Essays · Movies

‘Paperbacks from Hell’ Go To The Movies!

A selection of our favorite adaptations from the goldmine that is paperback horror.
By  · Published on August 7th, 2019

If you’ve ever read a book that has a skeleton on the cover perhaps playing the banjo, riding a tricycle, working as a doctor, dressed for a wedding, or just straight up being a jack-in-the-box, then you more than likely have read what Grady Hendrix refers to as a “Paperback from Hell”.

It’s inarguable that Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell has reignited a passion in the horror community for the slue of genre paperback novels that came out of the 70s and 80s. A chronicle of this era in horror fiction, his non-fiction book is written from a place of passionate appreciation of what makes these stories so invigorating: their boundless imagination.

But thanks to that imagination, most of the big swings in these dime novels are hard to pull off the page faithfully for the screen. So in the hands of Hollywood, they get repackaged to become slightly more palatable for wider audiences, all without sacrificing that air of weirdism that you come to expect from the genre.

Without dipping our toes into the well-known waters of the works of Stephen King, or the more famous adaptations like The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Other, the following are a selection of our favorite films that you probably forgot were based on paperbacks in the first place! Dim the lights, pull up your favorite reading chair and get ready to fall into the mad world of paperback horror adaptations.

The Nest (1988)

The Nest

When I first read Gregory A. Douglas’ novel The Nest I was shocked. It legitimately had more gore, graphic depictions of eyeball hungry roaches, and awkward sex scenes than many of the best horror movies from the same year. But it managed to do it all with the teensy, tiniest bit of class. Sure, you just read an entire chapter devoted to a beach filled with the corpses of roach-eaten children, but you’re still certain your grandma would love it. Maybe it was just Douglas’ comprehensive research and writing style that, despite all the over-the-top carnage, it managed to find a modicum of decorum.

All of this is to say that the 1988 adaptation of The Nest took a hell of a lot of liberties with the original novel, cutting and pasting characters and arcs to create a similar, but wholly different, experience. And that experience is unfortunately mired in tedium. That is until the final act when the film gifts you with 25 minutes of unadulterated, balls to the walls, what-the-fuck-am-I-watching, 80’s practical effects madness. Without spoiling the fun, while this ending may not appear in the original novel, I can’t help but think that Douglas — whose real name is Eli Cantor — would have been thrilled by how gleefully gruesome it becomes. Let me put it this way, while the film’s logline is “coastal town gets infested by man-eating cockroaches”, The Nest easily has some of the greatest sequences of body horror you’ve almost certainly never seen. (Jacob Trussell)

The Keep (1983)


The Keep is the celebrated first volume of F. Paul Wilson’s six-part Adversary Cycle series. The Keep is a mesmerizing studio-mangled Brundlefly that needed more time in the oven. Both are good. But never the twain shall meet. The Keep is Michael Mann’s black sheep second feature and despite having the structural integrity of a wet saltine, the film itself is an expressionistic, vividly aesthetics-first plot-never experience. The Keep tells of a group of Nazis who set up shop in a supremely cursed fort in the Romanian mountains that, as it happens, was built to keep something in rather than out. Mann is on record as not being a fan of Wilson’s novel and on the whole, the film is less beholden to the horror genre of its source material and is more dreamlike as a result. While we are firmly of the opinion that The Keep slaps, if you lament what could have been, Wilson himself adapted his novel into a comic book in 2005. (Meg Shields)

The Guardian (1990)

The Guardian

William Friedkin is arguably the greatest director of all time. That’s not an exaggeration either. Scroll through his filmography and check out all of the gems his name is attached to. Even his lesser efforts are pretty amazing. Some of them didn’t find appreciation until years after their release, and The Guardian is one of those oddities that no one appreciated at the time. His other horror movie might be more sophisticated, but this is by far the most entertaining slice of scare fare in his oeuvre.

Based on The Nanny by Dan Greenberg, the story revolves around a couple who hire a nanny to look after their newborn child. It turns out to be a mistake, though, as said nanny is actually a druid who sacrificed babies to evil trees. It’s a silly movie, but it’s a great bloody time that also explores some fascinating Celtic mythology that more horror filmmakers should mine for material. Friedkin has since disassociated himself from the movie, but he ought to give himself a break. (Kieran Fisher)

Phantoms (1998)


Libraries are magical places, and while the internet has replaced some of its functions these days the brick and mortar buildings the preeminent hot spot for literary finds. I’ve “discovered” many books there over the years including one of the first true horror novels I ever read — Dean R. Koontz‘s Phantoms. The pitch-black cover drew me in, and the back copy about heads in ovens sealed the deal. It remains one of my favorite Koontz novels, so yeah, you could say I was pretty darn excited to see the 1998 film adaptation.

Pop culture has jokingly dictated that Joe “The Curse of Michael Myers” Chappelle’s film is “the bomb, yo,” but while I can’t defend it as great art I will praise it as terrific fun you sons of bitches. A 26-year-old Ben Affleck as town sheriff? A sloshed Peter O’Toole? An off his rocker and skeevy as hell Liev Schreiber? Plus some cool gore and effects work? It’s a good time at the movies for fans of the Dimension Films formula of putting young people in harm’s way and a creature feature in a late 90s cinematic landscape that consisted mostly of Scream knock-offs (and sequels). Sure it fumbles quite a bit and pales beside the source novel, but Phantoms is an entertaining monster movie that deserves to be more than a punchline. (Rob Hunter)

Of Unknown Origin (1983)

Unknown Origin

When Panos Cosmatos directed Nicolas Cage to armor up to fight leather-clad LSD demons in his film Mandy, it couldn’t have been anything other than a tribute to his father, George P. Cosmatos, directing Peter Weller to armor up to fight a brownstone destroying rat in his film Of Unknown Origin. Based on an out-of-print book by Chauncey Parker, Origin centers on Peter Weller’s Bart Hughes, a perfectly 80’s businessman, who stays home from a family vacation to finish a big project…but really to hunt down an even bigger rat.

