In my opinion, it’s impossible to celebrate Halloween without watching at least a few haunted house films, preferably before trips to local haunted houses. Unfortunately, this is a pretty popular horror sub-genre, so it’s easy to get stuck with a lot of garbage. And I mean a LOT of garbage, particularly if you get sucked into the trap of watching recent supernatural films (PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, I’m looking at you). I know there’s an audience for this type of junk, but they will never replace classic ghost films. Here is a rundown of my favorite ten, in case you need somewhere spooky to start this season. I also went a bit overboard and included a few dozen honorable mentions.
1. THE CAT AND THE CANARY (Paul Leni, 1927)
Not only is this a good place to start for a haunted house film fest, but you could have your very own CAT AND THE CANARY themed marathon, because it has been remade several times throughout the years. An adaptation of a 1922 play of the same name by John Willard, the film is more of a black comedy than an outright horror film, but is still a delightfully creepy classic horror effort. I know it isn’t technically a haunted house film, but falls more into the “old dark house” sub-genre where malevolent figures sneak around spooky mansions frightening or killing people with a motive of financial gain. In this film a young girl (Laura La Plante) inherits her uncle’s fortune and she and her surviving family members are stuck in the mansion with a menacing figure. Nearby, a crazed criminal called “the Cat” escapes from an asylum. I also highly recommend the 1979 Radley Metzger remake with Honor Blackman.
2. THE UNINVITED (Lewis Allen, 1944)
Starring Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey, THE UNINVITED tells of a brother and sister that discover an abandoned seaside estate on the English coast that is up for grabs for a surprisingly low price. The man’s granddaughter, Stella, is upset by the sale of the house, but Rick (Milland) is attracted to her and allows her access. Unfortunately, the house is not as charming as it first seems and they begin to experience a number of chilling disturbances. It becomes clear that the hauntings have a sinister connection with Stella and her dead mother. One of the first Hollywood films to take supernatural activity at face value, rather than as a stand-in for crime or psychological disturbances.
3. HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (William Castle, 1949)
Though this film doesn’t quite fit with the tone of the others on this list, it was one of my favorite Vincent Price films as a kid. Directed by the great William Castle, schlockmeister and king of the gag, this is a worthy addition because it combines, humor, scares, mystery, and murder, as well as an excellent performance from Price. If you want to visit with Castle further, this makes a nice double feature with another haunted film of his, 13 GHOSTS. Both films have been remade within the last ten years and should be avoided at all costs.
4. THE INNOCENTS (Jack Clayton, 1961)
Based on one of my favorite horror novella’s, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, THE INNOCENTS is an affective mixture of psychological horror, sexual repression and the suggestion of supernatural evil. Deborah Kerr’s Miss Giddens is hired as a governess on a gothic-looking British estate despite her lack of experience, to look after the niece and nephew of a wealthy man on the prowl (Michael Redgrave) who wants little to do with the children. While Miss Giddens is at first charmed by them, it turns out that the dead former governess and dead valet were involved in a number of violent and lewd sexual behaviors that they might be supernaturally passing on to the charming Flora and her brother Miles. Is Miss Giddens losing her mind? Or are the children in danger of a supernatural menace?
As a note of interest, the lovely cinematography is provided by Freddie Francis, a regular director of Hammer and Amicus films in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, as well as cinematographer for David Lynch’s THE ELEPHANT MAN and DUNE.
5. THE HAUNTING (Robert Wise, 1963)
Based on Shirley Jackson’s terrifying The Haunting of Hill House, THE HAUNTING concerns a group of paranormal investigators who spend a few nights in a haunted mansion. The head of the group, Dr. Markway, thinks the house will help him prove his theory that the supernatural exists. He brings a skeptic, who is also to inherit the house (Twin Peaks’ Russ Tamblyn), as well as two women with the supernatural in their pasts. Eleanor, one of the women, seems to act as a conduit for the house with unpredictable results. Truly one of the most atmospheric and haunting (no pun intended) films in existence.
6. THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (John Hough, 1973)
Starring Pamela Franklin and Roddy McDowall, this is another excellent haunted house film based on a famous novel, Hell House; in this case both the novel and screenplay were written by the great Richard Matheson. A physicist investigates the very haunted mansion of disturbed, now missing or deceased millionaire Belasco, who was known for his many perversions and for a violent massacre at his home. The physicist, Barrett, and his wife are accompanied by two mediums. Banner is hoping to clear the house with the aid of a machine he has built, but soon the house begins to turn them against each other and they descend into a psychosexual orgy of violence and repression.
