At least half of the horror movies nowadays feature, around the opening credits scene, a disclaimer: “based on true events” (or something similar).
Some people get incredibly excited by that, even though most of horror fans should be aware of the fact that only a handful of movies are actually based on true stories and an even smaller group of flicks closely follows the events their based on.
Some movies – like The Blair Witch Project (1999) and The Fourth Kind (2009) – cheated on the audience by setting up a clever marketing campaign that marketed them as real. Others utilise the “based on a true story” in a misleading way (for example The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, 1974 and The Strangers, 2008), since by “based on a true story” they simply mean it’s true that somebody, somewhere got killed… oh really? Other movies just lie: for example, The Changeling (1980) and The Haunting in Connecticut (2009) claim to be based on true events even though that’s just a big, fat lie. Before you stone me, I’m not saying these movies are bad: as a matter of fact, I really like most of the ones I mentioned. It’s just a fact that they aren’t actually based on true events.
There are, however, a few horror movies – most of which combine horror and drama – that are indeed based on true events. We are talking about cinema, so I suggest you to take this list of 10 films with a grain of salt since most of them are only loosely based on true stories. This list is based on facts (I get the information from relatable sources and after double checking them, I didn’t just read headlines on the internet) and I ranked the movies according to my personal opinions and taste… don’t get mad at me!
10 Open Water (2003) – this ‘edge-of-the-seat’ type of movie follows two scuba divers accidentally stranded in shark-infested waters after their tour boat has left. This American movie is based on the story of Tom and Eileen Lonergan who, in 1998, disappeared off the Great Barrier Reef after a diving company accidentally left them behind in shark-infested waters. Contrarily to the movie, however, their bodies were never found. If you want to know more about this unsettling story, check this link.
9 Borderland (2007) – Rider Strong and Sean Astin star in Borderland, a film that centers on three friends who head down to Mexico to celebrate their college graduation but stumble upon a cult that practices human sacrifice. The film is loosely based on the life of Adolfo Constanzo, an American-born serial killer and cult leader who moved to Mexico City as an adult where he met friends who would become his future followers. Although Borderland is not a very well-made movie, the true story behind it is genuinely scary: Constanzo wanted to add human remains to the ingredients for his spells. At first he robbed graves, but he wanted fresh ingredients. Mutilated bodies started to turn up around the city. Constanzo would skin and/or dismember his victims alive, making sure to kill them in the most painful way possible. The body count during this period is unclear, but he tortured and killed at least 20 people during this time.
8 Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1975) – regarded as an exploitation classic (as well as the epitome of Nazi-sploitation. Yes, this is also a subgenre of horror), Ilsa walks the viewer through exploitative torture, sexual abuse and over-the-top Nazi violence. As much as this might seem just another cheap exploitation flick, the character of Ilsa is inspired by Ilsa Koch and Irma Grese, two female concentration camp guards, who went down in history as committing the most mythically horrifying personal atrocities of the Third Reich.
7 Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) – described by the BBC as “quite possibly the most harrowing real-life serial killer movie ever made,” John McNaughton’s 1986 directorial debut Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is essentially a three-hander between Henry (Michael Rooker), his roommate and later partner-in-crime Otis (Tom Towles) and his oblivious 20-something sister Becky (Tracy Arnold). The movie works as a greedy portrait (unsurprisingly, am I right?) of notorious, convicted Texan serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. He claimed to have killed more than 600 people, whereas in actuality he was convicted for the murder of ‘only’ 11. Henry follows more closely the claims of Lee Lucas than it does the actual events, but it’s still a highly impactful horror movie.
6 The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) – Jennifer Carpenter and Tom Wilkinson star in this unconventional possession flick. This horror/courtroom drama revolves around the actual story of Anna Elisabeth “Anneliese” Michel, a German girl who, after suffering from a major seizure and being diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy, was forced by her family to be subjected to an exorcism. The exorcism caused her untimely death that, according to judges and detectives who investigated the case, could have been avoided, since the girl’s ‘possession’ was only the result of a combination between her religious upbringing and psychological conditions.
5 The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) – This 1976 movie (and its 2014 remake) told the tale of the residents of Texarkana, Texas, who were terrorised by a mysterious hooded killer known as the “Phantom Killer”. This story is very close to the truth, as the Texarkana Moonlight Murders really did happen in the spring of 1946. Executed in a slasher-esque and exploitative way, the only difference between movie and real events consists of tone… the rest is pretty accurate. If you haven’t seen it, check the original out; don’t bother with the umpteenth subpar remake.
4 Cannibal (2006) – This German shocker by Marian Dora (a director who is seemingly always surrounded by controversy) is based on the true-crime story of Armin Meiwes, the “Rotenburg Cannibal” who posted an online ad searching for someone to volunteer to be mutilated and eaten. Unlikely as it may seem, someone actually replied. The film shows a fictional portrayal of the meeting between the cannibal and his victim/participant, their homosexual relationship, and the eventual mutilation and murder of said victim. Extremely close to the actual events, Cannibal sets itself apart from most horror movies because it’s a (perhaps weird and twisted) romance before being a horror flick.
3 Wolf Creek (2005) – the plot of Wolf Creek follows three backpackers in Australia whose car breaks down in the middle of the outback. They are taken in by a supposedly helpful man who offers to fix their car at his property, but he soon shows his true colours, imprisoning and torturing the tourists. This great Aussie flick was written and directed by Greg McClean, who took inspiration for his movie from two actual serial killers: The Backpack Killer (active in the mid-90s) and The Outback Killer (active in the early 00s). Wolf Creek follows (and combines) the events so closely that, during the trial in 2005, a judge felt it may potentially influence the case of Brad Murdoch (The Outback Killer).
2 Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre (1995) – coming straight from Hong Kong, this war/drama movie based on actual events has more horrific and disturbing scenes than 95% of the horror flicks I watched. Set in 1937, the movie follows Japanese troops that raided the Chinese city of Nanking to execute a planned massacre by subjecting over 300.000 helpless civilians to various tortures and atrocities before slaughtering them all. The inclusion of fictional messed up scenes, in combination with actual footage from the massacre (!), makes this film hard to watch and truly disturbing.
1 The Girl Next Door and An American Crime (2007) – both movies, released the same year, tell the true, horrific and disgusting story of suburban housewife Gertrude Baniszewski, who kept a teenage girl locked in the basement of her Indiana home during the 1960s. Whereas An American Crime is a much more truthful representation of the events (so I’d recommend it for that), The Girl Next Door is a superior film in terms of performances, dreadful and disturbing feel, and horror vibe. I’d still suggest to check them both out, just bear in mind they might affect you deeply due to their close representation of a horrendous crime.
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