With The Woman In Black currently on release, Jayne Nelson looks back at some its haunted house predecessors
The Woman In Black is currently scaring the underwear off cinemagoers nationwide (not a pretty sight, we can tell you), and the end of last year saw the release of the creepy The Awakening , so it seems like the good old haunted house movie is back in fashion. It’s a long tradition filled with terrifying examples of creaky doors and ghostly footsteps, not to mention pant-wetting scares. Jayne Nelson takes a look at ten of the best...
10 The Amityville Horror
Allegedly based on a true story – although nobody seems to be able to corroborate the facts, and the film went off in all sorts of fanciful directions without a thought to them anyway – The Amityville Horror has since spawned an astonishing 10 sequels/remakes and even a small musical hit (listen out for a bizarre Star Trek cameo).
Leaving aside whether it’s a true story or not (we reckon not), The Amityville Horror has a lot going for it. The setting is fairly standard: an unsuspecting family move into a house in which a grisly murder-spree has been committed. There’s something nasty in the basement (a gateway to Hell, perhaps?) and a series of strange accidents result in them calling in an exorcist, but to no avail. It seems the spirits in the house want a repeat performance of the bloody night a year beforehand...
Two things make this film a cut above the rest: a downright creepy score, which features a little girl singing “la la” in such an ominous way that Poltergeist cleverly did the same again a few years later but with even more kids; and the fact that the house in question has eyes! It actually looks at you with two of its windows, giving it a personality many haunted homes lack. Brrrr.
Scariest moment: Rod Steiger, as a priest, turns up to exorcise the house. The room he’s in fills with flies. Hundreds of flies, swarming everywhere. Then a voice says, “Get out!” We bloody would, make no mistake.
Selling point: Did we mention this house has eyes ?
9 Poltergeist (1982)
If ever there was a “family” version of a truly scary horror film, Poltergeist is it. Not that its subject matter is family friendly at all – oh no. Child kidnapping; hideous monsters attacking screaming mothers; swimming pools filled with bobbing, rotting corpses; kid-eating trees; talk of “The Beast”... and yet, somehow, because it’s about a family, nobody dies onscreen and it has an often syrupy score, it remains a nice horror film.
It’s also unusual. Far from taking place in a creaky old house in the woods most of us would avoid if we had any sense, Poltergeist ’s suburban setting, familiar surroundings (check out the Star Wars poster in the kids’ bedroom – that could be your room, couldn’t it?) and general sense of “this could happen to you, right now, in your own house” makes it even scarier. Poltergeist is what a horror film should be: something that makes you look at your comfortable little world in a whole new way. Hell, after watching this film, even pushing chairs under the kitchen table seems threatening...
Scariest moment: You know that thing where you look in a mirror and you spot a mark on your cheek, so you poke at it, and then you pull at it, and then you rip your entire face off until it falls as bloody chunks in the sink? Yeah, that bit.
Selling point: Aside from the Steven Spielberg connection – while Tobe Hooper ostensibly directed, Spielberg seems to have been very involved – it’s the moment when innocent little Carol-Anne coos, “They’re here!” And boy, are they...
8 The Others (2001)
“Sometimes the world of the living
gets mixed up with the world of the dead.”
Nope, not those guys on the island in Lost ; the “others” in this terrifying tale are the spirits that appear to be haunting an icy, careworn mother named Grace (Nicole Kidman) and her two children. There’s something weird about this family from the off: Grace is fanatical about closing all the curtains and keeping doors locked shut at all times, which we soon come to learn is because her children are photosensitive. With no natural light and a bucketload of tension, the house they’re trapped in becomes a bubbling pot of spookiness...
The Others is a psychological horror seen through the eyes of a mother dealing with a terrible trauma (it would be mean of us to reveal the ending, but it’s suitably shocking) and it has a lot of fun – if fun is the right word – with the idea of being locked inside a house with no light as reality seems to fall apart. Fionnula Flanagan is brilliant as the housekeeper who knows more than she’s letting on, while Kidman’s wide-eyed terror and determination is tough to watch.
