Friday, December 4, 2009

Top 13: Haunted Houses in Film

by The Black Glove staff

Wow! This was one tough list to compile for this month’s Top 13. The main reason is that a lot of the best ‘haunted house’ movies tend to turn out not to be so haunted after all. One prime example of a film that I wanted very much to place on this list is one of my all time favorite horror films, the little seen, but highly regarded, SESSION 9. It takes place in a decaying, shut down insane asylum, and for most of the movie, we’re led to believe it is haunted—in a way. But the shock ending (and it does shock!) offers a decidedly non-supernatural explanation. Devastating end, but not haunted in the supernatural sense of the word. And, of course, for that same reason, several others of my favs didn’t make it: William Castle’s HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, Corman’s Poe classic, THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, etc., etc.
So, clearly our criteria for this list is that it has to be a real haunted house, with spectral happenings that cannot be explained through scientific or human means. And, of course, we tried to stick to earthbound domiciles, or else EVENT HORIZON, one of the most frightening films I’ve ever seen, would clearly have been at the top of the list somewhere.
All the greatest haunted house tales are about history, and every house that holds ghosts within its walls, does so because the people who once called it home have not left it, in effect, they are carrying on with their history. Termed ‘The Bad Place’ by Stephen King, in his landmark nonfiction book DANSE MACABRE, these places seek to be purged of their history, of their badness, or they will devour their inhabitants. And sometimes, The Bad Place ultimately becomes only a reflection for those who look upon it. Sometimes they carry their ghosts with them, and they are the haunted, not the domicile.
In literature, the haunted house is one of the best mirrors which a writer can hold up to his/her characters (see HOUSE OF LEAVES by Mark Danielewski, THE SHINING by Stephen King, and GHOST STORY by Peter Straub for three of the best examples of such ever written). But in film it becomes a bit harder to translate that sort of psychological mirror to the screen.
Below, I think you’ll find some of the best horror films ever made that have achieved that almost impossible task.
And with that being said, we present our list…

13. Paranormal Activity (2009)

A surprise hit, Paranormal Activity became the new record holder for highest grossing indie film (a record previously held by Phantasm, until The Blair Witch Project came along to knock it out o1st place). And is it scary as hell. It’s a truly disturbing story of an ordinary couple who think they might be living in a haunted house and decide to set up cameras to catch activity while their sleeping. Of course, they open a can of nasty supernatural worms by doing so, and soon discover that they aren’t living in Spielberg-land where all the ghosts are just confused Caspers. The end will leave you with nightmares.

12. The Uninvited (1944)

Based on a novel by Dorothy Macardle, UNEASY FREEHOLD, The Uninvited is one of those old Hollywood classics that has elegance, and yet conveys an underlying menace through use of German Expressionistic shadow and light play. Starring a young Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey as brother and sister who buy an enchanting seaside home, this is a quiet horror film. All seems to be perfect for them until they find a locked room that holds its own dark secrets from its new owners. The scares come from well placed cameras and some great acting, by a superior cast.

11. The Innocents (1961)

Based on Henry James’ classic psychological/supernatural thriller, TURN OF THE SCREW, producer/director Jack Clayton catches perfectly the gut-wrenching ambiguity of this house’s haunts. Deborah Carr plays the new, somewhat naïve, governess over two children who become increasingly strange. Are they possessed by the dead? Or is it all her imagination? There are scenes in this film that still have the power to make you recoil. Not in disgust, mind you; but because of well timed scares. If you want a classic to make you appreciate good filmmaking, this is the one.

10. The Sentinel (1977)

Based on a bestselling novel by Jeffrey Konvitz (notice a trend with good ghost stories?), THE SENTINEL isn’t what you’d call a political correct film by today’s standards, what with its obvious condemnation of homosexuals and lesbians. But it definitely knows how to frighten the hell out of its viewers. Young, beautiful fashion model Alison Parker (played by Cristina Raines) happens upon a hard to find apartment in a Brooklyn brownstone house, the top of which is rented out to others. Almost from the beginning she begins to suffer from unexplainable physical and mental ailments, and her boyfriend (Chris Sarandon) starts digging into the house’s past. Who is the old priest blind that lives in the very top of the house? And what exactly he is guarding the world against in the dark of night? And why is that only Alison can see her new neighbors? There are some genuinely disgusting and terrifying moments in THE SENTINEL—if you can overlook the judgmental attitude against gay lifestyles

