Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Tuesday Top 10: Favorite Haunted House Movies

You know how there are those horror fans who will go on and on about how the best horror comes from what you don't see, and that psychological dread will always trump blood and guts? Yeah, I'm one of those guys. Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with gore, but I'll take the gothic over the macabre any day of the week, and I've always been more Poe/Lovecraft than King/Barker.

And when it comes to subtle, psychological horror, the most effective movies have always involved ghosts--particularly the ultimate distillation of that particular subgenre: the haunted house movie. Because we're dealing with the supernatural in its most ethereal, mysterious and non-corporeal form, it's hard to pull off a good ghost story. There aren't always a lot of bells and whistles, but the payoff is always worth it.

Many of my all-time favorite horror films are in the tried-and-true haunted house category. They've thrilled me, chilled me, and made me think twice about sleeping with the lights off. Here are a few of the very best...

10. Ghost Story (1981)
Largely underrated chiller featuring future Borg Queen Alice Krige as the spirit of a hot young chippie terrorizing a group of septuagenarians who accidentally killed her back in the 1920s. While not technically a “Haunted House” tale since the activities transcend location, it hits many of the familiar tropes, and hits them well. It also features the great Fred Astaire in his final role—although sadly, he doesn’t dance. Based on the 1979 novel by Peter Straub.

9. Poltergeist (1982)
Easily one of the most financially successful horror flicks of all time, this one had the backing of Steven Spielberg, and a “summer blockbuster” feel. And although the spectacle and Spielberg touch do soften the scares just a bit, there’s enough creepiness and genuine terror in there (courtesy of director Tobe Hooper) to get the job done. I particularly enjoy how the movie really gets at some primal fears and exploits them to great effect (see: Clown Toy and Face Ripping Scene).

8. The Others (2001)
The good old-fashioned ghost story gets ushered into the 21st century with this Shyamalan-esque (back when that was a good thing) period piece. The look and feel are rich and foreboding, generating an atmosphere of creeping dread. Plus, you’re not entirely sure of the nature of what you’re seeing until the final reel—and even if you see it coming, it’s one hell of an ending. (See my illustrious son’s movie blog for his own review of the film!)

7. The Uninvited (1944)
For years, this film was mystifyingly unavailable on DVD—but thankfully that situation has recently changed. In many ways, this movie became the prototype for the classic haunted house film—a mansion on a cliff; a deep, dark secret; plenty of things that go bump in the night… Plus, it even spawned a great standard: “Stella By Starlight”! Beautiful, funny and frightening at the same time.

6. Beetlejuice (1987)
Back when Michael Keaton used to exist, he was known for some memorable roles—but this one might be his greatest (Flying Mouse Guy notwithstanding). Birthed from the addled mind of Tim Burton, this was really the flick that set the course for the young director’s career, and became one of the greatest horror comedies of all time. Worth it for seeing Dick Cavett dance to the Banana Boat song, and catching Alec Baldwin before he mutated into a different person.

5. House on Haunted Hill (1959)
Another one that stretches the definition of a haunted house film (I won’t spoil it for the newbies), but no list of this kind would be complete without it. Both producer William Castle and star Vincent Price are in top form here, and the result is one of the most rip-roaringly fun horror flicks of the Eisenhower era. I never get tired of the way this movie deconstructs the entire sub-genre with such glee. Plus, it happens to be my daughter Zombelina’s favorite movie (though she seems to be gravitating more toward Drag Me to Hell recently…)

4. The Woman in Black (2012)
Blasphemy to rank this one so highly? Mayhaps. However, I came away from it very, very impressed a few months ago, and found it to be one of the most effective mainstream horror films I’d seen in years—not to mention the best British horror film since the heyday of Hammer. A real gothic throwback, this movie restored my faith that a truly excellent haunted house film could still be made in the era of post-slasher torture porn.

3. The Changeling (1980)
A personal favorite of mine, and one the virtues of which I’ve been extolling for years. George C. Scott is superb (when is he not?) as a reclusive widower being stalked by the ghost of a murdered child. Perhaps it was because I first saw this at such a young age, but the sheer terror it inspired in me never truly left. One of the most restrained yet powerful horror films I have ever seen, and must-see viewing for any fan of ghost stories.

2. The Haunting (1963)
Speaking of restrained yet powerful, this stellar adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House. Robert Wise pulls off such a fine job that the experience of watching this film is almost like that of actually reading a really great haunted house story. There are moments in this film that have frightened me more than anything I’ve ever seen in any other horror film. The ultimate “pure” haunted house film. Plus, you get to see Richard Johnson pre-Zombi 2, before he got all sweaty and hairy.

And the number one haunted house movie of all time…

1. The Shining (1980)
This film is so stylized and surreal (like almost all Kubrick’s work), that you almost forget what you’re watching at times: An absolutely incredible haunted house movie. In this case, the house is the Overlook Hotel—and the haunting is of a nature that is never fully explained, although we know it has something to do with Native American burial ground and some very long-staying guests from the 1920s. One of, if not the greatest horror film of all time, and a masterpiece that never loses a bit of its power. Stephen King may have hated it, but what does he know—he once attacked a car with a chainsaw. This is supernatural terror at its absolute zenith.


  1. No qualms from me about your ranking of The Woman in Black. I was also incredibly impressed with the flick!

  2. I still live in a fear a clown will come to life and kill me in my sleep because of Poltergeist. One of the scariest horror movies ever.

