You may not have noticed, as there’s been absolutely no marketing, or themed TV episodes, or party invitations, but it’s Halloween again. The Playlist team are already assembling their collective Human Centipede outfit for the weekend, but if you’re not keen on fancy dress, or maybe just fancy a night in with a movie, what are your options?
In theaters, they’re not great — “Paranormal Activity 2” is surprisingly ok, but you may have already caught that last weekend. “Saw 3D” hits theaters today, but hopefully you’re crossing the road to avoid that one already. We’d recommend “Let Me In” if you can find anywhere that’s still showing it, but otherwise maybe it’s time to hit the classics.
Inspired by the season, by the release of “Paranormal Activity 2,” and by the banging we hear in the attic at night, we’ve compiled a list of 10 of our favorites from one of the most prominent horror sub-genres: the haunted house picture. Next year sees two new haunted house flicks that are getting some decent buzz: the Guillermo del Toro-produced “Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark,” and “Insidious,” from original “Saw” helmer James Wan, and further down the line we’ll see Daniel Radcliffe taking on one of the classics of the genre, “The Woman In Black.” So, what better time to pick out our 10, which should provide a decent night’s entertainment over the holiday weekend. Check them out after the jump.
When Robert Rodriguez consults his son, Racer, about what he wants to see in a movie, Troublemaker Films gave us “Shorts.” But when Nobuhiko Obayashi asked his 12 year old what she wanted to see in a movie, we got “Hausu.” Advantage: Obayashi. To limit “Hausu” to the genre of horror comedy is to ignore a film that is completely bent in every way, a celebration of all things peculiar. The story concerns a group of girls away at a summer home run by a ghostly aunt, but that neglects to mention the omniscient cat, the carnivorous piano, and the pools of stop-motion blood that populate this mad, one-of-a-kind film. Fans of “The Evil Dead” will find a lot to worship, but so will true lovers of camp: “Hausu” moves herky-jerkily from set piece to set piece with the sort of pacing given to musicals with expository surrounding tissue. And then a head is chopped off, but the good vibes remain, creating perhaps the cheeriest, most infectious blood bath in cinematic history. To see “Hausu” is to love “Hausu.” As you’ll have seen from our review yesterday, a shiny new Criterion edition hit stores this week, and is well worth picking up.
“Session 9” (2001)
There are few horror movie locations as terrifying as the Danvers State Mental Hospital in Massachusetts. Brad Anderson, a director who works wonders with atmosphere, didn’t have to do much to make the setting a character in its own right. As a result, “Session 9,” dealing with an overstressed asbestos removal team in the location, alternates between upsetting shock scares and unnerving moments of characters beginning to question their own sanity. The story gradually comes apart, but it’s the details (particularly a truly unsettling series of audiotapes) that let “Session 9” truly inhabit the darkest areas of the mind. It helps that the cast, including Peter Mullan, Josh Lucas, veteran character actor Paul Guilfoyle, horror vet Larry Fessenden and, in an almost unique occurrence, a decent performance from David Caruso, are a cut above the disposable teens you usually find in this kind of thing. The film more-or-less disappeared on release, but it’s gained a cult following since, and it’s well worth tracking down.
“The Innocents” (1961)
The many adaptations of Henry James’ novella “The Turn of the Screw” have over the years attracted everyone from John Frankenheimer and Ingrid Bergman to, um, Patsy Kensit and Julian Sands. But the 1961 version, “The Innocents,” is really all the adaptation you need: co-written by Truman Capote, directed by Jack Clayton and championed by Francois Truffaut, it features a note-perfect central performance by Deborah Kerr, all clipped vowels, self-righteous piety and sexual repression. The gathering hysteria in the film’s dark heart is genuinely unsettling, and has influenced countless films since, like those in which a similarly pale woman with children in her care goes gradually mad – or does she? – in a big house: “The Others” and the excellent “The Orphanage” spring to mind as the best recent examples of that sub-genre. And yet the level of creepiness that “The Innocents” achieves sets it apart from even those films; perhaps it’s the verging-on-camp melodrama that it shamelessly embraces, perhaps it’s the disturbing themes of pedophilia and necrophilia that are all the more tangible for never being fully acknowledged. Either way, the film’s build to its devastating, poetic, can-be-read-either-way denouement is its greatest strength and for all the exquisite horror of ghosts standing in broad daylight and leering spectral faces appearing at windows, we are ultimately persuaded that the more prosaic explanation of isolation- religion- and repression-induced insanity is even more frightening still. Which would make it almost as frightening as the idea of the Kensit/Sands version, then.
