MIND MELD: Which Horror Novel Would Make a Great Film?
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
Halloween may be over, but horror is a year-round treat. So we asked this week’s panelists:
What would be your pick?
Here’s what our panelists had to say…
When I first heard there was to be a movie called The Tooth Fairy, I was thrilled, thinking someone had made Graham Joyce’s terrifying, disturbing, moving, emotionally draining, beautiful novel into a movie.
No. It was The Rock who played the Tooth Fairy and there was no relation to the malevolent, lonely and brittle character in Joyce’s story.
Teeth are things which can easily disturb me, once they’re out of the head. In the head as well; one person I know has an extra front tooth, squeezed out the top of his gum like a white worm.
I once worked for a science education magazine and for one project, received baby teeth from around Australia. These had all been snatched from the hands of the tooth fairy. Some of them were covered with dirt from being buried. One still had dental floss attached.
So perhaps I’m particularly vulnerable to stories about teeth and the tooth fairy, but to me, Graham Joyce’s novel is one of the best horror novels I’ve read and I’d love to see it made into a movie.
I am trying not to toot my own horn, so books OTHER than mine that would make a great film–any of the St. Germain novels by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro because they are so visual and compelling. Rot And Ruin by Jonathan Maberry — a wrenching page-turner — so much more than zombie. I just watched The Haunting (1963 version) and that is such a wonderful adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. The scariest movie ever made, in my opinion. But it’s been done. Sorry. Memory lane is calling me down its primrose path.
I think the new nonfiction Spellbound:Inside West Africa’s Witch Camps by Karen Palmer serves up the basis for a great horror movie. It’s about a real village where older women have been exiled from their rural villages because they’ve been tried and convicted of witchcraft. There are more than 3,000 of them, and their families won’t let them come home.
I’m looking forward to the 2013 Del Toro movie based on H.P. Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness. I’ve read that James Cameron will produce the film. I’m not expecting wooden acting, silly monsters, or a campy story. I’m expecting to see the best HPL film ever made.
We’ve all seen a lot of campy HPL movies. Remember The Dunwich Horror with Sandra Dee and Dean Stockwell? The Del Toro release will be different. This is a big budget Hollywood film put together by a director and producer who know what they’re doing.
Before I learned about the film, I dedicated my novel Blood And Ice (Jan 2011 release) to At the Mountains of Madness. I was immersed in Antarctic scenery and lore for many months. It’s an eerie, dangerous place where anything can happen. Perfect for a horror movie!
While I first wanted to highlight authors whose works have been utterly ignored by Hollywood (Robert McCammon, Michael McDowell, for a start), I must say that, considering the times, the best bet for a book-to-movie conversion I can think of is George R. R. Martin’s 1982 novel Fevre Dream.
For the uninitiated, it’s a novel set in the 1800’s, centering around a riverboat captain down on his luck, to say the least. He’s paid handsomely to take his last boat up and down the Mississippi for mysterious means… by a vampire who just wants to unite humanity with his bloodsucking brothers.
Period piece with vampires that don’t sparkle…lack of any trace of teenage angst…intelligence in characterization, and a really good back-story for the existence of vampires in the first place. What more could you ask for?
Oh, wait. The smarter the book, the more Tinseltown dumbs it down…
Peter Jackson, got a job after The Hobbit?
It’s pretty impossible to pick one horror novel that would make a great film, as there are so many deserving titles out there. I’ve chosen two, one which has been filmed numerous times, all badly, and one which really needs to be filmed. In researching for this post I discovered numerous books that have already been adapted to film, which I now have to check out. I’m guessing a lot of these were straight to video or DVD, which is a shame.
Firstly, the one that’s already been filmed:
There are three films of this so far (that I’m aware of). The awful 2007 travesty starring Will Smith doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same paragraph as this great book. There’s also The Last Man on Earth, filmed in 1964, and The Omega Man, in 1971. None of these films really explore the true horror of Matheson’s novel and they all shy away from the final scenes, which are the heart and soul of the story – the very reason the book is called I Am Legend. Films always depart from the books they are based on to some degree, but this is one of my all time favourite novels and it needs a decent film version. One which really explores what the story is about. Everyone focuses on the last human alive part, but ignores the legend part.
I’ve just discovered that Guillermo del Toro is supposed to be making the movie version of this one. I hope he does it justice. If his history is anything to go by, it should be an awesome film. This is the Lovecraft story that really settled the Cthulhu Mythos as a huge, galactic science fiction horror concept rather than anything merely supernatural, although magic and the occult remained a big part of Lovecraft’s stories.
It’s the kind of story that has everything – an expedition to inhospitable regions; geological inconsistencies with fantastic, mind-bending discoveries; unexplainable “things” that are neither plant or animal; horrible attacks; mysterious cities unlike anything made by man and so on. The scope for a visual feast with this story is massive. Lovecraft’s “weird fiction” set a benchmark for dark writing that is still being used today – he was certainly an influence on my own work. You can never have enough Lovecraft and the majority of films from his stories are fairly ordinary. The man’s work deserves the kind of film budget and talents that more contemporary books have enjoyed. Hopefully del Toro will make that happen.
