Creaking doors, rattling windows, jerky, unsettling movements of spooky spirits; the haunted house horror is a pivotal sub-genre in cinema. Tales of ghostly apparitions and paranormal thrills are unlikely to go out of style. Unlike creature-features or post-apocalyptic devastation, a huge dark house evokes a very primal fear within us.
Of course, a haunted place doesn’t just have to be a house. Any old, imposing buildings are spooky enough when viewing on a big screen. The haunted house horror category is a vast and consistently broadening one. So this list isn’t definitely a comprehensive one. It’s simply a subjective display of classics and refreshing modern features across the decades.
1. The Uninvited (1944)
‘Old Dark House’ movies were one of the horror sub-genres that used spooky, sprawling mansions to create works of mystery, farce, and thriller. Movies like Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary (1927) and James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932) were all masterworks of mood and menace. But the ‘supernatural’ terror is largely non-existent, or if it did, it was practically explainable. However, Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited didn’t try to rationalize the ghost phenomenon or play it for laughs. It was apparently one of the earliest American movies to do so. It was the era when American horror pictures re-hashed the same ‘monster’ movie plots. The huge success of Frankenstein, Wolfman, and The Mummy led to an assortment of sequels and spin-offs.
Based on the Dorothy Macardle’s novel, The Uninvited unfolds in the creepily atmospheric Cornwall islands. The setting instantly reminds us of the ominous mansion in Hitchcock’s adaption of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1940). The story follows vacationing London siblings, Roderick and Pamela, who are drawn to a deserted mansion, atop the seaside cliffs. Despite hearing rumours that the house might be haunted, they decide to buy it. And as soon as the siblings move in, they encounter some ‘disturbances’. Though visually elegant, the movie may seem a bit outdated and old-fashioned. Yet, it manages to evoke few genuine chills, more than seven decades after its release.
2. House on Haunted Hill (1959)
William Castle’s unabashed and darkly funny feature is a minor cult classic in the haunted house horror types. Considering, modern horror’s standards, it may not be very scary and only modestly entertaining. But Castle’s moody atmosphere and Vincent Price’s casting bestows an unquestionable legacy upon the film. Price was best known for the horror movies he made in the 1950s. In House on Haunted Hill, he plays an eccentric wealthy man named Frederick Loren.
Frederick and his fourth wife Annabelle invite five people to their house for a ‘haunted house’ party. The guests would receive ten thousand dollars if they succeed in staying the night. But, as expected, all the guests confront one terror after another. With a run-time of 75 minutes, the film wastes no time in setting memorable set pieces. Altogether, it provides timeless, campy fun which the serious-minded modern horror flicks don’t possess.
3. The Innocents (1961)
Jack Clayton’s brilliant adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is one of cinema’s great ghost stories. It is set in 19th century with a naive governess (Deborah Kerr) traveling to an isolated country estate. She is to act as caregiver and tutor for the recently orphaned siblings – Flora and Miles. Soon, the governess begins to hear voices and has unexplainable visions. She also inquires about the children’s increasingly troubling conduct. It all unearths the elusive evil lurking beneath.
Truman Capote co-wrote this puzzling horror gem and it was filmed in monochrome Cinemascope. Part of the supreme quality of The Innocents lies in the way it subverts ghost story norms. The nature of evil here is steeped in ambiguity and riddled with Freudian subtext. In fact, no other ghost tale has explored repressed sexual energy and conservative disquiet like this one. Deborah Kerr’s flawless performance as governess Giddens further adds to the movie’s foreboding ambience.
4. The Haunting (1963)
Robert Wise’s technically superlative haunted house horror was based on Shirley Jackson’s classic 1959 gothic horror novel. The film revolves around three odd individuals, meddling with ‘supernatural’ forces at the infamous haunted hill house. Psychic explorer and anthropologist Dr. John Markway conducts experiments about supernatural phenomenon. He invites the flighty Eleanor Lance, who as a child has encountered several paranormal occurrences.
There’s also cool-headed Theodora, a psychic, and Luke, heir to the manor of ill repute. Not long before these characters’ entry, the monstrous house reveals its menacing nature. The story mostly focuses on the unstable Eleanor and her baleful relationship with the house. The Haunting doesn’t show any phantoms in a clear-cut manner. Similar to The Innocents, it maintains a frightening ambiguity about the unseen dark force. Robert Wise’s precisely controlled compositions and suggestive imagery diffuses an unnerving mood throughout. Julie Harris’ powerhouse performance as Eleanor deftly brings out the narrative’s psychological underpinnings.