9. The Changeling (1980)

This one wasn’t based on a book, but on a writer’s experiences living in the Henry Treat Rogers Mansion in Denver, Co. Gruff old George C. Scott, playing Dr. John Russell, a composer, moves across country following the deaths of his wife and young daughter in an effort to get his life back together. But before you can say ‘something ain’t right here’, he’s experiencing unnerving noises at night and things that move on their own. One of the best scenes in the movie involves a red ball falling down a staircase. Yeah, that doesn’t sound all that creepy, but believe me, it is when you see the movie. Like all great haunted house tales, there’s a mystery to solve, and he goes at with an eager tenacity that ultimately helps purge him of his pain and regrets. The atmosphere is moody and bleak, with a dark musical score to add to its mood.

8. Burnt Offerings (1976)

Based on Robert Marasco’s successful 1973 horror novel of the same name, late, great, legendary genre director Dan Curtis gets it right with this one. He casts his film with some of the greatest talents of the time—Karen Black, Oliver Reed, and Betty Davis. Black and Reed play the idyllic married couple (with a couple of perfect children to boot) who stumble upon a summer getaway rental that’s almost too good to be true. Well, actually, it is too good to be true…
All they have to do for their incredibly low rent is to water the plants and make sure the mysterious old woman in the locked room upstairs receives her meals on time every day.
Sounds simple enough. But the house is hungry for souls and the new family is its dinner. One disquieting scene after another follows, until the storm driven finale that unveils the house’s sinister secrets to a terrified Oliver Reed. The movie masterfully builds atmosphere and Curtis never again made a movie as good as this one in his career.

7. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)

Set in 1939 Spain, during the Spanish Civil War, this is a powerfully made film, full of pathos and earnest emotional impact. Del Toro’s ability at such a young age to find the gem of humanity in his characters is just simply nothing short of fantastic. Who would have though the same man who spit out an inferior piece of tripe like BLADE 2 could’ve created such a wonderfully melancholic film about a haunted orphanage? And his sense of humanity goes beyond the living, as he also gives the dead a life of their own that interweaves with the world of the living like a rich tapestry. His use of children’s POVs as the main storytelling device is genius. Even this early on in Del Toro’s career, you can see his style already taking firm hold on the narrative. If you see only one foreign made haunted house story, this should be the one.

6. Poltergeist (1982)

Leave it to producer Steven Spielberg to make haunted houses cute. Ostensibly, this was directed by Tobe Hooper, but some have said Spielberg called most of the shots on set—literally. And looking back on both men’s filmographies it becomes apparent that it’s true; Hooper was given short shrift on this project, and I’d guess anything scary we see in Poltergeist is probably due to Hooper’s insistence. But be that as it may, Poltergeist, for its time, was a mega success and is a pretty well constructed and spooky movie to watch. A family moves into a suburban neighborhood, into a newly constructed home (something that turns the whole haunted house sub-genre on its ear, for most haunted places have been around for a long time, and they are almost always isolated). Before long, strange things begin to happen: chairs stack themselves when no one is looking, cabinets open and close on their own, etc., etc. But what starts as a harmless game of the living and the dead soon turns horrible as the family’s youngest daughter is kidnapped and taken into the nether dimension by the angry dead Why’re they so angry, you ask? Well, seems like a bunch of greedy bastards decided to build the suburban neighborhood on top of an Indian burial ground. That’s right, Spielberg and company turned the haunted house gig into a socially aware protest picture. Still, the film is packed with great dialogue and great special effects and honest human characters. It’s a classic to see again and again.

5. The Others (2001)

Director Alejandro Amenabar partly based The Others on Henry James’ TURN OF THE SCREW (see The Innocents, above), but he definitely goes off into a new direction with this modern horror classic. If you haven’t seen it, the ending is a shocker. If you have seen it, then you know what I mean…and don’t you dare spoil it for others.
Nicole Kidman plays the first of her now trademark frosty characters as the mother of a couple weird little shut in children, who may or may not be seeing the dead roaming the halls of their sprawling, mist laden mansion. The oppressive and menacing atmosphere that Amenabar creates for his house is truly almost a character unto itself. There is no light at the end of this tunnel, folks, so be warned. You have to see it to know why this turned the haunted house genre on its head.

