Last October, my friend and I spent several hours compiling a list of favorite horror movies. Our intent was to make a trip to the local video store for a little Halloween renting. It ended up looking something like this: The Changeling, The Fog, The Exorcist, The Shining, The Blair Witch Project, Poltergeist, The Ring, Nosferatu, The Hand, Halloween, and The Amityville Horror. We were sure to also include favorite B Movie classics like Microwave Massacre and Monster Dog, starring Alice Cooper.
This year, my list looks pretty much the same aside from a few alterations. I decided to start my viewing early to get inspiration for this piece, but even though I decided months ago that I would write about horror flicks in my October column, I didn’t really consider the fact that there isn’t a strong literary counterpart to many of these movies.
There are a few exceptions, of course, with the obvious examples being Frankenstein and Dracula. Frankenstein was the first horror movie I ever saw, and the black and white monster with that square head and spokes in his neck still holds a special place in my heart even despite the literary masterpiece created by Mary Shelley. Dracula, a book that spawned dozens of fantastic (and equally horrible) movies, is such a classic that it’s hard to mess with. In my opinion, just skip anything starring Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves attempting British accents and you’ll be all right.
While I am aware of a few books that are scarier than their cinematic counterparts, overall, the books most horror movies are based on just pale in comparison to their big screen adaptations. Despite the fact that the written word conjures up things more terrifying than anything I might be presented with on screen, for some reason, horror movies usually surpass their literary counterparts in my eyes.
Take The Shining, for example. While I think most Stephen King movies don’t do his books any great favors, this movie scared the blood right out of my veins. By the same token, the book frightened me, but not nearly as much as the film. In fact, I don’t remember that much about the book, having read it some 18 years ago. Apart from the fact that it was vaguely disturbing, it didn’t grab me. There was something about a really cool collection of evil topiary animals, though.
The movie, which I also saw around the same time, has managed to stay with me right up to the present day. I still shiver at the thought of the snow-laden Overlook Hotel, the long hallway filling with tides of blood, and of course Jack Nicholson sticking his head through the bathroom door and announcing his arrival to a cowering Shelley Duvall: “Heeeeeere’s Johnny” (one of the most famous lines in any movie ever made). So it comes as a surprise to learn recently that Stephen King hated the movie.
“Really??” I said to my aforementioned friend on the phone.
“Yeah, he said it was awful. Probably the worst adaptation of any of his books.”
Shouldn’t he mean the best? When I think of bad Stephen King movies I usually think of Pet Cemetery or The Stand miniseries. Having said that, I still love Salem’s Lot. Yes, the book was scarier and the TV movie was camp, but who can deny a frantic David Soul in all his whipped back blonde glory warding off vampires with a pair of tongue depressors taped into the shape of a cross?
Another horror movie that surpasses the novel upon which it was based is The Exorcist. That book never stood a chance once Linda Blair started spewing pea soup and spinning her head around a complete 360 degrees. I recently saw the movie again after many years and was just as rattled as the first time. Despite its age, it’s timeless in its intensity and subject matter. Emily Rose couldn’t top Regan MacNeil if she tried. In fact, Linda Blair can’t top herself, either. She was so good as little demented Regan that even she’s been cursed with that role for all time.
I can’t say I remember a single sentiment of this type about William Peter Blatty’s book, which I read after seeing the film. I suppose it’s partly because I’d already experienced its terrifying brilliance in celluloid. Or it could be that the book, as I remember, focused more on the personal crisis of Father Karras than or any real demonic histrionics.
This isn’t to say that all books read after seeing their film version can’t measure up take for example The Amityville Horror. When I was young I saw the movie and went wan with fear. Years later, I laughed my head off through most of it, especially the parts where James Brolin and Margot Kidder cooed “I love you”, “Love you back” to each other. I sat down with the film again last year, determined to recapture the dread I had once felt. During a scene where James Brolin stares into the Lutz family fireplace wearing a murderous and brooding expression on his face, my other half said dryly: “He’s seeing his future married to Barbara Streisand.”
Unfortunately, I now can’t watch this movie with a straight face. There is one scene, however, that still manages to raise the hair on the nape of my neck. At one point George Lutz hears something unusual in the house and walks downstairs to investigate. As he reaches the bottom step of the staircase, a single snare drum echoes throughout the dark living room. Don’t ask me why, but that scene, that sound, gets me every time.
When I came across the book version of The Amityville Horror as a youngster, I was wary at first. At the time, bleeding faucets and axe-sharpening James Brolins just scared the crap out of me. But once I started the book, I re-evaluated the way the movie made me feel. In fact, compared to the book, the film failed. At the time I was sharing bunk beds with my sister me on top, her on the bottom and I remember climbing down to the bottom bunk because I was too scared to be alone with the book in the top bunk. I still regard it as one of them most frightening tomes ever written especially since it’s supposed to be based on a true story (on a related note, my godmother a very religious and superstitious individual visited that house sometime in the ‘80s and said she didn’t see what all the fuss was about).
There’s something about books involving demonic possession / hauntings that really get under my skin. Perhaps it is because I was raised Catholic and had it drilled into my head every Sunday that the devil was very real and always looking for sinners to nab. So it’s no surprise that Poltergeist also clattered my nerves. The demonic storm that rages through the Freeling household, snatching little Carol Anne into the family television set is still delectably menacing. And who could forget Tangina Barrons, the pintsized clairvoyant brought in to rid the house of “the beast”? I still have her monologue, delivered in her infantile Southern accent, committed to memory:
“It lies to her. It tells her things only a child can understand. It’s been using her to restrain the others. To her, it simply is another child. To us, it is The Beast.”
This is the rare example of a novelization of a movie that didn’t positively suck. The book which I read sometime in the early ‘80s after the film was released had extra scenes written in that mostly added to the eeriness. Despite a ridiculous scene at the end of the book where a giant spider invades the house, there is a very creepy scene involving that god-awful clown doll (my sister had one like it at the foot of her bed) and little Robbie Freeling at a birthday party. That’s what makes Poltergeist so unsettling. These things are happening in a California cookie cutter suburb in the middle of the day wholesome sunshine and all. To this day, clowns still scare me senseless—a fact I’m sure John Wayne Gacy, Ronald McDonald (have you ever really looked at him?) and Poltergeist played no small role in.
So if you like the concept of spooking yourself at this time of year, here are my recommendations: Watch The Shining and skip the book, read The Amityville Horror and skip the movie, read Poltergeist and watch the movie, and rent The Exorcist (The Version You’ve Never Seen) because there’s nothing more delightfully disturbing than an 11-year-old girl crawling like a crab and stabbing herself in the crotch with a crucifix.