Ah, the tortured artist, a staple of film and literature for some time, a stock character that’s perennial and often overly romanticized. There are plenty of real-life examples, too. Think Sylvia Plath struggling to raise her kids during those frigid winters, while her hubby Ted Hughes soaked up all the poetry accolades and went off to do who knows what. Or maybe Jack Kerouac, staying up all night, downing Benzedrine to write. Even within the horror genre, there are countless examples of frustrated artists, struggling to chase down the muse. Jack Torrance, snowed in at the Overlook, is one of the genre’s most shining examples. But there are plenty of others, including Spider One’s recent directorial debut, the anthology Allegoria.
We composed a list of our favorite genre films featuring artists who can’t quite meet the muse.
1. Shirley (2020)
Elisabeth Moss is one of the best actresses working in the genre. She’s phenomenal in this particular feature as Shirley Jackson. While Shirley isn’t a horror film, per se, it is a nerve-splicing drama about one of horror’s most important authors. Directed by Josephine Decker, Shirley has much to say about female ambition, negative reactions to the author’s work, and her struggle to move out of her husband’s shadow. The other storyline here, following a young housewife, Rose (Odessa Young), and her hubby, an ambitious young academic, Fred (Logan Lerman), is equally as fascinating. This one is a must-see for Jackson fans and quite a depiction of 1950s America.
2. Sinister (2012)
Director Scott Derrickson and Ethan Hawke make quite a pair. Just watch The Black Phone. Before that, there was Sinister, a contemporary classic and slow-burn creepfest. Hawke plays washed-up crime writer Ellison Oswalt. He fears his best work is behind him and scoffs when seeing himself in televised interviews. However, he finds a new source of inspiration in the form of a box of super 8 home movies in his new home. The footage reveals chilling details about a murder he’s researching by the work of a killer whose legacy dates back to the 1960s. The writer can’t pull himself away and locks himself in the basement, staring for hours at rolls of footage, each grainy home movie more unnerving than the last. The has-been writer may have found a new muse, but it comes at a steep price. While Sinister contains plenty of scares, it’s also a stellar depiction of an artist’s obsession to be relevant again and to create new work.
3. Candyman (2021)
Nia DaCosta’s Candyman is both a reimagining of Bernard Rose’s initial film and an extension of the Candyman mythos. Described as a “spiritual sequel,” the film returns to the now-gentrified Cabrini-Green neighborhood in Chicago. There, artist Anthony McVoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) wants to showcase art that matters, that depicts the history of the Black community, including its pain. But his work might be too much for Chicago’s commercial galleries and the upper-class folks moving into neighborhoods like Cabrini-Green. When he starts photographing the neighborhood and learning its storied history, he’s possessed by the one and only Candyman, which inspires his darkest art yet. DaCosta’s film has some stunning visuals, especially during the opening sequence, body horror, and well-crafted commentary. Though the ending is a bit rushed, Candyman’s tortured artist thread is a new take on the hooked killer.
4. The Midnight Meat Train (2008)
If you ask me, The Midnight Meat Train is one of the better film adaptations of Clive Barker’s work. It’s also one of the most overlooked. Based on Barker’s short story of the same name, the feature stars Bradley Cooper as Leon, a photographer. Crushed after a gallery owner rejects his work and tells him he doesn’t take enough risks, Leon takes grisly shots of the city and tries to track down the serial killer dubbed “Subway Butcher.” Leon grows more and more obsessive about capturing brutal photos, and this film has plenty of blood, guts, and gore, typical of Barker’s work. It’s a delight to see nice guy Cooper in such a nasty little film.
5. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)
Renowned horror director Dario Argento’s first film follows an American writer, Sam Dalmas (Tony Mustane), who has a major case of writer’s block. Living in Rome with his girlfriend, Julia (Suzy Kendall), he witnesses an unsuccessful murder attempt at an art gallery. Sam soon gets caught up in the killer’s carnage. Tenebre, another Argento giallo, also follows an American author in Italy.
6. Crimes of the Future (2022)
Okay, maybe David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future isn’t a typical tortured artist narrative. It is, however, a film about two performance artists, Saul (Viggo Mortensen) and Caprice (Lea Seydoux), who publically showcase Saul’s new organs during their avant-garde shows. With a running motto throughout the film, “Surgery is the new sex,” Crimes of the Future is a lot to take in visually and thematically. There’s much here to mine regarding the nature of art, body horror, technology, and even transhumanism. The film also asks, how do you keep spectators engaged? After all, you’re only as good as your last performance.
7. The Devil’s Candy (2015)
Empire Records and Can’t Hardly Wait are two of my favorite 90s films, so I’m always down to watch whatever features Ethan Embry. The Devil’s Candy is a wild ride about a struggling painter, Jesse (Embry), who moves his family into a dream home in rural Texas. The only problem is that Jesse, like the musician who lived in the home prior, starts hearing voices. This inspires him to paint freaky images, including lots of upside-down crosses. The film gets more bonkers from there, and it’s best to say as little as possible.
8. M.F.A. (2017)
Director Natalie Leite’s uneasy but powerful film follows an introverted California art student, Noelle (Francesca Eastwood). She accepts an invite to a party by a classmate she crushes on. He lures her to his bedroom and rapes her. The following night, she confronts him and accidentally kills him in a moment of anger and rage. After this, she feels a surge of inspiration that fuels new artistic work. Her thirst for revenge grows against those who assault women. A tough rape-revenge watch, M.F.A. is also a moving narrative about a young woman who finds her agency and thus, her inspiration.
9. Frankenstein (1931)
James Whale’s brilliant adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel may not initially spring to mind when the archetype of “tortured artist” comes up. But hear me out. Shelley’s novel and Whale’s film are about creation. Colin Clive’s iconic performance as Dr. Frankenstein is cinema gold. He’s a frustrated artist through and through, eager for his name to last through the ages. He wants his work/creation to bring him immortality and cement a legacy that can’t be erased. The problem is that he abandons the Monster (Boris Karloff) once he shows signs of life, and well, we know what happens from there. The relationship between the scientist and Monster is more complex and nuanced in Shelley’s pages. However, Whale’s adaptation is simply one of the finest horror films and the golden age of the Universal Monsters. Karloff really brought the Monster to life, endowing him with pathos and humanity, as well as a look that solidified the image we still have of the Creature. Clive’s performance is equally as good, playing a character willing to push the limits of life and death for the sake of fame.
10. The Shining (1980)
To this day, Stephen King still dislikes Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation. King often describes it as “cold.” But you can’t deny the power of the film, especially Jack Nicholson’s performance as a fledgling writer, husband, and father Jack Torrance. King may have a point that Torrance is a little too crazy from the get-go in Kubrick’s film. However, there are so many iconic scenes. The “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” sequence is undoubtedly one of the best depictions of a tortured artist to date. Poor Jack just can’t finish that novel, or even start it, for that matter.
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his wife or curling up on the couch, and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.