The haunted house has been a staple of cinema since the beginning. Cob webbed shadowy corridors and creaking doors used to varying effect to create that perfect spooky atmosphere. I love a good ghost story but so often I think it is done poorly. I really dislike the Insidious film series for their reliance on jump and noise scares rather than fear and tension … just my opinion. While I can find something to enjoy in the run of ghost film remakes like 13 Ghosts (2001), The House on Haunted Hill (1999) or The Haunting (1999), they don’t deliver the creepy horror I love in a good haunted house film.
Below is a list of my top 5 favourite Haunted House films:
1. The changeling (1980) – After the death of his wife and daughter George C. Scott moves to a renovated mansion to focus on his music and work through his grief. His time in the house is soon interrupted by noises in the night and distant whispering voices. This opens up into a mystery that is preventing the unquiet spirit from moving on. The Changeling uses its locations and sound brilliantly to unnerve the viewer. The film is laced with tragedy and lose, which makes the final reveal the more impactful and shocking.
As a side note, I should mention that the events of the film are loosely based on events that the screenwriter claimed happened to him when he lived in a town house in the mid-60s.
2. Poltergeist (1982) – For years there have been tales of the production of Poltergeist and who was actually in charge on set, Producer Steven Spielberg or Director Tobe Hooper. Regardless of who actually ‘directed’ the film, the fact remains that this is one of my favourite horror films. It is the quintessential modern haunted house film, clearly influenced by the events of Amityville.
The standard American family living in a good neighbourhood where the kids can play safely. It is template 80’s Americana. This is then be shattered by the ‘abduction’ of the youngest daughter, leading to the acceptance and handling of the supernatural presence. There are moments that stretch the suspension of disbelief (a tree attack!) but the overall film is a masterclass is quiet drama being punctuated with hard hitting scares. More so than The Amityville Horror (1979), this film helped move ghost stories from gothic mansions to modern suburban homes.
3. The Others (2001) – As I mentioned in the opening, in the late 90’s, early 00’s Gothic horror was not in vogue. It was replaced by loud, more action orientated horror (13 Ghosts / The House on Haunted Hill / Ghosts of Mars). However, in 2001 Alejandro Amenabar wrote and directed the first Spanish entry on this list, the Spanish/American produced The Others. A magnificent gothic tale that plays like a novel.
The film lays interesting and believable constraints on its protagonists, as to why they cannot leave the haunted location. Trapping them in with the fear, unable to escape. This makes for great conflict as we watch Nicole Kidman’s lead start to unravel as she deals with events that she does not want to believe are real, while trying to protect her children. The tension and scares culminate is a successful twist and a satisfying ending that a lot of modern horror films lack.
4. Paranormal Activity (2007) – Found footage films are the lowest budget films that can be made. This usually means they are a gateway into Hollywood for armature or up-coming film makers, but they are usually poor. Every now and then though a film comes up that understand how to use the format to great effect. For me, Paranormal Activity nailed it.
The film follows a couple that have moved into a new house and quickly start to experience strange goings on. The hand-held camera footage is given justification and I am pulled into the daily goings on of the couple and their friends. This is then used to great effect later to build tension and for the viewer. The Camera doesn’t always focus on the central point, so you are pushed to take in the whole screen to look for the scare. The tension builds in this films to an excellent open ended pay off, the way a found footage film should.
5. The orphanage (2007) – “Presented” by Guillermo Del Toro but the creation of Director J. A. Bayona. I will admit that this being a subtitled film meant that it took me a while to get around to watching it. I am so glad that I eventually did. A woman returns with her family to the orphanage in which she grew up to reopen it as a home for children. However, things take a tragic turn when her son goes missing. This one event starts to pull together strands for a mystery involving her past as well as that of ghosts trapped in the orphanage.
Oscar Faura’s cinematographer is beautiful throughout. He and Bayona use the central building and its cliff side local to create a sense of isolation and timelessness. This accentuates the fear and tension as the film grows to its tragic gut punch of a conclusion.