Is there anything more cliché’? More hoary and hackneyed? More played out? The Haunted House “trope” has been beaten to death, thanks to Scooby Doo, ABC After School Specials, and a ton of pop cultural appropriations. Along with the ghosts who frequently accompany them, no other supernatural occurrence has been so abused and ridiculed as the Haunted House.
And yet, some of the best horror movies ever made are haunted house movies. Some of the most terrifying films of all are about something being left behind, or being “not quite right” about the cornerstone of our notions of safety and security. Houses—our homes—are our defense against the forces of darkness that stop at our threshold. When our own walls revolt and offer us no protection, what hope do we have? That’s where the best haunted house movies get us: right where we live.
I’ve only got one criteria for haunted house movies: am I scared? Okay, I have two criteria: is the story around which the haunt revolves believable? That drift into incredulity has sunk many a promising horror movie, and all the jump scares in the world won’t save a movie where we get to the end and I yell out, “THAT was the reason?” or “They were WHAT?” or just “How STUPID!” Good stories and tight scripts make better horror movies than big budget messes.
5. The Changeling (1980)
George C. Scott takes center stage as an author (it’s always authors, isn’t it?) who buys a house, only to discover some freakiness inside. He starts to investigate and as he gets more and more of the story, he gets drawn further and further into the mystery. And what’s with the banging sound on the pipes, anyway?
A quietly effective horror movie, The Changeling leans heavily on Scott to react to not very much and thankfully, he carries it off. The mystery is a good one, and the reveal is not only creepy, but sad as well. In many ways, it’s the classic ghost story, made bigger and more scary.
4. Paranormal Activity (2009)
A new couple, a guy who can’t stop filming his life (and his wife) because we are in the age of selfie-narcissists, and a couple of questionable artifacts found in their modern home; what could possibly go wrong? Another “found footage” movie that enjoyed a brief renaissance for about eighteen months, this little quickie horror film has spun off into a legitimate franchise with three movies released and a fourth on the way.
Taking a couple of pages from the video vérité movement of the 1990s that started with The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity manages to do a lot with very little. The rumored budget for this minor epic was a mere $15,000. I mean, it’s web cams and surveillance video, how expensive can it be? This is one of the few times when the lack of professional equipment actually helps the production, as we can’t always get a clear picture of what’s going on and that adds to the Bump-in-the-Night factor. You may not like the other movies in the series, but the first one is certainly worth a look.
3. The Haunting (1963)
Hill House, having claimed the lives of several women, is now playing host to a parapsychologist and his charges as they investigate these claims of supernatural activity. One of the women, Elenor, is freaking out almost from the get-go. She’s obviously disturbed by the death of her mother, and less-obviously unsettled by the paranormal activity no one else can confirm. Is it all in her head, or is she being targeted by the spirits in Hill House?
If you are one of those people who think black and white movies aren’t scary, then I challenge you to watch this one and then go right to sleep. Based on the book The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, the film sort of finds its own way with a fearless cast, unafraid to embrace the material and milk it for all it’s worth. The movie teeters on the edge of melodrama, but skillful editing and some great camera work manage to allay some of the soap opera hysterics and allow the viewer to decide for themselves what’s really going on. The Haunting one of the great “something out of nothing” movies, a film that manages to be scary and suspenseful using something that Hollywood used to value called acting. Genius.
2. Poltergeist (1982)
Children today don’t know what it was like when television officially ended until the next day. That sudden burst of static, along with the weird digital “snow,” was a strange kind of phenomenon. It was usually your cue to go to bed, but how could you possibly be expected to sleep after watching the midnight movie? Certainly not little Carol Anne, who hears something inside of that particular frequency that the other members of her family can’t hear, what with the family dog going nuts and barking at mid-air. The family descends upon the ruckus to find their little girl sitting in front of the television. “They’re HEEeere,” she announces. Everything after that is a delicious mix of slice-of-life suburbia meets sheer terror.
Directed by Tobe Hooper and produced, co-written (and, depending on who you talk to, co-directed) by Steven Spielberg, this film continues to be disturbing and horrifying. There’s certainly an air of prognostication to the plot (corporate greed is the root of all evil) that makes the movie more contemporary than other horror movies made around the same time. The shots of the neighborhood, the kids and certainly the tone of the early parts of the movie feel exactly like the neighborhoods in E.T. and The Goonies and other fixtures of the Spielberg suburban landscape. That’s partially what makes the horror so effective. When the supernatural shenanigans start stacking up and Carol Anne goes missing, the rest is all chaos and madness and I’m quite certain that the takeaway from the movie is that nothing matters in the end, least of all the things that own us.
1. The Shining (1980)
Jack Nicholson needs his peace and quiet so he can write; we’re told this at the beginning of The Shining, and we don’t think much about it after that. Mostly because there’s too much going on with the rest of the family as they adjust to Jack’s new job as the caretaker of the Overlook Hotel. Between the hedge maze, the boy’s talking finger, Shelly Duvall’s constant look of google-eyed fear, and oh yeah, those creepy twin girls, it’s no wonder Jack has to take up the axe and run through the hotel bellowing.
Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, made all the more creepy by the casting choices and now the conspiracy theory that surrounds Kubrick and the movie. The Shining bears only a glancing resemblance to the excellent book by Stephen King, but this is one of the few times when people don’t complain about it (well, everyone except King himself, that is). The horror and tension is a slow burn until the final thirty minutes when all hell breaks loose. There are creeps and jumps for just about every phobia and even a couple of new ones. If you haven’t seen it, you’re missing one of Kubrick’s best movies and a milestone of 80’s horror.
For the newcomers: This is part of a larger series of articles. You can find last October's offerings here.