Updated: Dec 12, 2019
The oldest and perhaps the most frightening theme in the horror genre, the haunted house, ironically, has never received its proper recognition. Thanks to Laurence Maslon, Daily Strange investigates why.
Home is supposed to be the place there's no place like safe, secure, comfortable, the one place you're sure to be protected. How strange, then, to be tucked up tightly in bed, and hear the creak of the shutters, the clamor of thunder and the beating of rain, and- -is it possible?--the wail of a lost spirit. . . No it's just your imagination. After all, there are no such things as ghosts. . . or are there?
It is precisely this nightmare, the ghost in the closet, that makes every child- -and adults--want the light left on at night. On a larger scale, the fear of a spectral intruder goes by another name- - the haunted house. The haunted house is one of the most used, and badly battered, genres in print and in film. And it has given us some of the craziest, funniest and scariest films of all time.
The haunted house as genre is, like some of the houses themselves, timeless. But the tradition we associate with haunted houses seems to have originated in 1764 with the publication of The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, a ''Gothic'' story of family secrets and ghostly interventions. The book was immensely popular and created the genre of Gothic romance and its two main branches. One, the ''family secret,'' the skeleton in the closet, became a mainstay of romantic novels, such as Bronte's Jane Eyre and Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca.
The second branch---tales of ghostly interventions, of spirits who walk abroad, tormented by some curse or crime that will not let them rest---is what concern us here. The greatest master of these tales is Edgar Allan Poe, who followed Walpole's lead but gave his stories a special nameless, gnawing psychological terror. Other great writers inspired by the genre have been Charles Dickens (in A Christmas Carol,) Oscar Wilde, Henry James, and in our time, Shirley Jackson and Stephen King. But it was film that gave these elements visual atmosphere and seared certain images in our brain- - -the old gothic house, the thunderstorm, the cobwebbed staircase and the flickering candle.
For the purposes of this article, haunted houses are defined as evil houses that have some spirit or horror inhabiting them. The Bates Motel and its fellows don't quite count- - -after all, even homicidal maniacs have to live somewhere. Castle Dracula has to be exempted as well, because if you go there, you get what you deserve. You have to move into a haunted house, a house that at least promises the supernatural and, if you're unlucky, delivers the real thing. Although the genre has never had one great film to establish and define it early on the way of Dracula and Frankenstein did for the vampire and monster film, it has proved surprisingly prolific, giving rise to over fifty films, not to mention innumerable television shows and comic book stories. In fact, one of the most remarkable things about haunted house films is, like any other old house, it takes on the character of whomever moves in.
Perhaps the most prolific, and sometimes most annoying , inhabitants of the haunted house have been the comedians. At the turn of the century, haunted house plays were popular enough to give rise to haunted house spoofs, and ever since there's hardly been a screen comedian who hasn't checked into one for the night. Abbott and Costello, Bob Hope, the Bowery Boys, Red Skelton, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Gene Wilder, Bill Murray---even Don Knotts and Rowan and Martin---have all done time among the spooks. Usually the ghosts in torment turn out to be greedy relatives with their eye on the deed to the house, but these films have been so popular that they form the majority of haunted house films, They have been so persuasive and so influential that the image you have when you close your eyes and think of a haunted house probably comes from a comedy film.
It's not surprising, therefore that the first important haunted movie was part thriller, part comedy. The Cat and the Canary (1927) is a wonderfully expressionistic and witty film that sets the tone for the genre in many ways. Based on Broadway play, the plot concerns a crazy old millionaire who leaves his fortune to a beautiful young woman--if she spends the night in his decrepit mansion without going insane. The woman is thrust among her greedy relatives, and a homicidal lunatic, from the local asylum. Paul Leni, the famed German director, is so good at establishing the atmosphere that even though most of the action centers on a Harold Lloyd-like bumpkin hero, the chilling scenes can hold their place against any film of the period. He also establishes the vocabulary of cinematic haunted houses: the blowing curtains, the moving bookcases, the groping hand, the cobwebbed rooms--even a sinister housekeeper, called, ironically, Mammy Pleasant. You'd never know it was a silent, either. The titles are often animated, including one which wavers, wraithlike, on the screen: ''Gosh, what a spooky house!'' Indeed.
