It’s appropriate that one of the classic makers of horror film is virtually unkillable. Many have tried, but just when you think that Hammer is down, it emerges from the shadows and grabs you. Now, 65 years after the birth of the horror brand and 50 years to the day of the release of one of its classic Dracula films, Taste the Blood of Dracula, it’s time to look at why Hammer Horror will never really die.
Hammer Film Productions’ early years didn’t rush right into horror. Founded in London in late 1934 by William Hinds, the company was named after Hinds’s own stage name, Will Hammer. The studio’s first film, The Public Life of Henry the Ninth, was a comedy. Other films of a variety of genres followed. Hinds co-founded a distributor, Exclusive. Unfortunately, due in part to the worldwide depression of the 1930s, the studio’s fortunes declined, and Hammer declared bankruptcy in 1937.
After World War II, Hinds’s son Anthony joined British film producer James Carreras to bring back Hammer as a production piece under Exclusive. They dove into crime and mystery films, and also licensed radio dramas from the BBC to turn into movies. In 1949, Exclusive made Hammer Film Productions a separate registered company and renamed their Wardour Street office in London “Hammer House.” By 1953, Hammer was making forays into science fiction, paving the way for a new phase that would cement their reputation forever.
In 1955, Hammer made The Quatermass Xperiment, based on the BBC TV serial The Quatermass Experiment by Nigel Kneale. The story dealt with a rocket returning to Earth with two astronauts missing and the third infected by something horrible. The film was a big hit, getting United Artists distribution in America (where it was named The Creeping Unknown), and giving Hammer some name recognition. While the Exclusive distribution part of the company would eventually fold now that big distributors were getting Hammer into theaters, they were primed for huge success. Audience polling said that they liked the horror aspects of the film even more than the science fiction parts, so Hammer went all in; three of its four 1956 films would be horror.
The most important of those 1956 movies was The Curse of Frankenstein. A new take on the Frankenstein story, which had produced a franchise for Universal in the 1930s and ’40s, the Curse of Frankenstein was filmed in color by director Terence Fisher, and he wasn’t afraid to show gore. That alone drew attention, but the two leads (Peter Cushing as Victor Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as the Creature) turned out to be horror icons in the making. Hazel Court cemented her status as a “horror queen” in the film as well, becoming the first of what would be a long line of popular Hammer horror heroines. The film was a massive hit in England, the rest of Europe, and the States. Sensing momentum, Hammer cranked out a sequel, The Revenge of Frankenstein, and launched another franchise with Dracula (released in the States as The Horror of Dracula).
Written by Jimmy Sangster (who had written the two Frankenstein installments to that point), directed again by Fisher, and again starring Cushing (as Van Helsing) and Lee (as Dracula), Dracula was another blockbuster for the studio. The film injected a more open sexuality into the vampire mythos than earlier films had been allowed to portray, and Lee’s charismatic turn as Dracula drew particular praise. The one-two punch of Frankenstein and Dracula set the table for Hammer as it had for Universal. Lee and Cushing became synonymous with horror films; Lee would become one of the most iconic genre actors in history, playing Dracula for Hammer seven times (and three times for studios in other countries). The year after Dracula, they teamed with Fisher again in Hammer’s adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes picture The Hound of the Baskervilles, with Cushing as Holmes and Lee as Henry Baskerville, and in The Mummy (again with Fisher and Sangster).
It wasn’t just the willingness to show gore or amped sexuality that made Hammer work. There was an overall style to the pictures that leaned on the Gothic and the otherworldly in a way that was different from the American films; the use of color was certainly a big part of that. Even if Sangster’s scripts weren’t always tremendous, Lee and Cushing elevated them with presence. In 1966’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness, Lee never even says a single word, simply owning the screen with the sheer force of his charisma.
Hammer’s run from the 1950s into the early 1970s was one of incredible success. The bedrock was the clutch of horror franchises centered around Cushing, Lee, and a parade of new actresses that would become sex symbols of the time, including Barbara Shelley, Ingrid Pitt, Caroline Munro, and Raquel Welch. Welch broke out in 1966 in Fantastic Voyage in the U.S., but Hammer’s One Million Years B.C. and its promotional poster of Welch in the deerskin bikini made her an international sensation. B.C. was one of many effects-driven science fiction and fantasy films that Hammer made concurrently to their big set of horror series. By 1979, with top-notch horror films from bigger studios pulling away their audience, financial obligations to production partners, and the loss of staples like Lee to other work (Lee wanted to avoid typecasting), Hammer stopped production.
But no great horror story can stay buried forever. Various efforts to bring back the brand occurred over the decades, but Dutch producer John de Mol put together a deal in 2007 to do just that. He pulled together the rights to 300 Hammer films and restarted the studio. The new Hammer has put together international and U.S. co-productions, like 2011’s The Resident, 2012’s The Woman in Black, and 2010’s Let Me In, a remake of the modern Swedish vamprie classic Let the Right One In. Most recently, Hammer debuted The Lodge at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and released it in the United States in February. With the general ongoing resurgence in horror-related box office, Hammer stands a chance of carving out a decent horror niche alongside other successful outfits of today, like Blumhouse. Their ongoing program of getting classics on Blu-ray while simultaneously producing new fare will keep them alive. Or, at least, undead.
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From the Christian celebration to elements of Yule and images drawn from advertising art, literature, and more, the idea of Christmas in America comes loaded with its own set of stories and symbols. However, one bit of lore that hasn’t quite made the transition to the States is the existence of an entire class of Christmas monsters. That’s right; to you, it might just mean Santa and elves and reindeer, but in many other countries, Christmastime means Monster Time. Here’s a bestiary of beings that lurk in the silent night.
1. The Krampus
The trailer for Krampus (2015) (Uploaded to YouTube by Legendary)
The Krampus has become the king of the Christmas monsters. He’s broken in America in a big way in the last couple of decades, notably with comics and a handful of horror films. A counterpart to Santa who punishes bad children, Krampus has his roots in the eight Alpine countries (Germany, Austria, Italy, etc.) stretching back to at least the 1500s. Represented as a demonic humanoid with goat horns (recalling the pagan “Horned God”) and cloven feet, Krampus frequently carries chains, bells, and branches (which are used to whip the bad kids). Krampusnacht, December 5, is the night before the Feast of St. Nicholas; this is recognized in a number of European communities with activities like parades. “Krampus Walks,” featuring attendees in costume, are becoming more popular in the U.S.
2. Knecht Ruprecht
Not so much a monster as another thrasher of naughty children, Knecht Ruprecht is a sidekick of Saint Nicholas in German tradition. Varying versions of the story have Ruprecht leaving nuts or treats for good children, while leaving switches (for their parents to beat them with) for the bad. Still other versions cast him as more of a helper than a punisher. He’s usually depicted in dark robes and carrying a bundle of sticks. The similar character of Belsnickel appears in other traditions, and has many traits in common with Ruprecht.
