Just about anyone who follows horror has bemoaned the sorry state of the genre these days. Nearly everything is a remake, either of some 1970s or 1980s classic or of some recent Asian hit. The rare films that aren't remakes are simply lazy copies of whatever worked a year earlier, the current "torture porn" subgenre, for example. And hardly anything screens for the press, which means that even the studios now understand how low things have sunk.
The new film The Ruins likewise isn't screening for the press, but it is based -- of all things -- on an actual book! With pages! It's by Scott B. Smith, who many years ago wrote both the book and screenplay for the excellent A Simple Plan. The new movie inspired me to look up other literary-based horror movies (whether inspired by novels or short stories). Sadly, aside from Stephen King and the upcoming Midnight Meat Train (based on Clive Barker's short story), I couldn't find much good recent work, but there is plenty to choose from ...
1. The Shining (1980), from Stephen King
Stephen King is arguably the all-time champion of horror novelists, and he's certainly the all-time champ of horror movie adaptations. Last year's 1408 gave me the willies, and I enjoyed it so much I watched it a second time on DVD. I'm also very fond of Johnny Depp's kooky performance in Secret Window (2004). Many great directors have been drawn to King's work, namely David Cronenberg (The Dead Zone), Brian De Palma (Carrie), George A. Romero (Creepshow, The Dark Half), John Carpenter (Christine) and Tobe Hooper (Salem's Lot), but I'm going to choose the granddaddy of them all: Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, for obvious reasons.
2. Re-Animator (1985), from H.P. Lovecraft
A while back, the Arcana Horror Convention took a poll of the greatest horror writers of the 20th century, and King came in second to Lovecraft, by a handy ten points. Lovecraft's original short story ("Herbert West: Re-Animator," published in 1921) is a little different than Stuart Gordon's amazing, absurd film, but the tone is the same. Jeffrey Combs plays the brilliant student who discovers a way to re-animate dead tissue. He never loses his resolve, even though his experiments don't quite turn out the way he intends.
3. The Masque of the Red Death (1964), from Edgar Allan Poe
In the 1960s, Roger Corman evolved from his ultra-cheapie drive-in flicks to a series of seven full-color, widescreen horror films based on Poe's stories and poems. (The great sci-fi/horror writer Richard Matheson adapted five of them.) Some of them are fun, like The Raven, which bears no resemblance to the original poem, but this one is considered the best. Vincent Price plays the sinister Prince Prospero who holes up in his castle against the black plague and torments those who wish to join him. Cinematographer (and later director) Nicolas Roeg makes bold use of the vivid color palate.
4. Frankenstein (1931), from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
James Whale played up the male need to compete with female reproduction as no other director could and came up with this touching, slightly wry adaptation of Shelley's novel, first published in 1818. Boris Karloff turns in a remarkable performance as the monster in that he's more soulful than scary. Though this was the official adaptation, Whale paid true homage to Shelley in the even better sequel, Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
5. The Exorcist (1973), from William Peter Blatty
Blatty adapted his own best-selling 1971 novel for the screen, and why not? He had all kinds of experience writing Pink Panther movies! As directed by William Friedkin with grounded realism, the film has stood the test of time, not only as an effective creepfest, but also as fascinating tract on faith, religion and sexuality. The 1973 version is still better than the 2000 "version you haven't seen."
6. The Innocents (1961), from Henry James
This British, widescreen, black-and-white ghost story is one of the great horror films, and arguably the most literate. Not only does it come from James's 1898 novella "The Turn of the Screw," but it was adapted by none other than Truman Capote! Bully for Capote; myself, I've never been able to get through the book...
7. The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales (1960), from Arthur Machen
This may be an obscure choice, but readers of horror fiction know the name Arthur Machen well, especially his 1948 collection "Tales of Horror and the Supernatural." Oddly this black comedy from Mexico is the only one of his stories to be adapted to the screen. Based on "The Islington Mystery," it tells the story of a happy taxidermist with a horrible, highly religious wife. I guess it's fairly obvious from the title what happens, but it's a terrific, twisty story. Director Rogelio A. González uses all kinds odd, cavernous angles to capture the story's spirit. And it's even available on DVD from Facets.