7. BURNT OFFERINGS (Dan Curtis, 1976)
A creepy film improved by the performance of a saucy (and probably sauced) Oliver Reed, BURNT OFFERINGS is based on a novel by Robert Marasaco and tells of a family who rent a mansion for the summer for a suspiciously low price. Ben (Reed), his wife (Karen Black), his son, and an aged aunt (Bette Davis) are delighted at the summer in store for them, but they don’t realize that the accidents occurring with increasing regularity are connected to the house’s growing psychic strength. Very understated, effective and bleak, BURNT OFFERINGS definitely had an influence on later haunted house films like AMITYVILLE HORROR. Look out for a deranged Burgess Meredith.
8. HAUSU (Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1977)
For some reason this is only one of two non-English language films on the list, but it is well worth straying off the beaten path. As far as I know, there is no other haunted house film so insane and psychedelic that by the time it’s over, you’re going to feel like you ate an entire field of mushrooms and washed it down with some acid-tinged Kool-Aid. A group of high school girls go on summer vacation together to visit the long absent maternal relations of Gorgeous (yes, that really is her name). They meet her strange, wheel-chair bound aunt, who lives alone in the spooky family mansion and has an equally strange, possibly magical cat. I can guarantee that you’ve NEVER seen anything like it.
9. THE CHANGELING (Peter Medak, 1980)
My favorite haunted house film, which stars the wonderful George C. Scott as a grief-stricken composer who rents a Victorian mansion in Seattle to get over the accidental deaths of his wife and daughter. The mansion is haunted by the ghost of a murdered child, a particularly violent and vengeful one. Scott begins to unearth connections between the child and an old, wealthy family in the area. If you’ve never seen this film, you’re not likely to forget the creepy scenes with a ball bouncing down the stairs and a wheelchair rolling forward on its own.
10. THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE (Guillermo del Toro, 2001)
The second foreign language effort and the only recent film on this list, THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE is an effective period piece by del Toro about a boy abandoned by his father at an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War. The orphanage has a large, diffused bomb in the center of the building and its fair share of ghostly happenings in the halls. There is a crazy plot involving hidden treasure and child murder, but it is atmospheric, well done and genuinely scary in parts. It was released in the same year as the Nicole Kidman-vehicle, THE OTHERS, though I think THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE is superior to that film in every way.
Of course I have a few runners up:
THE ENTITY (Sidney J. Furie, 1981), about a woman who gets raped by a spectral presence.
CASTLE OF BLOOD (Antonio Margheriti, 1964), in which a writer takes a bet from Edgar Allen Poe that he cannot spend a night in a haunted mansion.
THE WOMAN IN BLACK (Herbert Wise, 1993), based on the terrifying novel of the same name, this creepy made-for-TV British film is about a solicitor who goes to clean up an isolated old house and gets more than he bargained for.
GHOST STORY (John Irvin, 1981) somewhat improves Peter Straub’s novel and concerns four elderly gentleman (including Fred Astaire!) who gather together to tell ghost stories. The scariest story, however, is their darkest secret that will soon come back to haunt them. Literally.
THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS (John Hough, 1980), not strictly speaking a haunted house movie, it concerns an American family who moves into an English manor house. The two daughters become obsessed with the mystery of a missing girl many years before, a girl the same age and appearance as one of the daughters. The woods seems to be haunted and they get sucked deeper into the increasingly weird and unsettling mystery.
No, I didn’t mention any of the AMITYVILLE or POLTERGEIST films. If you haven’t already seen any of them, I’m flabbergasted. I also didn’t mention THE SHINING, which I still regard to be the scariest movie of all time. It’s a staple of the genre, but is also something everyone should already be savvy to.
I also didn’t mention a handful of films that you absolutely have to watch at some point this season, one of my favorite sub-genres, the haunted house comedy. Namely I’m talking about older supernatural classics like the Don Knotts’ vehicle THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN, Bob Hope’s THE GHOST BREAKERS, Abbott and Costello’s HOLD THAT GHOST, and my personal favorite, HIGH SPIRITS. You also obviously want to watch BEETLEJUICE and GHOSTBUSTERS (as well as GHOSTBUSTERS II – how else will you get to see Viggo the Carpathian?). For good measure I also think I should mention a romantic comedy, THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR, which stars the very grumpy Rex Harrison as a deceased sea captain terrorizing a single mother who moves into his seemingly abandoned cottage.