October is upon us at last. The air is getting cooler, the days are getting shorter, and tales of ghosts and ghouls are making their yearly rounds on TV and movie screens. For fans of horror films new and old, it’s a time to cozy up in a dark room with popcorn or some other snack of choice, and watch the movies that will keep you up at night. But if you (like the staff here in the multimedia department) find yourself somewhat disenchanted by the gory and grim slasher offerings in the genre, and aren’t in the mood to watch Hocus Pocus for the umpteenth time, we have prepared a little treat to help you celebrate this spooky season. Consider this article a crash-course guide to all the best or most memorable films in that staple horror subgenre: the haunted house movie.
There are several key aspects that make up a haunted house movie, the first being (of course) the house. This is the central location for the story, where all the haunting happens. But the house itself can take many forms—a single-family home in the suburbs, a grand Victorian manor, a decrepit castle, or even sometimes a communal building like a boarding school or hotel. Whatever the case, place looms large in this subgenre, with some haunted houses so memorable and full of eerie ambience (another important trait) that they are almost characters in their own right. The other key feature is an entity of some kind that dwells in the house and makes the haunting happen. Usually this is a ghost, but that doesn’t always have to be the case. Sometimes a demon, creature, a protagonist’s imagination, or even just a plain old human can take the place of a restless spirit that torments and terrifies the heroes. With that in mind we offer you, as Edward Van Sloan once said in Frankenstein, “a word of friendly warning…”
Not all of these films are strictly supernatural. Some fall into the Mystery genre. Think The Spiral Staircase (1946) which has the haunted house ambiance but does not feature a ghost, which is the sine qua non signifying “haunted.” Ditto The Lost Moment (1947). In fact, the granddaddy of sound film haunted house movies, The Old Dark House (1932), does not feature ghosts or true monsters or even weird “entities.” Yet it may still be the best haunted house movie. House on Haunted Hill (1959) is also not supernatural despite what Elisha Cook says to the audience at fadeout about ghosts coming for us. It’s nonsense. There are no ghosts. Perhaps he’d gone mad.
The Old Dark House (1932). For decades, ever since photos from it appeared regularly in the iconic Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine (first published in 1958) this was essentially a “lost film.” It took until 2017 for it to receive a 4K restoration courtesy of the Cohen Film Collection. For all intents and purposes, The Old Dark House is the standard by which haunted house movies are measured, and this despite the dearth of ghosts. Some of the oldest tropes in the book may have seen their beginnings here, including stranded travelers taking refuge from bad weather in the haunted domicile. Once there, they experience all the best eerie set pieces: dark and creaking staircases, billowing curtains, and gusts of wind that blow out their candles. Boris Karloff supplies the menace as the Femm family’s mute and scarred butler. The rest of the cast is superb: Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Ernest Thesiger, Gloria Stuart. James Frankenstein Whale directed, so why wouldn’t it have a bit of humor mixed with horror? The wind, the rain, the darkness, oh my!
The Black Cat (1934). In this very disturbing film, Bela Lugosi’s Dr. Vitus Werdegast seems somewhat normal until he discovers that his one-time Austrian army pal Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), who dresses in black and conducts satanic masses, had married Werdegast’s wife while Werdegast was imprisoned in Siberia and is now stepfather to their daughter. Poelzig lives in a futuristic house atop the graves of Austrian soldiers killed in World War I. As the minds of both Werdegast and Poelzig unravel, a horrible revenge is taken on Poelzig when Werdegast learns that, among other things, the Satanist has also married Werdegast’s daughter. Slant found it “a masterpiece of popular art” and possessed of “the breathtaking image of Poelzig’s collection of dead women hovering in glass cases as he walks among them stroking his cat, admiring his ‘pussy’ as it were—and meticulously designed as of the genuine triumphs of the first period of expressionist cinema,…” The film’s “ability to peer around the corners of its own genre notions of master criminals and horror fiends allows for a film that is both luxuriously mysterious and strangely relevant, the shadow of a social critique within the elaborate body of a work of baroque horror.” (Josh Vasquez, www.slantmagazine.com/film/the-blak-cat-1135, August 30, 2004.) VultureHound found it “steeped in the iconography of German Expressionism, with the very tricky house of Karloff’s architect a terrifically atmospheric world of angular structures and foreboding shadows.’” Not to mention “The face-off between Lugosi and Karloff—a d***-measuring contest for the insane—is a delight to behold, with the latter delivering one of his best ever performances. The Black Cat is a gem of 1930s horror.” (Tom Beasley, VultureHound, July 20, 2020)
The Ghost Breakers (1940). Successful in ‘39’s The Cat and the Canary, Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard teamed up for another horror comedy. Scared Stiff (1953) with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis was a plainly obvious comedy remake of The Ghost Breakers.