3. La Befana
Sometimes called The Christmas Witch, Befana rises from Italian folklore to give gifts to kids on Epiphany Eve (January 5). Befana is said to fly on a broomstick and leave treats and presents in stockings, while leaving behind sticks or coal for bad children. Interestingly, while the story has been known for some time, the Befana traditions weren’t really subject to widespread practice in Italy until the 20th Century. Frau Perchta is a similar personage that may have been inspired by Norse myths; she fulfills the same function as Befana while alternately appearing as either a beautiful maiden or old woman (although she’s given to sometimes cutting open bad kids and stuffing them with straw).
4. Gryla, The Yule Lads, and The Yule Cat
Iceland brings us one of the more elaborate Christmas monster mythologies, which stem from Yule lore. Grýla is a trollish giantess who lives in a cave with her large (and LARGE) family. There’s Jólakötturinn, the monstrous Yule Cat. There’s her lazy husband, Leppalúdi, who mostly doesn’t leave the cave. And there’s her 13 sons, the Jólasveinar, popularly known as the Yule Lads. On the whole, their reputation rests on their willingness to devour people, including children. Jólakötturinn, specializes in eating people who didn’t get new clothes before Christmas Eve (which ties back to a tradition of people getting new clothes as a reward for being good). Each of the Yule Lads has a particular prank or form of harassment associated with them that they perpetrate on the people, from stealing food to candles. Stories of the family go back centuries, but the 1932 poem Yule Lads by Icelandic poet and politician Jóhannes úr Kötlum set the canon for the names and behaviors of the Lads as they’re perceived today.
5. Père Fouettard
His name means Father Whipper in French, and he comes by it for good reason. Another companion of St. Nick, Fouettard is said to journey with the jolly man on Saint Nicholas Day and dole out beatings to the bad children while Nick rewards the good ones. Usually depicted with sticks and reeds, Fouettard is also described as frequently wearing a wicker basket on his back for the capturing of naughty children. He’s also traditionally shown as bearded, bedraggled, and dirty, as if having soot on this face. Unfortunately, the soot in recent years devolved in the use of blackface by cosplayers and parade-goers, stirring controversy in a manner similar to Zwarte Piet (Black Peter).
6. Zwarte Piet (Black Peter)
Black Peter first appeared in a Dutch book in 1850 and became a popular companion for Sinterklaas (aka Santa). In the book and later writings, the character is a Spanish Moor that becomes Sinterklaas’s assistant, occasionally punishing or even stealing naughty children. While it was quite common to see people don colorful costumes and blackface to depict Peter for many years, recent decades have seen a rise in controversy as various groups and celebrities have spoken against the practice. Some parades and programming have changed the appearance and the style of the character, while others doggedly adhere to what they see as tradition. Some communities and school corporations in Europe have taken to phasing the character out entirely.
7. Hans Trapp
Hans von Trotha was a real German knight in the 1400s. His story in folklore has become that of Hans Trapp. Over time, Trapp grew to be depicted as the “Black Knight” that stalked the Wasgau hills, frightening children and appearing in other legends. In the Alsace region (in northern France that borders Germany and Switzerland), Hans Trapp merged with the St. Nicholas story, replacing Knecht Ruprecht as Santa’s punisher.
8. Mari Lwyd
Yes, Virginia; there is a zombie horse of Christmas. This is a specific outgrowth of the wassailing tradition in Wales. In the States, we think of wassailing as simply caroling, but it’s more of a mix of caroling and trick-or-treating; in wassail, groups moves from home to home and sing in exchange for a drink (frequently, wassail itself, which is a hot mulled cider). In the Mari Lwyd tradition, one member of the group hoists a horse’s skull on a pole that is draped with a hood and leads the wassailers about. The Mari Lwyd group would sing and the home dwellers would respond in song; this went back in forth until the Mari Lwyd-bearers got their drink or moved on. The practice fell out of favor in the early 20th century, but experienced a revival before the year 2000. That year, Aberystwyth in Wales put together “The World’s Largest Mair Lwyd” for millennial celebrations.
Featured image: Nicola Simeoni / Shutterstock.com.
Horror films have been a part of American culture since Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde first flickered across Chicago screens in 1908. And outside of costumes and trick-or-treat, nothing suggests the Halloween season quite like hunkering down with a good scary movie. The question then becomes, “What’s the right horror film for the whole family?”
Every family’s view of content is different, and every family has a different standard for when it’s okay for the kids to indulge in scary fare. What we have here are some baseline recommendations, standout films that you might check out as starters, along with some appropriate ages. Again, your own idea of what’s appropriate and when may vary, but that’s why comment sections were created.
1. Kids (10-12)
We label the kids’ table as intended for 10- to 12-year-olds based on two ideas: the content is a little stronger than, say, horror specials of their favorite shows or films made for the children’s audience like Hocus Pocus. These movies delve into the actual horror genre rather than just covering kids’ entertainment with the sheen of Halloween.
Poltergeist (1982): Director Tobe Hooper’s haunted house classic upends the old clichés by moving from foggy moors to suburbia. Younger viewers can identify with the kids at the center of the story, though they may never want to sleep near any kind of clown toy ever again. (Note: The parents split a joint early on and there’s some light language. It’s definitely scary, but it also has some light moments, including the indelible turn by Zelda Rubenstein as medium Tangina Barrons.)
Gremlins (1984): Like Poltergeist, this Joe Dante-directed film counts Steven Spielberg among its producers; it also delves into a familiar setting, this one a small, quiet town. Things don’t stay quiet for long as mistakes in the care and feeding of a mystical Mogwai birth an infestation of reptilian gremlins. This one has a lot of humor, but there are certainly violent moments, notably the famous kitchen showdown between the protagonist’s mom and a group of unfortunate monsters. If you haven’t broken the news to your kids about Santa yet, you might want to skip this one; a jarring monologue by Phoebe Cates about halfway through would leave an unsuspecting youngster with lots of questions.
The Monster Squad (1987): Reimagining the Universal Monsters, The Monster Squad not only put kids in the center of the story, but made them the protagonists. Through the lens of their monster club, a group of friends discover that real monsters have come to town with a sinister agenda. Though adults get involved later, it’s the kids that do the heavy lifting on the mystery solving and monster fighting. Ryan Lambert’s Rudy is a stand-out, basically serving as the team’smonster-slaying machine. This one has some humor that some parents might find objectionable (including some homophobic phrases that have aged badly), and it’s definitely stronger on the action/violence scale. But pre-teens generally love it.
If you parent a teenager, you’ve probably already made your decision about when or if to introduce horror films into their lives. Unless, of course, they’ve been watching them on their devices without you knowing about it for years already. Either way, here are some movies the teens might enjoy that you might, too.
