My favorite horror movies always involve a haunted house. Ghost stories mostly, but really they all reflect familiar tensions about so many subtextual issues: dysfunctional families, class difference, sexual anxiety, buried secrets, ancient crimes, ill health, racism. Some can follow ridiculously overwrought paths or get caught up in Satanic evil (usually a deal breaker for me, as anything goes once the Devil shows up), or issues of patriarchal entitlement or control (the Amityville films, especially the remake; the horrible travesty of the unforgivable Jan de Bont version of The Haunting).
This drive to explain everything in classic horror stories is a fatal misstep. You don’t really need a lot for a good haunted house movie. You need a big old house. You need a lot of dark shadows. And you need actors who know the difference between scenery chewing and channeling other-worldly fear.
In fact, if you have the last two, sometimes it doesn’t even have to be a house.
5. Poltergeist (1982)
This one is mostly here for the excellent special effects. The Spielbergian focus on the nuclear family unit is as cloying as always, but there’s enough of that seventies tension left to at least equate the breadwinning father with the corruption of his bosses and, ultimately, the Western expansion itself. Tobe Hooper comes up with infinite creepy moments, complex set pieces eerily lit by those crystalline Close Encounters lights.
4. The Others (2001)
A haunting with a few delicious twists up its sleeve, trapping us in a claustrophobic and isolated house during a time of fearful war. Kidman is best when playing icy, uptight, tightly wound women like the mother in this film. Well, she’s also good at cracked and evil ones, too. But in this movie you empathize with her plight.
3. Alien (1979)
You think haunted houses need ghosts? No, sometimes they’re just fine with demons, even a giant phallic one that has an insectoid life cycle. The cast of 1970s method actors lets it all hang out, as the whole story is really a character study of human weakness (and also strength) in the face of deadly stress.
2. The Legend of Hell House (1973)
Richard Matheson’s story is grimly efficient in putting a group of psychics in danger; the movie goes even further in simplifying the story to a war between science and superstition. The result is a macabre mystery filmed like a documentary (watch it to learn where the X-files got all those time stamps of disaster for their unfolding MOTW scenarios), enlivened by a mostly British cast of thespians. Including one of the best séance scenes ever filmed.
1. The Haunting (1963)
Robert Wise doesn’t need much to bring Shirley Jackson’s spooky story to glorious black and white life. Just a creepy old over-stuffed mansion and two practiced stagehands like Claire Bloom and Julie Harris. As the sophisticated Theo and the nebbishy Nell, the two only have one thing in common: a sixth sense that connects them immediately to a house full of lost souls.
Shawn Hill knows two things: comics and art history. Find his art at http://cornekopia.net.