The Canterville Ghost (1944). Based on an 1887 short story by Oscar Wilde, this film version updates the activities to World War II in England and on the Continent. The setting is a castle where the seemingly cowardly ghost Sir Simon de Canterville (Charles Laughton) ingratiates himself with American Rangers housed there during World War II and prompts a relative in that unit (Robert Young) to show courage and thus lift the curse on the Cantervilles.
The Uninvited (1944). Usually considered the paramount Hollywood ghost story of the 1940s, this features Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey and Gale Russell. A brother and sister buy a house on the Cornish coast and, guess what, it’s haunted, but only the grown granddaughter Stella (Russell) of the original owners is convinced this is true. According to Carlos Clarens, who often as not downgraded Hollywood horror, The Uninvited had a “pleasantly chilling feminine touch.” The extras on the Criterion Collection are topnotch. Eschewing the need to watch it over from the beginning while a film historian chimes in, this focuses on several key elements as well as the careers of Milland and Russell. It is noted that prior to this film, ghosts were mostly used as comic foils. There is much subtext to be explored. Victor Young’s score and the much covered “Stella by Starlight” add to the subdued pleasure.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947). Mrs. Muir (Gene Tierney) sets up shop in an English coastal cottage and meets the former resident (Rex Harrison), a sea captain turned ghost. Thus begins a romantic affair between mortal and immortal. Excellent Hollywood film with music by the great Bernard Herrmann and direction by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, just entering his golden age.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). The best of the Abbott and Costello Meet…films features the comedy duo facing off against the Frankenstein monster, Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Invisible Man. For some, this is sacrilegious, a closing of a chapter for Universal horror, but it is funny. A highlight is the scene in which A & C use a bed to block entrance of the Frankenstein monster. They failed to realize the door opened into the hall.
House on Haunted Hill (1959). While it was not Vincent Price’s first horror outing (that honor belongs to The Invisible Man Returns), this film—along with House of Wax and The Fly—solidified the actor’s place as a giant of horror cinema, especially of the campy variety. It certainly has that camp flair; director and master of gimmickry William Castle advertised the movie with a trick called “Emergo”, in which a skeleton would swing on a wire over theater-goers’ heads at a climactic point in the movie. Price is clearly having a ball playing eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren, who has invited several friends to stay in his supposedly haunted house (played in some outdoor shots by Frank Lloyd Wright’s creation, Ennis House), with a cash prize for anyone who succeeds. Despite the many laughs, there are a couple genuine chills in this movie as well, particularly in a scene that features a dark hallway and the sudden, unexplained appearance of a screeching crone. The 1999 remake House on Haunted Hill (1999) is supernatural, all right, but no improvement on the 1959 classic.
House of Usher (1960). The first and arguably one of the best in a series of collaborations between Vincent Price and director Roger Corman, this film adapts Edgar Allan Poe’s classic short story “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The house, haunted by the ghosts of a long and supposedly cursed bloodline, acts on its victims more than any of the spirits do. Its walls shake and crack, its fireplaces spit hot coals, and ultimately the whole place sinks into a “deep and dark tarn”. Price (here sporting bleached hair and sadly not sporting his trademark moustache) is alternately sinister and pitiable as the lord of the manor– hypersensitive to lights, sounds, tastes, and textures, obsessed with his family’s cursed history, and determined to keep his little sister from marrying and carrying on the family name. Of especially spooky note is a dream sequence, filmed in psychedelic shades of purple and blue, in which the protagonist is beset by the many Usher family ghosts.