It’s always difficult selecting a horror novel ripe for translation to film–particularly these days, when some of the best horror relies on a range of input far beyond the visual. How could a single film possibly contain all the philosophical nuances of Peter Straub’s A Dark Matter, or get across the inherently creepy narrative unreliability of Caitlin R. Kiernan’s nested novel The Red Tree? It’d be almost as difficult as trying to get across the weirdness of the architecture Sarah Langan describes in her book Audrey’s Door, for which she invented an entire nonexistent “school” of design called “Chaotic Naturalism”; I think the film Walled In might have come close, but how can I possibly tell? Whatever it is you see in your head(s) while reading will never be the same thing(s) I see in mine.
For example, I might choose/cite Adam Nevill’s amazing Apartment 16 (Pan), which centres around the perception-altering works of long-dead and -forgotten painter Felix Hessen, who Nevill describes as being a cross between Francis Bacon and Wyndham Lewis. Of course, these visions are never actually *seen* at all, only described, in much the same way Nevill uses a classic M.R. Jamesian web of suggestion to project horror far beyond the human capacity to properly process; something mammoth, Lovecraftianly alien, glimpsed only partially, through either a tiny aperture or a variety of filters. Would having to fully realize Hessen’s shriekscapes destroy their impact? Or could it be handled by cutting back and forth between the observers’ reaction to them and the vey beginnings of our own reaction(s) to what the details our brains try to string together imply?
Or then there are the similarly problematic aspects to making the poetic excesses of some of my favourite short stories (usually a better bet, when you’re looking for a prose-to-film-generation template) palpable in a solid, undeniable, *onscreen” sort of way. Done “right”, Doug Clegg’s “White Chapel” is a maelstrom of the exotic grotesque, gore piled on gore until it breaks the simple bounds of the merely disgusting, reaching instead for a sort of savage apotheosis. Done “wrong”, it’s Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth. (This is the same sadly practical breaking point which makes me unable to play along with most modern goreno, by the way–the same stuff I like to call “anecdote horror”, infinitely reductionist tales that all begin the same way: Wouldn’t it be awful if…? [I got stuck on a ski-lift and had to choose between falling or freezing; I got left behind on a deep-sea snorkelling trip; that hostel those sexy girls recommended was a murder-for-profit playground for rich bastards; somebody sewed my mouth to somebody else's ass; etc.] The answer to each always being: Yes, yes it would. But do I really want to spend two hours watching any of these scenarios play out, when I already know that right now?)
But to return to your original question: I think I’d probably nominate Michael McDowell’s The Elementals as my primary “book which most deserves to be filmed” pick, for the following reasons: Though written in the 1980s and almost completely fallen into obscurity, it remains one of the single scariest novels I’ve ever read; it’s both a classic haunted house/family curse narrative and a strikingly original variation on both themes; and fittingly enough, since McDowell’s probably best-known these days as the guy who wrote Beetlejuice, though its imagery is extremely specific–visual in a truly filmic way–the forces that drive its plot are both horrifyingly nebulous and literally inexplicable. If Peter Weir did Southern Gothic, this’d be it.
I’m going to cop out a bit by choosing not just a single horror novel but an entire horror universe, out of which numerous horror films have flowed — most of which have been unrelentingly hideous, and not at all in the way their makers have intended.
What I contend is that somebody needs to make a real, honest-to-Cthulhu Lovecraft movie. “But wait, Lovecraft didn’t write any full-length novels!” “But wait, the history of horror film is already littered with okay-to-shitty Lovecraft movies!” Indeed. True on both counts. And these only reinforce my point.
Here’s a brief and thoroughly incomplete history of Lovecraftian cinema, the nature of which reinforces the pressing need for One Lovecraftian Film to Rule Them All:
Lovecraft’s stupendous novelette “The Colour Out of Space” has been filmed at least twice, once as Die, Monster, Die! (1965), featuring Boris Karloff, and once as The Curse (1987), with a deliriously unbelievable cast including Wil Wheaton, Claude Akins, and John Schneider. Both movies pretty much sucked.
“The Dunwich Horror” was adapted as The Dunwich Horror (1970), starring Sandra Dee, Dean Stockwell, and Ed Begley. It was actually pretty fun, but mainly for its camp value. Lovecraft’s signature motif of slimy cosmic horrors remained mostly unseen. What remained was Stockwell making stupid fake occult gestures and intoning “Iä! Iä!”
