Growing up, a lot of the formative reading I’d get done was by mowing through the stacks of dog-eared, well-worn horror paperbacks my dad kept on his bedside table. Starting with classics like Stephen King’s Skeleton Crew (with its malevolent, cymbal crashing toy monkey on the cover) before dipping into more obscure writers. As long as it had an embossed, dripping blood red font or a painted cover featuring at least one skeleton, there’s a good chance I’d like it.
Over the last four months of quarantine, I’ve noticed that a lot of my favorite horror films, the especially cozy ones I turn to these days, give me almost the exact same nostalgic feel that I got from reading through those paperbacks for the first time as a kid. Movies that, while never actually adapted from a tawdry 1980’s horror paperback, feel exactly as if they were.
While I’m sure you have your own specific vision of what this exact vibe is, here are a few of mine: the kind of films that feel exactly like reading an engrossing, lurid, weird vintage paperback in your favorite comfy armchair. A lot of common threads across these films include: small towns with a buried evil, groups of friends reckoning with a secret in their past, murderous ghosts, horrible little monsters in the basement, and all the other elements that made those mass-produced horror paperbacks such an easy draw for me (And still do!)
Dead And Buried
If anyone asks me for a horror film recommendation, Dead And Buried is one of the first titles I name. It absolutely deserves a bigger fanbase, and remains pretty unfairly underappreciated. Set in the small New England town of Potter’s Bluff, it follows sheriff Dan Gillis (James Farentino) as he investigates a gruesome murder that may have insidious implications.
Right off the bat, the setting – a small coastal town with a dark secret – could be ripped from any number of paperback horrors, not to mention the central mystery of why people are being murdered in Potter’s Bluff, and why the entire town is in on it.
If you told me this was an adaptation of a Stephen King novella, something he wrote in-between Salem’s Lot and The Shining, I would absolutely believe you.
Speaking of small sleepy towns haunted by a dark secret, the setting of The Fog is a perfect example. San Antonio, California, is cursed by a long ago betrayal whose victims have come back seeking bloody revenge. That revenge takes the form of a crawling fog filled with the leprous specters of the long dead (much to my delight as an audience member).
The structure of the film really evokes the feel of a novel, checking in on the various characters around town as they each investigate their own tiny facet of the greater mystery. The entire film feels like the ultimate ghost story told by firelight, like the adaptation of a story by M.R. James that never was.
The opening scene is even a ghost story itself, with the backstory for the films’ rotten, ghostly antagonists laid bare as a campfire tale for a group of children. It does a fantastic job of setting the tone right out of the gate, and it’s a deeply effective moment.
Let’s Scare Jessica To Death
This deeply creepy slow-burn horror follows Jessica, who is questioning her sanity after leaving a mental institution. After Jessica, her husband, and their friend drive out to a newly purchased property in upstate New York, the introduction of a mysterious woman has her doubting the reality of the increasingly sinister occurrences. One of the most effective things about this film is that the audience gets to hear what Jessica is thinking, in the form of a disquieting voiceover narration. A decidedly literary touch, it really puts the audience into Jessica’s headspace, making us just as unsure of what’s actually happening as she is. The ambiguity of whatever is threatening Jessica is perfect, and the moments when the film goes full gothic horror (a drowned woman rising out of the lake in a wedding dress comes to mind) are iconic as hell.
The decrepit lakeside house setting is the stuff of a thousand eerie novels, the kind you’d read on a dock as the summer sun slowly sets and the air starts to get chilly.
I just saw this recently, and it absolutely checked all the right boxes for me. A small town is rocked by mysterious murders when someone reopens the spooky old mine that was the site of a bunch of disasters! And now something tentacled is attacking vacationing teens!
This one is a perfect, comfortable little monster movie with a cast of characters you actually like, and some really cool little puppet monsters that look like a cross between a turtle and a squid. You don’t get to see them until the last five minutes, but when you do, it’s absolutely worth the wait. They’re adorable.
This film feels like it could have been stacked right alongside books like The Nest by Gregory A. Douglas, or Night of the Crabs by Guy N. Smith: small-scale monster novels set in unsuspecting small towns.
A group of doctors, life-long friends, gather for their annual wilderness retreat into the woods of northern Ontario. Before long, their boots are missing, they’re lost in the unforgiving wilderness, and something or someone out there in the woods… is hunting them.
Comparisons to Deliverance are easy, but for me, this film is far superior. Unsettling and quite brutal, but always focused on character and suspense over gore, this is a fantastically tense horror film, and its cast of middle-aged doctors is excellently acted across the board. The slowly unfolding mystery of who or what is stalking the men is also extremely well done. The dynamic of a group of older friends dealing with something horrible from their past seeking revenge reminds me strongly of books like Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, or even Stephen King’s IT.
After a woman is the only surviving passenger of a catastrophic airplane crash, she begins to feel like something is stalking her. Death, angry that she has cheated it, is using the corpses of the recently deceased as its agents of doom, trying to tie up the loose end.
Obviously there are some newer horror films that owe quite a deal to the premise of Sole Survivor, namely Final Destination and It Follows, but the tone here reminds me of an especially eerie young adult horror novel, potentially something by Christopher Pike or R.L. Stine in Fear Street mode.
This one remains strangely hard to find, but it’s worth the effort, if you don’t mind a slower-paced creepout.