5. The Legend of Hell House (1973)
John Hough’s adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel has a similar story-line like Shirley Jackson’s classic horror work. A motley crew of paranormal investigators and scientists visit this haunted mansion and try to comprehend its supernatural mystery. But while Jackson’s horror elements are more psychological, Matheson conjures pure visceral horror. A wealthy bohemian named Emeric Belasco, now long dead, is alleged to have created the evil at ‘Hell House’.
Subsequently, a dying industrialist with a sudden interest in after-life buys this abandoned mansion. He hires a team to unearth the boarded-up house’s secrets. The movie, enhanced by a bone-chilling atmosphere, has quite a few genuinely scary set-pieces. The cliched and silly characterizations, however don’t elevate it to a classic status. Overall, though, it makes for a reasonably entertaining viewing experience.
6. House (1977)
Nobuhiko Obayashi’s madcap, psychedelic horror is full of arresting imagery with no regard for genre conventions. It tells an old-fashioned haunted house horror tale. A schoolgirl gathers her chums and travels to ailing aunt’s creaky country home. There they come across a wave of demonic spirits, including dancing plastic skeletons, ghostly cats, and a hungry piano. Obayashi’s tale follows dream-logic, whose hallucinogenic trickery precedes the devilishly playful tone employed by Sam Raimi in Evil Dead (1981).
The director came from pop-commercial background, which explains the hyper-real and absurdist special-effects. While the pace is frenetic, a significant portion of horror-genre fans may find the movie completely unwatchable. Others may love its wildly incoherent, gory, and excessively silly elements and label it ‘incredibly original’. Naturally, I belong to the latter category.
7. The Changeling (1980)
Peter Medak’s haunted house horror doesn’t have anything new to add to the genre. But it offers an impressive aural-visual experience that plays on the viewers’ perception. When a noted composer and music professor John Russell loses his family in a road accident, he’s drowned in a sea of grief. With the help of a friend, John moves out of the family apartment into a massive mansion.
Before settling in, John starts to hear banging sounds. Naturally, John investigates the sounds and finds more about the house’s ghastly past. The Changeling may not have a promising plot. But its scares, subtly conceived using brooding atmosphere and sounds, render a memorable experience. George C Scott gives a brilliant tender performance in the lead role. The slow-burning nature of the film may put off some viewers. However, those wanting a good old-fashioned horror should check it out.
8. The Shining (1980)
Legendary Stanley Kubrick’s foray into the horror genre is a terrifying study of madness and isolation. Adapted from Stephen King’s best-selling novel, it tells the story of Jack Torrance, a writer and recovering alcoholic. He accepts the position of off-season caretaker at the creepy-looking Overlook Hotel. Wife Wendy and young (psychic) son Danny accompany Jack for his winter stay.
Slowly, the devastatingly isolated family gets swept by the inexplicable madness plaguing the ominous hotel. Kubrick’s great efficiency at creating a frightful aural-visual experience is perfectly matched by Jack Nicholson’s magnificent, unhinged performance. While the novel makes the supernatural presence overt, Kubrick’s tone is suggestive and ambiguous. In fact, the eerie happenings within the Overlook Hotel have invited a myriad of interpretations. Even if the haunted place aspect is stripped off, The Shining would remain a chilling study of domestic horror and psychological disturbance.
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9. Poltergeist (1982)
Directed by Tobe Hooper and co-written & produced by Spielberg, Poltergeist was an eerily awesome, special-effects-laden haunted house horror. The story takes place in a quiet, suburban paradise. The Freeling family – Steve, Diane and their children – happily live there. But in this middle-class haven the Freelings start to note strange occurrences. The family’s youngest daughter Carol stares at and talks to the static of off-air TV stations. Mom finds kitchen chairs moving on their own.
The malevolent spectral thing increasingly displays its force, which causes Carol’s disappearance. Poltergeist offers both a viscerally thrilling experience as well a sly commentary on the suburban life. A lot of domestic items that drive the daily life in suburbs are ingrained with sinister qualities. Although the film released after The Amityville Horror, its emotional quotient and scary tactics are way more fascinating.
