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It Came From the Fiction Aisle: ZYZZYVA Recommends Literary Horror Adaptations

If you’re anything like the ZYZZYVA team, you occasionally like to spend Halloween curled up in front of your screen of choice for a frightening film (or two…or three). From Rosemary’s Baby to The Exorcist, we can’t help but observe the fact that many – if not most – of the iconic horror movies of the last fifty years have drawn their source material from the written word. In celebration of the holiday, we thought we’d recommend a selection of some of our favorite or under-appreciated horror movies adapted from works of fiction for you to check out.

PINPin: A Plastic Nightmare (1988) – Andrew Neiderman’s 1981 work Pin is not a great novel, but it’s one that continues to linger in the imagination of readers thanks to its genuinely strange premise and the way Neiderman conveys the cold, clinical psychopathy of its narrator, Leon. The story opens on the dismal childhood of siblings Leon and Ursula Linden, who face an overbearingly obsessive-compulsive mother and a cold, emotionally withholding father. The only comfort they find in their early years comes from each other and the medical dummy their physician father brings to life thanks to his prodigious gift for ventriloquism. Leon’s connection to the anatomical model, whom Ursula nicknames Pin (short for Pinocchio), turns out to be so profound that even into adulthood the sheltered young man is unable to connect with anyone outside his cloistered circle of Ursula and Pin.

When Leon and Ursula’s parents are killed in a horrific car crash, Leon promptly moves Pin from his father’s practice to the sibling’s expansive but lonely estate, and the stage is set for a disturbing psychodrama worthy of Robert Bloch. Surprisingly, the film adaptation from director Sandor Stern (a filmmaker who has helmed more Lifetime movies than feature films) is remarkably faithful to its source material. While Stern perhaps wisely chooses to tone down the incestuous subtext and render Leon a more sympathetic but no less unhinged figure, the director proves most adept at conveying the suffocating air of privilege and mental decay in the Linden household, as well as the systems of abuse that can exist within a family. Aided by a dreamlike synthesizer soundtrack and a convincing turn from Cube’s David Hewlett as Leon, Sander’s version of Pin often brings to mind the moody and sterile-feeling horror of fellow Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg. Most importantly, this is one of those rare and relatively bloodless films from the genre that proves far more sad than gruesome, and Pin is all the better for it.–Zack Ravas, Editorial Assistant

CoralineCoraline (2009) – Fair warning: if you’re terrified of spiders, dolls, or any combination thereof, this next film may not be for you! Coraline, based on a book of the same name by Neil Gaiman, is the story of a young girl who is unhappy about her parents’ decision to move to the dilapidated Pink Palace Apartments. That is, until she discovers a small door to a parallel universe in her new living room. Traveling through the portal, she finds an idealized version of her life on the other side: a place where her parents are more loving, food tastes better, and everything seems great. Of course it seems great, and of course it isn’t – darkness lurks underneath. Don’t be fooled by the movie’s childlike aesthetic, this is horror. The 3-D stop motion animation manages to employ some of the usual visual tropes of children’s cartoons – each character has an oversized head and eyes, for instance – without sacrificing the whimsically eerie atmosphere that Gaiman’s books are known for. Coraline is a visual treat, which makes it all the more riveting.–Rebecca Rand, Intern

The ShiningThe Shining (1980) – Adapting a horror novel to film has got to be one of the most thankless tasks in writing. The sense of fear constructed by a novel’s omniscient narrator isn’t easily replicated in film, and dialogue that once crackled in our heads often turns bland when we hear it from an actor. So when anyone raises the stakes of the horror genre by taking the written word and exceeding our most terrifying literary imaginings onscreen, there’s little holding it back from becoming one of the best films –full-stop – of all time. Stanley Kubrick’s psycho-thriller adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining is one such film, required viewing for both cinephiles and horror junkies alike. Kubrick worked loosely from his source material (King is famously dismissive of the movie), re-imagining the world of the Overlook Hotel into a space where the inexplicable layers on top of the otherworldly to create a Möbius tapestry of fear. Perhaps most impressively, Kubrick married the slow-building terror literature excels at with the visual scares endemic to campy horror movies, creating an indescribable nightmare that exists outside any logic but its own. Kubrick and Diane Johnson’s eerie screenplay is taken to legendary heights by every member of the cast, even the one-time supporting appearances; I’ve been hearing “Play with us, forever” ringing in my ears since I first watched this film over a year ago.

During much of the film, it’s almost impossible to even say what we’re scared of – there’s no easily named fear in many of the scenes, and fans have spent decades attempting to decode the symbolism in the film to work out Kubrick’s own nightmare-logic. But that’s the very point: fear is a feeling, floating in the air and through our minds, not a thing we can look at and name. We have nothing to fear, but fear itself. The best films coil back on themselves, evading explanation, over and over again with every repeat viewing; The Shining similarly locks us into its labyrinth, doomed to the endless loop of a dream. All we have to do is wake ourselves up.–Kailee Stiles, Intern

Invasion of the Body SnatchersInvasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) – Though it works perfectly on its own as a paranoid thriller and creepfest, Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (based on Jack Finney’s 1956 novel) has a particularly unsettling resonance for anybody who remembers San Francisco before 2000.

The tech boom and its corrosive effect upon who gets to live here has bubbled forth a mucous pod of a metaphor for the 1978 movie that simply wasn’t there before. So as Donald Sutherland’s health inspector stumbles through the mystery of why people are acting so peculiarly, and as regular seeming working stiffs and suited businessmen start to gather conspiratorially, the eerie feeling that something huge is afoot—and that whatever it is it’s not good—can’t help but summon a dread that has nothing to do with being replaced by an alien species but everything to do with being replaced by a kid in a hoodie bearing a start-up logo.