The Lost Boys (1987): 1987 was a banner year for kids fighting monsters. The Lost Boys took that appeal straight to the teen audience, courting their attention with stars like Kiefer Sutherland, Jami Gertz, Jason Patric, Corey Haim, and Corey Feldman. This film reinterpreted vampires for a new audience and still holds up in a number of ways. Elements of it are dated, but clever bits and uses of music (such as the Echo & The Bunnymen cover of “People Are Strange”) continue to work today. This is an elevation of some of the themes seen in The Monster Squad, and while there are some laughs, the violence and gore content is definitely greater. It still has one of the best final lines in horror movie history.
Scream (1996): Wes Craven had already staked his claim to horror fame with The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Then he and writer Kevin Williamson turned horror on its head with this meta smash. Part of the fun of Scream is the constant addressing and inversion of horror film clichés, but it also works because of the fine cast and a clever script with some genuine surprises. Be aware that it doesn’t hold back on blood or language, but if you like this one, its three sequels run from very good (Scream 2) to decent (3 and 4).
The Cabin in the Woods (2012): How do you out-meta Scream? Right here. Cabin doesn’t just address and invert horror clichés, it does it while reveling in them, amplifying them, multiplying them, and going beyond whatever your expectations might have been. Co-written by Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and director of The Avengers) and Drew Goddard (writer for Buffy, Angel, Alias, and Lost, and director of Cloverfield) and directed by Goddard, the movie manages to mix inspired laughs and genuine scares in incredibly eventful ways. Frankly, it’s hard to write about without spoiling it, but you’ll never look at college-students-in-jeopardy-in-the-woods quite the same way again. (Bonus note of awesomeness: the special effects, make-up, and costumes came from AFX Studio, which is owned by Academy Award-winner David LeRoy Anderson and his wife, Heather Langenkamp, whom you might know better as Nancy from the Nightmare on Elm Street films. That’s street cred.)
Adults and Parents have been separated into two separate categories here because, let’s face it, there’s an entirely separate strain of horror that plays on parental fears. Sure, the first one has kids in jeopardy, but that’s not the heart of the matter.
Halloween (1978): Of course, Halloween. It’s one of the finest horror films made by one of the genre’s finest directors, John Carpenter. You’ve probably seen it before, but even if you have, revisit it. Marvel at all of the atmosphere and technical expertise that Carpenter brought to the proceedings, from the score to that terrific use of shadow. It is the apex predator of the slasher subgenre.
The Descent (2005): Director Neil Marshall staked a claim in survival horror with his excellent werewolf outing, Dog Soldiers, in 2002; he went on to direct acclaimed episodes of series like Game of Thrones (both the “Battle of the Blackwater” and the “Battle of Castle Black”) and Westworld. His 2005 film is a genuine horror classic, widely praised and frequently landing on lists of the best of the genre. A year after one of their group suffers a terrible loss, six women go on a caving expedition. It does not go remotely as planned. Claustrophobic, chilling, and brutal, The Descent creates tension in small places and darkness, then explodes at unexpected moments. It is a dark ride.
Suspiria (1977): Though it was recently remade, horror master Dario Argento’s cult classic about sinister happenings at a dance academy remains the standard-bearer for giallo, a particular school of Italian film thrillers. Known for outsized elements like its shockingly bright color palette and the score by the prog-rock band Goblin, Suspiria features a lot of gore, but it’s very creatively delivered. This won’t be for everyone, but if you’re seriously in it for the experience and the art, dive in.
Parenting can be scary. And some parents have a massive aversion to seeing any kind of media that puts kids in danger. If that’s you, you might want to skip ahead. On the other hand, stories with kids at the center sometimes have extra weight for the parents in the audience. Here are three that can get fairly heavy.
The Exorcist (1973): Possibly the ultimate horror film, The Exorcist leans heavily on a number of taboos. When it was released, it startled audiences by, among other things, putting shocking profanities in 13-year-old Linda Blair’s mouth. But the real cold hand squeezing the hearts of parents came from the shocking physical changes and agony that Blair’s Regan MacNeil undergoes during her possession ordeal. For all of the grueling horror elements in the movie, it actually does present a fairly clear picture of good versus evil, and the performances from Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, Lee J. Cobb, and Max von Sydow are top-notch (special note to Mercedes McCambridge, who provides some terrifying, world-champion-level voice work).
The Conjuring (2013): Another film that touches on possession, drawn from the (admittedly questionable) case files of Ed and Lorraine Warren. When the Perrons and their five girls move into a new house in 1971, strange things begin to happen. In the film, the girls are each drawn into different forms of peril as the suspense slowly ratchets upward. The Conjuring isn’t a graphic movie, but earned its R rating simply by being, well, scary; in fact, the print explanation for the movie’s rating reads “Rated R for sequences of disturbing violence and terror,” which is an exceedingly rare explanation.
The Babadook (2014): From films that give you anxiety as parents to a film that’s expressly about parental anxiety, Australia’s The Babadook debuted at Sundance in 2014 and generated stellar word-of-mouth. Essie Davis plays Amelia Vanek, who is widowed after her husband dies in a car accident while driving her to the hospital to give birth to their son. As the child begins to act strangely, he asks Amelia to read to him from an unsettling book. The problem is that Essie doesn’t know how the book got in the house. It only gets creepier from there. The film emerged as one of the best-reviewed films of its year, and has earned a strong following since.
You’ve been around. You’ve seen a movie or two. The classics never die, but there’s always room for something new.
Psycho (1960): Alfred Hitchcock took Robert Bloch’s book and created some of the most indelible images of horror ever put on screen. Anthony Perkins gives a pantheon-worthy performance as Norman Bates, and Janet Leigh features in possibly the most classic horror scene of all time. It might move a little slowly for viewers from the younger side, but veteran viewers know that this is a diamond of the genre.
The Shining (1980): Stephen King might not be the world’s biggest fan of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his third novel, but it remains a classic. Kubrick creates a foreboding environment with the Overlook Hotel and keeps leaning into the discomfort. Long shots, disquieting imagery, and sudden shocks keep the audience on edge as the horror continues to mount toward a chilling finale.
The Visit (2015): Maybe it’s a tongue-in-cheek recommendation, since it’s basically about the worst visit with the grandparents since Little Red Riding Hood, but it’s still a solid little thriller from M. Night Shyamalan. Like most MNS films, you can’t say too much about it without unraveling the narrative thread, but it centers on Becca (aged 15) and Tyler (13) going to stay with their Nana and Pop Pop. Needless to say, things get strange.
And there you have it: a list to get you started (and to start discussions). Embrace the Halloween season, enjoy the films you choose to watch, and maybe, just maybe, leave a light on. If horror movies have taught us anything, it’s that there’s almost always something out there in the dark.
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This is the story of a boy and his mother, and how the mother came to murder a bunch of camp counselors before the boy came back from the bottom of a lake to take over for Mom while wearing a burlap sack over his head, later deciding that a hockey mask was the better look for him. It’s also the story of two guys with a crazy idea, and how they turned an ad into a film series that spans decades.
Of course, we’re talking about the Friday the 13th movie franchise.