For no reason anybody can really discern, Stuart Gordon adapted two of Lovecraft’s minor tales, “From Beyond” and “Herbert West: Re-Animator” — the latter of which may be the worst thing HPL ever wrote — as movies by those same titles in 1986 and 1985, respectively. They were actually a huge heaping helping of fun. But Lovecraftian? Not on your life. They were Gordanian, which meant they were laced with wicked humor and stocked with kinky sex and gore galore. Again, they were smart and fun, but today Lovecraft is probably glad he doesn’t believe in survival beyond death, since those movies would have horrified him for all the wrong reasons. Oh, and Gordon directed another entry in 2001, turning Lovecraft’s “Dagon” into Dagon, a movie that some people praised and others, like me, watched with a mounting sense of galactic revulsion at the uselessness of it all.
1988 saw the release of The Unnamable, based on Lovecraft’s so-so short story of that title, directed by Jean-Paule Ouellette and featuring one of the niftiest monsters, makeup and performance-wise, ever to grace a low-budget horror flick. Unfortunately, it was entirely nameable as a harpy, which had nothing at all to do with Lovecraft’s idea of unnamableness. Plus, the movie basically blew. And let’s not even talk about its 1992 sequel, The Unnamable II: The Statement of Randolph Carter, which shouldn’t even have been conceived, let alone named.
In 1992 director Dan O’Bannon and screenwriter Brent V. Friedman gave the world what may be the finest Lovecraft movie to date, an adaptation of the wonderful short novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Titled The Resurrected, the movie featured Chris Sarandon, John Terry, and some pretty creepy writing and directing. A good show all around, including a climactic scene with “demons from between the stars.” But still obscure, still fairly low-budget, and distinctly flawed.
Of course there are dozens more movies that could be named, especially short ones like the excellent Canadian television production Out of Mind: The Stories of H.P. Lovecraft (1998) and the short films lovingly produced by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, including The Whisperer in Darkness — currently in post-production — and The Call of Cthulhu (2005), which the Society made as a silent and black-and-white production, creating a film modeled on the marvelous conceit that this is what it would have looked like if Lovecraft’s epic story “The Call of Cthulhu” had been adapted for film in the late 1920s, right after he wrote it. But all of these, however good they are, are still minor. The same goes for many of the non-English-language films that have showed up in a Lovecraftian vein.
So why can’t we get a good, big-budget, epic Lovecraft movie with up-to-date special effects that will allow his epic visions of cosmic monster gods to be realized in a way nobody has yet seen? Why do we have to rely on merely secondary and quasi- versions of Lovecraft, as in John Carpenter’s The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness? I mean, Lovecraft and his mythos are towering presences in the present-day fantasy-and-horror community, spanning the boundaries between literature, film, television, and games. So why hasn’t he yet received the definitive film treatment that’s been afforded, say, Batman or The Lord of the Rings? I mean, are people afraid that something will actually be unleashed upon the world?
Oh, wait. Having just written all of this, I note that Guillermo del Toro’s long-in-coming, major-motion-picture-style adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness is now running full steam ahead. James Cameron has come on as producer, and is publicly describing the movie as “epically scaled horror” in the vein of Alien. There’s actually a named production start date: July 2011. The movie is currently slated for release in 2013. That places it after the world has ended on December 21 of the previous year, but hey, I’ll take it.
So maybe this will finally be it. Maybe we’ll finally have the Lovecraft movie that Lovecraft and all of us have long deserved. Or maybe it’ll be ruined by being remolded as a pure action flick sans cosmic horror. Maybe it’ll be another one to consign to the slagheap of failures. Having read the original version of the screenplay that circulated a couple of months ago, I personally think it could go either way.
But if this one doesn’t do what it should, then I’ll continue to maintain that it’s high time for a good, epic Lovecraft adaptation before anything else. I can’t think of another writer, nor a fictional universe/mythos, that has existed so pervasively and for such a long span in modern media culture — 80 years and counting — without being given the honor of a decent movie
I would love to see someone try to bring John Shirley’s Wetbones to the big screen in all its unflinching glory. The 1991 novel is both a triumph of nasty, visceral horror and — like many of Shirley’s best works — a streetwise commentary on the human cost of America’s unquenchable thirst for drugs and depravity.
The book’s intertwining plotlines follow floundering screenwriter Tom Prentice, who’s helping a friend seek out his missing brother, and Reverend Garner, a reformed drug addict whose daughter has fallen into the hands of an abductor capable of psychically manipulating her cravings for pain and pleasure. Their respective searches lead from Watts crack dens and Hollywood Hills power parties to a remote estate whose gates enclose a supernatural orgy of sex and violence that reads like something Clive Barker, H.P. Lovecraft and William S. Burroughs cooked up together on an ether binge.
Shirley slams the reader with one violent shock after another, and just when you think his well-drawn characters’ lives can’t sink any lower, rest assured, they will. Their Hellride is a perfect metaphor for the spiraling pain of drug addiction.
I suppose, one has to question whether such bleak and unrelenting work would sell movie tickets — especially to audiences that seem content to slurp up the current spate of bland horror remakes and predictable supernatural thrillers.
Well, I’d buy a ticket. And if the rest of America doesn’t want to look, fuck ‘em. It’s their loss.
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