10. Beetlejuice (1988)
Beetlejuice marks the master of macabre Tim Burton’s first big break in the film business. The comically quirky plot is a testament to Burton’s vivid imagination. The happily married Maitlands (Adam and Barbara) die in a car accident. They return as ghosts to their New England Home where they are trapped. Before settling into the ghostly life, the Maitlands’ house is disturbed by a new family, which has moved in from New York.
Exasperated, the Maitlands call out Beetle Juice, a lecherous bio-exorcist. Burton takes the traditional storyline of a haunted house horror and neatly switches it around. The movie doesn’t have a strong dramatic arc. Nevertheless, Burton’s outre visual elements keep the narrative buoyant. Furthermore, Michael Keaton’s exuberant performance as the creepy ‘betelgeuse’ makes it a memorable escapade even after 30 years.
11. Ghostwatch (1992)
BBC’s controversial horror mockumentary was first broadcast on Halloween 1992, before it was deemed too disturbing for re-telecast. After the DVD release in US and UK, the TV movie gained cult following. Stephen Volk & Lesley Manning’s Ghostwatch impeccably duped its audience than any of the later years’ found-footage horrors. It revolves around renowned TV presenters attempting to find solid proof of the supernatural in Britain’s infamous haunted house.
Ghostwatch is a fascinating blend of horror film and factual TV tropes. To add to the film’s realistic atmosphere, BBC1 journalist and show host Michael Parkinson was cast. The others were also reporters who play themselves, not fictional characters. Naturally, it caused unrest among the audience who believed that the scripted drama was also real. The film boasts quite a few chilling moments that catch us off-guard. Even after 25 years, it holds enough power to keep the viewers unsettled throughout.
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12. The Others (2001)
Alejandro Amenabar’s low-key ghost story is much indebted to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (adapted to film by Jack Clayton). The year is 1945 in Jersey, England. Grace (Nicole Kidman) awaits (with her children in a huge mansion) the return of her husband from World War II. She is convinced that her children are photosensitive – allergic to sunlight. The devoutly religious Grace keeps her kids in darkly lit rooms.
Strange, unexplainable things follow, terrorizing the entire emotionally constricted family. Like any effective haunted house horror, The Others has its fair share of suspense and jolts. The director Amenabar never degrades the proceedings with faux revelations. Nicole Kidman offers one of the best performances of her career. She perfectly embodies Grace’s emotionally plain surface emotions and gradually reveals the anxiety and anguish below the surface.
13. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Guillermo del Toro’s art-house horror uses ‘ghost’ as a clever metaphor for the long-lasting devastation of war. The narrative unfolds in a remote Spanish orphanage in the 1930s as Civil War rages outside the premises. The place houses a small group of boys and has a skeleton crew, but it can barely feed the kids. The boy-protagonist Carlos is brought to live at the orphanage. He hears that the place is haunted and a ghost roams the corridors.
The orphanage is also marked by the presence of an unexploded bomb in the middle of its yard. The brilliance of del Toro’s movie lies in the way he combines the elements of historical tragedy with the fantastical ones. The scenes with the ‘vengeful’ ghost are disturbingly eerie. Simultaneously, the restless apparition is also used as a fine symbol. Just like the unexploded bomb in the courtyard, indicating the prospect of not-too-distant war.
14. The Grudge (2002)
Takashi Shimizu’s redundant but chilling feature adopts the familiar ‘onryo’, or vengeful ghost scenario prevalent in Japanese horror movies. In a Tokyo house, a man has once killed his wife and possibly his son. For years, the ghostly presence seems to curse the people entering the house. Rika, a volunteer care worker, is sent to the house to look into the situation.
While observing the house and the family currently living in it, Rika discovers certain strange things. The narrative is broken into chapters and showcases various people who have fallen prey to the ghosts. The movie doesn’t boast any interesting dramatic arc.
But Shimizu is very effective at evoking the claustrophobic aura and a shuddering sense of unease. The eerie sound effects enhance the effect of sinister imagery. The sight of the forlorn Japanese boy-ghost, particularly, leaves a lasting impression.
15. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
Kim Jee-woon’s eerie psychological horror is a triumph of nerve-wracking atmosphere. The story opens with two teenage sisters, who return to their father’s house from a mental institution. The mother’s suicide is suggested as the reason behind the sisters’ mental affliction. The stepmother tries to make the girls comfortable, but the elder sister accuses her of past abuse.
