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When Horror Comics Hit the Big Screen — What Didn’t Work… and What Did


People ask me all the time, “Stacie, do you think comic books can be scary?” Alright, so no one has ever asked me that. Should the situation ever arise, however, I’ll have my answer at the ready: “Why yes… I do think comic books can be scary. I’ve been waiting forever for someone to ask me that.” 

It’s extremely difficult to create a comic book that will actually frighten readers. For starters, unlike in straight-up literature (a la Stephen King), the storytelling in comics features a visual element that prevents the reader from completely using his or her imagination: No need to picture the monster in your head when the artist has put it right there on the page. And there are numerous variables beyond the control of the comic creators, the biggest being pacing. A reader can blow through a comic book in 20 seconds if he or she chooses, so slow builds to a climax and jump scares can be impossible to accomplish.

So is my ready-made answer, “Yes, I do think comic books can be scary,” a lie? I have been known to lie, like that one time my friend’s mom bought me a sweatshirt with a puffy-paint rendering of a teddy bear and I told her I liked it… but I’m not lying now, I swear. Comic books can indeed be scary, and I know this because I was frightened out of my mind by the first one I remember buying:

Tomb of Dracula #69 (“Cross of Fire…Cross of Fear!”)
I pored over the cover — a great shot of Dracula holding a cross as his hands burn from its touch — and the pages inside, particularly a sequence in which some children are trapped in a farmhouse as gnarly, corpse-ish vampires break through the doors to get to them, reading the issue again and again. It terrified me as much as any film could ever hope to.

That leads me to an equally important question: Would that sequence scare me if it ever made it to the multiplex? Obviously, there are so many elements involved, who knows what the final result would be. Plenty of horror comics have been translated to film with varying degrees of success: Sometimes they rock my face off, and sometimes they leave me waving my middle finger in the air.

My beloved Tomb of Dracula has, sort of, kind of, hit the multiplex: Blade ,
portrayed on the big and small screens by Wesley Snipes and Sticky
Fingaz respectively, made his debut in issue #10 of the comic. The
dhampir (that’s a half-human, half-vampire if you’re nasty) vampire
hunter lost his 1970’s-flavored jiveness in the eponymous film trilogy
and subsequent short-lived TV series, but he maintained his cool thanks
to Misters Snipes and Fingaz.

What Didn’t Work

One of the many notorious EC Comics of the 1950s, Tales from the Crypt has had multiple adaptations. In 1972, Amicus produced an anthology film based on several Tales
tales, the highlight of which is the segment that finds Joan Collins
terrorized by a psycho in a Santa outfit, “All Through the House.” The
1990s saw Demon Knight and Bordello of Blood
hit theaters, and, of course, there was the long-running HBO show. I
preferred the comics to the TV series, if only because the Cryptkeeper
on the printed page doesn’t have a voice that makes me want to pull out
all of my hair and cram flaming Q-Tips in my ears to make it stop.

The
two most famous green plant dudes, Swamp Thing and Man-Thing, graduated
from funnybooks to film as well. Although directed by horror maestro
Wes Craven, Swamp Thing (1982) ended up being far more campy than the comic was. Things took a turn for the worse in The Return of the Swamp Thing
(1989) when Craven was replaced by Jim Wynorski and star Adrienne
Barbeau was replaced by Heather Locklear. (All apologies to Locklear
who will always have a place in my heart, thanks to her
never-ending “guest appearances” on Melrose Place.) Poor
Man-Thing fared even worse in his self-titled film debut, a sloppy mess
that seemed to focus on everything — evil oil tycoons, sacred Indian
land, environmentally conscious supermodels — except the monster
himself.

What Did Work
That being said, it is possible for a good comic book to become a good film, as 30 Days of Night
showed us last year. Based upon the mini-series by writer Steve Niles
and artist Ben Templesmith, the tale of vampires taking over an Alaskan
town shrouded in… umm… 30 days of night was as much a hit with
movie audiences as it was with comic fans. The film was almost an exact
translation of the books in terms of look and execution —
Templesmith’s exceptionally creepy illustrations were brought to life
by director David Slade, and Niles had a hand in writing the screenplay
— and it was a success… do you think there’s a correlation?

I’m hoping the makers of the upcoming Hack/Slash
follow suit and stick closely to the source material, a comic series
that’s fun, gory, and born out of a creator’s love for horror films.
Writer (and sometimes penciller) Tim Seeley brought his fondness for
slasher films to the four-color world with the tales of Cassie Hack,
the daughter of a slasher-style psycho killer, who grew up to hunt down
slasher-style psycho killers with her hulking sidekick, Vlad. The film
has got a lot of potential to be a blast, so I’ve got my fingers
crossed for it… and my eyes as well, when no one’s looking.

But you
know what I’d like to see on the page and on the screen? Some sort of
J-Horror mashup version of Casper, where the ghost is anything but
friendly. He’d have long, wet hair and he’d totally hate you…
somebody get me Hollywood on the phone!

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