Official Movie Synopsis
Rich old Cyrus West's relatives are waiting for him to die so they can inherit. But he stipulates that his will be read 20 years after his death. On the appointed day his expectant heirs arrive at his brooding mansion. The will is read and it turns out that Annabelle West, the only heir with his name left, inherits, if she is deemed sane. If she isn't, the money and some diamonds go to someone else, whose name is in a sealed envelope. Before he can reveal the identity of her successor to Annabelle, Mr. Crosby, the lawyer, disappears. The first in a series of mysterious events, some of which point to Annabelle in fact being unstable. by — Ron Kerrigan
Whatever Cat and the Canary leaves out, James Whale, (director of the first two Frankenstein movies) provides in The Old Dark House (1932). A fierce rainstorm forces five travelers to spend the night in the old dark mansion of the deranged Femm family. In one of the film's many great shots, the travelers' insistent knocking succeeds in getting the front door to open slo-o-wly, revealing the craggy, brutish face of Boris Karloff's tasks, when he's not getting drunk and trying to rape the shapeliest guest, is to care for the family's resident pyromaniac, who is kept locked in the attic. Al though the film shows Whale's famed wit at its best, it's clear that these Femms are fatal. Besides Karloff (the film opens with a credit explaining that, yes, indeed, this is the same Karloff), the cast includes a young Charles Laughton and Ernest Thesiger, in a dry-run for his performance as Dr. Praetorius in Bride of Frankenstein. And if the Femms remind you of the Adams Family, that's OK, too---they are the inspiration.
The Old Dark House Trailer - 1932
Neither Cat nor Old Dark House display any explicit supernaturalism, yet they are both archetypical in setting up the conventions of the genre---the pace, the mood, the settings. Oddly it took twelve years for the next serious supernatural film to appear. Haunted house movies were not boosted by the success of monster movies in the 1930's. Perhaps because they permitted no great starring roles for the likes of Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi, perhaps because pre-war America wanted its monsters from Europe, rather than from home, they quickly gave way completely to the horror spoof, just as the Universal monsters eventually did.
Not all these comedies were worthless. The 1939 remake of The Cat and the Canary, starring Bob Hope, is very credible, though atmosphere-less, version of the story. It has a very scary climax and, as far as I know, the first appearance of the painted portrait with human eyes moving behind it. Hope is terrific as a radio star who keeps being reminded by the spooky events of old murder mysteries he's appeared in. One frightened relative asks if ''great big empty houses'' scare him. ''Not me,'' he retorts, ''I used to be in vaudeville.''
When Hollywood's first supernatural haunted house movie debuted in 1944, it was beaut. Lewis Allen's The Uninvited is more of a gothic romance and it clearly takes its cue from Hitchcock's Rebecca from four years earlier. Ray Milland and Ruth Warrick play a brother and sister (his name is Roderick, by the way, just like in the Usher family) who purchase a deserted but beautiful house on a cliff in Cornwall. There are strange doings---cries in the night, deathly cold spots in the house, sickly sweet smells---and gradually the house draws in a local girl, who had been born there. The film is almost mystery, as the crew (aided by Alan Napier, later Batman's butler, Alfred) tries to research the house's past to find a clue to the identity of the warring spirits in the house and why they seem to want to claim the young girl. The film has a commonsensical, almost jolly, air to it which tends to increase the reality, and subsequently, the terror. It is a classic of the genre; sensual, elegant, evocative. It was so evocative, in fact, that it was filmed without any ectoplasmic ghosts, but the studio chickened out and had transparent willowy women superimposed on the print. It doesn't need them. It has a great cast, great script, great score, and the best closing line in a haunted house film. But to give that away would be to give away the plot.
It is difficult to explain why no other serious haunted house picture was made for a long time. But from the 1980' to end of 1990's had almost nothing on the genre of the haunted houses movies. And finally thanks to Netflix, Shirley Jackson's novel ''The Haunting Of Hill House'' came to our universe with a tasteful adaptation.
