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Stranger Than Fiction

There may be no larger cinematic okie-doke than the “based on a true story” tagline. Mostly used by horror films, this sometimes gimmicky, always controversial attention-grabber walks a fine line between fiction and reality. What typically happens is you’ll watch a film that’s branded with the “true story” peg and then consult trusty Google for the facts, but are then met with adverbs such as “loosely” preceding “based.” Dig deeper, and you realize that the screenwriter read about some rather fucked-up event at some point and then streamlined the skeletal story down to its barest bone (ghost story; homicidal guy next door hiding body parts in his freezer) before dizzying the true crime with money-shots, CGI-compatible imagery, and extended scenes of carnage and/or creepy shit.

It’s often difficult to discern what’s directly referencing real events and what’s nothing deeper than a filmmaker’s crafty touch. In the case of this week’s The Haunting in Connecticut, it’s largely the latter. The film—which I’m seeing tomorrow night, so there’ll be no critical mass readable for now—takes the 1980s case of a Southington, Connecticut funeral parlor turned home that allegedly housed more evil spirits than Poltergeist’s one, two and three and goes to ghost-town. “Ectoplasm” shoots out of a kid’s mouth, a shower curtain attempts to strangle a girl and cryptic text is burnt on to one teenage boy’s skin. All for movie-watching effect, of course. Those blinded by that “based on a true story” tag, though, may very well believe that shower curtains really can attempt suffocation. Other than an especially-ambitious shower curtain copping a breeze-assisted feel on a well-endowed lady or two, such crude powers are fortunately unavailable at your nearest Bed, Bath & Beyond. You can bathe easy.

In recognition of the The Haunting in Connecticut hitting screens this weekend, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite “based on a true story” horror/suspense movies. There have been several terrible “based on…” flicks, too, but I’d much rather let those rot in cinematic oblivion. If I must cite a few, though, I’ll do it just to warn any prospective viewers. Avoid, at all cot-damn costs, the following films, most of which are lying anyway: 2005’s An American Haunting, 2007’s killer crocodile shit-show Primeval and After Dark Horrorfest 2009’s snail-sped Slaughter.

Here are my nine personal favorite “good” ones, in chronological order:

The Exorcist (1973)

Widely regarded as the scariest film of all time, The Exorcist needs little introduction. It’s everything that critics and film-fanatics have said. What some many not realize, however, is that the original 1971 novel, by William Peter Blatty, was based on an exorcism case from 1949. While he was a student at Georgetown University in the 1950s, Blatty heard a story about a 13-year-old boy named Robbie who had undergone about six weeks worth of exorcisms. After researching the account, Blatty turned began writing his novel. The rest is Hollywood history.

Bonus: Also a winner (but in no way, shape, or form even close to The Exorcist) is 2005’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which seems to be based on the court case of Anneliese Michel, of Germany. Considered a victim of demonic possession, she underwent a year’s worth of weekly exorcisms between September 1975 and July 1976, the latter portion of which were accused of causing her death at age 24.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, and 2003’s remake)

This one is the most debatable of the lot. Tobe Hooper’s original ‘74 film was directly inspired by a trip to Sears, actually, when, after waiting on line for a frustratingly long period of time, Hooper glanced over at a for-sale chainsaw and envisioned slicing his way to the register (he tells this story in the awesome 2000 documentary An American Nightmare). Beyond the film’s primary instrument of murder, though, Hooper loosely based his film around the real-life case of Ed Gein, a Wisconsin man who, in the mid-1950s, murdered several victims and kept their body parts in his home before eating them. Like the movie’s Leatherface, Gein wore the scalps and faces of his victims, but, unlike Leatherface, Gein worked alone.

Bonus: Gein also inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs.

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