Supernatural forces seem to plague the house as the family dynamics get worse. A Tale of Two Sisters isn’t your regular haunted house horror. And, the less you know going in, the better. The film’s most fascinating aspect is Kim’s framing techniques and good use of screen-space. Kim’s stunning images, full of oft-kilter shots and slow tracking shots hold up pretty well on repeat viewings.
16. The Orphanage (2007)
JA Bayona’s gothic horror has the touch of Devil’s Backbone and The Others. Yet, Bayona arranges the unoriginal derivative elements in a fresh way, crafting an emotionally resonant piece. The titular orphanage is a large, Victorian-era mansion. Laura, one of the orphanage’s girls, who was luckily adopted by a rich couple, returns to it. She buys off the mansion with Carlos, her physician husband.
Her plan is to turn it into a home for children with special needs. Laura’s own adopted son, Simon is HIV-positive and needs to take life-saving drugs. Soon, Laura and Simon experience strange occurrences. Director Bayona is a fine visual stylist who displays a good feel for tone and pacing. He skillfully manipulates the horror-movie grammar, utilizing even a burlap bag to spook us.
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17. Lake Mungo (2008)
Joel Anderson’s uncannily spooky Australian movie sort of begins in Lynchian territory. Sixteen-year-old Alice Palmer drowns in a lake during a family outing. Her parents and brother find it hard to cope with the loss of Palmer. The family still feels the presence of Alice in their house. Mysterious noises emanate from the dead girl’s room and the mother has vivid nightmares. Apart from sharing the name ‘Palmer’, Alice keeps a diary and lot of secrets.
Subsequently, the twists in the narrative reveal a dark void beneath the tranquil surface, similar to Lynch’s TV series. Irrespective of the familiar plot Lake Mungo is a contemplative horror film, revolving around the themes of manipulation and memory. It has very few traditional shock elements and there are no traces of gore. Yet, Anderson’s low-key direction gradually casts a spell, creating a palpable sense of unease. The end delivers an intense effect and resonates long after the film is over.
18. Insidious (2011)
James Wan’s Insidious is an neat blend of demonic possession and haunted house horror tropes. It begins with Josh Lambert and his wife Renai’s moving to a new house. Their pre-teen son Dalton is apparently drawn to a mysterious force in the house. Unfortunately, Dalton falls into a coma after witnessing the creepy thing in their attic.
Soon, more supernatural events begin to plague the household. Consequently, a team of gadgets-savvy paranormal investigators try to unearth the truth about what’s afflicting Dalton. James Wan gained spotlight through his debut feature Saw (2004). With Insidious, he took on a more subtle approach to horror. While the ‘Saw’ movies revel in gore, Insidious was suggestive and all about creating an eerie, atmospheric mood.
19. The Conjuring (2013)
James Wan’s The Conjuring returns to the traditional horror tropes of The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror. It is supposedly based on a true story, chronicling the experiences of demonologist couple Ed and Lorraine Warren. Similar to the incident at ‘Amityville’, the truthful nature of the story is totally disputable.
Nevertheless, Wan offers a genuinely scary haunted house horror. The narrative follows the Perron family – the father, mother, and their five daughters in the early 70s. The family buys and moves into an old farm house with all their savings. Soon, they begin to feel the presence of an evil spirit. Despite the deceptively simple premise, the technical wizadry fervently cooks up spine-tingling tension. Director Wan sensibly avoids overdose of CGI and gore to scare us out of our wits.
20. Crimson Peak (2015)
Guillermo del Toro’s gothic romance horror nowhere the matches the supreme quality of Pans’ Labyrinth or Devil’s Backbone. But it presents startling images of horror to keep us entertained. Del Toro is well-known for ably mixing sociopolitical commentary with preternatural factors. In Crimson Peak, however, the focus solely rests on breathtaking visual design. It’s also a story ‘about ghosts’, where unlike Hell House or Poltergeist, ghostly pestilences are kept in the periphery.
Set in the late 19th century, the story revolves around Edith Cushing, daughter of a wealthy construction businessman. Edith falls in love with a refined Englishman Thomas, who arrives in New York with his enigmatic sister Lucille. When Edith’s brusque father ends up dead, Edith marries her beloved and travels to his dejected family mansion in Britain. This haunted house horror contains a sharp tonality and psycho-sexual ingredients almost similar to Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940). Alas, the storyline doesn’t truly match up to its grand visual ambitions.
By Arun Kumar
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