro, Lisa Bonet, and Charlotte Rampling. Voodoo and the devil himself intertwine with a twisty tale of blood, sex, and a mysterious disappearance, and Parker’s film feels like a journey into hells both metaphorical and literal. It’s black magic of the best kind. (Rob Hunter)

Magic (1978)


Oh, hello, psychological horror film directed by Richard Attenborough about a magician’s fucked up relationship with his ventriloquist dummy! Your score was composed by Jerry Goldsmith? You star Anthony Hopkins, Ann-Margaret, and Burgess Meredith? Where do I sign?! I tracked down Magic after watching Rodney Ascher’s Primal Screen, a mini-doc about the pop-culture artifacts that haunted us as children. Given that Primal Screen’s main thesis is that there is something inherently dark and malicious about personas and avatars, Magic’s presence in the doc is well-earned. The film (based on the novel by William Goldman) concerns a shy, alcoholic magician named Corky whose dull act changes for the better when he adds a charismatic ventriloquist dummy named Fats to his act. Despite (or perhaps because of) his success, Corky’s already fragile mental state begins to slip — and becomes unclear as to who is controlling who. (Meg Shields)

The Manitou (1978)


Based on the first book in a series of books by Graham Masterson (the most recent entry being from 2015), The Manitou is perhaps one of the best representations of what makes these horror paperback novels, and their film adaptations, so incredibly appealing. Take an idea that is so off-the-wall it’s in the goddamn stratosphere but ground it so that the film’s appeal is derived from this strange juxtaposition.

Composed of a cast featuring Tony Curtis, Burgess Meredith, and Susan Strasberg (daughter of Lee Strasberg, the father of method acting), the movie focuses on Karen (Strasberg) who has a tumor growing on her back that, wouldn’t you know it, just so happens to be the reincarnation of a Native American shaman out for revenge. With an edge as sharp as a cushioned corner, the movie is a blend of soapy fiction, body horror, and cheesiness that you can’t help but be endeared to as the movie reaches its laser-blasting, space-age finale. While an acquired taste, if your palate is attuned to The Manitou, you’re going to love what you find. (Jacob Trussell)

The Legend of Hell House (1973)

Hell House

Not to be confused with Roger Corman’s 1999 fart in the wind The Haunting of Hell House, 1973’s The Legend of Hell House delivers unnerving camp and edge of seat creep in equal measure. Boasting one of the most terrifyingly gaudy haunted houses in horror history and a career-best from Roddy McDowall, The Legend of Hell House is a paranormal/sci-fi gem — in large part thanks to a script from source material author/screenwriting heavy Richard Matheson (based on his own novel Hell House). Matheson is the man behind I Am Legend, What Dreams May Come, 16 episodes of The Twilight Zone, and countless other titles you probably recognize. I have a soft spot for The Legend of Hell House. It’s a must-see for anyone whose crank turns for houses with influence and ghosts that do damage. Check it out! (Meg Shields)

Wolfen (1981)


How does this sound to you: a werewolf film directed by the documentarian behind Woodstock, starring the likes of Albert Finney, Diane Venora, Gregory Hines, Edward James Olmos, and Tom Noonan, based on a book by Communion’s Whitley Streiber, and all shot in gorgeous early 1980s New York City? If any of the above speaks to you, then seek out Wolfen. This police procedural horror film follows Finney’s Dewey Wilson, a retired cop who is dragged back onto the force to solve a string of bizarre deaths that may or may not be caused by a pack of revenge hungry werewolves. The twist in the film owes as much to werewolf mythology as it does to environmental horror as Wolfen is a reminder of how centuries of colonialism have tipped the balance between humans and nature, resulting in repercussions of unimaginable horror.

If all of this wasn’t enough, Wolfen features a scene with Finney on top of the Manhattan Bridge, on an especially windy and precarious day, shot entirely on location. Which, in and of itself, must be seen to be believed. They just don’t make ‘em like they used to. (Jacob Trussell)

Stir of Echoes (1999)


Published in 1958, Richard Matheson’s A Stir of Echoes is a goofy little book about the repercussions of hypnosis. Don’t go under because when you awaken you may be able to commune with the dead. Woooooooo. I love Matheson. He’s one of the greats, and we wouldn’t have Stephen King without him. A Stir of Echoes, however, is an outdated spook story that finds success through characterization rather than the supernatural events driving the narrative. It is not the book I would hand to folks if I wanted them to understand his genius – duh, that’s I Am Legend.

David Koepp’s 1999 adaptation is no less goofy and similarly succeeds through characterization and Kevin Bacon’s performance of Tom Witzky (renamed from the Wallace of the book) rather than the supernatural shenanigans. That being said, Koepp still manages to pull off some significantly frightful jumpscares and stretch the overall tension in ways that the written word could not. Blasphemy? Maybe, but again – read I Am Legend instead. (Brad Gullickson)

Audition (1999)


Ryu Murakami is a Japanese author known for crafting unflinching tales about class, love, and the struggles shared between small groups of people. His novels have been adapted for the screen several times resulting in fantastic films including last year’s brilliantly twisted love story Piercing and 2003’s wonderfully bonkers and violent Karaoke Terror. Both are well worth seeking out (the novels and the films), but right now I’m here to praise Audition.

The always fascinating Takashi Miike adapted the 1997 novel two years after publication, and his film retains everything that works so well on the page while adding some of that ol’ Miike magic. It’s the story of a middle-aged widower who agrees to some deception in his pursuit of a new woman to love, and like most relationships built on lies, this one ends in bloodshed, amputation, and tortured souls in burlap sacks. The film is uniformly excellent, but it’s Shiina Eihi‘s performance as the young woman who steals the film (and maybe a foot or two). It’s a gloriously macabre commentary on the dating scene through lenses of sex, age, class, and expectation, and it’s a must-see. (Rob Hunter)

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Jacob Trussell is a writer based in New York City. His editorial work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Rue Morgue Magazine, Film School Rejects, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the author of 'The Binge Watcher's Guide to The Twilight Zone' (Riverdale Avenue Books). Available to host your next spooky public access show. Find him on Twitter here: @JE_TRUSSELL (He/Him)