The Innocents (1961). A highly regarded film version of Henry James’ novel The Turn of the Screw features Deborah Kerr as the new governess for two young children (Pamela Franklin and Martin Stephens) who may be possessed. The high production values and gorgeous set design paint a rich, albeit creepy and isolated, world for Kerr and her charges to dwell in, and the shadows of their old country manse are deepened by the high contrast of black-and-white film. The children are strange, too knowing and often uncanny, but the real fright is the question that lingers after the film: are they really bad, or is their caretaker mad? See also The Nightcomers (1971) that has a trick that had best not be revealed here. Just before resurrecting his career with The Godfather, Marlon Brando starred as the nefarious groundskeeper who visits sexual harassment upon a new governess (Stephanie Beacham). In a Dark Place (2006) is a modern remake of James’ novel, as is The Turning (2020).
The Pit and the Pendulum (1961). This movie has all the great hallmarks of the Roger Corman-Vincent Price adaptations of Poe: premature burials, a character who may or may not be going mad, and a somewhat bland protagonist who can never quite match Price’s buoyant charisma (but who could?). Perhaps the greatest hallmark, though, are the richly designed sets that depict the eerie aura of Poe’s greatest works. This particular adaptation is set in a cobweb-bedecked Spanish castle, the home to Vincent Price’s Don Medina and his late wife Elizabeth. Did Medina do his beloved lady in? Some signs point to yes, but things are not quite all that they seem. In Danse Macabre, Steven King notes one of the movie’s most frightening moments, which still holds up today: “Vincent Price and his cohorts… discover that the lady, his late wife, has indeed been buried alive; for just a moment the camera shows us her tortured face, frozen in a rictus of terror, her bulging eyes, her clawlike fingers, the skin stretched tight and gray” (p. 135). Another such stinger comes right at the end of the film, just before the credits roll, and must not be spoiled.
The Haunted Palace (1963). Here director Roger Corman mixed Poe (poem, “The Haunted Palace”) and H. P. Lovecraft (novella, “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”) to create a modest but compelling outing. Newsweek called it a “A well-made horror film….The perverse and yet persistent interest of the public in necromancy…raises a competent work to inadvertent moments of lyricism.” (Newsweek, September 16, 1963, p. 86.)
The Haunting (1963). That master of all genres, director Robert Wise, updated his horror credentials (Curse of the Cat People, 1944) with this atmospheric take on Shirley Jackson’s famous novel The Haunting of Hill House. In the best tradition, you must use your imagination to, for instance, picture whatever evil entity is causing the door to the bedroom of Eleanor and Theodora (Julie Harris and Claire Bloom) to bow inward. This is another great example of the haunted house seeming to be an entity in its own right, as Hill House appears to choose “favorites” to keep within its walls for all eternity.
The Terror (1963). There’s a ghost and a castle subbing for a haunted house. It’s not that exciting but may have significant subtext. Predictive of a famous future (think The Shining), Jack Nicholson tells Boris Karloff, “I am in full possession of my faculties!”
Die, Monster, Die! (aka Monster of Terror, 1965). “It looks like a zoo in hell,” complains Stephen Reinhart (Nick Adams) as he inspects weird incarcerated critters adjacent to a greenhouse full of beautiful flowers grown enormous. Both are tended by old Nahum Witley (Boris Karloff) courtesy of a radioactive meteorite that certainly did create a true blasted heath, which like a watery “tarn” seemed to infect so many horror stories and films of this time. This small-scale film has little cache with critics. It is “a typical disappointment, duplicating little of the tension of the original story and none of that inimitable Lovecraftian atmosphere, with its haunting New England locale and rustic eeriness. In its place is the stereotypical foggy Gothic estate, the Jane Eyre-style bromide of the crazy relative hidden away in the attic, and the hackneyed business of a family curse.” Nevertheless, it “does deliver the goods, with an occasional shock here and there, and one or two moments of atmospheric effectiveness (mostly in the beginning). [Source: Holston & Winchester, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Film Sequels, Series and Remakes, Vol. 1, McFarland, 1997. P. 111.). In The Encyclopedia of Horror Movies, Phil Hardy and his team gave a back-handed compliment by noting that director, former art director Daniel Haller “relies exclusively on the evocative power of eerie settings.” Hardy’s book is a must-have and full of insight, but one wonders if the audience was ever considered.
