All over the media, there’s haunted this, paranormal that. Celebrities tell ghost stories on TV; Hollywood remakes spooky-house movies from just about every era.
The horror…the horror just won’t go away.
Better than ever? Depends on who you talk to. But if the recent release of The Conjuring is any indication, the genre isn’t doing badly.
Directed by James Wan, who also helmed the original Saw and Insidious, the moderately low- budget film did exceptionally well at the box-office, taking in over $40 million. The film is based on true events that occurred to Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga), paranormal investigators who also worked on the Amityville horror case. Here, they are looking into the haunting of a Connecticut house inhabited by a couple and their five children. One of the kids feels a hand on her feet in bed, clapping is heard from an empty room, and other inexplicable phenomena plague them.
If a new/old-fangled R-rated shocker isn’t your cup of terror tea, however, you’ll probably be pleased to know that 1944’s The Uninvited is finally hitting on DVD and Blu-ray in October, presented in an extras-packed release from the Criterion Collection.
One of the most requested titles on DVD, the film follows a musician/critic (Ray Milland) and his sister (Ruth Hussey) as they purchase a seaside mansion, and soon discover why they were able to get it so inexpensively: It’s haunted! The new owners are beset with disturbances while Milland starts to fall in love with the previous owner’s granddaughter (Gail Russell). The logical Milland actually believes the place is spooked, and a séance is conducted to investigate further.
Boasting a memorable score by Victor Young, creepy atmospherics and fine acting, The Uninvited was an anomaly, a major studio release (Paramount) focusing on horror at a time when the genre was relegated to “B” pictures and producer Val Lewton’s works at RKO. Many of the hallmarks of haunted house movies to come can be found in this classic example of shudder-inducing cinema.
In light of the chills in the air during this scorching summer, we wondered: What are the best haunted house movies of all time?
We took the question to Mike W., our resident expert on all things horror. Read his top ten list…if you dare.
The Haunting (1963)
Robert Wise’s treatment of Shirley Jackson’s story gave nightmares to many baby boomers, so traumatized were they by the eerie sounds, oddball camera angles and creaky doors encountered by a paranormal investigator and others spending a night at the supposedly haunted Hill House. Richard Johnson, Claire Bloom, Julie Harris and Russ Tamblyn comprise the first-rate cast that leads you from one intense otherworldly encounter to the next.
The Changeling (1980)
After losing his family in a car accident, George C. Scott tries to recuperate in a big, old house in Seattle where he’s set to teach music at a nearby college. But unsettling clangs, unusual plumbing situations and a rickety wheelchair prompt him to investigate the house’s history further with help from a local historian (Trish Van Devere, Scott’s then wife). The further they dig, the creepier things get, leading to a frightening séance and skeletons coming out of the house’s closet. Director Peter Medak (The Ruling Class) seems to be having the time of his life, scaring us with sounds of ordinary things like bouncing balls and doors unlocking.
What do you get when the directors of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Jaws collaborate? How about a genuinely chilling exercise in shock! A suburban couple (JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson) slowly realize that their new home is haunted big time. Their youngest daughter has been sucked into the TV set. Then there’s the scary clown doll, the menacing tree and lots more. Tragic events occurred to a few people associated with this project, which makes Poltergeist even scarier.
Ghost Story (1981)
One way to help make a classic ghost yarn successful is to hire classic actors. And with John Irvin’s adaptation of Peter Straub’s book, it works. John Houseman, Fred Astaire, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Melvyn Douglas are the legends, playing members of a New England society with some skeletons in their closets. Enter Alice Krige, a ghostly presence with a connection to the seniors, and Craig Wasson, Fairbanks’ son, who comes back home after his sibling mysteriously dies. The cast is certainly classy, but the film doesn’t skimp on shocks thanks to some frightening makeup by the great Dick Smith, the man responsible for similar chores on The Exorcist.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
M. Night Shyamalan made a name for himself with this smashing spirit yarn, in which young Haley Joel Osment sees dead people and psychiatrist Bruce Willis tries to help him sort things out. M. Night’s expert script, Hitchcockian feel for the material, a superb cast and a smashing surprise ending helped catapult him to the Hollywood elite class overnight.
The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Politics, eerie atmospherics and shudders mesh marvelously in Guillermo Del Toro’s impressive saga of a young boy’s spine-chilling adventures in an orphanage towards the end of the Spanish Revolution. The boy encounters bullying urchins and threatening janitors, as well as the ghost of another orphan murdered before he arrived. Del Toro’s impressive sense of capturing impending doom and the threat of war add to the appropriately chilly atmosphere of the whole unsettling affair.
A haunted submarine? The premise works well with this overlooked offering co-scripted by Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) and directed by David Twohy (Pitch Black, The Arrival). Set during World War II, this dark and moody suspenser concerns a crew of a Tiger Shark who take in survivors of a British hospital ship that was attacked by the German fleet. Among the new passengers is a nurse (Olivia Williams) who suspects the sub’s skipper (Bruce Greenwood) and other have a hidden agenda. Adding to the tension are low oxygen levels, claustrophobic trappings, a Nazi U-boat on the lookout, several ghostly incidents, and an early appearance by Zack Gallifinakis.
The Eye (2002)
A coproduction of Hong Kong and Singapore from the Pang Brothers, The Eye tells of a blind classical pianist who is given a cornea transplant with eyes taken from a woman who committed suicide. With her new sense of sight, she begins to have visions of horrifying deaths. After getting help from a psychologist, she attempts to find out more about the transplant donor on a trip to Thailand as her visions get more intense. The success of this genuinely disconcerting thriller prompted a few sequels and a 2008 American remake produced by Tom Cruise’s company.
The Orphanage (2007)
Guillermo Del Toro produced this sinister Spanish saga about a woman who returns to an orphanage she stayed at when she was younger with hopes of turning it into a home for handicapped children. Her adopted son speaks of a masked child he has befriended as unsettling things begin to happen around her. Eventually, her son disappears, making the woman even more unhinged. Director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Impossible) makes an impressively disquieting debut.
The Awakening (2011)
Set in post-World War I England, this stylish British horror story stars Rebecca Hall as an author who specializes in debunking mediums and other paranormal experts. She’s called in to help a boys’ school history teacher (Dominic West) look into a case in which a pupil died after seeing a ghost. Hall believes she has an explanation for the case, but her self-assuredness is tested when frightening episodes continue. Dolls that give you the heebie-jeebies…scarifying nursery rhymes…hands popping out of lakes…suspicious workers on the school’s grounds—no wonder ghoulishness abounds.
So, that’s Mike’s top 10. I would have had to include one of William Castle’s gimmick-attached confections, 13 Ghosts (1960) (but not the remake); House on Haunted Hill (1959); Deborah Kerr in The Innocents (1961); and the often overlooked Stir of Echoes (1999) with Kevin Bacon.
We’d love to know your favorites.