This past Friday Lionsgate Films released its latest horror offering, the haunted house film Winchester, based upon the real Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. The film tells the supposedly true tale of Sarah Winchester, widow and heir to the Winchester gun manufacturer, who believed she was haunted by the spirits of all those unfortunate souls killed by the very guns manufactured by her late husband. She built the mansion – a dizzying and illogical array of never-ending rooms and hallways – over decades to imprison these spirits. Sadly the most ominous thing about Winchester is the universally scathing nature of reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, a disappointment given the casting of Helen Mirren.
Fortunately, the haunted house film has a long history in the horror genre with several better options to consider for a movie night. In this Chopping Block entry, I take a look at five of the best examples of the subgenre. To narrow the focus a little I am only considering those films that depict a haunting in a residential building – a house or a mansion – excluding classics like The Shining and hidden gems, Session 9 and The Innkeepers. There are a few films not the on the list that require a little further explanation. First, I have not included The Amityville Horror (1979), a film that I have always considered to be dull and derivative. The second film, The Legend of Hell House (1973), is a personal guilty pleasure but, objectively, probably doesn’t belong in a Top 5 list. And while Crimson Peak (2015) is a visually gorgeous film that does its best to draw on the gothic roots of the subgenre it’s an emotionally disjointed effort.
5- The House on Haunted Hill (1959)
Younger horror fans may not appreciate the charms of The House on Haunted Hill (1959) but its placement on this list is essential. For the uninitiated, Vincent Price, the film’s star, was a legendary horror film actor appearing in several classics from the 1950s to the 1970s. Producer and director William Castle was famous for his gimmick-inspired films, which included having vibrating devices installed in theatre seats to give audiences a scare for screenings of The Tingler. The House on Haunted Hill – the first collaboration between Price and Castle – tells the tale of eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren who invites five strangers to a party for his wife, Annabelle in the supposedly haunted Hill House. If they can last the night they win $10, 000. Old-fashioned and campy to its core, The House on Haunted Hill is the kind of movie you watch with the lights out on a stormy night. While it’s not a scary film it absolutely benefits from its black-and-white cinematography, which adds a sense of atmosphere. The real star of this low-budget effort though is Price who injects every scene with a wicked sense of fun in the tightly-paced film.
4 – The Others (2001)
The Others (2001) is as much a psychological thriller as it is horror. A slow burn of a film, director Alejandro Amenábar eschews special effects for a focus on mystery, tension, and a “what might be hiding” in shadows feel. Nicole Kidman, in an excellent performance, is Grace Stewart, a woman living alone in a large country house with her two children in the years following World War II. The children suffer from a rare condition that makes them sensitive to sunlight so they spend their days in the shadows of the house. Following the arrival of three new servants, increasingly strange occurrences convince Grace that there are unseen intruders lurking somewhere in the house. To say much more would ruin one of the better horror film endings since The Sixth Sense (1999). Slow and methodical, patient viewers will be rewarded with a haunted house film rich in atmosphere. The film also features one of the better executed jump scares in horror films.
3 – The Conjuring (2013)
The Conjuring (2013) ranks as one of the best horror films of this decade. Director James Wan takes several tired haunted house and general horror film tropes and injects them with new life. Following paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren as they attempt to help a family plagued by supernatural occurrences, The Conjuring puts its characters front and centre making the film as much a human drama as it is a horror film. But it is a horror film and what a job Wan does balancing out atmospheric dread with more conventional jump scares. The ‘clapping game’ produces not one, but two, standout scares in the film with one of the better ‘gotcha’ moments – even on a second viewing, knowing that the scare was coming, I still jumped. The Conjuring is a relentless, well-crafted film that deserves some credit or paving the way for some of the prestige horror films that have followed it over the last few years.
2 – Poltergeist (1982)
Poltergeist (1982) was one of the first horror films I saw as a child – it’s still a great introduction to the genre for older kids who aren’t ready for the intense stuff yet. In contrast to the slow, psychological nature of The Others (2001), Poltergeist is a roller coaster ride of a movie with plenty of scares and jumps. Few horror films have balanced thrills, drama, humour, and scares as successfully as Poltergeist. Less psychological than some of the other films on this list, director Tobe Hooper and producer Stephen Spielberg load Poltergeist with unforgettable imagery – from haunted trees and clowns to maggot-infested pieces of steak and exploding graves. Poltergeist is both visually thrilling and emotionally engaging. Most importantly, amidst all the scares the film never forgets the importance of humanizing the family at the centre of the haunting, allowing the audience to be fulling engaged and have a sense of stakes in the film’s climax.
1 – The Haunting (1963)
Released over 50 years ago, The Haunting (1963) still remains the best example of the haunted house subgenre. When I think of ‘haunted houses’ I think of the imagery of Hill House from The Haunting. Director Robert Wise makes his haunted house a real, living and breathing, and imposing character in the film. One inventive scene in particular illustrates how genuine scares can be generated without any special effects. What really distinguishes The Haunting from dozens of other haunted house films is its psychological character study of its lead character, Eleanor Lance, a woman desperately trying to escape the confines of her life. As Eleanor’s fragile psyche begins to unravel, the audience questions how much of what they are seeing is truly the supernatural or the delusions of a character losing her grip on reality. Every haunted house that has followed owes some debt to The Haunting.
Photo Credit: Title from public domain version of The House on Haunted Hill (William Castle Productions, 1959)