There is a special place in my heart for haunted house movies. Ghosts and ghouls haunting dark passages in old Victorian mansions; things that go bump in the night, skeletal trees reaching through windows, ancient Indian burial grounds, black cats, screeching bats … yeah. Awesome. Nothing better for Halloween than a good old fashioned house that drips blood. This obsession has nothing to do with the fact that I spent the first eleven years of my life living in a sprawling and dilapidated Victorian townhouse on 9 acres of woods and a grave in the backyard. Nothing at all.
Anyways, here are the movies that best exemplify all that I love about haunted houses.
10. HOLD THAT GHOST
Abbott and Costello tended to tangle with ghosts and ghouls. While their best will always be Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Hold That Ghost comes in a close second. This actually did freak me out when I was about five. Abbott and Costello, with some very funny ladies, have to stay the night in an old dark house that used to belong to a deceased mobster. It is an Abbott and Costello movie, which means sight gags and vaudeville routines a-plenty. Still, there are actually a number of scares, like the ghost (in a white bed sheet, actually) creeping into a bedroom through a hidden passages, or a murder in the basement.
9. THE ORPHANAGE
Children often figure in to haunted house stories because they are so easily ignored and easily endangered. They often return to seek revenge for their lost innocence, or their parents (usually mothers) return to wreak havoc for the loss of their child. But The Orphanage is more a tale of redemption than of revenge. It’s scary but it is also sad, a meditation on childhood and loss. One of the more thoughtful haunted house films, with ghosts that are not quite what they seem, and a complex, touching story at its core. Then again, there is that kid with a bag on his head …
8. THE WOMAN IN BLACK
Your classic haunted house narrative takes place in a Victorian mansion with creepy dolls, a dead nursery, winding staircases and a pissed off ghost. So: The Woman in Black. I love it when things happen just beyond a character’s shoulder, just out of focus, and that happens so much in The Woman in Black that it almost becomes funny. Almost. The Woman in Black builds the tension and then eases it without ever letting you get totally comfortable. While the backstory is actually fairly predictable, the behavior of the ghost is not. I’m not a fan of the ending, which feels pat and unfulfilled, but everything leading up to it is just great.
7. THE INNOCENTS
A version of Henry James’s kind-of ghost story Turn of the Screw, The Innocents falls into the ‘haunted house as map of the human psyche’ use of the genre. Like the book, it is never clear if the ghosts are real or if the apparent craziness of the main character explains all the horror. Is the governess protecting the children or endangering them? Are the kids really possessed by the ghosts of the former governess and the valet, or is she just batshit insane? It’s difficult to tell with the entire film focalized through her point of view. Oh, and no one does disturbed crazy woman like Deborah Kerr. No one.
6. JU-ON (THE GRUDGE)
Again with the creepy kids! I was torn about whether to include the original or the American remake, mostly because I saw the remake first and so anticipated a lot of the scares when I saw the original. But there’s no doubt that the original Japanese movie is the better film. It does not attempt to have a cohesive through-narrative, but rather connects six stories solely through their attachment to the house. What’s so awful about Ju-On is that it’s unfair. None of the characters deserve what happens to them; they’ve done nothing except happen to come in contact with the house. It’s a horror that can never be destroyed because it’s the remains of human anger and hate.
Speaking of the Japanese: House! There are no words. There are these school girls and a white cat and flying heads and this creepy old lady and musical numbers and the guy turns into bananas and … it’s totally fucked up. Just rent it. Seriously. Rent. It.
4. THE SHINING
You’ve seen it, I’ve seen it, we’ve all seen it. The elevator spewing blood, the creepy twins at the end of the hallway, All Work and No Play, Jack Nicholson with an ax … seriously, if you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out. Kubrick is rarely thought of as a horror filmmaker, but his one major foray into the genre is classic. The only difficulty I have is in believing that Jack Nicholson was ever not insane.
3. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY
The first, the best. Although it has now spawned three sequels (of varying quality, I must say) and a host of imitators, the original 2007 film remains the scariest of the franchise. It avoids major violence or CGI horror until the very end, relying on doors that move on their own, rustling of curtains, vague creeping shadows. Like Poltergeist, the terror lies in what is only hinted at, in the use of everyday items that take on sinister overtones. Rather than setting it in a creepy Victorian mansion, it all takes place in a standard San Diego suburb. But we also get the foundations of the genre with references to the occult, ouija boards, and family curses. For a haunted house movie, there’s none better.
Well, actually, there is. There’s Poltergeist, the original suburban haunted house movie. The TV people et al have already made Kai’s Top 17 Horror Movie Baddies, which I think shows just how freaky this movie can be. From the chairs being stacked in the center of the kitchen, to the TV people to that fucking clown doll that had me looking under my bed for years, it’s still scary. That scene when the guy begins pulling the skin off his face? Yeah. Don’t build a suburb on a cemetery.
1. THE HAUNTING
But all of those, scary though they are, do not hold a candle in my imagination or my affections, to Robert Wise’s 1963 film The Haunting. Do not trust the embarassing CGI remake for an accurate depiction of the ultimate haunted house. There are no ghosts in this one; it is the house itself that’s evil. So very evil. Canted angles, ghostly noises, strange passages down abnormally long hallways, things that go bump in the night, evil backstory … it’s all here, subtle and totally scary. The house seems to be closing in around the viewer, piling scare upon scare – the worst is a face that seems to emerge from the wallpaper amid the cries of a child – until the final, disturbing shot and voiceover. Like The Shining there’s an argument to be made that The Haunting is really a psychological thriller using the house to typify the main character’s neurotic descent into madness. Or maybe it’s just a fucking evil house.
It feels like a version of The Shining – family goes to stay at house that is totally haunted, terrible things begin to happen – but in some ways Burnt Offerings is more disturbing. Mostly due to Karen Black. Actually, entirely due to Karen Black. I will say no more, but I recommend renting it sometime. How often do you get to see Oliver Reed and Bette Davis in the same movie?
Remember, we here at Man, I Love Films don’t do definitive lists. We do our favorites and we want to hear yours. So, make sure and tell us about them in the comments section below.