Scariest moment: Grace walking up to her daughter, hidden in a wedding veil, and seeing through it to a horrible old crone underneath. Wagh!
Selling point: At the time, Nicole Kidman, who was a megastar. Now? The fact it’s completely terrifying and doesn’t make a single misstep.
7 Paranormal Activity (2007)
“I think we’ll be okay now.”
There’s nothing particularly original about Paranormal Activity : it uses just about every haunted house cliché in the book, from the sound of footsteps to doors moving on their own to an exorcist arriving to clear the place of demons, only to be taken ill. There’s even a Ouija board thrown in for good measure. But it’s the way first-time director Oren Peli chooses to tell his tale that makes it so memorable, opting to film it for about £2.50 in his own home using a plain old video camera, then selling it as “found footage” of a couple being haunted in as believable a way as possible.
It also taps into something primal in all of us: the fear of being attacked in our sleep, when we’re at our most vulnerable. A young couple set up cameras in their house after Katie (Katie Featherston) becomes convinced she’s being haunted. As they sleep, the cameras record weird stuff going on around them without any embellishment or gimmickry; there isn’t even a score. It’s as if the audience is a peeping tom and the thing they’re ogling isn’t meant to be seen. Very clever.
Scariest moment: When, after having watched it, you have to try to get to sleep in your own bed.
Selling point: The novelty factor of the “found footage” trope and good word of mouth from audiences – plus a great advertising campaign (see clip above).
6 The Innocents (1961)
“But above anything else, I love the children!”
A beautiful governess (Deborah Kerr) arrives at a sprawling mansion in the countryside to take charge of two rich yet unloved orphans: Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin). She’s got gallons of love to spare and at first the children appear to love her back, but before long she starts to notice things aren’t quite right in her new home. First there’s the mystery surrounding the deaths of the previous governess and her lover; then there’s the fact young Miles was expelled from school for his terrible behaviour. Why does little Flora keep singing that song, and who is the figure seen at the top of the tower...?
It’s all frightfully stiff-upper-lip and British, and there are a few quibbles – the housekeeper instantly believing Miss Giddens’ wacky theory that the spirits of the dead couple are trying to possess the children, for instance. But it doesn’t matter because Kerr is astonishing as a reasonable, sane woman slowly losing her sanity; and the children themselves are perfectly cast, adorable one moment and strangely off-kilter the next. And then there’s the ending, which is so shocking and unusual you can’t quite believe it actually happens: we won’t spoil it for you, but wow. Downer...
Scariest moment: Miss Giddens hides behind a curtain to play hide and seek, and then this happens....
Selling point: Creepy kids – not so much Village Of The Damned but House Of The Nearly Damned .
5 Beetlejuice (1988)
“Let’s turn on the juice and see what shakes loose!”
Beetlejuice did something few haunted house movies had ever done before, telling the story of the haunting from the viewpoint of the ghosts themselves. And the beauty of Tim Burton’s cheerfully gothic horror comedy was that you completely understood where they were coming from, unlike with your average spook. Beetlejuice is all about the ectoplasmic empathy .
Newlyweds Barbara (Geena Davis) and Adam (Alec Baldwin) are killed in a car crash and yet refuse to give up their dream home, choosing to live like a living, breathing couple until new homeowners move in. Their attempts to scare them out of their pad are vaguely pathetic, so they hire an exorcist to do it for them: the manic, half-crazy Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton, showing the flip side of his more serious work as Batman ). Burton’s bonkers imagination and the clever twisting of a ton of clichés on their heads make this a haunted house movie that’s in a class of its own.
Scariest moment: We’d recommend you watch this one .
Selling point: Keaton in Looney Tunes mode, although the production design and bizarro plot help, too.
4 The Haunting (1963)
“Oh God... Whose hand was I holding?”
It’s the tried-and-tested template for a good haunted house tale: taking a team of paranormal researchers out to the middle of nowhere to spend a night in a house with a terrible history. And The Haunting does it proud, managing to be utterly terrifying at times without showing so much as a wispy phantom. The fear in this film comes from strange noises, doors opening and closing on their own and the sheer creepiness of the house itself, filled with statues and carvings that look deliciously evil in half-shadows. There’s even one scene in which a piece of wallpaper becomes demonic – not many films could get away with that!