4. The Amityville Horror (1979)

Okay, so it turns out this supposedly ‘true account’ isn’t really so true. Looks like we now know that the Lutzs and author Jay Anson got together to create this haunted fantasy for the success of his bestselling novel of the same name. Don’t blame them, though. We’re the ones that want to believe in the after life--even if it’s full of slime and nasty demons.
Again, we find a young family, who buy a house that’s too good to be true, and soon their quiet little home is turned into a house of horrors. There are some particularly bone chilling moments in this film, especially when the demon pig starts showing up. Creepy doesn’t cover it.
Director Stuart Rosenberg does a masterful job of ratcheting up the chills by adding subtle touches in the beginning, to outright terror by the end as George Lutz (played by axe wielding James Brolin) seems to be possessed by the demons that drove one member of the previous family to murder his entire family with a shotgun. By the end of the movie, as the family races the escape the blood spewing walls and the cracking ceiling, we are on the edge of our seats. Now that is great horror filmmaking.
The house itself, with its creepy looking eye-like windows, has become one of the most enduring icons of horror.

3. Legend of Hell House (1973)

Based on Richard Matheson’s masterfully depraved and frightening novel, HELL HOUSE (and Matheson also wrote the screenplay for the film), this is one of the best of the best haunted house stories ever told. This is one of the first haunted house films to use science to try to explain the supernatural and meet it head on with scientific instruments and cold logic. Director John Hough, who has had a hell of a horror filmography, knows how to create the right atmosphere. The house is first shown as a giant in the frame, off kilter, looming, shrouded in mist and deathly silent, its windows boarded up. So when the four paranormal investigators enter its stalwart doors, we know they’re in for a hell of a ride. Clive Revill’s reasoned and logically scientist is hired by a rich benefactor to prove the existence of the afterlife, but Revill is really going into Hell House to attempt to purge the house of its evil via a machine he‘s created to suck the energies out of the place. Accompanied by his disbelieving wife and two psychics, he soon learns the true power of Hell House and its unearthly inhabitants.

2. The Shining (1980)

Yes, The Shining made yet another Top 13 list. Look, it’s a great film by a great director, from a story by the greatest living horror writer of all time. What do expect?
So if you haven’t already seen it…what cave have you been living in for the past 30 years?
Full of Kubrick’s signature weird touches (elevators full of blood, a giant labyrinth, creepy eye crawling carpets and homosexual men in bear suits), this took the successful King novel and sent it into a class of its own. There has never been a film as bleak and oppressive as The Shining, and in today’s filmmaking environment, I doubt there ever will. Jack Nicholson and Shelly Duvall are so believable as the Torrances that you feel for them every step of the way as the haunted hotel worms its way into their psyches and exploits their fears and weaknesses. And this has to be Scatman Crothers’ greatest screen moment.

1. The Haunting (1963)

Based on Shirley Jackson’s deeply disturbing tale of terror THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, this is the macdaddy of all haunted house pictures. It is the epitome of scary, with Robert Wise’s very wisely restrained use of sound and very little effects to convey the true terror of being assailed by an alien and malevolent supernatural force. But what gives this movie its sense of terror is Julie Harris’ all too real performance as the mentally disturbed Eleanor Lance, a young introvert woman who may or may not have psychic abilities, and may or may not be the cause of all the strange violence being perpetrated within Hill House’s walls. When Dr. Markway (played by genre great Richard Johnson) arrives at Hill House with volunteers (Julie Harris and Claire Bloom) and the new owner (Russ Tamblyn) to help him prove the existence of the ghosts in Hill House, he finds much more than he bargained for in his volunteers and the house. What happens in this movie is the standard by which all subsequent haunted house stories had to live up to. Sadly, most do not, If Robert Wise had never made another movie of this caliber he’d still be legend, but he’s also the director of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, THE BODY SNATCHERS and THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, just to name a few. This is a masterfully told horror story by one of the masters of film. It is simply a must see movie for all cinema fans—especially horror fans.

--Nickolas Cook