In honor of the resounding success of the supposedly “inspired by true events” home invasion pic The Strangers, let’s take a look at some of the most memorable horror movies ever based–whether dubiously or not–on real life. Some of these films were adapted from actual, verifiable happenings; while others were simply marketed that way by savvy studio suits.
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I’ve never been a huge fan of this Margot Kidder/James Brolin haunted house flick, but what list of this kind would be complete without the infamous Amityville Horror? The purportedly true situation on which the film was based was later soundly debunked, but that hasn’t stopped countless lunkheads from continuing to swear it was legit. Yeah, and so was Kidder’s future as a leading lady.
Based on a reported series of paranormal events that occurred in a small West Virginia town in the late 1960s, the over-rated Richard Gere’s rare foray into horror is better than most give it credit for. As for the veracity of those original events, is it really worth going to West Virginia to find out?
This unrelentingly off-putting David Cronenberg favorite about twin gynecologists is actually based upon the story of twins Stewart and Cyril Marcus, who were found dead together of drug overdoses in their Manhattan apartment. The full tale can be found in the 1977 book Twins (not to be confused with the movie of the same name, which we could only wish would’ve ended the same way.)
The stories about Max Shreck’s real-life vampirism have persisted for decades, and inspired this movie about the 1922 filming of the German silent classic, Nosferatu. While not strictly a horror movie, Shadow of the Vampire does portray Shreck (played brilliantly by Willem Dafoe) as an actual vampire, so “reality” is a very subjective term here.
German woman Anneliese Michel was the inspiration for this one. Her story of possession was recounted, suitably enough, in the book The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel, written by the anthropologist who testified in the actual trial. The filmmakers have admitted that they took great liberties with the source.
Insomuch as we all know there was a real Jack the Ripper, this film can certainly be considered an adaptation from true events. Nevertheless, its central speculation as to the identity of ol’ Red Jack is just that–speculation. The queen’s physician can no more be considered the real killer than Heather Graham can be considered a real actress.
This cult favorite is the tale of the unfortunately very real serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. While most films of this kind usually fall into the thriller or docudrama categories, this one stands out for having the brass to present its real-life events within a horror context. Perhaps that’s why it’s still so memorable.
Speaking of taking liberties, Wes Craven’s critically acclaimed voodoo zombie flick is notorious for how it sensationalized the true story of the scientist who traveled to Haiti in the 1980s to investigate the factual basis of alleged zombification. Known for its iconic scene of poor Bill Pullman getting buried alive, as well as for its villain, who resembles an evil Lou Rawls.
Many forget that the mother of all exorcism movies was also based on a reported case of demonic possession. William Peter Blatty took the idea for his novel from the story of the six-week exorcism of a 13-year-old boy that was reputed to have taken place in 1949. Many of the symptoms seen in the movie were recorded, although these did not include the famous head-spinning.
and the number-one horror film based on/inspired by actual events…
There’s no doubt now that TCM’s famous marketing campaign and prologue, which assert that the movie was based on fact, was no more than a clever way to put asses in seats–just as it is today with The Strangers. Yet although most of the film comes from the mind of Tobe Hooper, the character of Leatherface was directly based upon the legendarily depraved 1950s looney Ed Gein. Gein, who wore masks sewn from the skin of his victims, performed acts of cannibalism and suffered from severe misogynistic impulses fostered by his controlling mother, was also the basis for movies such as Psycho (1960) and the highly underrated Deranged (1974).
For more news and opinions on the world of horror, including a review of French slasher Inside, an early look at Dario Argento’s Giallo, and part 3 of the history of modern zombie cinema, check out Brian’s daily blog, The Vault of Horror, at thevaultofhorror.net.