13 SCARIEST… HORROR FILM ADAPTATIONS
A selection of classic horror films all based on existing source material...
Scary isn’t just about ghouls and goblins. It’s personal. It’s about situations and ideas that resonate with our deepest fears. It’s about events or images that linger long after we have seen them. My own shortlist of scary movies adapted from literary works would have to include films like Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971), Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk (1985), Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), and Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright (1971). All of these films have only the faintest hint of the supernatural, but they are no less unsettling for that.
Other scary films adapted from literary works have no supernatural implications at all, but they posit technology or worlds that don’t exist, such as Bryan Forbes’s The Stepford Wives (1975), Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971).
Still other films are scary precisely because they depict what is all too credible: Michael Radford’s Orwell adaptation 1984 (1984) and Stanley Kramer’s sad tale of nuclear apocalypse survivors awaiting the inevitable, On the Beach (1959).
Others scared me senseless. I’ve never had such terrible screen-induced nightmares as from George A. Romero’s Monkey Shines (1988), and as for the Tobe Hooper miniseries of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (1979), I still don’t like thinking about the boy at the window.
I’m not putting those two on the list because, despite their effect on me, I’m not convinced they’re truly great films. But even so, this is by no means a definitive list of “the scariest adaptations ever.” Only you can decide what sends shivers down your spine. Instead, this is a list of 13 adaptations—all of books or short stories worth checking out in their own right—that have stood the test of time and remained scary over multiple viewings, in some cases over several generations.
Despite its reputation, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) is surprisingly absent from many lists of scary movies. There’s a simple explanation for this: fear is subjective. While I don’t find The Exorcist frightening, I do find it a fascinating exploration of personality and faith, with a possessed little girl at its core. It’s a great film, but not for scares.
Bela Lugosi, Tom Cruise, Robert Pattinson… we’ve become so accustomed to suave and handsome cinematic vampires that it’s easy to forget how truly horrific they are. But before any of these, F.W Murnau’s Nosferatu left us in no doubt.
Max Schreck’s vampire is a hideous, twisted, beclawed creature who barely manages to act human. His name is Count Orlok, because Nosferatu is an unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (despite Stoker’s novel being mentioned in the credits). The plot doesn’t adhere strictly to Stoker’s either, but the storyline is recognizable enough.
Perhaps the most effective section of the movie is Orlok’s journey westward on a ship, hiding below decks and feeding on the crew one by one. In one of the most famous shots in silent horror, Orlok stands by a hatch, filmed from below, looking like a merciless predatory bird rather than a man.
An intertitle proclaims, “The death ship had a new captain.” Much of the surrounding story of Nosferatu is too far removed from today’s film styles to really scare viewers—we can’t help but see it as a period piece. But moments like this still strike home.
Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake with Klaus Kinski as the vampire (now called Dracula) is a fine successor, but it’s too beautiful and painterly to have the same scare power.
Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of two pre-Code films on this list, produced during a brief window in Hollywood history after the introduction of sound but before the strict enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1934. The Code made it difficult to depict truly horrifying scenes, which is why Mamoulian’s film couldn’t be rereleased for many years.
The story of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella is immensely familiar, one of the best-known horror tales in both its literary and cinematic forms. Yet its familiarity never dulls its fascination. The idea of changing one’s own body so dramatically and giving shape to repressed parts of one’s character is both enticing and dangerous.
What makes this version special is Fredric March’s Academy Award-winning performance as Jekyll and Hyde. Mamoulian described his conception of Hyde as “Neanderthal,” and as the film progresses, Hyde becomes both more decrepit and more animalistic. March is terrifically physical, always hurried in his movements, sniffing the air, twitching, and rubbing his fingers in excitement.
His laugh and grin are among the most horrific things about him, but his capacity for sadism is equally scary. The film’s most unsettling scenes are where Hyde is visiting his mistress, the young woman Ivy (Miriam Hopkins). He tells her he’s going away, to her obvious relief, then torments her by adding, “you don’t know when I’ll be back.”
Hyde’s sheer depth of nastiness would not be seen again on screen for a while, thanks to the Code. Once seen, it’s not easily forgotten.
Conceived by Paramount Pictures as a follow-up to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and made possible by the early-1930s lax enforcement of the Hays Code, Island of Lost Souls isn’t a great film; it’s clunky and obvious in many respects. However, the premise—a mad scientist (Charles Laughton) experiments with surgically blending animal and human bodies—is so ghastly that it’s irresistible. While the hybrid creatures are unconvincing by today’s standards, they were genuinely shocking in 1932.