Why we we couldn't see genre of haunted house movies almost for sixty years? Perhaps because prefabricated horror films started replacing old-fashioned ones, just as prefabricated houses were springing up throughout the country. Perhaps because the more popular science-fiction movies had obvious difficulties adapting to a haunted house theme. I suspect it may have had something to do with the cozy feeling of the Eisenhower years. As the science fiction movies proved, the aliens were out there, on some strange world. There was nothing wrong at home. That fear would come later. William Castle's House on Haunted Hill (1958) may have gained its reputation solely because it was the first haunted house movie that an entire generation had seen. It has little else to commend it, and today's children have better movies to cut their fangs on. Castle used the haunted house merely as vehicle for his most recent gimmick, ''Emergo,'' a flying skeleton in the theatre. In s film which owes more to half-hour TV thrillers than its cinematic predecessors, Vincent Price plays a vindictive millionaire who lures five people to a haunted house, promising them fortunes if they'll stay the night. Price has little to do in the film, except to offer the guests ''food--and drink--and. . . GHOSTS! Much of more interesting is Elisha Cook, Jr. , the gunsel from the Maltese Falcon, as a haunted drunkard who introduces the film as a floating head.
The nineteen-sixties brought haunted houses a host of more reliable tenants, occupants determined not to leave until a good scare was had by all. First among these was Roger Corman, who began his fabled series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations of The Fall of the House of Usher, with a screenplay by Richard Matheson. House of Usher also features an excellent performance by Vincent Price as the neurasthenic Roderick Usher, whose house has ''every evil rooted in its stones.'' When a young man come to marry Usher's sister, Usher not only warns against his unnatural dominion, and the screenplay makes explicit that his dominion is unnatural indeed.
Besides the dreamy, surreal nature of the design and photography, the film is also effective in showing what are, by now, the physical manifestations of an unhappy house--falling chandeliers, doors that fly open, groans in the night. The most important contribution the film makes to the genre is its ambiguity. The house's final revenge may the result of a supernatural power, or it may only be the projection of Usher's deadly psychosis.
The Haunting (1963), rather like The Uninvited, is a masterpiece which seems to have popped out of nowhere. Based on Shirley Jackson short story, it is director Robert Wise's (The Day The Earth Stood Still) finest film. It opens with a shot of a frightening victorian mansion and a narrator speaking what might be the official motto of the genre: ''An evil old house--is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored.'' The narrator is Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), a psychic researcher, who has assembled a team to investigate Hill House, a New England mansion that was ''born bad,'' starting with the death of the house's first young bride on her wedding night.
Among the team is Russ Tamblyn as a cynical college student, Claire Bloom as ESP--endowed fashion plate who happens to be lesbian and, most importantly, Julie Harris as Eleanor, a repressed neurotic, who is still dealing with her mother's death.(The film also includes a brief but significant appearance by Lois Maxwell, James Bond's Miss Moneypenny.) As the four spend more time alone in the house, the tensions increase--among the guests as they bicker and develop attractions towards one another, and within the house, which seems to have developed an attraction for Eleanor. Like the local girl in The Uninvited, Eleanor seems to have been called there for a purpose, which may not be a malevolent as it appears. The film is the most atmospheric of the genre, with the ''deranged, leprous'' house beautifully designed and shot. What is most impressive about this imaginative and ''haunting'' film is that there is but one shot of physical manifestation--a ravenously bulging door---but it is one you're not likely to forget.
Great Britain, which had success reviving Frankenstein and Dracula in this period, barely touched the genre until the seventies, perhaps because it seemed too American. Two reasonable entries from England came in 1973. The first, And Now the Screaming Starts, is a good Gothic Shocker. A young bride moves into Fengriffen mansion, only to find a grotesque family curse has been placed on her and her firstborn. The manifestations are good, the curse chilling and the tension is sustained quite well as Peter Cushing, an 18th century man of reason, is brought in to investigate.
