Home » Worst to First: Ranking the Lois Duncan Film Adaptations

Worst to First: Ranking the Lois Duncan Film Adaptations

Last year for Women in Horror month, I listed some of my favorite Lois Duncan novels. Duncan’s stories were a major part of my life during my formative years. She had a way of putting her finger on the pulse of teenage dreams and fears. From issues of self-esteem to peer-pressure, Duncan presented authentic teenagers placed in life threatening situations. These youths didn’t always do the right thing. And, unlike other young adult novels, they sometimes get away with their wrongdoings.

This year, I’m back with a list ranking the film adaptations of Duncan’s novels. Films based on her work are hit-or-miss, but always seem to offer some enjoyably suspenseful moments. For every amazing adaption of her work, there is another that falls apart by the end. No matter the quality of the picture, the truthful vision and thrilling imagination of the late author are never in doubt.

Related: Remembering the Author and the Mystery Behind Her Daughter’s Murder

Don’t Look Behind You

Based on the first Lois Duncan novel this writer read, 1999’s television movie quickly falls apart and is easily the worst adaptation of the author’s work. This is a complete disappointment as Duncan’s source material is among my favorite of her literary works. Jeff Corrigan (Patrick Duffy) turns in his boss (Dominic Raacke) to the F.B.I. and has to take his ex-wife (Pam Dawber) and children (Tanja Reichert and David Kaye) on the run. Scenes focusing on the central family are more successful and even offer up some suspense; however, as soon as the family comes into contact with F.B.I. agents or obnoxious boyfriends, the film becomes excruciating to watch. Ending on a less optimistic note, the book is a roller-coaster ride and highlights what is important in life. Meanwhile, the movie showcases bad acting and unrealistic characterizations.

Killing Mr. Griffin

Lois Duncan’s novel of the same name takes a look at the harmful effects of peer-pressure. As an adaption, 1997’s Killing Mr. Griffin has one of the strongest casts in the author’s film collection. Amy Jo Johnson is an excellent choice as Susan, and Mario Lopez has solid charisma as Dave. As teenage sociopath Mark Kinney, Scott Bairstow is genuinely believable. Up until the climax, Killing Mr. Griffin is an entertaining teenage suspense flick. Unfortunately, the film takes a wrong turn in the third act. The novel goes all the way in showing how dangerous peer-pressure can be, but the film inexplicably has the supporting cast decide to “do the right thing.” These unlikely actions by the students derail what could have been a truly scary ending. Still, the author’s point is made by the rest of the movie.

Held for Ransom

This direct-to-video release from 2000 is based on one of Lois Duncan’s earliest attempts at the horror genre. The feature adheres closely to the novel’s plot with some minor deviations. Having Dennis Hopper as the lead villain aids the production and overall, Held for Ransom works at selling the idea of five supposedly wealthy teens being kidnapped. Unlike most Duncan flicks, this one is clearly intended for a more mature audience. Containing both adult language and themes, this approach hinders rather than helps the movie. On paper, the suspense is derived from the internalized emotions of the teens, whereas on film, there is an obvious need to externalize the drama. Unfortunately, more often than not this comes across as sleazy filler as opposed to genuine horror. Nevertheless, Held for Ransom is probably good for a one-time viewing.

Check Out: Teen Screams: Most Underrated Post-Scream Slashers!

Stranger with My Face

Released in 2009, this Lois Duncan adaptation takes the general idea of the book and then falls short as a result of problematic casting. This is unfortunate because Stranger with My Face is a reasonably scary movie. Alexz Johnson plays the dual role of twin sisters Laurie and Lia. Johnson is adequate. However, the character is supposed to be an adopted girl of Native American heritage. Johnson is very Caucasian with blonde hair and blue eyes. Perhaps, the filmmakers wanted to make her look more like her movie mother (Catherine Hicks) in order to maintain the “surprise” element of the story. Fans of Lois Duncan will enjoy the engaging story. Still, a better adaption would have allowed Laurie’s portrayal to be more authentically represented.

I’ve Been Waiting for You 

Adapted from Duncan’s Gallows Hill, this 1998 supernatural horror film is surprisingly effective. Released during the resurgence of slashers in the late 1990’s, I’ve Been Waiting for You did not receive a theatrical release; however, the level of suspense and acting could have competed with the bigger budget flicks of the time. Sarah Zoltanne (Sarah Chalke) is a new student in a small town with a history of witchcraft. Incredibly superstitious, the residents come to suspect Sarah as a reincarnated witch out for revenge. The production values are lacking, but sincere performances help sell the sinister mystery.

Down a Dark Hall

This 2018 adaptation starring Uma Thurman and AnnaSophia Robb is quite close in tone and atmosphere to Lois Duncan’s original vision. At the same time, the feature finds a way to have a distinct energy all its own. Uma Thurman’s performance brings a level of clout to the shifty headmistress of an academy designed to bring out the best in troubled students. Robb plays one of these students named Kit. The headmistress is deceitfully using the students as vessels for artistic geniuses from the past. Kit realizes what is happening and desperately seeks help from her companions to bring this paranormal experience to an end. Down a Dark Hall has low-level scares, but the atmospheric style will undoubtedly appeal to horror fans.

Summer of Fear (aka Stranger in Our House)

A made-for-television feature directed by horror master Wes Craven, Summer of Fear is about a young woman named Rachel (Linda Blair) and her increasing suspicion that something is off about her cousin Julia (Lee Purcell). Summer of Fear contains solid moments of suspense and thrills despite feeling a bit dated. The involvement of horror greats Wes Craven and Linda Blair only helps the enduring appeal of this Lois Duncan adaptation. Even early in his career, Craven was able to make the most out of a limited budget. In addition, he was able to create something special for horror fans considering he would have to frame the story in a way that would also be appropriate for prime time audiences. (Special thanks to Zena Dixon for her recommendation on this one!)

Also See: Top Ten Wes Craven Movies!

I Know What You Did Last Summer

The obvious choice as the number one pick and, you know what, it fits. Premiering during the resurgence of slashers in the late 1990s, this choice is the most well-known by horror audiences. Unlike writer Kevin Williamson’s satirical mega-hit Scream (1996), I Know What You Did Last Summer is a straightforward slasher flick. Still, Williamson’s influence is all over the screen as he reframes Duncan’s 1973 novel. Replacing the novel’s killer with a hook-wielding fisherman, the suspenseful ideas from the source material are heightened into a fast-paced thriller. The cast works together as an ensemble as well as delivering memorable solo performances. Packed with intense chase sequences and a “keep you guessing” mystery, I Know What You Did Last Summer is a Lois Duncan adaptation not to be missed.

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Written by Justin Steele
Justin Steele is a graduate of Bowling Green State University. His focus was the representation of women and minorities in contemporary media. In addition to writing, he hosts the 411popCulture channel on YouTube. He enjoys Rep Theatre and once performed on Broadway. He currently resides in Cleveland, Ohio with his 15-year-old cat. He is a die-hard horror fan with a particular affinity for slasher films.
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