Books details the books from which classic horror films evolved

Saturday , June 13, 2015 - 12:31 AM

Doug Gibson

Ever taken the time to read Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein?” Or Bram Stoker’s “Dracula?” You’d be surprised at how both, particularly Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” differ from the iconic movies with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Film scholar Rob Backer provides an entertaining look at the literature behind much of horror cinema in “Classic Horror Films and the Literature that Inspired Them,” McFarland, 2015, 800-253-2187). 

Besides the perennials, such as the above-mentioned and “The Mummy,” “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and much of Edgar Allan Poe, Backer, a lawyer and self-described avid fan of classic horror films, has added literature and films that may escape the casual fan’s notice. I had never heard of “The Viy,” by Nikolai Gogol, although I have seen the film, “Black Sunday,” that many believe resembles “The Viy,” a tale of a man trying to avoid a fatal encounter with a witch. As Backer notes, though, “Black Sunday,” while a fine film, has virtually nothing to do with the book. He directs readers to an obscure, 1967 Russian film of the same name, which, he writes, “is one of the closest adaptations of a horror story ever filmed.”

I note this because horror films rarely follow closely the literature of which are based. Much of Backer’s book details the similarities, and differences, between the written word and what’s on the screen. As the author frequently stresses, this is not always a negative. In many cases, the shifts in plot are necessary. The mediums are distinct; books allow us insight into the thoughts of major characters, and more clues into how society and culture has shape them. Film has an hour or two to tell a good story. Often in the book, Backer laments the “boring” parts of a horror novel, the reading detours exploring mood swings of characters. Film appropriately bypasses these sections.

It’s interesting to learn the distinct titles of literary works that became classic films. “Uneasy Freehold” became the 1940s film “The Uninvited,” “Spurs” the famous film “Freaks,” “The Edge of Running Water” became “The Devil Commands,” and “The Turn of the Screw” became “The Innocents,” to name a few. 

There are 40 chapters of literature and film in the book, and the author is to be commended for his wide range. “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” “The Magician,” “Conjure Wife,” “Werewolf of Paris,” “Burn Witch Burn,” “The Hands of Orlac,” “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” and many more share space with better-known tales such as “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” “The Invisible Man” and “Carmilla.” He offers a nod to new horror literature and films; the Stephen King novels “Carrie” and “The Shining” are included.

This book’s conclusions, are of course, subjective, and the reader will enjoy comparing his or her opinions on books and films with the author’s. I’d wager that all readers will likely discover a story or film that will send them searching for a copy to own. I have already purchased the novel “Burn Witch Burn,” based on the 1930s film “The Devil Doll,” and I plan to find the Aleksei Tolstoy short story, “The Family of the Vourdalak,” which is a chapter in the scary 1960s film anthology, “Black Sabbath.” I would have enjoyed a chapter comparing the novel “Trilby” with the film versions of “Svengali,” but that subject has been captured well by film scholar Frank Dello Stritto in his anthology, “A Quaint and Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore.”

The author is clearly a fan of Poe, as many of the author’s literary works are included. He’s a big fan of the Vincent Price film adaptation of “The Masque of the Red Death,” quite appropriately in my opinion, and he does a good job comparing the literature and Poe films, particularly “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

The volume subjects in the book lends itself to brevity at times. This is noted in the chapter on Dracula, in which the 1979 Frank Langella version is ignored, replaced, unwisely, with musing on the 1936 “Dracula’s Daughter.” However, the literature and films associated with “Dracula,” as well as “Frankenstein,” could easily fill a book, and Backer’s contributions, while brief, are valuable. The author merits praise for producing a work that enhances knowledge of and pleasure for fans of the horror genres.

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