[The author has been spending the month of October delving into the nature of horror-themed stuff, mostly movies. This is the fourth in the series]
At last we’ve gotten around to talking about haunted house movies. This is, perhaps, my favorite horror movie genre and has been from the time I read the “Amityville Horror” as a kid and then saw the movie in 1979. The buzzing flies that congregated on the window; the blood dripping down the walls; the glowing eyes of the demonic pig as it peered into the child’s bedroom from the darkness outside the house — these are the things of nightmares, and nightmares are why we watch horror movies, right? At least, they’re why I watch horror movies: I like to be scared.
For me, there’s very little scarier than finding that your home — your refuge, the place where you are supposed to feel the most safe — has been overtaken by the ‘other’, whatever that ‘other’ happens to be. In “The Amityville Horror” the ‘other’ is supernatural, which is my personal favorite. A human evil has to find some physical way into the house, as with “Them” (2007) or “Panic Room” (2002) or any number of other psychos-have-just-gotten-into-the-house movies. Often this is scary and creepy and I’m not trying to downplay the horror of “Them” or of what may be the ultimate intruder-in-the-house movie, “When a Stranger Calls” (1979), based on the urban legend of the Babysitter and the Man Upstairs (http://www.snopes.com/horrors/madmen/babysit.asp), but the denizens of the supernatural dark don’t need a door; they just need the dark.
Although there are many horror movie tropes — there must be strange noises; things must move or open or appear or disappear at random; things must be seen out of the corner of the eye before they are seen straight on; there must be some false positives (the cat jumping out of the closet) and some false negatives (“Oh, that must have been the cat jumping out of the closet” — there are only two primary kinds of haunted house stories.
The first is where a family moves into a new place — often purchased (or rented) at a ridiculously low rate — and then discovers, to their dismay, that the place is already occupied by something … else. The something else could be the creeping creatures with their grasping hands of 2011’s “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” (and it’s me-scarying-silly 1970s progenitor of the same name) or Wes Craven’s “People Under the Stairs” (1991), or the thing-that-goes-bump-in-the-night “Boogeyman” (2005). Alternatively, the something else could be the shifting shapes and psychological tricks of ghosts and demons as in the above-mentioned “Amityville Horror,” 198s’s “Poltergeist” (“Get out of the house!”), “Burnt Offerings” (1976), 2001’s “13 Ghosts” (2001) (where the ghosts can only be seen through special goggles (creeeepy)), or the endlessly entertaining “Paranormal Activity” movies (2007, 2010, 2011 — previously discussed here).
Of course, there’s also Stephen King’s “The Shining” (the 1980 Stanley Kubrick version, not the 1997 mini-series). In all of moviedom, there may not be any more frightening scene in horror than that of young Danny Torrence cycling his Power Wheels around a corner in the hotel only to see those dead, twin girls standing there.
To offset that image, I have to go to the William Katt starrer “House” (1986) which allows me to laugh, jump, and be concerned about whether or not I have a transdimensional portal hiding behind the wallpaper all at once.
Aside from “The Shining”, perhaps two of the best — certainly the most haunting, heh heh heh — of this kind of haunted house movie are the movies-with-a-twist “The Others” (2001), which plays with the haunted house tropes in clever ways, and M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense” (1999). In this latter, I know what the twist is (heck, I knew it ten minutes into the movie) and it still give me shivers. I get even more shivers during the scene where Haley Joel Osment is hiding under his sheet fort with his flashlight and when the fort collapses we see that there are now two forms outlined beneath it.
Okay, okay, if you know your horror movies, then you may be saying to yourself, “Hey, that’s not right. Haley Joel Osment could see dead people, which we know ’cause it says so on all those funny-mocky t-shirts. Didn’t matter where he was or what house he was in. Oh, and while we’re on it, the same goes for “Paranormal Activity.” Those daughters were being stalked; didn’t matter where they lived.”
Yup, you’re right. Absolutely. But there were houses involved. And those houses were spooky. So there.
Anyway, the second kind of haunted house movie (we’ll call it Type II) is the staple of teen-scream horror flicks: some group of people, be they investigators, good-looking twenty-something teens looking for a dare or a scare, or unfortunates who just happen to be in the wrong place (a house) at the wrong time (usually night), find themselves doing their best to keep their blood inside their bodies, where it belongs, as well as their sanity.
Paranormal investigations (of the not “Paranormal Activity” found-footage kind) have been popular in the history of haunted house movies. Investigations provide the filmmakers with reasons the characters would be in the obviously scary places they’re in, rather than running away, which would be the far wiser choice. The granddaddy of these is 1963’s “The Haunting,” based on “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson. The original is better than the 1999 Catherine Zeta Jones starrer of the same name. Interestingly in the original vs remake ring, I like the 1999 “House on Haunted Hill” better than the 1959 Vincent Price original. Well, unless you count the 2009 Rifftrax version of the latter. Mind you, the protagonists in “House on Haunted Hill” aren’t investigators. They’re there because they want to win money for staying overnight in a ridiculously-haunted house.
To get back to our daring investigators, we have to look to 1973’s “The Legend of Hell House”, and Stephen King’s “1408” (2007), wherein a cynical paranormal investigator, played by John Cusack, must last the night (heck, an hour — a very long hour) in a haunted hotel room — we’ll say that a haunted hotel room counts as a haunted house, just like the Nostromo does in “Alien,” with the alien of the title playing the role of ‘haunt’ (we discussed that move here).
Another Stephen King haunted house movie involving paranormal investigators is the mini-series “Rose Red,” which pays homage (a LOT of homage) to “The Haunting of Hill House”, but is still worth watching, as it takes the time to develop the themes. As does 2011’s non-investigator Type I horror tv series “American Horror Story.”
Dares are another good way to get characters to go places they wouldn’t otherwise go — then the doors and windows can lock and they’re trapped in there with the creaking floors, the mysterious things seen out of the corner of eyes, and the very angry spirits. Strangely, although I know that there are a bunch of movies that use this trope (the first episode of “American Horror Story” used this, too), all I can think of for an example is “Monster House,” so if you’ve got a few stuck in your head, let me know in the comments section.
Finally, there’s the wrong-place/wrong-time set. That pretty much covers all of the above, but sometimes you’re just not where it’s good to be, like in the best horror movie ever!, 2005’s “House of Wax,” where the good-looking twenty-something teens stumble on a town made of waxworks. Unfortunately, that’s a slasher flick and doesn’t really fit the Haunted House motif.
Oh, why is it the best movie ever even though it has a horrible plot and the acting sucks? Paris Hilton is impaled on rebar. You just don’t get better than that in a movie. Any movie.
But a very good movie that you’ve probably never heard of that does fit the sub-sub-genre is “Dead Birds” (2005), a horror-western (yes, I wrote that line — “The Burrowers” is another good horror-western, but it doesn’t work in the haunted house category). In it, some bank robbers take refuge in a house out in the middle of nowhere. Bad things ensue.
Until next time, when we examine all the leftovers, remakes, and shiny, bloody things, plug a movie into the brain-sucker box, pop some popcorn, and dim the lights.
And don’t worry about that noise coming from the attic. I’m sure it was just the cat.
Even though you don’t have a cat.