Saturday, December 5, 2009

13 Haunted Houses on Film

Wow! This was one tough list to compile for this month’s Top 13. The main reason is that a lot of the best ‘haunted house’ movies tend to turn out not to be so haunted after all. One prime example of a film that I wanted very much to place on this list is one of my all time favorite horror films, the little seen, but highly regarded, SESSION 9. It takes place in a decaying, shut down insane asylum, and for most of the movie, we’re led to believe it is haunted—in a way. But the shock ending (and it does shock!) offers a decidedly non-supernatural explanation. Devastating end, but not haunted in the supernatural sense of the word. And, of course, for that same reason, several others of my favs didn’t make it: William Castle’s HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, Corman’s Poe classic, THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, etc., etc.
So, clearly our criteria for this list is that it has to be a real haunted house, with spectral happenings that cannot be explained through scientific or human means. And, of course, we tried to stick to earthbound domiciles, or else EVENT HORIZON, one of the most frightening films I’ve ever seen, would clearly have been at the top of the list somewhere.
All the greatest haunted house tales are about history, and every house that holds ghosts within its walls, does so because the people who once called it home have not left it, in effect, they are carrying on with their history. Termed ‘The Bad Place’ by Stephen King, in his landmark nonfiction book DANSE MACABRE, these places seek to be purged of their history, of their badness, or they will devour their inhabitants. And sometimes, The Bad Place ultimately becomes only a reflection for those who look upon it. Sometimes they carry their ghosts with them, and they are the haunted, not the domicile.
In literature, the haunted house is one of the best mirrors which a writer can hold up to his/her characters (see HOUSE OF LEAVES by Mark Danielewski, THE SHINING by Stephen King, and GHOST STORY by Peter Straub for three of the best examples of such ever written). But in film it becomes a bit harder to translate that sort of psychological mirror to the screen.
Below, I think you’ll find some of the best horror films ever made that have achieved that almost impossible task.
And with that being said, we present our list…

13. Paranormal Activity (2009)

A surprise hit, Paranormal Activity became the new record holder for highest grossing indie film (a record previously held by Phantasm, until The Blair Witch Project came along to knock it out o1st place). And is it scary as hell. It’s a truly disturbing story of an ordinary couple who think they might be living in a haunted house and decide to set up cameras to catch activity while their sleeping. Of course, they open a can of nasty supernatural worms by doing so, and soon discover that they aren’t living in Spielberg-land where all the ghosts are just confused Caspers. The end will leave you with nightmares.

12. The Uninvited (1944)

Based on a novel by Dorothy Macardle, UNEASY FREEHOLD, The Uninvited is one of those old Hollywood classics that has elegance, and yet conveys an underlying menace through use of German Expressionistic shadow and light play. Starring a young Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey as brother and sister who buy an enchanting seaside home, this is a quiet horror film. All seems to be perfect for them until they find a locked room that holds its own dark secrets from its new owners. The scares come from well placed cameras and some great acting, by a superior cast.

11. The Innocents (1961)

Based on Henry James’ classic psychological/supernatural thriller, TURN OF THE SCREW, producer/director Jack Clayton catches perfectly the gut-wrenching ambiguity of this house’s haunts. Deborah Carr plays the new, somewhat naïve, governess over two children who become increasingly strange. Are they possessed by the dead? Or is it all her imagination? There are scenes in this film that still have the power to make you recoil. Not in disgust, mind you; but because of well timed scares. If you want a classic to make you appreciate good filmmaking, this is the one.

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