The Tomb of Ligeia (1965). When Verden Fell (Fell!) buries his wife Ligeia, a cat jumps on the coffin and the corpse’s eyes open. Is it just a nervous contraction? Years pass and Fell, who thinks he may be going mad, marries the Lady Rowena Trevanion (Elizabeth Shepherd). The spirit of Ligeia haunts Verden’s life until his manse is set afire while he wrestles with the cat–Ligeia? Along with The Masque of the Red Death, this is the cream of the Vincent Price, Roger Corman-directed, Poe-inspired movies. It is the only Corman Poe adaptation with extensive outdoor scenes, and the cinematography is outstanding, the English locales wonderful. The titles are artistically excellent. Vincent Price’s performance is one of his best. Newsweek (March 1, 1965) called it the most far-out of Corman’s Poe series. Time (May 21, 1965) was impressed with “shrewd shock techniques, and an atmosphere of mounting terror….”
The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966). Library staff member Mary Magana wrote, “Watching this as a kid was a lot of fun! It kept me laughing all the way through. It’s a hilarious family mystery/comedy and is also a great movie to watch around Halloween with some genuinely spooky organ music. Classic Don Knotts and shows a real nostalgic picture of small-town life. I honestly recommend this movie to anyone seeking an honest funny warm movie that you’ll remember for a long time if not forever.”
The House That Screamed, aka La Residencia, aka The Boarding School (1969). This is a Spanish horror film that because of international actors was dubbed in Spanish and English and distributed in the U.S. by American International Pictures. Senora Fourneau (Lilli Palmer) runs a boarding school for troublesome girls. She keeps her students, along with her sheltered son Luis, in line with tight-fisted control and often with shocking violence, even going so far as to whip them. We see the response to her totalitarian behavior (perhaps a parallel to the Franco regime?) play out among the students. They form hierarchies, torment and manipulate one another, and run lotteries where one lucky girl may get to go outside and dally with the local woodcutter… if she does as her “superiors” say. Amidst all this cruelty, students begin to disappear without a trace. Like Psycho, some of the victims are unexpected. Yet there is not a ghost in sight. Indeed, if any specter haunts this house, it is only that of sadistic abuse and obsessive control… and it comes home to roost with a ruthless twist in the finale. “With John Moulder-Brown!”
House of Dark Shadows (1970). The immensely popular afternoon TV series Dark Shadows (1966 – 1971) that high schoolers and college students in particular rushed home or to the dorm lounge to watch each weekday, inspired two movies. Jonathan Frid played the Dracula-like Barnabas Collins in this one, his aim to protect the Collinwood manse from internal and external enemies. It is a solid production. The follow-up, Night of Dark Shadows (1971), is a witch movie, giving Angelique (Lara Parker) time to prey on select Collinwood residents.
The House that Dripped Blood (1971). This is a “portmanteau” film and as usual the episodes range in quality with the last being the best. In “The Cloak” horror film actor (Jon Pertwee) complains to his latest leading lady, Carla (Ingrid Pitt), about the sad state of current Dracula movies. Carla humors him but he comes to rue her presence. The ending strikes the right balance of horror and humor. In the spring of 1971 this blog’s co-author, Kim, walked 30 blocks through Oakland, CA to find this movie starring his idol, the soon to be cult star Ingrid Pitt. He met her in person at London’s Victoria Palace Theatre in 1977 and ran into her at film conventions in the 90s.
The Legend of Hell House (1973). Richard I Am Legend Matheson wrote the hailed book on which this was based, Hell House. Pamela Franklin makes yet another horror film. See The Innocents and Necromancy. It will remind audiences of The Haunting (1963). It’s a quality film that for some reason omitted the sex and disturbing images that gave the novel spark and frissons.