The genesis of Friday came from producer-director Sean S. Cunningham and writer Victor Miller. Cunningham had prior experience in horror, having produced Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left in 1972. Miller had a varied writing background, which included advertising, television, prose, and film; he wrote two sports comedies in the late ’70s that Cunningham directed. Inspired by the indie success of Halloween in 1978, the two began working from a story that was originally called A Long Night at Camp Blood. However, Cunningham saw the cache of tying the story to a similarly sinister date, and that’s when the unfinished screenplay became Friday the 13th.
Cunningham went one step further. Wishing to stake a claim to the name, he commissioned an ad and placed it in International Variety. The ad, with the stylized title breaking through glass, ran in the spring of 1979, even before Miller finished the screenplay. By fall, the movie was filming; the predominantly young cast included Kevin Bacon, while the pivotal role of Mrs. Voorhees went to Hollywood veteran Betsy Palmer (remember, Jason’s mom is the killer in the first film, with Jason not appearing until the final jump-scare in the lake). As a result of the buzz around the ad and the desire to get in on what could be the next Halloween, several studios contended for the right to release the picture. Paramount bought the rights for $1.5 million, which would turn out to be quite the bargain.
Friday the 13th opened on May 9, 1980, and it was reviled by critics. Audiences, on the other hand, voted with their wallets. The film turned into a huge hit for Paramount — it was the third highest moneymaker for them that year, trailing only Airplane! and Urban Cowboy. It struck financial gold in international release, pulling in another $20 million. The film’s $59 million total haul would have been worth roughly $178 million in 2017 dollars.
The studio knew they needed a sequel. Though Cunningham was more interested in the anthology route, producer Phil Scuderi thought they should continue the story and have Jason be the new killer. Associate producer Steve Miner agreed, and he ended up directing the sequel; it saw a grown-up Jason, wearing a burlap sack over his head, kill the original film’s final girl and go a new murder spree. Miner also directed Friday the 13th Part III (aka Friday the 13th 3D), which owns the twin distinctions of being in 3D and being the film wherein Jason begins wearing his signature hockey mask.
Between 1980 and 2003, ten Friday films and one crossover (Freddy vs. Jason) were produced. A syndicated TV series, cleverly titled Friday the 13th – The Series, launched from Paramount in 1987; though it was overseen by frequent series producer Frank Mancuso, Jr., it had no other connection to the Jason films aside from the name. The action focused on characters trying to retrieve a series of cursed objects; the show did well in its first year and ran three seasons. In theaters, Jason continued on his merry murderous way, but the eighth film, subtitled Jason Takes Manhattan, showed seriously diminishing box office returns.
Cunningham got involved again in the late ’80s, helping New Line acquire the rights from Paramount after the eighth film. When Platinum Dunes took over the franchise in the late 2000s, Paramount and New Line remained partners (due to owning particular pieces of the franchise) and Cunningham continued as a producer; that group oversaw the 2009 reboot, Friday the 13th. Since then, the promise of new films has been bogged down in various stages in a legal morass, with ownership and copyright issues abounding. New players, like the production company of NBA superstar LeBron James, have also gotten involved. It seems that everyone wants there to be another film, but no one is quite sure who owns what to what degree, from the screenplay (whose copyright reclamation by Miller has been contested) to various pieces of the lore, each of which may belong to the studio under which each particular film was made. While screenplays have been written and filming plans have been made and scrapped, nothing is certain at this moment.
What is certain is that Jason Voorhees will inevitably return. That is, after all, his thing. From a simple idea to a claim-staking ad, Jason emerged as one of the horror icons of the 1980s. Whereas the 1930s saw Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man step up as horror heroes, the ’70s and ’80s inducted Leatherface, Michael, Freddy, and Jason into the pantheon. The hockey mask went from simple sporting protection to an outright symbol of the horror genre.
So we won’t count Jason out. Even if we don’t know which studio or creative team will make the next Friday, we know they’ll make a killing.
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Audiences love films based on true stories. Audiences also love films based on true, scary stories. Forty years ago, The Amityville Horror screamed its way into theaters. Based on the 1977 book by Jay Anson, the film relates the story of the Lutz family, who purchase a house without knowing of its murderous history. For decades, critics have called the allegedly true story of the Lutzes a hoax; it’s been the subject of books, TV news investigations, and legal proceedings. True believers, like the late spiritual investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, propelled the story forward. In terms of the film itself, it spawned a franchise, remakes, and continued interest throughout the forty years. Here’s a look at origins, the film, and why it might survive in public consciousness today.
To get to the bottom of the Amityville phenomenon, you have to dig into the particulars of the original crime. In November 1974, Ronald DeFeo Jr. of Amityville in Long Island, New York, killed his parents, two brothers, and two sisters at the family’s home on 112 Ocean Avenue. DeFeo initially tried to pin the murders on a mob hitman, but eventually confessed to the murders a day later. Despite an argument of insanity, DeFeo was convicted of six counts of second-degree murder and handed six concurrent 25-to-life sentences. He is, as of this writing, still in the Sullivan Correctional Facility in New York.
One month after DeFeo’s 1975 conviction, George and Kathy Lutz and their three children moved into 112 Ocean. The Lutz family did know about the house’s history at the time of the sale. They left 28 days later. Their reason? They claimed that almost from the beginning, they fell under siege from supernatural forces within the house. Accounts vary, but from that point, the Lutzes met with and sold the rights to their story to writer Jay Anson, known primarily at that point as a writer for documentary shorts (like 1973’s Martin Scorcese: Back on the Block). Anson wrote The Amityville Horror, and it was released in September 1977.
The book caught public attention from the outset. Promoted as a “true story” but labelled a “novel,” the marketing leaned heavily on the idea of the book presenting the events of a real haunting. Anson later said that he embellished certain aspects of the story, and George Lutz would insist in later interviews that “most” of the book was true. The book, with its depictions of massing flies, apparitions with glowing red eyes, and voices whispering, “Get out” became a huge hit. Estimates have it selling in the neighborhood of 10 million copies across its various editions.
Eventually, the film rights went to independent studio American International Pictures. AIP, as it’s informally known, thrived for several decades as a producer and distributor of horror films. The studio budgeted Amityville at a modest $4.7 million, casting James Brolin and Margot Kidder as the Lutzes and Academy Award-winner Rod Steiger as Father Delaney. The movie exploded into a full-blown phenomenon. It would make $86.4 million over the course of its theatrical run, earning almost 20 times its budget and becoming the most successful independent release of all-time to that point (a record it would hold until 1990, when it was eclipsed by the first live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film).
One peculiar aspect of the first film’s box office success was that it wasn’t remotely embraced by critics. Big-name critics like Leonard Maltin and Roger Ebert, both of whom had supported genre films in the careers, panned the movie. Ebert wrote that the events depicted were more upsetting than entertaining; he said, “They’ve been made into a dreary and terminally depressing series of glum things that happen to the residents of the Ocean Boulevard house. Nobody who has had to live under a roof and amidst four walls and pay the rent could possibly find such things amusing.” Promotions for the film included film crews following Brolin and Kidder as they visited the real 112 Ocean. However, word-of-mouth was the biggest driver of the film; it stuck around as a consistent moneymaker over the course of several weeks from the summer into the fall.