Of all the outré stuff that nestled inside the “Steven Spielberg presents,” PG-rated “Poltergeist,” one of the most shocking moments occurs in a sequence of relative innocence, when the parents of the suburban family (Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams) share a before-bed joint. That alone would earn the movie an R-rating today and we haven’t even factored in the sequence when the young research assistant rips off his own face in large, pinkish blobs. “Poltergeist” ingeniously re-imagines classic Gothic tropes as transplanted into Reagan’s sunny suburbia. Instead of creaking doors or claps of lightning, menace now exudes from the hushed fuzz of a television and the inquisitiveness of modern science. When a young girl (Heather O’Rourke) gets kidnapped from her family by malevolent spirits, it’s up to her gung-ho parents, the aforementioned researchers, and a dwarfish medium (Zelda Rubenstein) to bring her back. In the end, “Poltergeist,” directed by “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” auteur Tobe Hooper and overseen by Steven Spielberg (there’s still some debate as to who did what, as the film carries an undeniably Spielbergian touch), is a balls-to-the-walls haunted house tale, emboldened by then cutting-edge technology from ILM and enriched by sly social satire. The fact that the haunted house in “Poltergeist” looks like it could have been down the street from Elliot’s home in “E.T.” just made things even more identifiable, and that much creepier.
“The Haunting” (1963)
There are very distinctive types of horror films: those with a taste for the gore and those that root their terror in the psychological. “The Haunting” is the classic psychological thriller, in that it forces you to confront a nightmare come true – a house literally out to kill you. Academy Award winning director Robert Wise directed the adaption of Shirley Jackson’s novel “The Haunting of Hill House” in between classic musicals “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music,” almost as if he needed to submerge himself into the darkness. And dark he went. “The Haunting” follows a paranormal investigation conducted by Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) on Hill House, a creeptastic mansion that is believed to haunted. The owner invites Dr. Markway and Luke (Russ Tamblyn), who is set to to inherit the house, to stay over for a few days and inspect the house for supernatural activity. Dr. Markway invites two young women, Eleanor (Julie Harris) and Theodora (Claire Bloom), who have had previous experiences with paranormal activity as a kind of bait. The supernatural instances are more than just creaking stairs and lights flickering: the house seems to be trying to harm all those who inhabit it. For a pre-CGI thriller, Wise’s ability to trick us into thinking a Victorian mansion is morphing into a murderer before our own eyes borders on genius. There’s a reason that after fifty years this film still remains one the scariest to ever be made and lauded by some of the most prestigious directors. “The Haunting” hits us where it hurts the most — where we lay our heads and sleep. But the less said about Jan De Bont‘s noisy, charmless remake, notable only for the unintentionally hilarious decapitation of Owen Wilson, the better.
“The Shining” (1980)
“No sir, YOU are the caretaker. You’ve always been the caretaker. I ought to know: I’ve always been here.” If you’ve seen “The Shining,” and really, who hasn’t, it’s only natural to recall the name Overlook Hotel with a bit of a shiver running down your spine. The vast hallways and cavernous studies are used to brilliant effect by director Stanley Kubrick, and the hotel has gotten its fare shake of praise as a particularly malevolent character in the film. Essentially the unseen villain of the piece, the evil of the hotel manifests inexplicably and often so momentarily that the effect is terrifically disturbing, with the viewer glimpsing only bits and pieces of a descent into madness that fully takes hold of protagonist Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson). Kubrick lets Nicholson run wild and the payoff once the man gets into his crazy mode is satisfying and genuinely spine-chilling. A master craftsman, Kubrick gives personality to set design, making the Overlook Hotel one of the most famous locations in film history. It’s a film so rich and beautifully executed that it transcends its genre, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not still one of the scariest films ever made.
Far from the scarefest it was marketed as, Steve Miner’s “House” is actually a fitfully funny horror picture with a wonderfully gimmicky hook. William Katt, completely game, plays a horror novelist who struggles to come to grips with the disappearance of his son when he moves into the haunted abode of his late aunt. When he finds that the spirits of the house have something to do with his lost child, he begins a battle that delves straight into his subconscious, particularly his Vietnam memories. Despite dealing with a lot of heady subjects, “House,” populated entirely by mugging TV actors, is a lightweight diversion, piling on slapstick that meshes well with the camp ickiness of the (now tame) splatter effects. Not a classic as such, but settle down with a few beers and some candy stolen from kids and you’ll have a pretty good time. And it’s almost as scary as the prospect of another half-dozen series of Hugh Laurie being lovably grouchy.
