Fantasy literature has been my favorite genre all my life, but although I’ve always enjoyed good stories about monsters, witches, vampires, ghouls, werewolves, demons, zombies, etc., they only frighten me to the extent that a skilled author is able to engineer a necessary suspension of disbelief, for such things have never really scared me. For all my devotion to terror fiction, most of what we write about just aren’t real to me. I suppose I was lucky enough to read Dracula when I was still young enough to fear the undead, but it’s a been a long time since vampires have
“worked” for me; the last author who did anything unusual with the theme was Richard Matheson in a few short stories and, of course, his novel, I Am Legend, which is, however, science fiction.
Ghosts and haunted houses, though, are another matter. Over the years I have become increasingly sensitive to psychic “vibes.” I think my sensitivity may have been ratcheted up that night in London when I was on my way to dine with editor-publisher Stephen Jones and a bus sideswiped me, knocking me against a stone fountain at Oxford Circus.
The next day I went to Edinburgh, where I was cast to play in two shows during that city’s International Fringe Festival. As I’ve said before, every horror writer should matriculate in the capital city of Scotland, a place rife with bloody history and ghost stories. While I was there, I discovered several places that made me distinctly nervous; when I investigated, I learned they all were believed to be haunted. Since then, I’ve been all too aware of similar spooky spots in Manhattan, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. My reason for saying this is to explain why stories of hauntings chill me as no other variety of fantasy literature does.
There are many superb ghost stories in European and American literature, but fewer effective haunted house tales; I consider them the hardest kind of supernatural fiction to write, and it is even more difficult to make it work in the movies. I know of eleven such films, and while they are not all equally effective, they are best that I’ve ever seen. Before I list them, though, I would like to mention a few other ghostly movies that are not on my list, and my reasons for their exclusion.
Carnival of Souls, Curse of the Cat People, Ghost, Ghost Town, and The Sixth Sense, while greatly varied in style, theme, and character, are all interesting ghost stories, which, however, do not involve any haunted houses. I do not believe The Lady in White does, either, though I could be mistaken about this, as I saw it some time ago, but while it has some nice atmospheric moments and an excellent group of actors, as Leonard Maltin notes, its “villain’s identity is a bit too easy to guess.” Ghost Story, despite its superb cast, I found tediously unimaginative; it also does not involve a haunted house. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, of course, does feature a large, eerie haunted hotel, and there is at least one psychologically frightening moment in it, when the camera shows us what its deeply disturbed protagonist has been writing. But The Shining does not make my personal list because Jack Nicholson’s way-over-the-top hamming scuttled it for me. On a lesser plane, I also do not include Roger Corman’s haunted house “B” movies, The House on Haunted Hill and 13 Ghosts, but though they are lesser efforts, they are rather fun.
One final film not included in my tally is the Disney film The Watcher in the Woods, though for much of its length, it seems to be a good haunted house film. But when its mystery is solved, it turns out to be altogether different in nature. (This is a film with three different endings, all of them available on the DVD.)
Here are my recommendations for the eleven best haunted house movies ever filmed:
1. The Innocents (1961, British) heads my list. It is the cinematic version of William Archibald’s play of that title, which was based on the Henry James classic, The Turn of the Screw. Its cast is perfect: Deborah Kerr, Peter Wyngarde, Megs Jenkins, Pamela Franklin, Martin Stephens, and a cameo appearance by Michael Redgrave. Effectively photographed in black and white by Freddie Francis, it features two ghosts - or does it? - who may be trying to possess two children. The maddening ambiguity of the James original is brilliantly captured by the director Jack Clayton and Truman Capote, who did the screen adaptation. (Note: there is a moderately effective English version made in 1974 starring Lynn Regdrave and the same Megs Jenkins from the 1961 film repeating the role of Mrs. Grose. This TV adaptation was written by my friend, author-editor-screenwriter William F. Nolan.)
2. The Haunting (1963) is Robert Wise’s superb cinematic adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel, The Haunting of Hill House, starring Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, Russ Tamblyn, Lois Maxwell, and Fay Compton. True, the novel’s ending strongly suggests that the haunting is entirely in the mind of its protagonist, whereas the screenplay by Nicholas Gidding objectifies the ghostliness, but one cannot fault The Haunting for pure nerve-wracking chills. To echo Leonard Maltin, “Don’t see this one alone!”
3. The Uninvited (1944) is a movie I tried to catch up with for years. It was released when I was about six years old; I remember being in the movie house across the street from where I lived in West Philadelphia, and when the Coming Attracions for The Uninvited came on the screen, my mother made me put my hands over my eyes. Well, of course I peeked - and saw that shivery moment when two siblings enter a room in the seacoast house where they are staying and do not notice the flowers they brought with them start to wither! Based on a novel by Dorothy Macardle, The Uninvited stars Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, Donald Crisp, Cornelia Otis Skinner, and Gail Russell. It is perhaps America’s first great haunted house film. (A rather good play version of The Uninvited may be found in my old Doubleday anthology, 13 Plays of Ghosts and the Supernatural.)
Before I continue my list, please note that my first three recommendations were all filmed in black and white … in my opinion, the best choice for haunted house movies, for in them, midnight seems blacker, the shadows much more menacing. Well, the seven remaining movies on my list are all in color, but the best of them manage to work through what is ever a potential handicap.
