10 Literary Horror Films to Watch This Halloween

Halloween is looming closer and closer, which mean it’s time to start prepping your Netflix queue for a spooky movie marathon! Of course there are the fun classics like Hocus Pocus, Halloweentown, and The Nightmare Before Christmas (which has a few literary references of its own). But if you really want to get in the mood, you might want to opt for something a bit darker. Grab some popcorn, a buddy, and nightlight because I’ve compiled a list of book-based horror films that will make you scared to close your eyes at night!

1. Nosferatu (1922)

This early German Expressionist film directed by F. W. Murnau helped to popularize horror in the era of silent films. The movie is clearly based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, though some details and the names of characters had to be changed due to copyright issues. Thus the creepy creature of this film, played by Max Schreck, is a nosferatu named Count Orlok rather than a vampire named Count Dracula. Though the campiness of old technology and of silent film in general may keep you from cowering in fright, Nosferatu is still considered a classic of the horror genre.


2. Dracula (1931)

This American film directed by Tod Browning is one of the most famous adaptations of Stoker’s novel and stars Bela Lugosi in his iconic role as Count Dracula. Lugosi’s portrayal is both chilling and alluring, and he utters many memorable lines in his slow, accented speech. If you only see one adaptation of Stoker, this is the one to watch!

3. Frankenstein (1931)

frankensteins_monster_boris_karloffAfter Universal Studios enjoyed significant success from Browning’s Dracula, they followed up with an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic novel, directed by James Whale. This film of Frankenstein differs significantly from the novel, but Boris Karloff’s portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster has come to overshadow Shelley’s in the public imagination. The film is also notable for introducing the character of Frankenstein’s hunchbacked assistant, which has featured in a number of Frankenstein adaptations since. Frankenstein received wide acclaim and helped to pave the way for a number of other horror films from Universal throughout the 1930s.

4. Psycho (1960)

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most popular films, Psycho is based on a novel by Robert Bloch about a disturbed killer in a creepy motel. The film was instrumental in establishing the slasher genre of horror and left a lasting impression with its iconic shower scene.


5. The Innocents (1961)

Jack Clayton directed and produced this British film based on Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw. I’ve discussed the novella before in terms of its use of the unreliable narrator trope, as the text leaves it ambiguous as to whether the governess is truly defending the children in her care from real ghosts or from imagined specters. The film emphasizes lighting, music, and direction to create a suspenseful atmosphere—integral to the genre of psychological horror.

6. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Another landmark work in the psychological horror genre is Roman Polanski’s film based on the novel by Ira Levin. This film follows the novel more closely than your average adaptation, including a significant amount of dialogue taken verbatim from the book. For those unfamiliar with the story, it features a pregnant woman who comes to discover that she is unwittingly carrying the spawn of the devil—a prime example of the “women as vessels for monster babies” trope that I will perhaps discuss more in depth at some point.


7. The Shining(1980)

Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of this popular Stephen King novel is one of the most celebrated films of the horror genre, having ranked #1 in The Moving Arts Film Journal‘s list of the 25 Greatest Horror Movies of All Time. Having seen the film itself, I don’t know that I would go quite so far with my praise, but it is certainly a classic. The story is about a recovering alcoholic who brings his family to live in an isolated hotel and then begins to devolve into violent insanity. The highlights of the film include its lurid visual effects—as in the scene when blood gushes down the hotel hallway—and Jack Nicholson’s memorable “Here’s Johnny!” moment.

8. Sleepy Hollow (1999)

tim-burton-sleepy_hollowThis loose adaptation of Washington Irving’s short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was directed by Tim Burton and stars (…you guessed it!) Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane. In this version of the story, Depp’s Ichabod is a police constable rather than a timid school teacher, and he arrives in Sleepy Hollow with the purpose of investigating recent murders attributed to the Headless Horseman. The Horseman, far from being a rival suitor playing a harmless joke as is implied in the original story, is real and deadly and quite creepy-looking, with sharpened teeth. As with any Burton/Depp combo, the aesthetic of this film is on point with gorgeous costumes and a gloomy atmosphere. The plot, while taking inspiration and core characters from Irving’s story, is a unique and captivating mystery, with Ichabod racing to uncover the town’s secrets in order to determine who is controlling the spirit of the decapitated Hessian before more townspeople die. The film is delightful and I highly recommend it as a new and exciting Halloween watch if you have not seen it before.

9. Sweeney Todd (2007)

Okay, so Sweeney Todd is more of a comedic musical than a true horror film, but it has its origins in one of the earliest incarnations of horror fiction. Though rumored to have been based on accounts of a true killer, Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street made his first literary appearance in a Victorian penny dreadful serial called The String of Pearls: A Romance presumed to have been written by James Malcom Rymer and Thomas Pekett Prest. Sweeney’s story was then turned into a Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim, and finally into this macabre little film by Tim Burton. As usual, the film stars Johnny Depp as the title antihero, playing beside one of my (and Burton’s) other favorite actors: the ever stylish and spooky Helena Bonham Carter. If you haven’t seen this film yet, you should—and then join me in singing the entire soundtrack.

10. Crimson Peak(2015)

Just last year, Guillermo del Toro wrote and directed this film, which stars Tom Hiddleston as a mysterious English baronet whose creepy estate, Crimson Peak, holds some dark secrets. The film isn’t actually based on any particular work of literature, but it is inspired by the Gothic literary tradition as a whole. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, del Toro mentions the works of Anne Radcliffe, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Daphne du Maurier, Charlotte Bronte, and others as having strongly influenced his film. I actually haven’t seen this one yet, but it’s definitely on my list for this year.


What are you watching this Halloween season? Got any more literary horror films I should add to my list? Let me know in the comments!

3 thoughts on “10 Literary Horror Films to Watch This Halloween”

  1. Thanks for this – remembering that the horror film genre grew out of a literary tradition is important, and you had a few great but often overlooked titles there – The Innocents – well done!

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