Like Jekyll and Hyde, it’s the unnatural nature of the creatures as much as their physical appearance that disturbs. It’s also tragic: they’re “part man, part beast…. things.” A misshapen, hairy ear discovered on a ship’s crewman is an early hint of what’s to come, but once the action moves to the island, the man-animals are mostly seen at a distance in darkness. This makes the climactic scenes all the scarier, as figures emerge from the horde in brief close-ups, and a horrific development occurs in the operating theater, which Laughton calls the “House of Pain.” This brief passage is a highlight of 1930s horror.
The original Don Siegel-directed version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is widely regarded as a prime example of genre film responding to social concerns. Whether the alien “pod people” who surreptitiously replace human beings are symbolic of Communism, mindless consumerism, or something else is a matter of debate, but there is no doubt that they represent a terrifying threat.
Film historian Barry Keith Grant has written that Invasion of the Body Snatchers was “the first postwar horror film to locate the monstrous in the normal.” The slowly revealed pod invasion creates a real sense of desperation and fear, culminating in a rawness to the panic of Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter that is far more frightening than any number of blood-soaked monsters. At least one scene—where Virginia Christine’s character is revealed to be a pod person—is utterly chilling, regardless of its symbolism.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is as close to perfection as any film comes. Every shot, every line is essential, and the film is a prime example of less-is-more. There’s hardly any actual violence, and the Anthony Perkins character is amiable and seemingly harmless for most of the film. His murderous mother is barely glimpsed, yet the movie is absolutely drenched in terror.
As critic William Pechter put it, “you cannot escape the feeling ‘something awful is always about to happen’ in Psycho.” It’s this relentless dark foreboding, much more than the handful of outright scares (the shower, the landing, mother in the cellar), that makes the film so disturbing.
Hitchcock followed Psycho with another superbly scary adaptation, The Birds (1963), based on a Daphne du Maurier story, which was a strong contender for this list. The three Psycho sequels, however, range from tedious to risible.
It might be surprising that a film set in such a quintessentially English setting—the country house—was written in substantial part by Truman Capote. But then, Henry James himself was an American-turned-Brit, so perhaps it’s fitting. (The much more English John Mortimer also contributed to the screenplay.)
Widely regarded as the best adaptation of James’s novella, Jack Clayton’s 1961 film The Innocents faithfully adheres to its source material, tightly focusing on the experiences—or perhaps imaginings?—of the young governess, played by Deborah Kerr, as she becomes increasingly convinced that the house where she has taken a position is haunted by the ghosts of a recently deceased man and woman.
Whether the ghosts in The Innocents are real or figments of the governess’s imagination has been debated by scholars for decades. Henry James may have been deliberately ambiguous, and this uncertainty pervades the novel. But whether or not there actually was a face at the window or a silent figure standing by the lakeside, the mere possibility is chilling, especially given the strong suspicion that the pre-teen brother and sister in the governess’s care are somehow complicit in the ghosts’ plans.
At one point, the little girl seems terrified not by anything supernatural, but by the governess’s adamant insistence that the haunting is real. Who are we to believe? Who is really scaring whom here?
Kerr gives a great performance, and Jack Clayton directs with flair. But the real stars of the film are the youngsters, Pamela Franklin and Martin Stephens (Stephens is also notable for his role in the 1960 film Village of the Damned). Though they may not carve anyone up or exhibit flashy psychic powers, as spooky kids they have rarely been equaled.
The 2021 film of the same name, directed by Eskil Vogt, is completely unconnected to this one. However, it is one of the finest horror movies of the last decade.
Between the classic West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965), director Robert Wise created something completely different: one of the greatest ghost stories ever put to film, based on Shirley Jackson’s equally renowned novel. The film’s opening quote from the novel, leading up to the iconic line “whatever walked there, walked alone,” is worth the price of admission alone.
Like so many ghost stories, The Haunting isn’t just about the ghost itself. In fact, very little literal haunting occurs throughout the film, despite an extremely effective sequence in which a mysterious presence manifests itself through deafening banging on a bedroom door.
Instead, the film focuses on the people affected by the ghost, particularly Julie Harris’s eager naif, who is perhaps a bit too susceptible to the power of Hill House… or is she simply a victim of her own imagination? After all, as in many ghost stories (not least The Innocents), it’s never entirely possible to rule out a psychological explanation. In a less scary but equally striking performance, Claire Bloom provides excellent support as an unusually undisguised lesbian for a film made in the early-1960s.
Jackson’s novel has been remade for film twice, in 1999 and again more recently as a Netflix series, but Wise’s The Haunting remains the definitive adaptation. Its classic status seems unassailable.
Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Polanski’s chilling horror film, isn’t about the titular newborn, who’s most likely the Devil’s spawn. The real horror lies in the situation of the young couple, played by Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes, who’ve recently moved into an old New York apartment building and quickly discover strange things about their new home and neighbours.