House / Hausu (Japan, 1977). Toho Studios’ attempt to make a hit for Japan as big as Jaws was for America did not quite succeed on those terms. The film was not a blockbuster by any stretch of the imagination, but over the years did blossom into a cult classic that truly must be seen to be believed. Director Nobuhiko Obayashi got his start filming commercials, and at times it shows: main characters’ hair blows in a strange breeze that seems to come from nowhere, and everything is lit like you’re about to be sold perfume. The plot feels borrowed from a fairy tale— infuriated by the arrival of a beautiful stepmother, a schoolgirl takes refuge in her maiden aunt’s old mansion, bringing six friends along with her. This lends itself to moments of humor and fever-dream absurdity. At one point during the film’s climax, a man becomes so terrified by the sight of the titular house that he turns into a pile of bananas. But make no mistake, there is genuine horror to be found in the visuals and scenarios of House, especially when the protagonist and her friends start getting picked off one by one. Go in with an open mind, expecting nothing but a wild ride, and you’ll likely enjoy yourself.
The Amityville Horror (1979). Amityville, Long Island, 1974: a son shoots his mother, father and four siblings. A year later George and Kathy Lutz move into the house and everything goes haywire. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King opined that the whole affair was about impending financial ruination caused here by a possessed dwelling. Time thought it was boring (Time, September 17, 1979).The New Yorker said it “inflates gullibility into horror with cheap tricks.” (Veronica Geng, August 13, 1979).
The Changeling (1980). Like The Uninvited, the story is set in a mansion rented by a composer (George C. Scott here, Ray Milland in the 1944 classic). A dead child haunts the mansion but a rascally fake politician is equally responsible for the terror, such as it is. In The Encyclopedia of Horror Movies author Hardy found it “rather old-fashioned” and “desultory at best.” Old-fashioned perhaps, but there is something to be said about the scares in this movie, which chill without ever relying on shock-value gore or jarring jump-scares. Of note is a scene featuring the improbable return of a red rubber ball, which sounds like nothing on paper but makes an enormous impact on-screen, so much that it made Bravo’s list of “The 100 Scariest Movie Moments” in 2004. The film was was relatively successful, financially.
The Fog (1980). On California’s Antonio Bay beach, spirits of a clipper ship sunk many years before terrorize the inhabitants. KAB radio operator Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau), working her nighttime shift in a lighthouse, tries to steer citizens away from the unusual fog and the figures therein. Roger Ebert thought it had energy and style but that fog wasn’t a good enough villain. (www.rogerebert.com, February 5, 1980.) In The A-Z of Horror Films, Howard Maxford found it to be an “Amiable, old fashioned scare story, very competently handled…..” Perhaps the scariest moments of the film take place in the lighthouse-turned radio station, when a tape player starts uttering ominous messages and a piece of cursed salvage starts gushing seawater, starting a fire. The 2005 remake was nothing to write home about. Other somewhat haunted lighthouses are featured in Horror on Snape Island (1972) and The Lighthouse (2019).
The Shining (1980). Director Stanley Kubrick’s take on Stephen King’s novel is truly disturbing. There is so much to be said about this movie, and yet what can be said here that hasn’t been said already? Its horror imagery and classic script have both become some of the most iconic in not just horror cinema, but cinema in general. They have been lovingly parodied in everything from Scary Movie to The Simpsons. Yet the old images and lines never seem to lose their terrifying power, whether they’re being viewed for the first time or the fortieth. The ghostly twin girls standing at the end of a long, richly carpeted hallway. The unexpected wave of blood pouring from the elevator into the lobby. The labyrinthine hedge maze, the stacks and stacks of paper with nothing written on them but “all work and no play…” Jack Nicholson’s axe-wielding Jack Torrance’s “Here’s Johnny!” And of course, who could forget, “RED RUM.”