In his 1981 non-fiction book on the history of horror, Danse Macabre, Stephen King weighed in at length on both the book and the original film in the chapter “The Modern American Horror Movie—Text and Subtext.” King attributed a good deal of the success of the film to themes of homeowner anxiety and financial ruin that Ebert references. The late 1970s economy had been historically rough, with soaring inflation, high mortgage rates, and runaway gas prices emerging as major concerns. The Lutzes were depicted as having made a substantial investment in the house, and King theorizes that the audience identified with the family, their own fears and anxieties magnified by the supernatural events of the movie. In his summation of the film, King writes, “the main reason that people went to it, I think, is that The Amityville Horror, beneath its ghost-story exterior, is really a financial demolition derby.”
As the film’s success built, lawsuits and recriminations came into the picture. DeFeo’s defense attorney, William Weber, alleged that he and the Lutzes made up the entire haunting story and pawned it off on Anson. Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, the inspiration for The Conjuring universe of films, investigated 112 Ocean after the Lutzes left and stated that the believed the haunting was genuine (this visit is recreated with embellishment as the opening to The Conjuring 2). The Lutzes sued Weber and others in 1979, but their suit was dismissed; George Lutz continued to assert the veracity of their story into the 2000s. James and Barbara Cromarty lived in the house at 112 Ocean for 10 years after the Lutzes, and they’ve said that the only thing that ever haunted the house was tourism.
The Amityville “franchise” continues to this day. As of this writing, 20 films have used the name in the title, some directly attached to the original in a legacy of corporate holdings, and some completely unrelated. The story has been a staple of various ghost documentaries, History Channel episodes, and more over the years; it’s also an ongoing pop culture reference, with everything from Family Guy to CSI making jokes or doing episodes with the general premise as inspiration. While no one can ever truly say if the Lutz family experienced an actual haunting or not, the veracity of the account is almost beside the point; The Amityville Horror is firmly ensconced in pop culture and urban legend, which, true or not, may be how it should be.
Featured image: The actual house from The Amityville Horror in 2005 (Photo by Seluatr; Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
It’s every film student’s dream. You get your friends together to make your little independent movie, and it takes the world by storm. In 1999, Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez, and their friends founded Haxan Films to make a new kind of horror movie, one that combined the aesthetic of folk and urban legends with a documentarian approach. They screened the movie at a midnight showing at Sundance, which led to an immediate sale; word-of-mouth rolled into a groundbreaking marketing campaign that relied heavily on the internet, a novelty at the time. When The Blair Witch Project premiered 20 years ago this week, the modestly budgeted movie erupted into one of the biggest indie successes of all time. What made it work, how did the marketing drive the movie, where did the Sci-Fi Channel fit in, and exactly what happens in that last scene? Follow along to find out; just don’t lose your map.
1. Crafting a Company
Myrick and Sánchez studied film at the University of Central Florida in the early ’90s. Their mutual interest in paranormal documentaries and horror film led to them conceive of an idea that was a hybrid of both, much like the 1980 Italian film Cannibal Holocaust. In order to get the movie made, the pair, along with Gregg Hale, Robin Cowie, and Michael Monello, founded Haxan Films; the production company takes its name from Häxan, the silent witchcraft documentary from 1922. Myrick and Sánchez wrote a short script that shaped the story while allowing the dialogue to be mostly improvised by the actors. An audition pool of 2000 actors was whittled down to three: Heather Donohue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael C. Williams.
2. Directing by GPS
Shooting took place in Maryland in 1997. The bulk of scenes were shot in Seneca Creek State Park along the Potomac River, with other scenes filmed in Burkittsville and one particularly important sequence filmed at the Griggs House in the unincorporated community of Granite. As the actors were playing a documentary crew investigating a local legend, they were outfitted with a combination of film and Hi8 video cameras. The trio of performers used GPS to find marked crates along a preplanned route in the park; inside each crate were instructions for the day including “scenes” to improvise with specifics given to each character. An initial 20 hours of footage was cut and edited to a runtime of less than two-and-a-half hours.
3. Fabricating a Legend
The filmmakers were surprised when The Blair Witch Project got accepted into the 1999 Sundance Film Festival. The movie became a surprise hit with audiences after a midnight screening. Artisan Entertainment paid $1.1 million for the distribution rights; the original production budget had been in the neighborhood of $60,000. With the ability to manage a wide release in place, the filmmakers and Artisan went to work on a ground-breaking marketing campaign.
Artisan leaned all the way on the documentary aesthetic of the film. They promoted the film as footage that was discovered in the woods after the three-person crew disappeared. Building on that, the website for the film employed old photos of the cast and fabricated news articles to cultivate the idea that the trio were missing. Even the nascent IMDB.com for the film listed the actors as “missing.” These tactics caused an explosion of interest online; USA Today posited that it was the first film to “go viral,” despite the lack of social networks at the time.
Perhaps the crowning piece of marketing was The Curse of the Blair Witch, a one-hour special that ran on the SciFi Channel on July 11, 1999, ahead of the film’s release. Using documentary stylings comparable to contemporaneous programs like Unsolved Mysteries, the special wove together fake news clips and interviews with pieces of footage from the film and a created mythology surrounding Burkittsville, the legend of the Blair Witch that haunted the woods, and the missing filmmakers. The initial airing receiving huge ratings, and the special ran repeatedly over the summer; it was even offered for sale as a stand-alone VHS release.
4. The Release
Trailer for The Blair Witch Project (Uploaded to YouTube by Movieclips Classic Trailers)
The film got a limited release on July 14 before opening wide on July 30. In its first weekend of wide release, The Blair Witch Project was number two at the box office; it came in just behind the Julia Roberts’ hit The Runaway Bride, but edged out a surprisingly crowded horror field that included Deep Blue Sea (third) and The Haunting (fourth). When horror phenomenon The Sixth Sense debuted in the top spot one week later, Blair Witch held firm at number two. During its box office run, the movie made just under $150 million in the U.S. and $248 million around the world.
Critics like Roger Ebert and Peter Travers showed up with enthusiastic support; Ebert called it “an extraordinarily effective horror film.” In fact, most critics praised the movie, with only a few dissenters. Audiences were more divided, in part because of the unconventional narrative and its abrupt ending. (Many of the viewers who didn’t “get” the ending hadn’t remembered an interview earlier in the film that mentioned Rustin Parr and the child-murders of the 1940s). Nevertheless, the film itself was a key component of end-of-the-century film conversation and was discussed, along with Sense, as part of a horror renaissance in film.