4. The Others (2001) is especially successful in doing so, thanks to its darkness, mists, and claustrophobia. According to The Internet Movie Database, it is the highest-grossing Spanish film of all time, and it certainly deserves to be. It is a masterful assault on the nerves by director Alejandro Amenábar and features a fine performance by Nicole Kidman who, with her children, inhabit a dark old house that may be - must be - haunted. Like The Haunting, it is especially frightening because it suggests, rather than shows, nightmarish things.
5. The Legend of Hell House (1973) is Richard Matheson’s adaptation of his own novel, Hell House. Its psychic team, consisting of Clive Revill, Pamela Franklin, Gayle Hunnicutt, and - in a bravura performance! - Roddy McDowall, are hired to prove or disprove the existence of an after-life by going to Belasco House, said to be “the Mount Everest of haunted houses.” This is a truly harrowing tale, with a grim cameo near the end by the estimable Michael Gough. The only one thing wrong with the film is that the book is even better; Hell House is my nominee for the most terrifying haunted house novel ever written; compared to it, said one critic, ‘Rosemary’s Baby is like a night at the Nixons!’
6. The Woman in Black (1989) is a British TV film based on the novel by Susan Hill and adapted by the late, great fantasy/SF writer Nigel Kneale, perhaps best known for the Quatermass series. A deeply disturbing conte cruelle, this is the story of a young London solicitor sent to a remote village to settle the estate of a newly-deceased elderly woman who lived in one of the creepiest haunted houses ever! Though it was shot in color, its director Herbert Wise intelligently employs fog, isolation, darkness, bird cries and spectral sound effects to worry away at the nerves of the hapless protagonist and audience alike. A remake starring Daniel (Harry Potter) Radcliffe is in production now, tentatively scheduled to be released in October of this year. (The book the film is based on is well written, and worth tracking down - and if you should visit London, DO NOT MISS seeing the brilliant theatrical version by Stephen Mallatratt of The Woman in Black that has been playing the Fortune Theatre for the past twenty-plus years! I have seen it twice, and mean to go again the next time I’m in England.)
7. Fragile (2005) is not an easy film to track down; a copy was recommended to me by a dealer at a convention, and I am glad I took his word for it. Like The Others, it is also a Spanish film, though it is in English. It is the terrifying story of a new nurse (played by Ally McBeal star Calista Flockheart) trying to cope with random acts of violence at a rundown, very haunted children’s hospital.
8. The Changeling (1980) boasts a fine cast: George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas, Jean Marsh, John Colicos, Madeleine Sherwood, Barry Morse, etc. Scott, a composer consumed with grief over the accidental death of his wife and daughter, rents a large old house where he hopes to write his music, but he soon finds that he is not alone. One truly creepy moment involves a child’s ball.
9. The Skeptic (2009) provided me with an unexpected surprise when I watched it a few days ago. A ghost story offered by HBO, I did not find it listed in Leonard Maltin’s 2011 Movie Guide and almost passed it by because HBO too often presents poorly-done supernatural movies. But the leading actor in The Skeptic is Tim Daly, whom I’ve always liked, and it also features Tom Arnold, Zoe Saldana, Edward Herrmann and Robert Prosky (his final film), so I decided to give it a chance … and am glad I did. Daly plays an attorney whose skepticism covers deep-rooted emotional problems that become activated when he moves into his recently deceased aunt’s house - despite vaguely unspecific warnings to beware of the place. The usual haunted house expectations are raised - Evil spirits? Demons? Just plain psychical phenomena? - but writer-director Tennyson Bardwell flirts with, and neatly sidesteps every cliché. The Skeptic is what they call “a sleeper” - an unexpectedly well-done little film!
10. Stir of Echoes (1999) is an effective adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel A Stir of Echoes (that the filmmakers dropped the titular article strikes me as minor Hollywood stupidity) starring Kevin Bacon. This movie should have done better at the box office, but it had the misfortune to open at the same time as The Sixth Sense, to which “Stir” was unfairly and inaccurately compared. I found it as compelling in its own very different way, and highly recommend a viewing. (I understand there was a direct-to-video sequel made, but I have not seen it.)
11. Haunted (1995), the last entry on my list, is not a classic haunted house movie, but it has its merits. Based on a James Herbert novel, it stars Aidan Quinn and Kate Beckinsale, who become emotionally involved, despite unpleasant hints that she may be incestuously connected with her brother. A mysterious local doctor is played by no less than Sir John Gielgud. The conclusion, which I blush to say I should have seen coming, is certainly ghostly. I also blush to mention that Kate Beckinsale’s nude scenes were not without interest.
Before I leave the topic of ghostly cinema, I must mention one of my all-time favorites, Val Lewton’s The Body Snatcher (1945), based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson. Directed by Robert Wise, and starring Boris Karloff, Henry Daniell, and Bela Lugosi, it is not a haunted house story, but is Stevenson’s spin-off of Burke and Hare, who, Edinburgh tour guides will tell you, were never resurrectionists, i.e., body snatchers … but murderers who supplied cadavers for medical dissection. I think its final ghostly sequence The Body Snatcher is one of the most chilling scenes in cinematic history.