As his spacious brownstone slowly starts to crumble due to the continued attacks by our rodent antagonist, Hughes’ mental state unravels as he fashions together weapons out of household objects that would, ironically, put the 1990’s Robocop riff on the Orkin Man to shame. The movie is pure cocaine energy fueled by a central performance from Weller that is the textbook definition of committed, especially as he opines about the historical context of rats at a dinner party, “Priests set out bowls of honey and milk to pamper some animal whose only contribution is famine, sickness, and death. It’s incredible.” Incredible indeed, Mr. Weller. (Jacob Trussell)

The Devil’s Advocate (1997)

Devils Advocate

John Grisham meets Rosemary’s Baby. At least, that’s what Taylor Hackford seems to be attempting with The Devil’s Advocate. In reality, Hackford produced a schlocky splash of trash that scores its thrills through deeply earnest performances from Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron bashing against Al Pacino’s over-the-top Beelzebub. Of course, ol’ scratch would dig on Sinatra.

Based on an even more lecherous leaning novel by Andrew Neiderman (a.k.a. V.C. Andrews’ posthumous ghostwriter), the film delights in dated satanic panic notions masked with plenty of awkward CGI morphing ripped straight from Michael Jackson’s “Remember The Time” music video. Hackford allows himself to wallow in the grotesque under the delusion that he’s telling a serious exploration of faith, but the deeper his sensibilities plummet, the more enjoyably repulsive The Devil’s Advocate becomes. (Brad Gullickson)

The Sentinel (1977)


It shouldn’t be surprising that Michael Winner‘s adaptation of Jeffrey Konvitz’s The Sentinel should take place in Brooklyn. Just look at the new neighbors of our central character Alison Parker. They’re quirky, open about their sexualities and hold birthday parties for their impeccably dressed cats. That’s some straight-up, textbook hipster shit if I’ve ever heard one. I should know, I live in Brooklyn and have a mustache. Hell, I wish my neighbors had floor parties for their animals! But I suppose, at the very least, I’m thankful that they aren’t denizens of hell run by a puckish Burgess Meredith.

The Sentinel may be best described to the horror aficionado as the perfect actualization of Lucio Fulci’s style on an American-made film. While the gore is used sparingly, when it’s utilized, it’s to a shocking degree, especially for a film of its time. The story feels like a long-lost fourth film in Fulci’s famous Gates of Hell trilogy. Perhaps the least Fulci thing about it is its cast, comprised of a whos-who of famous and soon to be famous movie stars, from Chris Sarandon and Christopher Walken, to Jeff Goldblum, Beverly D’Angelo, Tom Berenger, Eli Wallach, Jerry Orbach, William Hickey, Jose Ferrer, John Carradine, and Ava fucking Gardner, y’all. This movie is bursting at the seams with talent and it shows on screen. Produced and co-written by Konvitz, The Sentinel is a damn near perfect New York horror film. (Jacob Trussell)

Willard (2003)


Sorry, those of you who came here thinking we were going to hype the 1971 camp classic starring Bruce Davidson and Ernest Borgnine. Unfortunately for you, I am a big fan of “actors who are in totally different movies than the rest of the cast” and as a consequence, I stump for the 2003 Crispin Glover re-tread. Also, and this is very important, the Glover remake has more rats. Over five hundred if reports are to be believed. In either case, both films are based on Stephen Gilbert’s Ratman’s Notebooks, a 1968 short horror novel that features an antisocial misfit who gets on better with rats than his fellow man. Taking the shape of a series of diary entries, the recluse discovers that he can, in fact, control rats, and immediately exploits his talent to seek revenge on those who mistreated him. If the words “gnawing” and “infestation’ really do it for you, it is well worth checking out! (Meg Shields)

The Haunting of Julia (1977)


Based on the book Julia by Peter Straub, one of the best ways to describe Richard Loncrains adaptation, The Haunting of Julia, is as the Mia Farrow horror movie that thankfully isn’t directed by Roman Polanski. And while Rosemary’s Baby is what vaulted Farrow into the public eye, it’s Julia that I believe truly showcases how effortless of a talent she had.

Far more buttoned-up and respectable than some of the other pulpy films on this list, The Haunting of Julia (also known as Full Circle) is a grueling portrait of how depression and trauma can become all-consuming, strained through the lens of a gothic ghost story that could only come from the mind of Straub, author of Ghost Story, another creepy classic turned film.

It retains its paperback feeling through its lurid ideas and surprising body count, but it’s the emotional gut-punch opening that establishes the film’s tone, sustained by Farrow’s central performance, that cements the movie as far more than just another adaptation. To say The Haunting of Julia is a forgotten gem is an understatement. It’s a forgotten masterpiece. (Jacob Trussell)

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Jacob Trussell is a writer based in New York City. His editorial work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Rue Morgue Magazine, Film School Rejects, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the author of 'The Binge Watcher's Guide to The Twilight Zone' (Riverdale Avenue Books). Available to host your next spooky public access show. Find him on Twitter here: @JE_TRUSSELL (He/Him)