Welcome to The Last Horror Blog, a biweekly column on all things horror.
The newest title to join the “based on real events” subgenre is Scott Derrickson’s Deliver Us from Evil, which opens nationwide on July 2. Eric Bana stars as Ralph Sarchie, a New York cop who becomes embroiled in a supernaturally tinged case that sees him teaming up with a priest who performs exorcisms. This was Sarchie’s first encounter with the supernatural, but the cop says this was just the tip of the iceberg – and we suspect that we’ll be seeing more of his paranormal adventures should Deliver Us from Evil prove to be a hit.
If you’re looking for more spooky stories inspired by real-life hauntings and crimes, and have already seen the obvious choices like The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror, I’ve picked out some of the lesser seen – but no less terrifying – examples of this enduring subgenre. You’ll definitely want to lock your doors after seeing these movies.
It makes sense to kick things off with James Wan’s 2013 chiller because it’s the most recent entry on this list, and because the success of The Conjuring basically made Deliver Us from Evil possible. Wan’s story, ripped from the case files of noted “demonologists” Ed and Lorraine Warren, proved that there was an audience for horror flicks in the heart of box office season, which encouraged Screen Gems to give Derrickson’s feature a holiday weekend release as well.
The film finds the Warrens investigating a haunting wherein the spiritual presence is becoming increasingly more violent toward the family living inside the home. It’s a surprisingly effective film, made all the more impressive because any self-respecting horror fan is intimately familiar with the tropes of this subgenre. Even if you don’t believe there was anything supernatural happening in this isolated house, the film works. Audiences loved it so much that we’re going to be seeing more films culled from the Warrens’ case files.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Tobe Hooper’s 1974 horror masterpiece just celebrated its 40-year anniversary, and is probably the most infamous film on this list. TCM ran with the “based on a true story” concept even though there was never a guy named Leatherface running around the Lone Star State chopping hippies into bite-size morsels with his trusty power tools.
Instead, Hooper’s film drew much of its inspiration from the story of Ed Gein, a serial killer from Wisconsin. Gein has been a common reference point for creating cinematic bogeymen – he was the inspiration for not only Leatherface, but also Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill, Psycho’s Norman Bates, and countless other killers.
Gein’s crimes were horrific – he was a body snatcher who liked to turn his female victims' faces into masks and cover his chairs with their skin – and it’s Hooper’s film that really captures the awfulness of those murders. So, while Leatherface may not be a real killer, his terrible lair and the crimes he commits weren’t just something conceived by a twisted screenwriter trying to shock an audience.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown
We stay in the heart of Texas for our next film, a cult favorite about a real-life serial killer who was never caught.
Director Charles B. Pierce’s film re-creates the crime spree of a killer nicknamed the Phantom. Between February and May of 1946, this shadowy assassin was responsible for eight attacks in an area around Texarkana, Texas – including several murders.
Pierce’s film is not 100% faithful to reality, but it hews a lot closer to what really happened than a lot of other genre efforts on this list. The Town That Dreaded Sundown has earned its reputation as a cult classic, and a remake is on the way.
Fire in the Sky
On November 5, 1975, logger Travis Walton and his coworkers encounter a UFO. Walton exits their vehicle and is hit by a blinding beam of light. When his friends return to the scene, Walton is nowhere to be found. Five days later, the lumberjack turns up at a local gas station – naked and dehydrated. Eventually, he reveals he was abducted by aliens.
Based on Walton’s book, The Walton Experience, Robert Lieberman’s 1993 film has become a must-see for anyone interested in tales of alien abduction. The abduction sequences aboard the alien spacecraft remain impressive even 20 years after they were shot – filled with a genuinely terrifying amount of detail that would come to influence other abduction films in recent years.
While there will always be skepticism as to whether Walton was really taken by extraterrestrials or not, there’s no denying that Fire in the Sky presents a genuinely unsettling vision of what being abducted might be like.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Michael Rooker and Tom Towles headline John McNaughton’s fictionalized account of the exploits of Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole. Lucas, who confessed to over 600 murders – most of which he didn’t commit -- became one of the most infamous serial killers in the annals of American crime.
McNaughton’s film isn’t so much interested in retelling what may or may not have happened as Lucas and Toole committed their various murders, but instead is more about the way Lucas envisions himself. As such, it’s a film inspired by real people, but not particularly interested in factual accuracy. That’s okay, though, because Rooker’s performance is so terrifying--and the film so dark and bleak--that it works even though the majority of the narrative is fabricated. If you’re at all into true crime – even if it’s not really all that true – then Henry is a must-see.
Justin Kurzel’s 2011 film Snowtown (aka The Snowtown Murders) flew under most people’s radar, which is unfortunate because it’s a harrowing and disturbing piece of cinema.
Horror fans appear to have skipped it because it was marketed as more of a dark drama than a straight genre effort, but make no mistake – the things that happen in this feature are certainly horrifying. There’s murder, assault, torture and more.
The film focuses on Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway), a teenager living in a poor neighborhood with his mother and siblings. When the boys are left in the care of a pedophile neighbor (who assaults them all), it opens the door for the arrival of John Bunting (Daniel Henshall). Bunting is outraged by what’s happened to the boys, and along with a friend begins to worm his way into the family’s life by making the neighbor’s existence a living hell. Once he’s in, it becomes clear to Jamie that Bunting isn’t what he seems to be – he’s a bullying homophobe who’s out to kill homosexuals and pedophiles. The film chronicles how the boy gets caught up in Bunting’s terrible web.
The “based on a true story” angle gives Kurzel’s film some added resonance. While many would balk at a fictional film filled with these horrible acts, it’s somehow more tolerable to audiences if they know it all really happened. Kurzel seems well aware of this and uses it to his advantage – crafting one of the darkest and bleakest films I’ve seen in quite some time.
The Girl Next Door
Gregory M. Wilson’s adaptation of Jack Ketchum’s novel The Girl Next Door is one of the most disturbing examples of how cruel we humans can truly be.
The film and the book that inspired it are based on the real-life events surrounding the torture and murder of Sylvia Likens in 1965. What made that tale so stomach churning was that Likens was a child who was tortured and abused by a woman (Gertrude Baniszewski) who also let her own kids and other neighborhood children in on the act.
Wilson’s film is an uncomfortable experience (and Ketchum’s book even moreso), which Stephen King describes as “the first authentically shocking American film I've seen since Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer over 20 years ago. If you are easily disturbed, you should not watch this movie. If, on the other hand, you are prepared for a long look into hell, suburban style, The Girl Next Door will not disappoint. This is the dark-side-of-the-moon version of Stand by Me.”
Sometimes films take multiple unrelated (but real) events, mix them into a movie and market that film as something based on genuine crimes. Such is the case with Greg McLean’s 2005 film Wolf Creek.
McLean’s feature borrows elements from Australia’s “Backpack Murders” (committed by a man named Ivan Milat), and the Peter Falconio killing and torture, and weaves them into one tale where a mysterious man roams the outback killing people who cross his path at will while the authorities are never able to track him down. As a cautionary tale about leaving the comforts of civilization, it’s pretty great. However, it’s not exactly true.
Still, McLean’s murderous Mick Taylor (played convincingly by actor John Jarratt), makes for a great bogeyman. It’s all too easy to imagine running into a bloke like this while traveling across the outback, and his methods, if not his actual character, certainly draw inspiration from real-life tragedy.
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