This Column Is Based on a True Story
By Desmond Reddick
09 April 2007 — The phrase "based on a true story" has been attached to numerous films — horror and otherwise. When searching for the phrase in the Internet Movie Database, everything from Shadow of the Vampire to From Hell, The Philadelphia Experiment to Open Water — and countless TV movies — surface. Needless to say, the phrase is not often taken too seriously. Horror films which are based on actual events swing between two points: those which are influenced by a theme (i.e. Psycho) and those which go to graphical extremes (i.e. Wolf Creek). I will be examining each of these cases in the following essay.
The exploitation angle of true stories turned into horror films is very easy to discredit. The glut of Nazisploitation films clearly proves that. Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS begins by saying that the atrocities committed in the film are documented as real and that the producers of the film hope that crimes like these never happen again. And then the film goes on to have beautiful naked women tortured with vibrators wrapped in electric coils! But there is some value to these films. For the most part, Nazisploitation films are disgusting and without merit, but the other side of the coin is the Hong Kong film, Men Behind the Sun. This film depicts the treatment of Chinese and Russian immigrants by Japanese soldiers and scientists who tested new biological weapons on them during World War II. It is a quiet, disturbing film that is only made more potent when one considers that the men who committed these atrocities went unpunished.
Of course, the alternative is never better illustrated than by Ulli Lommel's recent spate of serial killer biopics: Zodiac Killer (not to be confused with Zodiac), B.T.K. Killer, Green River Killer and Black Dahlia (not to be confused with The Black Dahlia). The term "biopic" is used very liberally here... seeing as these films are nothing more than exploitative torture porn given a real-life background. What makes them worse than, say, Hostel? One could argue that the victims in Hostel were fictional characters whose pain and torture was based on an urban legend, not factual events. Lommel's films not only carry brutal visions of violence, they portray real victims. There is very little difference between Lommel's films and a graphical recreation of the murders perpetrated by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Columbine High School; there's films based on real life and then there's exploitation.
I am currently more interested in another kind of film. Let me first posit this question: were you aware that Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Silence of the Lambs are all based on true stories? They are. In fact they are all based on the same true story; the cannibalistic necrophiliac Ed Gein murdered and skinned his prey. He fashioned masks from their faces, made bowls of skulls, leathered skin was stretched into lampshades, bones became furniture, vest... you don't want to know about the vests. The discovery of his atrocious crimes made Gein one of America's most notorious killers and inspired some of Hollywood's most notable villains: Norman Bates, Leatherface and Buffalo Bill. Each film took these real events as an influence, shaping them to fit the characters and plot, but never represented the actual victims.
Not to be overlooked is the hype associated with these "based on a true story" movies. John Larroquette's now famous opening narration in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre insisted the following "account" was real, creating quite a stir. As did the poster copy: "What happened is true. Now the motion picture that's just as real." Despite being based on the aforementioned Gein murders, the narration was all hype. But some people insist otherwise. They claim the real Leatherface is in jail, rotting somewhere for his crimes. Newspaper clippings have supposedly been read by others. And there are some who believe people were accidentally killed by chainsaws... on screen! The opening narration, used as a marketing tool to promote a low-budget film, made the film, the director and its gruesome star legends.
The Blair Witch Project was another such film. The marketing behind this tiny picture pushed it to the forefront of American culture. A week after its opening I saw Witch with coworkers. Afterwards all of them chattered about "how horrible it must have been for those people." They believed it! They bought into the hype, despite the mounds of evidence to the contrary, such as the film's soundtrack. Josh's Blair Witch Mix was supposedly comprised of the songs Josh had used to make a mixtape, and it was supposedly found in the tape deck of their abandoned car. Funny how the bands on Josh's mixtape all belonged to the same record label.
And one simply can't cover the subject of hyping "true" stories without at least mentioning the most notorious offender of the bunch: The Amityville Horror. When George and Kathy Lutz moved into the infamous white house, they never knew the controversy (or windfall) they would receive. In what has to be the most famous haunting in America's history, the very name "Amityville" has lived on to become synonymous with a place where something just isn't right... and of course spawned several books, films (including a remake) and speaking engagements. But, it has now come to light that it wasn't the evil spirits that drove the Lutzes from their new home after only 28 days... it was the insurmountable mortgage. Successive owners of the house had their lawsuit settled out of court when they sued the Lutzes and Jay Anson (author of the book) for stress caused by constant house-callers. The former defense lawyer for the original murderer confessed recently that he and the Lutzes made up the hoax after getting drunk in order to garner money and a retrial for his client.
As an influence and a hype machine, the "based on a true story" banner is much better received than through the dramatic portrayal of real people's deaths. Exploitation films in this sub-genre not only desensitize us to the real situation, they make it a spectacle. They make us complicit in the exploitation. Rather than exploiting the deaths of real victims, a horror film is always better when it makes you think it could happen to you.