The horror genre is always the first to jump on the bandwagon of any sort of gimmick that gets butts in the seats. Life insurance policies, 3-D, found footage, "See Paris Hilton Die" ... but let's be honest: Nothing is a better sales tool than real life.
Slap the label "Based on a True Story" in ominous red letters on that poster, and you've got yourself a surefire scare flick. People say to themselves, "Well, if it could happen to those people ..." Hang on, though, because while a storyline may have at least one toe in the waters of fact, there are varying degrees of "true" in the horror game.
We're taking a gander at the best this gambit has to offer. You can be sure that whether they happened for truthsies or not, these nine shockers have what it takes to frighten you out of your jammies.
9. 'The Strangers' (2008)
This entry has by far the loosest interpretation of "Based on a True Story" ever. The home invasion thriller stars Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman as a couple that's stalked and assaulted by weirdos in masks and ultimately run through the bloody wringer. According to director Bryan Bertino, the story was based on an incident from his childhood in which strangers who came to the door turned out to be scoping the neighborhood to rob it, which scared him and made him think of this scenario. Wha? Uh, okay.
8. 'Wolf Creek' (2005)
In this Australian torture porn, Mick Taylor (John Jarratt) is a kind of Crocodile Dundoom who finds three tourists having car problems and adds "killer trouble" to their itinerary. Mick is based on outback backpacker killer Ivan Milat, who was positively identified by "the one that got away." Jarratt went to great lengths to emulate Milat, including not showering for weeks. The film also borrows from the profile of another grisly murderer, Bradley John Murdoch. Though it takes facts piecemeal from several actual crimes, the film is a subversive twist on modern horror conventions in which a group of young folk get whittled down until, typically, one tough woman remains to confront the killer. That ain't what happens here.
7. 'The Exorcism of Emily Rose' (2005)
Most exorcist-related movies, including "The Exorcist," have claimed in one way or another to be based on fact, inspired by a true story, or overheard in a crowded lunchroom. For the well-marketed "Emily Rose," director Scott Derrickson and his cowriter Paul Boardman drew on the life of a German Catholic girl named Anneliese Michel, whose diagnosis of epilepsy was reinterpreted by her and two priests as full-on possession. She was given a rigorous four-hour exorcism session 67 times over 10 months before dying of starvation. Geez, maybe try Pilates next time? The Americanized film is based on the resulting trial, but the writers used terrifying audiotapes of the real exorcism to pitch it to studios.
6. 'Bram Stoker's Dracula' (1992)
More than just an opportunity for Francis Ford Coppola to go apes**t with outrageous production design and costumes, this was also the first major theatrical film about the eponymous bloodsucker to draw from the historical source: Vlad the Impaler, Prince of Wallachia (now Romania). Vlad III's family name "Dracul" means "The Dragon," and during the 15th century his brutality in fighting the Ottoman Empire was legendary, with those he killed numbering in the tens of thousands. Gary Oldman brought his trademark intensity to the opening depicting Vlad during "The Impaler Years," forsaking God like some kind of Romanian Sid Vicious.
5. 'Dead Ringers' (1988)
So you're David Cronenberg, horror director from Canada, and you've just made "The Fly." How do you capitalize on your biggest commercial success? With a flick about twin gynecologists played by Jeremy Irons whose obsession with each other turns disturbing. Oh Canadians, you so crazy. Cronenberg drew from the story of identical twin gynos Stewart and Cyril Marcus, who were found dead from barbiturate withdrawal in their squalid Manhattan apartment. Another art house hero, director Peter Greenaway, claims his similarly themed twin self-destructo film "A Zed and Two Noughts" was also an influence.
4. 'Zodiac' (2007)
David Fincher's masterpiece is based on a pair of true-crime books written by Robert Graysmith, who was a cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle during the reign of the Zodiac Killer from 1968 to 1972. In the movie, Graysmith is portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal as a sweetly milquetoast wonk whose obsession with the case surpasses that of both the ace cop assigned to it and a reporter targeted by the cipher-happy serial killer. Although Fincher and his screenwriter James Vanderbilt spent 18 months investigating the material, their supposition of whacko Arthur Leigh Allen as most likely candidate is punctuated by a very loud "... ?" The open-endedness of it is not only honest, but also true to the nature of obsession the film explores.
3. 'Open Water' (2003)
In 1998 real-life couple Tom and Eileen Lonergan were on a scuba diving expedition along the Great Barrier Reef when the group just plumb forgot about them and left them behind. "Thanks a bunch, guys!" In case you can't put two and two together, they be dead now. How did they die? That's the question filmmaker Chris Kentis sought to answer as horrifically as possible for this sleeper hit in which the cause of the doomed pair's demise is ... SHHAAAAAAAAAARKS! With only a half-million dollar budget, the makers used a creative solution to avoid mechanical or CGI sharks: actual sharks. Now that's keepin' it real.
2. 'The Amityville Horror' (1979)
"I just wish all those people hadn't died here. I mean, eww, doesn't that bother you?" And with that refrain begins a take on the ol' haunted house chestnut so potent it managed to spawn seven sequels, a remake and a "Simpsons" parody. The "Amityville" mini-industry would be nowhere, however, without Jay Anson's account of the Lutz family who, like the Lutzes in the film, bought a murderhouse in Long Island for $80,000 dollars (a steal!) and got plagued by flies, ghosts, creepy voices and other stuff not outlined in their mortgage application. The movie featured a still-youthful James Brolin and a pre-insanity Margot Kidder, lookin' foxy in her ballet duds.
1. 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre' (1974)
Ed Gein has got to be the most cinematically influential nutjob the world has known. This good ol' boy from Plainfield, Wisconsin, only actually murdered two people; but his proclivity to exhume bodies and make trinkets, masks, and furniture out of their bones and skin has seared him into the popular imagination via "Psycho," "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Texas Chain Saw Massacre." Director Tobe Hooper's use of documentary-style grainy camerawork makes this trip into Leatherface's parlor all the more unsettling, but this killer's no more based in reality than Freddy Kruger or Jason, despite the movie's claims. Influenced by Gein? No question. Real? No, thank God. (Look for a 3-D take on "TCM" to hit theaters in January.)
(Originally published on Oct. 31, 2011)