5. The Legend Lives
The trailer for Quarantine (2008)(Uploaded to YouTube by Sony Pictures Entertainment)
The longest-lasting impact of The Blair Witch Project is its popularization of the “found-footage” technique. That approach has become a subgenre of horror unto itself, including the Paranormal Activity series, the V/H/S series, the REC and Quarantine series, The Den, the original Cloverfield, and others. It has also been employed for comedy (Project X), crime (End of Watch), and super-hero films (Chronicle). Since its release, the film has been celebrated on a number of lists, including the Top 100 Scariest Movies (Chicago Film Critics Association), 50 Best Movie Endings of All Time (Filmcritic.com), Top 25 Horror Movies of All Time (IGN.com), 25 Scariest Movies of All Time (Cosmopolitan), and more.
Though it entered the culture 20 years ago, the Blair Witch isn’t done with us. Though there have been a pair of (not as successful) sequels and other media tie-ins, like books and comics, interest in the concept still persists. In 2017, Sánchez said that he and the other co-creators are developing the Blair Witch for television. The series will apparently be released by Studio L, the digital release arm of Lionsgate (who purchased Artisan in 2003). While the film’s scariness and effectiveness is still debated in some quarters, no one would argue that it’s naturally frightening to be lost and alone, somewhere in the woods in the dark. The Blair Witch itself may not have been real, but its legend can live on in the shadows.
ifrFrom Mr. Hyde to Pennywise, from vampires to demons, things that go bump in the night have always been part of our culture of entertainment. How has the horror movie genre evolved since its debut 111 years ago? Here are the films and moments that dramatically changed horror movies as we know them today.
The Earliest Horror Movies
On May 21, 1908, the film many consider to be the first horror movie, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, premiered in Chicago. It was a silent black-and-white film that received positive reviews from critics. Unfortunately, there are no known existing copies of the film that birthed horror.
Twelve years later, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari debuted. Many consider this movie about a hypnotist who uses a somnambulist to commit murders to be the quintessential German Expressionist film. Its dark, striking style greatly influenced the visuals of later horror movies.
The complete Nosferatu from 1922.
Fourteen years after Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Nosferatu was released. It was the first movie based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker, although it was an unauthorized re-creation. Also a silent black-and-white film, Nosferatu is considered to be one of the best films in history, landing at No. 21 on Empire magazine’s top 100 movies of world cinema in 2010. It heavily influenced the style of later horror movies such as Salem’s Lot, one of the many horror movies based on novels by Stephen King.
Monsters Take Over
One of the most famous film adaptions of Stoker’s novel came in 1931, with Universal Studios’ Dracula. Dracula was the third major installment in Universal’s Classic Monsters series, along with The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera. These films were some of the first horror movies with sound. The Classic Monsters series also included Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man, and Creature from the Black Lagoon.
These films made monster movies immensely popular, a popularity that persists to this day. In addition to influencing later movies like The Monster Squad (1987), where a group of kids fight the Universal monsters, the Classic Monsters franchise was also the first shared cinematic universe. Films like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Son of Dracula, and The House of Frankenstein showed some of the most famous monsters meeting each other and occasionally battling. This shared movie universe paved the way for later franchises, most notably the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In the middle of this horror storm, Cat People, a story about a woman who transforms into a panther, premiered in 1942. Cat People is significant to the story of horror because it featured not one, but two of the greatest scares of the 1940s: the first was a chase sequence that cleverly alternated light and shadow, and the second was a slow burn of a scene that featured a woman being terrorized in the middle of a darkened swimming pool. This film led horror down the path of being truly scary.
Godzilla came on the scene in 1954. The King of the Monsters has been featured in 32 films and has become one of the most beloved characters in pop culture, not just horror. Godzilla carried the torch for the giant monster subset of horror that had been ignited by King Kong in 1933.
Another game-changer for horror movies made its appearance in 1957 with the Hammer Studios production of The Curse of Frankenstein. It was the first horror movie in color, and the first truly “gory” horror film, featuring vivid images of blood and guts that had never before been seen onscreen.
Films Get Scarier
Three years after The Curse of Frankenstein, Psycho cut into the big screen. One of the first horror films based on a true story, it is also credited with birthing the slasher genre of horror, a genre that would later be modernized and improved upon by films such as Halloween.
By now, you might be wondering why zombies haven’t been discussed yet. That’s because the start of zombies as we know them comes in George A. Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. It was the first film to depict zombies as reanimated, flesh-eating monsters, the kind you see in horror television like The Walking Dead.
Also released in 1968 was Rosemary’s Baby, based on the novel by Ira Levin. Rosemary’s Baby, which tells the story of a woman who believes a cult wants to take her baby for use in its rituals, is beloved by many due to its mastery of suspense and its shocking ending. Mia Farrow, who played Rosemary, was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance. This was the one of the first times an actress received a Golden Globe nomination for her work in a horror film.
Five years later, The Exorcist (1973), arguably one of the scariest and most shocking horror movies ever, burned itself onto the list of horror greats. The Exorcist was striking because of how truly terrifying it was, a fact that is exemplified in scenes such as the iconic shot of Regan’s head spinning. Many people still do not know how director William Friedkin managed to achieve some of the stunning visuals that he did. The Exorcist changed the subject matter of horror films, making them darker and a little scarring.
The 1974 film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre upped the ante again, exploring the concept of using a horror movie as a vehicle for social commentary (it discussed the Vietnam war and Watergate specifically) while also increasing the gore quotient. It also introduced a modern “horror hero” in Leatherface, a character that would appear in numerous sequels and reboots.
Other important modern horror movies with lasting impact include Jaws (it made the beach scary); Alien, a brilliant cosmic horror film with an assertive and commanding female hero; and The Silence of the Lambs, which won five Oscars. Significant changes to well known monster types came in 28 Days Later (fast zombies) and Let the Right One In (which reframed the vampire story as a parable about bullying and abuse).
One of the most significant changes to modern horror started in 2013, with The Conjuring. Based upon real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, The Conjuring follows the couple as they investigate strange happenings at a Rhode Island farmhouse. It started the first successful interconnected universe of horror movies since the Universal Classic Monsters 70 years prior. The Conjuring universe includes the three Annabelle films, The Nun and its sequel, The Curse of La Llorona, and the forthcoming The Crooked Man.
The trailer for It: Chapter 2 (Uploaded to YouTube by Warner Bros.)
Horror continues to evolve. This year, It: Chapter Two, the third movie based on the book It by Stephen King, and the second film in the recently rebooted series, is setting a record for the most fake blood ever used in a single movie scene, but it is also notable for casting big stars like Jessica Chastain and Bill Hader in starring roles.
New changes and improvements to horror films are coming faster than the deaths in them. But there’s no way to predict what terrifying evolution will shape horror next, so we should just sit back and enjoy the ride. And maybe bring an extra pair of pants.
Featured image: A still from early horror movie Nosferatu.
