Shocktoberfest #30 - Ye Olde Haunted House

It’s Halloween Eve— All Hallow’s Eve... er, Eve. This is the night for Halloween Parties, Spooky Mazes, and that old cinematic staple, the Haunted House. The earliest Haunted House movies were “Old Dark House” films — such as, well, The Old Dark House and The Cat And The Canary — where the supernatural element was a Red Herring for a secret killer or thief. But soon, real ghosts appeared— the spooky 1944 Ray Milland vehicle The Uninvited deals head-on with the spirit world and the ‘50’s ad ‘60’s were full of pulpy tales like William Castle’s House On Haunted Hill (1959) and Thirteen Ghosts (1960).


It wasn’t until 1963, however, that ghost stories turned truly scary with Robert (West Side Story) Wise’s atmospheric The Haunting, where a group of students join a professor in a study of the paranormal at Hill House, an old, reportedly-haunted mansion, only to discover that rumors surrounding the place are true. Julie Harris’ Eleanor gets drawn deeper into the house— and becomes the focus of the spirits within. Unlike the leaden, FX-heavy 1999 remake, this piece relies much more on implied terror and shock, with Wise using distorting camera lenses and strange angles to good effect. The movie may be a bit slow for today’s audiences, but Wise manages to convince the sinister terror that lurks throughout Hill House— and how, once you’re inside, there’s no getting out.


The Haunting is the blueprint of many a Haunted House story, including 1978’s The Evil, where agnostic drug-rehab counselor Richard Crenna and a group of researchers and students move into an old mansion to set it up as a new clinic, only to discover that a dark presence lives inside. The film, just released on DVD as a double-feature with the cheesy Twice Dead (1988) by Shout! Factory as part of their “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” series, has a distinctly TV-movie-vibe to it— but most ‘70’s-era TV horror movies (Trilogy Of Terror, Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark, Dark Night Of The Scarecrow) are still scarier that a lot of what’s out there today. The film ultimately devolves into silliness, but Crenna, before he spent the ‘80’s playing various military types, makes for a trustworthy lead and the material, as predictable as it is, still plays well— are the possessed kitchen drawers of Paranormal Activity 2 that far off from the slamming doors and windows of a Haunted House like this?   


1979’s The Amityville Horror may be the defining Haunted House film of the 1970’s, but despite the iconic quarter-circle windows of the Amityville House and the occasional scares (the sequence with the flies is genuinely unsettling), it doesn’t really hold up— it’s the kind of movie when the spirit element tells them to “Get Out!” we wonder why they stay. Still the success film was enough to broker an entire franchise, culminating in a 2005 remake. Much more enjoyable — and entirely freakier — is Nobuhiko Obayashi’s indescribably weird 1977 film Hausu (House), which plays like The Evil Dead as experienced through a bad acid trip. The film, barely known in America until recently, received an art-house release earlier this year by Janus Films and was released this week on DVD and Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection. Hausu is ostensibly about a group of schoolgirls who end up at the house of Auntie (Yôko Minamida) for a summer vacation, only to discover that Auntie is actually dead and the house is somehow alive, but the plot seems secondary to the wild mayhem at hand. Each of the girls — known by names like Prof (Ai Matsubara), the smart one; Kung-Fu (Miki Jinbo), the athletic one; etc. — meets a fateful demise, with the end of Melody (Eriko Tanaka), who is somehow devoured by a hungry piano, perhaps the most surreal.


Showcasing crazy colors, expressionistic sets and every film technique imaginable, including animation drawn over the characters, Hausu is not for everyone — if you’re looking to be scared, keep reading — but is a wild, unforgettable experience. The trailer above just hints at the overall insanity. And no, please don't get this mixed up with the 1986 William Katt horror-comedy House; you'll break your brain.


That 1982’s Poltergeist was massive hit might be attributable to the skills producer Steven Spielberg (who some believe directed a majority of the piece instead of the credited director, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Tobe Hooper) has in knowing how to manipulate audiences, but it might be simpler than that. Poltergeist is one of the first Haunted House movies where the setting isn’t some creaky mansion or spooky locale, but a tract home in a California suburb where bizarre things begin to happen when young Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) begins to communicate with ghosts through the late-night static of a television set. Parents Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams think that Carol Anne has an over-active imagination when she says she’s speaking to these spirits, but when she disappears one night — in a cataclysmic and horrific sequence involving murderous clown toys and a fleshy tunnel appearing in a closet — they turn to a series of parapsychologists (including tiny Zelda Rubenstein) for help and find that their house is being possessed by an angry spirit — a poltergeist — who wants Carole Ann for itself.


The film, released the same summer as E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, has a number of trademark Spielberg touches— a nuclear family struggling with something extraordinary; the emphasis on the children and how these events impact them; an effectively overbearing score (this time by Jerry Goldsmith, not longtime Spielberg collaborator John Williams). But Tobe Hooper gives the film some gruesome flourishes that seem much more up his alley, including an extremely gory hallucination that one of the psychologists experiences that’s stronger than anything in the Spielberg canon. What works so well here is that the film isn’t afraid to really scare us; just when we think that everything is okay and we’re expecting the credits to roll, there’s an apocalyptic third act waiting in the wings. Two theatrical sequels (one of which, Poltergeist II: The Other Side, features some genuinely creepy H.R. Giger-designed imagery) and a TV series unrelated to the characters followed.


Modern-day Haunted House stories often abandon the house altogether. While 2001’s effective and scary The Others does take place in a haunted manor, filmmakers move the traditional haunted narrative anywhere they please. Event Horizon (1997) is essentially a Haunted House movie in space, while David (Pitch Black) Twohy’s unsettling Below (2002) moves the ghosts into a World War II-era submarine. Two of the creepiest movies of recent years push spirits into places where torment has left them: Guillermo (Hellboy) Del Toro’s poetic The Devil’s Backbone (2001) is centered around an orphanage where the spirit of a ghostly boy helps Carlos (Fernando Tielve) solve an old mystery, while Brad (Transsiberian) Anderson’s Session 9 (2001) is set in an abandoned insane asylum where the likes of David Caruso and Josh Lucas uncover the building's secret history— which soon turns on them. With the huge success of Paranormal Activity and its sequel, Hollywood is likely to start churning out Haunted House movies once again— let’s just hope they take a look at these genre classics before trying to reinvent the wheel. 


More on Geekweek


Sign in to comment with your TypePad, Twitter, Facebook, Google, Yahoo or OpenID.