The Second film, The Legend of Hell House, from a story by Richard Matheson, seems to be a recasting of The Haunting with the added attractions of explicit sex, sensationalism, and color. Even changing Hill House to Hell House adds little to the film. Again, a team composed of mediums and parapsychologists are sent to investigate and evil house, this time one owned by a particularly perverse millionaire. The manifestations are overdone and when Roddy Mc Dowell, as a survivor of a previous investigation, uncovers the secret to Hell House, the results are so odd and incongruent as to be almost laughable.
The successful release of The Exorcist in 1973 revolutionized the horror business, and the haunted house genre was no exception.
Hollywood was no longer content to lease its haunted house to ghosts--they had to be demons, and more than one film had the Gates to Hell lurking in the basement. The most benign of these films is Burnt Offerings (1976), a slightly televisiony-looking film (it was directed by Original Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis), in which a house possesses the souls of its inhabitants, replacing one after another as its caretaker.
1977's The Sentinel is a fairly grotesque affair, with Christina Raines as a model who is, unbeknownst to her, appointed as the benevolent sentinel to the Gates of Hell. Whatever interesting suspense is created out of watching the spirits of good and evil do battle is thoroughly diluted by the antics of all-star cast and the wretched excesses of director Michael Winner, especially at the climax where real deformed people are insensitively shuffled in among the brood from Hell. One totally gratuitous shot, interesting to self-reference afficionados, is a cat eating a canary.
The Amityville Horror, 1979's entry into the Satan sweepstakes, was an inexplicable success. Although the film begins with some stirring shots, establishing the house as its own hellish entity, it gets bogged down with some what ludicrous events that happen to the poor Lutz family. (not to mention sequels)! Worse than the silliness and over-acting are the contradictory explanations for the house's evil character. At least The Sentinel had the good taste to stick by its claim that the house was the entrance to Hell, something this film forgets halfway through.
In its mad rush to accommodate its new satanic tenants Hollywood forget how much of a haunted house movie's personality comes from the personality of the haunter. There is a great deal of horror in keeping the specter's identity or motivations a mystery as long as possible. Ghosts come in many forms, needy or nasty, frightened or frightening. Deformed hordes from Hell make a pretty unequivocal statement. The whole Exorcist rage is a sorry aberration on the genre.
Everything Wrong With The Amityville Horror 1979
(From CinemaSins Review)
A return to a good ghost story was badly needed by 1979, and Peter Medak's ominous and unjustly overlooked The Changeling fit the bill admirably. George G. Scott played as a widower musician who buys a beautiful, huge house in Seattle, only to find it was the scene of the cruel murder of a child and vast political cover-up. The crime is frighteningly reenacted and the mixture of the supernatural and the real has rarely been handled so effectively. Medak films the large space of house with such real claustrophia that everything seems haunted, including the entire city of Seattle. George G. Scott gave an excellent performance in this sleeper, one of the new films of the genre ever to survive numerous scenes outside of the house.
On the heels of The Changeling came the King Lear of horror films, one of the greatest haunted house movies of them all, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, (1980), based on Stephen King's novel. Much has been said and written about this exceptional film, but it's worth considering it as part of the genre. The Overlook Hotel is a vast, clean hotel, but Kubrick imbued it with a distinct and claustrophobic brand of horror. Not for him were the chandeliers and cobwebs--he was used the ghastly images of torrential blood, desiccated corpses, maddening mazes and even, so it seems, bizarre sexual acts involving a man in a chipmunk suit.
The great ambiguity of the movie lies in its treatment of Jack Nicholson's paranoid Jack Torrance. Has Torrance, like Roderick Usher, always been mad, or has the hotel inflamed his mind and possessed him to carry out his homicidal tendencies, the way it has with former occupants? Kubrick never tells you for certain, but as a kind of spook catching exercise, it's worth watching the movie again and trying to spot what's real and what might be supernatural.
