What if I told you some people aren’t aware that most of their favorite classic horror movies are based on or inspired by works of literature? Personally, it always comes as a bit of a surprise — a shock, really. Adapting stories isn’t at all a new practice; it’s been done since almost the beginning of filmmaking and will likely continue until the end of time, and not just with the horror genre.
There are some novels that are written as companion pieces to motion pictures, as well as novels that are inspired by one movie or another, but it’s the ones that predate script and screen that truly continue to terrify readers. Sometimes a production company will snatch up the rights to a paperback years after its initial release, and other times it’s a done deal seemingly before the ink dries.
Although I’d never dream of limiting anyone’s time to reading specific novels or view certain films to a mere month or season, this is without a doubt the best time of year for the genre, in every form. To celebrate all things horror, I decided to check out some of the genre’s best and most creative movie adaptations so far. Monsters, murderers, and ghosts — they’re all here. You may want to keep a light on tonight.
Everyone’s heard of Psycho, right? One year after the release of Robert Bloch’s chill-inducing novel, Alfred Hitchcock’s big screen adaptation was released and has long since become one of the most indelible (and bankable) pictures in the legendary filmmaker’s macabre canon. The classic film stars Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles and John Gavin.
Save for a few notable differences in the Psycho novel, Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano kept the story mostly the same. One example is the appearance of Norman Bates. Whereas Norman is a tall, handsome boy-next-door type in the movie, in the novel, he’s heavy-set and middle-aged.
2. Frankenstein (1931)
Featuring Boris Karloff in arguably his greatest performance, the 1931 original Frankenstein movie is a staple of Hollywood’s pre-code era as well as the monster movie sub-genre. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein novel was originally published in the year 1818 with the subtitle, The Modern Prometheus. You’ll never forget the face of Frankenstein’s Monster in the Universal film.
Frankenstein doesn’t necessarily seem like the kind of movie that would stand the test of time, in terms of sound editing or even set design. On the contrary, the heartbreaking story, a few key performances and some famous shots are why its legacy lives on.
3. Jaws (1975)
Jaws is one case where, frankly, I’m not sure whether the novel or the movie is better. As with Psycho and Frankenstein, there are a lot of differences in Jaws that change the narrative just enough that, either way, I feel as though one is missing something great that the other has. For example, Brody, Hooper and Quint only go out on the water together once to search for the shark in the movie.
Peter Benchley’s Jaws is a terrific read, but the movie is a fantastic watch, filled with suspense and adventure and rich in character. Either way, you can’t go wrong with Jaws. On the surface it doesn’t seem scary, however, if you live by water or travel to beaches, that’s when it really sinks in.
4. The Exorcist (1973)
Here’s the thing: your imagination will always surpass visuals being displayed on a screen somewhere, regardless of how terrifying or uncomfortable it is. The Exorcist novel, written by William Peter Blatty, is no exception. However, because he also wrote the script for the 1973 film adaptation, the results are eerily similar.
The Exorcist is still revered as one of the scariest horror films ever made and it’ll be on television year after year. Thanks to an ambitious cast and crew, it’s one of the only movies of its kind to still leave a lasting impression on viewers 46 years later, and the image of Linda Blair as Regan MacNeil being possessed is one you won’t soon forget.
5. I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)
The premise of I Know What You Did Last Summer is effective in a myriad of ways, whether you were around when Lois Duncan’s novel was first published in 1973 or when the Kevin Williamson penned flick hit theaters in 1997. As with a couple other selections on this list, the novel has been reworked and modernized over the years, with one release working as a tie-in with the movie.
Starring a then hip, young cast: Jennifer Love Hewitt, Freddie Prinze Jr., Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillippe, I Know What You Did Last Summer takes the source material and dresses it up as a throwback slasher film that also borrows from an urban legend with the usage of meat hooks.
6. Hellraiser (1987)
Hellraiser is one of Clive Barker’s most well known movies. He wrote and directed the film, using his own novella, The Hellbound Heart, as his inspiration. The two are very similar, with the exception of the name Pinhead. If memory serves, he’s not named in The Hellbound Heart. Clive Barker’s ability to creatively bring his characters to life and craft one hell of an effective movie is admirable, to say the least.
If the repulsive and unpleasant appearances of the Cenobites aren’t enough to freak you out, the deceitful nature of some of the characters (Julia, especially) and the makeup effects will stick with you for a while afterward. Even though the franchise has wandered into some less than appealing territory, Hellraiser is a surefire horror classic worth watching.
7. The Amityville Horror (1979)
One of the most well known haunted house stories is allegedly based on a true story. Jay Anson’s novel, The Amityville Horror, was adapted to screen two years after its release. The story is centered on George and Kathy Lutz, their kids and the startling fact that a murderer lived in the house prior to them purchasing it. Both the book and the film have some bone chilling moments, but the movie’s creep factor is almost incomparable to the novel.
Margot Kidder and James Brolin are fun to watch and are believable as husband and wife. As George incrementally gets worse and Kathy’s fears worsen, the tension builds. Even the house itself is uncomfortable to look at. Overall, it’s a well-crafted ghost story that features some genuine scares.
8. Valentine (2001)
Loosely based on the 1996 book written by Tom Savage, Valentine — much like I Know What You Did Last Summer — takes on the identity of 80s slasher films with its masked antagonist and holiday themed story. The movie was released in 2001, but feels so much like a product of the mid to late 1990s. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however. Not all movies have to be deep, moving pieces. This is mindless entertainment that may or may not keep you guessing.
By today’s standards, it’s pretty run-of-the-mill stuff — and maybe for 2001’s standards, as well. Even still, I remember watching TV as a kid and seeing the trailer and wanting to check it out. The antagonist’s motive isn’t complex and the targeted characters are very much a product of your typical horror fare.
9. The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s The Thing is not only a remake to 1951’s The Thing from Another World, it’s also a much closer adaptation to John W. Campbell Jr.’s 1938 novella, Who Goes There? It’s just as thrilling and paranoia-inducing as its source material, with action and suspense galore. Kurt Russell stars, alongside Keith David, Charles Hallahan and David Clennon. The film’s bizarre special effects look impressively grotesque and fit some of the novella’s descriptions.
Since its 1982 release, The Thing has become a slightly more popular title than it was all those years ago. A humanoid creature with the ability to change its appearance, creating a sense of paranoia in a group of workers in a cold, arctic setting is really all you need to know. Isn’t that terrifying enough?
10. IT (2017)
It would’ve been too easy to make this list entirely Stephen King, but always up for a challenge, I decided to narrow it down to just one adaptation of the author’s work. That, of course, proved to be a tad difficult. 2017’s IT is a thoroughly entertaining movie that, although seemingly light on scares, is rich in character development and wonderful performances. It also doesn’t hurt that, in some ways, the movie feels like Stand By Me.
Stephen King’s IT has kept readers terrified of monsters and clowns since 1986, and Andy Muschietti’s movie (and the recent follow up) is continuing that legacy. There are quite a few differences from page to picture, again, like everything on this list. It’s debatable as to who is the scarier Pennywise: Tim Curry or Bill Skarsgård, but either way, it’s not very likely you’ll walk by a storm drain with ease again.
If you’re a fan of the genre, it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume you’re familiar with at least one or two of the aforementioned books or film adaptations. Comment and let us know which novels you’ve read and what movies you’ve watched.