  3. Qualms! Qualms aplenty!1! But meh, it was still decent... I want to give a shout out to The Legend of Hell House, Ju-on, The Skeptic, Paranormal Activity, The Evil, The Amityville Horror, The Innocents, and last but not least: The Haunted (

  4. I'm with Unohu for 'The Legend of Hell House' -- which was a pretty decent film adaptation of Richard Matheson's chilling 'Hell House'. BTW, the first official DVD release of 'The Uninvited' will be a remastered release to Region 2 (U.K.) with extras on 17 Sep 2012. Since I have a region-free player, I will be picking this up. Hopefully, this will mean an R1 will follow. Thanks, B-sol.

  5. I threw pillow to face many a times watching The Woman in Black. Very effective and I had a lot of fun with it. Don't understand the hate of some folks with this one.

    Oh, and I'm pretty sure it set the Guinness Book of World Records for most jump scares in a film.

  6. Great list. I'd have taken out Beetlejuice though and put in The Innocents.
    And much as I liked the new version of The Woman In Black, there is NO way I'd have left out the 1989 version of that film. It's superior to its remake and would probably be my number 2.
    LOVE The Changeling, and am totally psyched that you included Ghost Story. One of my all-time favorites.

  7. Ryne--I'm still waiting for you number-one pick!

    Kate, you and me both!

    Unohu--I have to say that I have NEVER been a fan of The Amityville Horror at all.

    Leopard--I am very excited about this Uninvited release, and may have to put it on my Christmas list this year...

    Cortez, the visual of you hiding behind pillow has really made my night.

    And Christine--as a fellow ghost enthusiast, thanks so much for weighing in! Glad to see we're both admirers of Ghost Story--that movie doesn't get nearly enough love...

  8. The original? No? That's... um... surprising... I guess...

  9. Damn right The Shining is #1.

    I'm digging this blog.

    Swing by my page.

  10. Yes, sorry to say, the original Amityville Horror has always underwhelmed me. I find it vastly overrated. I haven't even taken a crack at the remake.

    Grimm, glad we feel the same about The Shining. Although The Haunting was a VERY close #2 for me.

  11. Greetings. I just started blogging again for the first time in a few years. For whatever reason my writing slipped into a coma and it's taken me this long to revive it. But I do love to write. Most of my fiction might be better described as "weird" or "surreal". I've never been a big fan of gore or blood splatter. It lacks class. It feels cheap to me. Anyone can do shock, but it takes appreciably more deftness to weave good suspense and creepiness. I like the type of scares that come from an unsettling underbelly. I like it when it comes weaved in subtext and isn't overt. Look at Rosemary's Baby. That's one creepy movie! Less for the over demon scenes (which I felt were a bit heavy handed and shlocky), but the real terror comes with the scenes that seem to portray a complete sense of normalcy. The neighbors, the Castevets, seem a bit weird, but don't come off sinister. They seem caring in their own arcane kind of way, when undulating beneath the surface is the real terror that the film maker is leading up to. It's the kind of terror that you glimpse only out of the corner of your eyes now and again, and me...makes it all the more horrifying. Because we aren't fully aware of the potency of the horrific thing until it is fully upon us. And by then there is nowhere to run to get away from it. Roman Polanski achieves this sense of claustrophobia brilliantly. All throughout the film you just feel the walls are closing in on Rosemary. The poor dear has no one she can turn to to help her. And the most hideous realization is that even her husband is in on it. The conspiracy and paranoia are milked for everything they are worth and the shocking conclusion is made all that more potent because we've been led along the whole time, strung along inch by inch, to believe that something so debased couldn't possibly be real. And when it is, it is a jolt like no other.

    I didn't intend this to be an evisceration, so to speak, of Rosemary's Baby, but it just seemed a perfect paragon of true horror. Along with others like Psycho, and The Shining and names both prominent and cult that are too numerous to name. These are the true examples of great horror/suspense. Nowadays a lot of motion pictures rely on pretension and shock. I myself strive to emulate what I see works best, from Hitchcock to Polanski. From the stories of greats like Richard Matheson, Jerome Bixby, Philip K. Dick and of course Stephen King, this is where I take my lead. My own burgeoning little Blog has a few samples and I am very interested in meeting new readers and writers who look for the quality we USED TO see in programs like The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery. Before everything degraded into the perfunctory assembly line feel that we have in modern theatrical releases. Before the "retreads" and the insipidly labeled "reimaginations". I want to return to TRUE original imagination. That is why I am a writer. I am hoping others who are seeking interesting, unique, and entertaining fiction will find and follow me. A renaissance of the art is LONG overdue.

  12. Bravo, Rhuneke!
    I'm with you as far as my taste in horror goes. I have never counted Rosemary's Baby amongst my favorite horror films, but I can certainly see how important it was in the history of the genre. Keep fighting the good fight, and feel free to post the link to your blog!

  13. I love that Beatlejuice is on this list, everyone forgets about that movie. One haunted story I have been obsessing recently is called "Living Space". It is an audio program (for all you really old school horror fans out there) all about a haunted space that is literally alive with gruesome terror. A unique spin on the haunted house theme.

    It is produced by Dreadtime Stories and is on a nice CD Box set with other great stories. I recommend it and in fact, would love to see The Vault of Horror's take on it!

  14. Though not my favorite sub-genre I'll chime in with a couple underrated haunted features that should not go unmentioned - Session 9 (one of my all-time favorites) and Dead Birds. Pretty effective and some good scares!!

  15. I'm not familiar with Living Space--but I do love old school horror radio, so I'll have to check this out.

    Anonymous, thanks for the suggestions. I've heard nothing but GREAT things about Session 9.

  16. Poltergeist is probably one of the best oldschool horror movies but my fav is The Shining!

  17. I'd have to agree! Hence the number-one ranking.