“Writing is easy. You simply sit down at a typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” ~ Red Smith
Well, with a recommendation like that, who wouldn’t jump at the chance to be a writer?
Of course, the reality of the profession is (usually) a bit more mundane than the reality faced by the writers in the following movies, thank goodness. But writers do in fact make great protagonists for scary flicks, as the following ten movies prove.
Here, then, just in time for Halloween, is my completely subjective and relatively spoiler-free top-ten list of the best scary movies featuring writers!
Premise: John Cusack plays a writer who writes about paranormal events, exposing them as hoaxes or easily explainable by mundane phenomena. Following the death of his daughter, he receives a postcard depicting a famous New York hotel, The Dolphin, with the exhortation “Don’t enter 1408.”
Well – of course he’s going to enter 1408. In fact, he specifically books the room, ignoring Samuel L. Jackson’s hotel manager who tries to warn him off.
By the way, 1408 is the first of five movies on this list – yep, fully half! – that are based on the work of our patron saint for this endeavor: Stephen King.
The Writer: The fact that Cusack’s character is a writer serves as a set-up and a motivation for him to be in the haunted hotel’s most haunted room. It also helps establish his disbelief in the paranormal, so that when the creepy stuff starts happening to him, it’s more of a shock.
#9: Crimson Peak
The Premise: A new bride is whisked away to her husband’s English estate, where she is quickly confronted with a physically and emotionally distant spouse, a cold and hostile sister-in-law, and ultimately more than a few ghosts.
A suitably atmospheric old manse and grounds, all suffused with a hint of rot and decay, combined with the talents of Jessica Chastain (the sister-in-law), Tom Hiddleston (the husband), and Mia Wasikowska (the heroine) under the masterful direction of Guillermo del Toro, produce a pretty solid spookfest that’s liberally doused with creepy and soaked in blood (though not as much as, say, your average slasher flick).
The Writer: The bride in this gothic romance is an aspiring writer. But hey, this experience will at least give her tons of new material – if she survives, that is.
The Premise: If you prefer your scary flicks rooted in the actual and factual, Zodiac might be your cup of dark French roast. It tells the story of the serial killer who dubbed himself “the Zodiac,” beginning with the night of his second attack (July 4, 1969).
Zodiac is exquisitely well-made. David Fincher directed a ridiculously talented cast including Mark Ruffalo, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Robert Downey, Jr. It features a cartoonist who turns into a writer, all because of his interest and (very) tangential involvement in this case.
The Writer: Jake Gyllenhaal portrays real-life San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith, who turned his fascination with the puzzle of the case into a best-selling book — and along the way, may well have found himself in the killer’s crosshairs as a result.
#7: Salem’s Lot
The Premise: The second Stephen King tale on my list, Salem’s Lot is actually a 1979 (yikes!) TV miniseries that retains an impressive ability to scare the pants off its viewer.
David Soul portrays a successful writer who returns to his hometown, Salem’s Lot, to write about the creepy old property with a serious reputation for being haunted, known locally as the Marsten House. After a mysterious stranger buys the house, locals begin disappearing and dying in odd ways.
I won’t give away the explanation, if by some chance you haven’t yet seen it, but it’s a Stephen King story, so … you know.
The Writer: David Soul’s Ben Mears is our writer, and once again the writing is the catalyst for the action. (You gotta wonder if a career change might be in order for some of these folks…)
The Premise: Based on the famous novel series by Anne Rice, this movie isn’t about a writer, per se. Rather, the interview referenced by the title serves as a narrative framing device, allowing Brad Pitt’s vampire, Louis, to tell the story of how the vampire Lestat first turned him into one of his own kind following the death of Louis’ wife, and then created a child vampire (a very young Kirsten Dunst in her first film role).
The Writer: It’s not much of a spoiler to say that Louis tells his story so compellingly that by the end of it, reporter Christian Slater wants to join the club.
#5: Secret Window
The Premise: Struggling with writer’s block and recovering from the bitter demise of his marriage, Mort Rainey heads to an isolated cabin in upstate New York where he is confronted by another man who claims Rainey plagiarized his own work.
As Mort’s life is increasingly disrupted by this possibly unhinged other writer, the stakes get bigger and Mort becomes desperate to get the dangerous man out of the picture altogether.
The Writer: The third of our five Stephen King entries, Secret Window is a tightly plotted film that ends up somewhere you didn’t fully expect, most likely (unless you’re one of those people who can guess plot twists from a mile away).
The Premise: A sequel to the 1931 classic, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein was also directed by James Whale and starred Boris Karloff as The Monster. Like Interview, Bride uses a framing device featuring Elsa Lanchester as Mary Shelley, the author of the novel Frankenstein.
The action picks up shortly after the final scene of the first movie with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron praising Mary Shelley for her masterful tale. She responds by telling them there’s more to the story. Lanchester plays both Mary Shelley and the eponymous Bride, created by Dr. Frankenstein as a companion for The Monster.
The Writer: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is the consummate storyteller in both history and in this fictional retelling. (Note to Hollywood: How about some more women telling the scary stories, hmm?)
The Premise: A true-crime writer moves his family into a house that was the scene of what looks like a mass family suicide – except that there’s incredibly creepy Super 8 footage in the attic that appears to tell a different story, and one of the children from the family is missing. And that’s the first five minutes.
The Writer: “Don’t you understand that writing is what gives my life meaning?” is an actual line that gets said in this film, by Ethan Hawke’s true-crime writer to his very unhappy wife. Thankfully, most of the dialogue isn’t nearly so clunky!
Once more, it’s the writer’s current writing project that serves as the catalyst for the entire plot. And once again, you may well find yourself thinking, “You know, working in a bank wouldn’t be so terrible …”
The Premise: Oh come on. It’s Misery. You know the premise: After a car accident in the middle of nowhere, a genre fiction writer finds himself at the mercy of his number one fan.
The Writer: James Caan plays the novelist in question, who really wants to get away from the romantic misadventures of the titular heroine and dive into something more meaningful (read: literary). The age-old “commercial versus artistic” debate so many writers and other artists wrestle with finds a pretty literal (ha, pardon the pun) interpretation in this film based on – yep, you guessed it – a Stephen King work.
And our number one scary movie featuring a writer is …
#1: The Shining
The Premise: No surprise to anyone, I’m sure! The Shining, Spoiler alert: He does … sort of. But the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel have slightly bloodier intentions for the young family.
The Writer: One of only two movies on our list in which our writer characters — how can I put this without spoiling things for you? — don’t necessarily play the part of traditional heroes, The Shining could be read as an extended metaphor for what happens when you take your work entirely too seriously.
Or maybe it’s really about the age-old existential “long dark night of the soul” crisis most of us face eventually.
Whatever — it’s a great scary movie, ideal for Halloween season, as the nights get longer, and the temperatures creep down the scale into frigid territory, and the winds whistle around the corner and blow cold and OH MY GOD WHAT IS THAT BEHIND YOU.
Kidding! But — uh, leave the axe in the garage. Just in case.
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