Ghost Story (1981). Thinking they’ve killed coquettish Eva Galli (Alice Krige, who seems to make a movie every 10 years), four men enamored with her decide to dump her body in a lake. But she’s not dead yet and years later has an opportunity for revenge. Reading synopses of this film based on Peter Straub’s bestselling novel makes one want to watch it or watch it again. Curiously, most critics were fault-finders. In The Encyclopedia of Horror Movies, author Hardy complained about lack of atmosphere, loose ends, and “pedestrian direction” but praised Alice Krige’s performance.
Poltergeist (1982). Like The Amityville Horror and its single-family dwelling sequels, only better—and reminiscent of The Twilight Zone’s episode “Little Girl Lost” (1962)–this monster hit adroitly mixes humor and chills as the Freeling Family is terrorized by…something…in their new tract home. It may be one of the first fright films with two climaxes.
House (1986). At his supposedly dead aunt’s Victorian home, writer Roger Cobb (William Katt) finds himself battling various entities inside the manse as well as in some crazy netherworld below. Well-paced action in just 93 minutes. There’s a Vietnam subtext if one cares to explore it. House 2: The Second Story (1987) doesn’t measure up, no surprise, but at least it has venerable character actor Royal Dano as the 170-year-old “Gramps,” who else? Further sequels of even lesser quality include The Horror Show (1989) and House IV (1992).
Haunted (1995). Little seen and essentially unavailable on DVD movie features a young Kate Beckinsale and Aidan Quinn.
The Haunted Mansion (2003). Joe Utichi of FilmFocus perhaps sums up this Disney movie best: “Beautiful production design and bags of promise give way to disappointment in this family comedy” (July 24, 2004). The production design is indeed beautiful; in fact, it is the highlight of the film, creating a richly textured and atmospheric mansion that rivals some of the best in cinema. Even the premise has some spooky potential: a real estate agent and his family lured into the clutches of the mansion by a ghost out for revenge. Yet somewhere along the line things went sour… Perhaps with the decision to give the film a slapstick tone and pack it to the gills with jokes that mostly don’t land. Needless to say, this was something of a disappointment to the many fans of the classic Disneyland ride. But the film might still serve as a gateway to the haunted house genre for young Halloween lovers—as will, no doubt, the Disney+ special The Muppets Haunted Mansion, which premieres this October on the streaming service.
The Grudge (2004). This U.S. version of the Japanese film Ju-On: The Grudge (2002) stars Sarah Michelle Geller. Most J-Horror fans make the understandable argument that the original is superior, and upon its release critics lambasted it for its meandering plot. Some, however, found interesting subtext in it, such as Joe Lipsett of Bloody Disgusting, who says: “By populating the film with Americans-as-foreigners, there’s a subtle underlying critique of Americans who don’t fully understand the culture in which they’re living.” He also notes that there is an inherent scariness in encountering horror in a foreign country, where you may not speak the language and thus cannot ask for help (https://bloody-disgusting.com, January 6, 2020). Speaking of scares, there’s something to be said for this film’s ghosts, with their snow-white skin and wide, staring eyes ringed with black kohl. One even shrieks like a cat—uncanny stuff!
The Orphanage (Spanish, 2007). In this Spanish-language production, a woman convinces her husband to buy the orphanage she grew up in, in order to convert it to a home for disabled children, like her own young son Simón. During the building’s opening celebrations, however, Simón disappears, and soon after his parents start to experience strange phenomena. This movie is a masterwork of the haunted house genre, scary enough that after watching it as a youngster, co-author Emily was left so terrified that she had to sleep on the floor of her parents’ bedroom. Critics praised the film for its masterful building of tension, as well as for its surprising emotional poignance and lack of cheap scares. Says Nate Deen of Film School Rejects: “There are no monsters, or slashers, and yet the movie got under my skin so much so that it left me shaky as I walked out of the theater” (October 14, 2014). Especially affecting is a scene in which Simón’s mother plays a bone-chilling game of “Red Light, Green Light” with the house’s haunts, and another involving an old woman and an ambulance. The twist in the climax is devastating, but the closing scenes will leave viewers feeling relieved, or perhaps even satisfied.