What’s your earliest memory of Halloween? For some, it’s the commercial with the tagline, “The Night He Came Home.” For others, it was the 1981 showing on NBC’s Friday Night at the Movies. Then there are those that saw it in the theatre upon its first release in October of 1978. Whatever your first exposure to John Carpenter and co-writer Debra Hill’s tale of terror was, we can all agree that the film left an indelible impression on popular culture. Now, 40 years later, the latest iteration of what’s become an eleven-film horror staple sits atop the box office with record-shattering grosses. But just what made the original film so special? We look back at four factors that may ensure that Halloween lasts forever.
1. John Carpenter
It may be easy, and a little glib, to just say “the director made it good.” As always, it’s about how Carpenter made it that makes the difference. As the late, great film critic Roger Ebert noted in his original review of the film, Carpenter makes this horror film about more than violence by employing pure artistry. Ebert wrote, “Carpenter is uncannily skilled, for example, at the use of foregrounds in his compositions, and everyone who likes thrillers knows that foregrounds are crucial: The camera establishes the situation, and then it pans to one side, and something unexpectedly looms up in the foreground.”
The walking home sequence from Halloween.
Carpenter also made masterful use of tracking shots, such as the early scene where he follows Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends down the sidewalk. It’s just the ladies, the camera, and the score that Carpenter composed himself. It is an incredible bit of tension as we wait for something to happen. There’s an early tease of discomfort with a station wagon, but that briefly abates. When we do fully see “The Shape,” Michael Myers, himself suddenly appear from behind a bush, then simply step back out of sight, it’s a visceral shock.
2. Jamie Lee Curtis
The original Halloween trailer.
Born into both Hollywood and horror royalty, Jamie Lee Curtis seemed genetically predisposed to become a genre icon. The daughter of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh (of Psycho fame), Curtis made her film debut as Laurie Strode in Halloween at age 19. Laurie wasn’t the first “final girl” in horror, but Carpenter and Hill took pains to make her more than the last victim standing; they wrote her as smart, resourceful, and dedicated to the children in her care. Lou Cedrone of The Baltimore Evening Sun was among the early critics that sang Curtis’s praises for her performance. Halloween launched Curtis on a track of acting and writing that hasn’t slowed in 40 years. She went on appear in Carpenter’s The Fog and has played Laurie in four subsequent films, including this year’s new Halloween. In the book John Carpenter: Prince of Darkness by Gilles Boulenger, Carpenter recalled meeting with Curtis for the part of Laurie and that “I liked her instantly.” From the cult of fandom surrounding Curtis in the Laurie role and her overall career, it’s clear that he’s never been alone in that assessment.
3. The Shape aka Michael Myers
Creating a classic movie antagonist is hard. One presumes it’s even more difficult when the character doesn’t speak. On top of that, the character’s face is covered in an expressionless mask for the majority of the film. Michael Myers, occasionally referred to as simply, The Shape, nevertheless managed to become a figure of extreme menace thanks to Carpenter’s assured direction and a physically imposing performance by Nick Castle. In the Boulenger book, Carpenter said, “I always thought that the mask for evil should be an eerie, featureless mask.” In a bit of a humorous turn, the Myers mask was actually a Captain Kirk mask based on the features of William Shatner; production designer/art director Tommy Lee Wallace spray-painted it the pale blue that appears in the film. Carpenter loved the effect, saying, “It was almost like if Myers was wearing human flesh. Like Ed Gein.”
4. The Score
Halloween Theme, composed by John Carpenter.
One element of the film that’s received nearly universal praise since its release is the score. Carpenter generally does his own scores, and he manages to set a chilling tone on a consistent basis. He intentionally used five-four time because he knew that it would sound strange. As Carpenter told Boulenger, “Most popular music and most symphonic and classical music are not in that kind of weird time, so it sets you on edge [when you hear it] all the more since I used little high electronic driving notes.” Carpenter went on to say, “I’ve written better music now, but nothing will be more memorable and more compelling than this little simple thing. Isn’t it odd?” Odd, perhaps, but also eerie and unforgettable.
The complete list of things that work in Halloween runs much longer. There’s the legendary Donald Pleasance at Doctor Samuel Loomis. You see strong supporting work from Nancy’s friends, played by PJ Soles and Nancy Loomis (no relation). The individual pieces bind together into a very strong whole. In 2006, the film was chosen to be preserved in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” At the end of the night, despite all of the talent and craftsmanship that went into the film, horror movies sometimes really only need to be answered with one question: was it scary? As Doctor Loomis would say, “As a matter of fact, it was.”
Featured Image: Original Halloween promo and poster art. (©Compass International Pictures)
Horror fans know that terror can come from anywhere. It doesn’t have to come from a spooky castle or an ancient city under the sea. Sometimes, the most terrifying things can be right outside your window. In that (Halloween) spirit, we’re taking a look at some of the scariest films that are all the more frightening for being based on true events.
Psycho (1960) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
When Robert Bloch was writing the novel, Psycho, in Weyauwega, Wisconsin, he had no idea that a similar, real-life horror was playing out roughly 40 miles away. Handyman Ed Gein was arrested in 1957 for the murders of two women, but the details of Gein’s life and actions were even more disturbing. Gein had been a grave-robber as well, and he used the remains from local cemeteries to make things like lampshades and masks from human skin. He’d also been in the process of making a human skin-suit when he was arrested; he wanted to wear it in order to, by his own admission, become his late mother. Bloch was amazed by the similarities of his character Norman Bates and his real-life counterpart, and even inserted a reference to Gein near the end of the novel before it was completed.
Released in 1959, the book was adapted into the classic film by Alfred Hitchcock the following year. Gein’s crimes inspired a number of other horror films and characters, the most notable of which is possibly Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Though The Silence of the Lambs, Three on a Meathook, and others invoke Gein in various ways, Hooper has noted repeatedly over time that his villain Leatherface and other plot details were directly inspired by Gein.
The Exorcist (1973) and The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
Many critics consider The Exorcist one of the most frightening films ever made. Masterfully directed by William Friedkin, the film shattered a number taboos as it presented a challenging, and often grueling, look at the idea of supernatural evil. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops actually addressed the subject of exorcism as recently as 2014, detailing how and under which circumstances such a rite can be performed. The Exorcist itself and its source novel by William Peter Blatty were inspired by the story of Roland Doe from 1949. Doe, a 14-year-old boy, underwent a series of exorcisms for demonic possession, though much later research and reporting makes the case that the boy’s various afflictions were earthly maladies. Another tale of exorcism, 2005’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose, was based on the Anneliese Michel case. In this case, a young German woman died after undergoing the rites, resulted in convictions of negligent homicide for her parents and two priests.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)
Considered an early entry in the slasher genre, The Town That Dreaded Sundown presents a fictionalized version of real events that occurred in and around Texarkana, Texas in 1946. That case revolved around the “Phantom Killer,” a man that wore a white cloth mask; he attacked eight people over a span of multiple assaults, leaving only three alive. Though authorities believed they had a possible suspect, no one was ever convicted. The film takes several liberties with the stories and the backgrounds of the townspeople (whose names were changed), but it’s powered by interesting direction from Charles B. Pierce that builds an effective movie. Unfortunately, Pierce throws in some ill-advised comedy at too many junctures. The film was remade in 2014.