Aside for its story, the movie can be watched for the nostalgia its setting evokes. San
Francisco is portrayed as something of an urban village full of working-class people.
For anybody who recalls the perhaps now lost egalitarianism of the city, it makes
complete sense that a couple of Department of Health employees, a poet (Jeff
Goldblum) who runs a mud-bath business with his wife (Veronica Cartwright), and a
famous psychiatrist (Leonard Nimoy) should all know and hang out with each other.
(Every other column by the late, great Herb Caen attested to this sort of thing.) Even
as the movie’s dastardly plot unfurls, the various moody shots of the city remind us
of a time when this was a beautiful place to which nobody driven by the need to
make millions in a hurry was especially attracted to.

But San Francisco is where they came just the same to make their fortunes, and the
city has pretzeled itself to accommodate this new reality. Disquieting enough,
Kaufman’s movie addresses the situation. At one point, one of the characters is
revealed to be a pod person, their human self replaced by the invaders from space.
“We came here from a dying world,” the creature informs us. “We drift through the
universe, from planet to planet, pushed on by the solar winds. We adapt and we
survive. The function of life is survival.”

Go to sleep and accept the inevitable is the advice being given. It’s painless. Wake up
in your new form. Then congregate down on the corner, wait for orders, and help us
spread through the rest of the planet. Everyone will adapt. But first they’ll die, and
then it’ll be as nothing changed.–Oscar Villalon, Managing Editor

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The Work of Love Is Revenge: Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Lodger’

The Lodger

All images courtesy Pacific Film Archive/Larsen Associates

Considering Alfred Hitchcock’s early movie The Lodger in light of his complete oeuvre—a task that can happen only anachronistically—gives us the old master minus two elements that furnished his films with the trappings of modernity amid an otherworldliness: color and sound. Where scores and palettes might have made reliable signposts, into this silent black-and-white film step in cinematography, action, tone, and shadow, drawing up a London that has more affinities with the cramped darkness of the theater than any brick-and-mortar city. Forced to eschew  [musical?] crescendos—then a fact of the format, but an active exclusion in later films like The Birds—Hitchcock, in his self-declared stylistic debut, stakes out the obsessions that would define his career. They appear regularly and with an absurd reliability; almost everything about the director’s later films that snags viewers, critics, and scholars—sexuality, formality, urbanity, banality, perversion, off-kilter sensibilities, those vertiginous qualities Roland Barthes spoke of as the un-locatable “third meaning” of films—makes an appearance. Each is as interesting for what it says about the man as it does about the libraries of reels he left us, and more so for the way in which each tic is quietly rehearsed and unveiled. Nothing in The Lodger reeks of a checklist; nothing has the comfort of a formula. If, to enlist a dead metaphor, the beginning of a career is the opening of a door, then behind that door stands the film’s title, that ominous figure: his eyes as sharp as his demeanor, his knife-like shadow slicing through the frame, wrapped not just in scarves but in the fog that peels voices from bodies.

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Hitchcock didn’t dynamite through a mountain to make the first film he would characterize as his own (“you might almost say,” he told François Truffaut, “that The Lodger was my first picture”—though it was the third film he had directed); he stepped through a tunnel someone else had bored. The Lodger, like so many of his works, is an adaptation of a novel, in this case Marie Belloc Lowndes’s 1913 psychological thriller. For its focus, Belloc Lowndes would look back ten years before she started writing, to the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888 that left a chain of butchered women across London. Even in Hitchcock’s version of her story—and is it really her story, after all?—the sense of repetition is strong, even dizzying, despite his decision to reverse the fate of the  titular character. The film opens with the mechanical heartbeat of industrialization, the programmatic flashing of a sign that reads TO-NIGHT: GOLDEN CURLS, enticing the murderous as much as the lecherous to the vaudeville theater where the naïve Daisy Bunting, the film’s sweetheart, makes a living off her locks. Against a suitably black background, the credits hover, led by an animation of a detective’s silhouetted against a swath of creamy light. What happens next is predictable enough, and after the scream, the objectifying shot of terror on the woman’s face as her life ends, we see the murderer’s cloth-wrapped face as he departs. A ring of citizens and police beleaguers her, none too startled to pass up the opportunity to ogle a corpse. Hitchcock gives us no sense of where these Samaritans were when during the murder; the harsh lamplight slathers everything with a morgue-like quality.

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A Space Apart from the Vileness Below Them: Pedro Almodóvar’s ‘I’m So Excited!’

Los Amante Teaser ESIn his latest film, renowned Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar returns, at first glance, to the light-hearted style of comedy that marked his early career and established him as the central figure in the post-Franco Movida Madrileña. I’m So Excited! (released in Spanish as Los Amantes Pasajeros, meaning, literally, either “The Passenger Lovers” or “The Fleeting Lovers”) takes place almost entirely aboard an airplane that is revealed early on in the film to be destined to circle above an airport in Spain until a runway opens up for a crash landing. This is the extent of the “plot,” as such, in the film. With I’m So Excited!, Almodóvar has pared down his usually byzantine narrative style to really only feature one major digressive break from the dominant narrative. In other words, the camera only once leaves the confines of the airplane while it’s in flight. Compared to Almodóvar’s recent spate of complexly plotted explorations of obsession, sexual substitution, and trauma, I’m So Excited! seems simple. The effect of this stripping down, of this forceful spatial and thematic confinement, however, is not a feeling of claustrophobia or lack. Instead, the limited scope engenders a kind of focus: I’m So Excited! is Almodóvar clarified. Despite the occasionally manic energy behind it’s canted cinematography and the seemingly panic-inducing source material, the film exudes a kind of calm born out of the satisfaction of a journey completed, even if it is not the journey one set out to complete.

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