Lake Mungo (2008). This is a hidden gem of the genre, an Australian indie film that flew under the radar upon release, and has only recently been given its due as one of the greats. It makes the most of its mockumentary format, creating a slow-build narrative with subtle touches and plot twists that get under the skin. Is the Palmer family’s late daughter Alice, who tragically drowned in the titular lake, truly haunting their home? The movie seems to give an answer, then pivots to imply that things may not be what they appear. This all culminates in a climax that makes terrifying good use of “found footage,” grainily shot on a Nokia flip-phone. The footage played during the credits reveals a few more chilling revelations.
Sinister (2012). One of the grizzlier haunted house movies in recent years. Ethan Hawke plays a true-crime author desperate to write a bestseller, who thinks he has hit the jackpot when he discovers a cache of snuff films hidden in the attic of his new home. One of these films contains perhaps the best jump-scare in movie history, the infamous “Lawn Mower Scare,” which made co-author Emily throw her phone clean across the room in fear. Jump-scares there are many in this movie, which remains a source of criticism against it, but those looking for a haunting with some extra-gritty bite might like it.
The Woman in Black (2012). England’s Hammer Films returned to its roots in gothic terror with this release, starring Harry Potter alum Daniel Radcliffe. Radcliffe plays a young widower who, while staying in a cold, bleak little English village, must face off against a vengeful specter who is claiming the town’s children. The setting does much of the spooky work here; the house Radcliffe’s lawyer must traverse is built on a marsh and, at high tide, is cut off from the rest of the world, which ramps up the tension. While some critics complain that the movie is too old-fashioned for shock-hungry audiences, Bruce Diones of The New Yorker says: “The moody, beautifully composed production raises it above the norm” (February 26, 2012).
The Conjuring (2013). Perhaps the haunted house movie of the 2010s. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are brilliantly cast as real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Elaine Warren, and their chemistry is the movie’s beating heart. You come to really care for them, and for the family whose dangerously haunted house they must exorcise. The scares are first-rate, from a basement game of hide-and-seek gone horribly wrong to an encounter with something that (a child’s worst nightmare) lives in the youngest daughter’s closet. Entertainment Weekly thought it “had something. Squeaking doors, clapping and pounding provide chills and generate a sense of foreboding. The extended Exorcist-like battle comprising the finale is nerve-rattling” (Chris Nashawaty, July 26, 2013). Director James Wan built an empire of diminishing sequels and spin-offs on this hit, among them Annabelle, The Nun, and The Curse of La Llorona. Thankfully none of them diminish the original’s shine.
Crimson Peak (2015). Modern master of horror Guillermo del Toro crafts a love letter to the gothic romance with this haunted house tale. The director’s knack for sumptuous, detailed visuals really shines here, especially in the creation of the titular manor. It is decrepit, decaying, filled with moths and sinking into the clay on which it stands, but you can see in it (as its mysterious residents, Thomas and Lucille Sharpe do), the faded glory of its opulent past. Furthermore, it is isolated, and our heroine—an American heiress played by Mia Wasikowska—must endure its curious hauntings mostly alone. The ghosts are ghastly: emaciated, hollow-eyed, and as blood-red as the clay below them. But these are the mildest horrors that Wasikowska’s Edith must face, grim heralds of the true horror to come. Author Richard Crouse praises the movie’s “Grand-Guignol sensibilities” (http://www.richardcrouse.ca, March 4, 2021).
His House (2020). This recent Netflix release is the rare horror feature to receive a “100% Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. In it, a married couple flees war-torn South Sudan to take refuge in England, only to find that the flat they have been placed in has an old evil lurking in its walls. To make things worse, if they leave the flat, they will lose the chance to get visas and be sent back to the country they fought so desperately to escape. While there is a great deal of timely subtext to be found, Bloody Disgusting assures its readers that the movie, “…nails the essential part of a horror movie: the horror” (Meagan Navarro, October 30, 2020).
So concludes our whirlwind tour of the best haunted house movies. This subgenre stretches back a long way, so try as we might to cover everything, there may be some omissions here. Feel free to share your favorite haunted house movies with us in the comments, and have a happy Halloween!
–Kim and Emily, Multimedia Department