Julie Harris is the fragile, put-upon victim who spends her entire time in the house thinking the ghosts are out to get her (she could be right). She’s given sterling support by her fellow ghost-hunters, with the only quibble being that almost everybody is British despite the story being set in New England. Oh, that and the fact that no matter how much the filmmakers try to make the outside of Hill House horrifying, it’s actually a rather beautiful building!
Scariest moment: The first time the ghosts “attack”: banging on the door of the ladies’ bedroom and slowly, ever-so-slowly, trying to turn the handle... We’d be surprised if ’60s audiences didn’t loosen their bowels in the cinema.
Selling point: It never forgets what it is – a haunted house story through and through, with no bells and whistles. Unlike modern films it needs no gore, cheap shocks or CGI to make its point, just a clever building of atmosphere.
3 The Orphanage (2007)
“Simón! Simón !”
This Spanish chiller is one of those films that moves at a glacial pace, drawing out the tension minute by minute, dropping tiny crumbs of plot here and there to keep you watching until suddenly it scares you absolutely witless with something as simple as a thump on the soundtrack. It’s actually an incredibly simple story – Laura (Belén Rueda) returns to the orphanage in which she grew up with a husband and child in tow, determined to give the place a new lease of life. Instead her son finds himself an invisible friend who he says has a bag over his face; then he goes missing...
The mystery surrounding the boy’s disappearance is compounded by what appear to be ghostly children running around the place, not to mention the aforementioned hooded boy. The film doesn’t let you down: the reveal of what’s really going on, when it comes, is enough to make your stomach churn.
Scariest moment: Playing “One, Two, Three, Knock On The Wall” (what we’d call “Statues”) with a bunch of ghosties. Turning your back on a ghost has to be the scariest thing since... well, actually looking at one.
Selling point: One gutpunch of a plot twist.
2 The Evil Dead (1981)
“You bastards, why are you torturing me like this? Why?”
Kids these days, wantonly buggering off to stay in deserted cabins in the woods and then reading aloud from the Book Of The Dead without a care in the world... tsk! Still, thanks to the stupidity of the five young ’uns in The Evil Dead we were treated to three mostly excellent movies and the career of one Mr Bruce Campbell, so we shouldn’t complain.
Indeed, back in the day The Evil Dead was probably the scariest haunted house movie of them all: it didn’t matter that the demons contained within the cabin had been conjured by the teens, and it didn’t matter that they weren’t technically haunting it. This still has all the trappings of your average ghost-fest, from the fact they can’t leave their dwelling to get help, to the fact the dead come back to life. Gruesomely. Ew.
Thanks to Sam Raimi and his micro-budgeted shocker, horror films had to raise their game from providing psychological chills to mixing them with as much controversial gore and violence as possible. Groovy.
This montage neatly sums up the film’s charms...
Scariest moment: Any time the camera moves along the ground at speed – an unnatural viewpoint that’s both unnerving and frantic. Although most of the gore is pretty scary, too.
Selling point: Nothing like it had ever been done before – in American cinema, anyway.
1 The Shining (1980)
“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
The film that made the hitherto innocent Steadicam camera a thing of menace and creeping horror still stands up today, despite becoming so famous it’s almost a parody of itself at times. Jack Nicholson’s performance as a writer driven slowly insane by a bunch of ghosts in the hotel he’s babysitting for the winter is utterly magnetic, while the hotel itself is more of a character than his wife and child – exuding menace from every carpeted hallway.
It’s an archetype for any haunted house horror, featuring a building in the wilderness that you can’t escape from (in this case because it’s snowing), but it’s the sight of a good man gradually changing allegiance from his family to the spirits haunting the place that’s the scariest thing of all.
Scariest moment: A toss-up between the lift doors opening and an entire swimming pool of blood flowing out in slow-motion... and the old crone who attempts to seduce Jack. Gross.
Selling point: Nicholson putting the “icon” into “iconic”.