“Monster House” (2006)
It’s telling that “Monster House” is adorned with an Amblin Entertainment logo, complete with the indelible “E.T.“-riding-across-the-moon since the movie feels, for all intents and purposes, like some lost “Steven Spielberg presents” movie from the 1980s. Except, of course, that “Monster House” was released in the summer of 2006 as one of the first movies to utilize the new 3D technology that replaced the goofy blue-and-red glasses with even goofier Buddy Holly plastic models. Oh, and the film, a gorgeously rendered animated trifle by first time director Gil Kenan, was utilized with the “motion capture” technique that brought limited life to “The Polar Express” (‘Express’ director Robert Zemeckis was a producer on “House”). Except that instead of going for slightly creepy photo-realism, the filmmakers went for a boldly stylized and cartoony look that seems to be a combination of design influences from both the 1950s and 1980s, and it made it probably the most successful use of the form to date. Unlike most haunted house movies, the titular abode in “Monster House” is literally alive, and it’s up to a trio of neighborhood kids to keep the house at bay until Halloween, when the house could gobble up each and every trick-or-treater. There’s an unexpected pathos to the house’s background, and a pleasant truthfulness to the relationship between the kids, but Kenan doesn’t forget the scares: this is a movie that feels like, in time, it’ll become an essential annual Halloween watch, along with “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
“House on Haunted Hill” (1959)
The master of macabre, Vincent Price, is at his best in this chilling original (avoid the Geoffrey Rush-led remake like the plague), as ritzy millionaire Fredrick Loren, in perhaps the essential film from the master of gimmickry, William Castle. As in many of these films, the house is every bit a character in itself, sending chills and taking viewers back to a time when scares came from what hid behind the door, not from hokey CG images in post-production. As creepy as the house is, Loren’s exchanges with his wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart) are just as haunting. Lines like “Darling, the only ghoul in the house is you,” are delivered fearlessly and effortlessly from Ohmart, and Price eats up scenes with devilish dialogue of his own. An influence on Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” it’s certainly not a film for the A.D.D. generation but if you have an appreciation for classics that Hollywood foolishly remade, and don’t we all, then this is a solid Halloween addition to your movie marathon. For the full effect, however, you’ll need a zipline and a plastic skeleton: the original release was accompanied by ‘Emergo’ – a skeleton that would float above the heads of the audience at a key moment.
“The Orphanage” (2007)
The niftiest aspect of “The Orphanage,” an uncannily good Spanish haunted house movie directed by Juan Antonio Bayona and produced by genre favorite Guillermo del Toro, is that, at its heart, it’s a rather old-fashioned melodrama that just so happens to be wrapped inside of a ghost story. It’s like “The Shining” meets “All That Heaven Allows,” with an emphasis on repressed psychological trauma. Laura (Belen Rueda from “The Sea Inside“) decides, for perverse reasons that pay off dramatically, to purchase the orphanage where she grew up (since then, she has adopted a young boy) and refurbish it, to give other unfortunates a chance at a normal upbringing. Of course, the ghosts of the past, both literal (a small, sack-faced boy named Tomas that looks like a nightmare creation out of “Little Big Planet“) and metaphoric (said traumas) spring up almost immediately. What follows is equal parts tragedy and boo-gasp horror (there are a couple of moments that will elicit audible screams from even the most hardened moviegoer). The movie has a melancholic feel of resignation and an absolutely heartbreaking final act, where what may have seemed like cheap scares early on pay off beautifully. “The Orphanage,” artfully directed by Bayona in muted colors and embellished with a suitably haunting score by Fernando Valazquez, is a slow-burn of a haunted house movie, as emotionally engaging as it is terrifying, and a genuine modern classic in the genre.
“The Orphanage” isn’t the only recent film to take a spin at the genre: although the likes of “The Haunting in Connecticut” aren’t really worth mentioning, del Toro himself produced an excellent example in “The Devil’s Backbone,” while Alejandro Amenabar‘s “The Others” is terrific too. The John Cusack vehicle “1408” is pretty decent as well, even if it loses its way near the end, while some on staff have a soft spot for Walter Salles‘ “Dark Water.” Further back, the original “The Amityville Horror” is worth a look, while the original “Evil Dead” is more of a haunted house film than a zombie picture. 1981’s “The Entity,” with Barbara Hershey, and the 1980 Canadian flick “The Changeling,” with an excellent central performance from George C. Scott, are both worth a look as well. And for lighter takes on spooky happenings, Neil Jordan‘s “High Spirits” is deeply flawed, but enjoyable, and Tim Burton‘s “Beetlejuice” is probably the definitive haunting comedy.
— Gabe Toro, Jessica Kiang, Drew Taylor, Adam Sweeney, Mark Zhuravsky, Danielle Johnsen, Oliver Lyttelton