Polanski would return to this idea in his film The Tenant (1976), also an adaptation of a novel by Roland Topor. But Rosemary’s Baby is especially powerful in its ability to accumulate small incidents and suspicions into a steady crescendo of fear. We’re left wondering, along with the young couple, who we can trust, and the film raises the possibility that Farrow’s character herself isn’t quite stable.
Toward the end, Rosemary’s Baby does bloom into more conventional Satanic horror, which some may find silly (though not unamusing). However, the mysteries of the apartment building and its tenants remain chilling, even as they remain unexplained.
Don’t Look Now is a unique horror film in that its scariness is derived more from Nicolas Roeg’s filmmaking style than from its narrative. The Venice of Don’t Look Now is a persistently sinister place, even during seemingly mundane scenes like Donald Sutherland’s character inspecting an ancient church. Roeg creates a sense of unease by using disorienting camera angles, fragmented editing, and symbolic imagery.
There is a final jump-scare (kind of), and there is eventually some supernatural (kind of) explanation for the weird events that have beset him. But these are much less potent parts of Don’t Look Now’s success than the unavoidable sense of being trapped in an inexplicable nightmare. As so often, the unknown is far scarier than the shown.
Jaws isn’t a horror movie, strictly speaking, but it is terrifying… especially near the beginning. I’ve seen it countless times, but there’s one shot that still makes me jump every time, even though I know exactly when it’s coming. Steven Spielberg’s direction, John Williams’s music score, and Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb’s screenplay all contribute to this, but there are more fundamental, non-cinematic reasons as well.
Man-eating sharks are terrifying because they emerge seemingly from nowhere… deadly, implacable, and utterly alien. Who can imagine what goes on behind a shark’s eyes? Jaws itself did a great deal to encourage popular fear of sharks, so its scariness is partly a function of its own success.
The movie also benefits from a sneaking discomfort many people feel about large expanses of deep, open water—something the three sequels didn’t quite manage to replicate. Sure, we like being in the water, but preferably in manageable bays, lakes, or swimming pools, not (for most people) the immeasurable vastness of the ocean. It’s not our element, and we know it; but Jaws plunges us into it, along with a predator who does belong there.
Stephen King himself was famously dissatisfied with this adaptation of his book, and not everyone loves Stanley Kubrick’s only horror, but The Shining has undeniably entered the genre’s canon. This is partly due to Jack Nicholson’s crazed performance in the lead role, partly due to the powerful setting of a huge, remote hotel (just waiting to be filled with hallucinations or manifestations), and of course, partly due to Kubrick’s meticulous direction.
Though not primarily a movie of jump-scares, The Shining has also earned lasting fame for a handful of specific scenes and shots—such as the woman in the bath, the twin girls, the elevator of blood, and Nicholson with his axe. But perhaps the most effective scene is the one where Nicholson’s wife, played by Shelley Duvall, sneaks a look at the typescript of his novel and realizes how deranged he is. As with so many of cinema’s scariest moments, there are no fangs or claws or blood or guts here, just a sudden, shocking realization.
Clive Barker’s directorial debut, based on his own novella, spawned a franchise of nine sequels and a 2022 remake. But the original film’s scare value is unmatched, due less to its conventional horror tropes (ancient curses, gruesome wounds, a young heroine in peril) than to its underlying concept of another world.
This other world might as well be Hell, though the film never explicitly identifies it as such. The once-human Cenobites who dwell there might as well be demons, dedicated to inflicting suffering on themselves and others. The Chattering Cenobite is perhaps the most nightmarish, but it is their leader, Pinhead (Doug Bradley), who’s become most iconic. He’s particularly scary because he’s clearly intelligent and can be fair and reasonable. If there’s anything worse than a crazed sadist from another dimension, it’s a sane and thoughtful one.
Barker described the Cenobites’ aesthetic as “repulsive glamour,” which is encapsulated not only in the imaginatively mutilated characters themselves, but also in the film’s most sinister object: the Torture Pillar. This seems to be a kind of Cenobite mantelpiece, where they display mementoes of their favorite cruelties. Though the film never comments on it, the mere fact of its existence is horrifying.
David Fincher’s serial killer film Se7en (1995) concocted more baroque murders and tortures, but Zodiac is the scarier movie. It’s also the only one on this list based on a true story, which proves that truth can be more disturbing than fiction.
Zodiac is a study in obsession, with Jake Gyllenhaal giving an excellent performance as Robert Graysmith, the source books’ author who’s unable to walk away from the case of the unsolved Californian murders of the 1960s. Robert Downey Jr. is also excellent as a reporter working with Gyllenhaal.
Two other characters stand out: Charles Fleischer and John Carroll Lynch, both potential suspects. Neither actually does anything scary in the movie, but the nagging suggestion that they might be capable of monstrous acts and see the world in monstrous ways makes them as disturbing as Norman Bates, Pinhead, or the creations of Dr Moreau.