Kubrick's The Shining(1980)
Rare Behind The Scenes Footage
Steven Spielberg, not to be outdone, produced the ghost story Poltergeist, (1982), in which the classic American family is possessed by their own possessions, most specifically their pre-fab house, part of a development built on top of a cemetery. Although the builders might not have respected the tradition of the dead, Spielberg and his director, Tobe Hooper, do. The film is clever and visually exciting, bringing the conventions of the genre right into the center of every American home--the television set. The film includes the now obligatory team of parapsychologists and for the scene of the small child's rescue from ''the other side'' alone, it deserves its great success. But the film is a bit of cheat. The house is declared ''clean'' more than halfway through the film, so the film's second climax--a huge production number anyway--starts to numb the braincells.
What these last three very different and very idiosyncratic films do is to bring the element of human sickness into the genre. In the 1950's, the evil was out there; in the later 1970's it was internal. Mirroring a nation's post-Vietnam, post-Watergate mood, the films reflect an evil in ourselves, in hour homes. The political scandal at the heart of The Changeling, Jack Torrance's paranoia and alcoholic abusiveness, the greedy desecrations that ignite the poltergeist's fury--these are specific, harsh, and recognizable images of evil within ourselves, metamorphosed into full-screen nightmares.
But when Hollywood chose to emphasize gore and effects in the 1980's, it saw the haunted house as an eccentric old relative---quaint, boring, more a figure of fun than respect, and so the haunted house seems again to have given over to the comedies. 1983 produced House of Long Shadows, the story of a writer forced to write a mystery overnight in a haunted house The film has poor and thankfully brief performances by Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and John Carradine, but the scariest thing about it is the notion of Desi Arnaz Jr. as a writer. Ghostbusters in 1984 was, of course, an immense hit, but its high-tech exorcism techniques seem to have more to do with the absurd demons of The Sentinel than with the ghosts of The Haunting. However, it certainly has made ectoplasmic slime difficult to take seriously ever again.
Three light-hearted films in 1986 were dead losses, so to speak. House was another inexplicable success, an incoherent mishmash of some of the best and worst haunted house films of the previous decade. Not much better is Gene Wilder's Haunted Honeymoon. At least he had the taste to return to the horror comedies of the 1940's, but this film poaches the plot of Cat and the Canary with none of its wit, although Dom DeLuise in drag is a pretty frightening sight. The Canterville Ghost, a TV version of the Oscar Wilde story, offers a kind of Little Lord Fauntleroy in ectoplasmic drag, as a young girl befriends a crotchety old ghost. What saves it, indeed, makes part of it quite good, is John Gielgud's wry performance as the ghost. He captures the pain, poignance of restlessness of those consigned to the other side.
Michael Keaton is not nearly as charming as the bio-exorcist in Tim Burton's wildly imaginative Beetlejuice (1988), which has the distinction of being the first Yuppie haunted house film. A young couple in Vermont get killed before their time, in a car crash (next to a sign that says ''Come Back Again Soon!''). They do come back, as a pair of ineffectual ghosts who are incapable of driving out the revolting family which has moved into their old house. It's not just that they aren't mean enough; they lack the imagination. In one wonderfully self-referential moment, the human family's sympathetic young daughter suggests to the ghosts that instead of running around in designer sheets, they try stuff ''like in Night of the Living Dead,'' Even a hilarious scene in which they possess the family to the tune of Harry Belafonte's Day-O (with its near-supernatural chorus, ''Daylight come and we want to go home!'') backfires--they can't compete with those scary movies.
This is what gives the film its considerable charm, as well as its sad truth -- the ghostly antics found in Topper just don't seem to cut it anymore, at home or onscreen. Beetlejuice's ghostly couple are fit only for an amusement park--leave the really scary stuff to Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees. The film confirms the obsolescence of mysterious atmosphere.; its heart is clearly in the garish visuals. It even ends with the ultimate haunted house vision of the 1980's, as ghostly couple and human couple set up happy housekeeping together.
But that may be the haunted house's greatest quality: its elastic (or ectoplasmic) resilience. Vampires and slashers may come and go, but as long as there are ghosts in the closet, and human beings silly enough to want to look for them, there will always be haunted house films. And that, if nothing else, should make one sleep better at night.
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