The Amityville Horror (1979)
The Amityville Horror is one of the most divisive horror films of all time. Based on the 1977 book by Jay Anson, the story has drawn criticism from observers who are convinced that the story of a family driven from a haunted house was a hoax. Noted paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, who participated in examining the house, always insisted it was all true In his book Danse Macabre, Stephen King theorized that the dread of having your house turn on you in what was an uncertain economic time in America contributed to its popularity, despite some problems in execution.
The haunting and possession stories arose from grisly events. In 1974, six members of the DeFeo family were murdered in the house; sole survivor Ronald DeFeo, Jr. later admitted to the killings and was convicted. The Anson book asserts that the murders led to the haunting of the home. As of this writing, DeFeo is still alive, serving six concurrent sentences of 25 years to life.
Open Water (2003)
If you have a deeply rooted fear of being eaten by a shark, you should probably skip this paragraph. Open Water tells the story of a couple who are left behind during a scuba drive. Inevitably, the sharks come, and bad things happen. That’s an unsettling thing to ponder, but the worst part is that the movie is based on the true story of a real couple who were left behind on a diving trip in 1998. Their names were Tom and Eileen Lonergan, and the boat left without them during a dive off of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Though some gear and a diving slate with a distress message written on it were found, their bodies were never recovered. In the real case, there are multiple theories as to what ultimately happened to the Lonergans. In Open Water, the fate of the two leads is far less ambiguous; it’s definitely sharks.
The Girl Next Door (2007) and An American Crime (2008)
Not to be confused with the teen comedy of the same, The Girl Next Door relates a fictionalized account of one of the most tragic true stories to ever take place. The film is based on the novel by noted horror writer Jack Ketchum, who tells the story of the ongoing imprisonment and torture of two girls by their aunt and three male cousins. It’s horrific in its detail, but what’s far worse is that the telling is very clearly close to the truth of the actual Sylvia Likens case. In Indianapolis in 1965, Likens was tortured over a period of three months by Gertrude Baniszewski, whom Likens’ parents were paying to board the young girl while her mother served jail time and her father worked for traveling carnivals. Baniszewski, her daughter, her son, and two boys in the neighborhood would eventually be tried and convicted for the murder of Likens. A film version of the story that used the real names of the people involved, An American Crime, debuted on Showtime in 2008; Catherine Keener received Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for her portrayal of Baniszewski, and the film was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award.
The Strangers (2008)
One of the creepiest of all modern horror films has its roots in a bizarre case that still remains officially unsolved. The plot of The Strangers turns on three masked attackers perpetrating a home invasion at a couple’s vacation house. Writer-director Brian Bertino said that he based the story on true events, in part the Tate murders committed by members of the Manson Family in 1969.
Many critics and film scholars believe that another primary inspiration came from the so-called Keddie cabin murders, also known as the Cabin 28 murders. In 1981, Sue Sharp and her children were staying in a cabin in Keddie, California. Daughter Sheila spent the night with friends at another cabin, and returned home to find her mother, Sue, two of her brothers, and a brother’s friend murdered. Her teen sister was missing; her two youngest brothers and another friend were in bedroom unharmed. Police found the knives and a hammer used in the killings, but wouldn’t find the missing daughter’s remains until they were discovered at a different campsite three years later. Although there were suspects, no one was ever tried; however, as recently as April 2018, a special investigator alluded to having DNA evidence that matched a living suspect.
The Haunting in Connecticut (2009)
Welcome to Southington, Connecticut, where we once again find our old friends Ed and Lorraine Warren. The previously mentioned paranormal investigators have begun to figure into more cinema in recent years, in part because of the large reservoir of cases that they’ve been involved with over the decades. As those stories have been adapted in larger numbers, their pop culture presence has continued to grow. The Haunting in Connecticut is based the 1986 story of the Snedeker family; it involves allegations of necromancy, a haunting, an exorcism, and a house that was once a funeral home. Noted horror novelist Ray Garton wrote a book about the case in 1992 called In a Dark Place: The Story of a True Haunting, but he has since distanced himself from his account; both Garton and writer-debunker Benjamin Radford allege that the Warrens coached Garton to amplify the story. Nevertheless, many media entities have treated that version seriously and covered it on TV programs like A Haunting and Paranormal Witness.
The Sacrament (2013)
The multi-hyphenate talent Ti West, along with frequent collaborator Joe Swanberg, is part of the younger wave of American horror. Using a found-footage approach, West wrote, directed, edited, and produced the film based on one of the darkest chapters in recent American history: the tragedy at the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, better known as Jonestown. In the film, a photographer attempts to investigate the mysterious commune where his sister is living; he takes along some co-workers as a film crew to document the experience in this supposedly utopian settlement. As you might expect, things go very badly.
The original Jonestown settlement founded by Jim Jones in Guyana met its dire fate 40 years ago in November of 1978. After an investigatory visit from a delegation led by Congressman Leo Ryan, a member of the settlement passed along a note saying they wanted help getting out. The Ryan delegation went to the airport with a few defectors the next day; unfortunately, Jones ordered an ambush of Ryan and his group. Ryan, NBC reporter Don Harris, NBC cameraman Bob Brown, San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson, and Patricia Parks were shot and killed, and several others were wounded. Back at Jonestown, Jones ordered his followers to consume cyanide-laced drinks to commit “revolutionary suicide.” At least 907 people died from poisoning (including many children whose parents gave them the poison). Jones took his own life by gunshot. Between the airport, the settlement, and other, related acts of violence, 918 people died.
The Conjuring (2013)
The major success of The Conjuring in 2013 led to two direct sequels, the Annabelle spin-offs, and The Nun, with more, like The Crooked Man, possible. The film that started it all was directed by James Wan, who has become a force in Hollywood; it addition to co-creating the Saw franchise and directing its first film, Wan also directed Furious 7, Aquaman, Insidious and its first sequel, and produced the other entries in the Conjuring Universe.
The basic plot of The Conjuring involves a Rhode Island case that the Warrens took on in 1971; their investigation eventually led them to perform an exorcism. While disputes about the factual nature of the case versus the film always occur, the film itself was a hit with critics and audiences alike, planting a firm foundation for the other films to follow.
It’s easy to be dismissive about tales of hauntings and possessions in the harsh light of day. The vast majority of such cases tend to be debunked or easily explained with a little study and a little science. But every once in a while, something comes along that defies an easy answer. In those moments, in the dark, it’s easy to see how the things that might be true can be the most frightening.
Featured Image: Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho. (©Paramount Pictures)
Tremors, Forbidden Planet, King Kong: Does Bill Newcott’s list of the smartest monster movies match yours?