Thinking of The Woman in Black (on DVD and Blu-ray May 22) has us contemplating the various haunted houses and spooky ghosts that films have presented to us over the years. The world of the dead has, thanks to movies, been opened up to us as a vast and shadowy realm of past crimes and uncompleted acts, represented by banshees and other ethereal groaning spirits who must wear the shackles of their sin-wrapped lives and torment the living more out of a bloody-minded necessity than any sort of personal grudge. Sometime the spirits can pass on, dissipating into a higher realm. At other times, the spirits can never be satisfied, no matter how many human lives they take. And sometimes, they just want to play with us.
Whatever the nature of the ghost, the following examples of great haunted house pictures should have us peeking around corners and sleeping with the lights on for a while. Let's sit down at out Ouija boards, try to ignore that Indian burial ground in the basement, and get this séance started.
Stir of Echoes (dir. David Koepp, 1999)
David Koepp is best known in Hollywood as a writer of moneymaking blockbusters; he is the scribe behind Men in Black, Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, Spider-Man, and, uh, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. In 1999 he directed a little-hyped ghost story, adapted from a Richard Matheson story, which was a surprisingly intimate and effective little thriller starring Kevin Bacon. Stir of Echoes is about a working class Chicago boob (Bacon) who is, as a party trick, hypnotized by a friend. Soon thereafter, he begins having eerie visions and unsettling emotional attacks that he cannot explain. He's not too sophisticated a guy, but he does realize that the hypnotism perhaps opened up some sort of psychic door to the other side, through which he is now communicating with a teenage girl who was perhaps killed in his house years ago. Stir of Echoes is not earth-shattering, but it is moody, and Kevin Bacon gives a strong performance of a man becoming increasingly unhinged.
The Ward (dir. John Carpenter, 2010)
I've always liked movies, especially scary ones, that center around the plight of the mad. True, it may not be fun to get stabbed through the gut by an undead zombie, but far more chilling is the prospect of losing your mind. Hence, movies that take place in insane asylums not only provide us with cavernous, prison-like environments, but also skew our perceptions, having us question the very reality around us. In 2011, John Carpenter released, to an unfortunately minimal amount of fanfare, an asylum ghost story called The Ward with the lovely Amber Heard. The Ward is about a young woman who, in the 1960s, may or may not be responsible for the deaths of her family, and who finds herself incarcerated in a local nuthouse. The fellow inmates in the asylum are all being methodically killed of by what appears to be a ghost, and it's up to our heroine to investigate the origin of the ghost, and avoid supernatural retribution. The story may be predictable at times, but Carpenter is a workmanlike director who knows how to shoot suspense better than most. The Ward deserves a look.
The Kingdom (dir. Lars Von Trier, 1994)
This Danish TV miniseries was released in theaters in America, so it technically counts as a feature film. Lars Von Trier, known these days for gut-wrenchingly depressing, maddeningly confrontational, and aesthetically bold films like Dogville, Antichrist, and Melancholia, first hit America with this wry, naturalistic send-up of soap operas about a haunted hospital in Denmark. Equal parts Dancer in the Dark, General Hospital and a funny version of Twin Peaks, this 4 ½-hour curio reaches a level of pleasant cult strangeness rarely seen in movies. The Kingdom is mostly concerned with the ghost of a young girl whose body may or may not still be on the premises, and who may or may not be haunting an elevator shaft. Meanwhile the various doctors clash over petty clerical details, budgeting, secret societies, and, uh, voodoo curses. This is not even the weirdest haunted house film on the list, though, so sit tight.
Beetlejuice (dir. Tim Burton, 1988)
A recent cult classic, Tim Burton's weirdo take on the haunted house genre is a colorful and creatively designed carnival of humor and ghostly weirdness. Plus, it features Lydia Deetz (Winona Ryder) who may be the first prominent movie Goth in cinema history. The story surrounds a square, simple country couple who die in an accident and find themselves bound to their beloved country cottage; when they try to leave, they are transported to Saturn (!). When a family of insufferable yuppie artists moves in, and our heroes prove ineffectual at haunting (they can pull their faces off, but can't be seen), they hire a trickster ghost named Beetlejuice (a great Michael Keaton) to do the dirty work. The amount of playful, colorful chaos on display is a delight to behold, and the film, with its oddball design and dank Nickelodeon-from-Hell aesthetic, is even a little unsettling. Films don't really look like this anymore, and that's kind of a pity.
13 Ghosts (dir. William Castle, 1960)
William Castle is, as far as I'm concerned, one of the great American filmmakers. True his films, mostly disposable genre films intended for 10-year-old boys, are cartoonish and simple and aren't really aesthetically groundbreaking, but they are typically notable for their marketing and for their infamous gimmicks used to lure excited audiences into theaters. William Castle was the man who thought to add vibrating seats to his classic The Tingler. This is a form of playful hucksterism that elevated cheesy B-films into legitimate events, and emphasized the need to see films in public, in a theater, with a big crowd. His 1960 effort 13 Ghosts is about a family who moves into a house that is, most certainly already haunted by 12 unhappy haunts. But there's room for a 13th… The gimmick for the film, called “Illusion-O,” was a set of glasses given to audience members to detect who the ghosts were, just like the characters in the film had. A spook film with a good gimmick and plenty of childish jump moments. What fun.
Poltergeist (dir. Tobe Hooper, 1982)
You probably have this experience: Your parents saw that this 1982 ghost story was written by the guy who made E.T., so it must be a playful romp akin to Casper the Friendly Ghost. What's more, it's only rated PG, so it must be fine for kids. Your parents then took you into the theater to see the film. 114 minutes later your entire childhood was ruined, as you will now had lifelong nightmares about killer man-eating trees, malevolent closet monsters, wet skeleton ghosts, evil clowns, and men who rip their own faces off for no good reason. Yes, Steven Spielberg conceived of a ghost story for the whole family, and gave it to the guy who made The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, hoping for a hit. Poltergeist was a hit, of course, and has perhaps left a mark in the pop culture firmament, but it is also the film responsible for ruining thousands of children. The film, about a suburban family who match wits with the monstrous ghostly presence in their house, left behind by an ancient Indian burial ground, is tame yet terrifying. Seriously. Don't let kids near it.
Gaslight (dir. George Cukor, 1944)
Ingrid Bergman gives one of the great slow-burn performances of Hollywood's Golden Age in this scheming 1940s classic. Bergman plays Paula, the unbalanced wife of the dandyish and vaguely sinister Charles Boyer, who has forcibly moved her into the house where her aunt had been murdered years before. Paula is, of course afraid, and is constantly on the lookout for the malevolent ghostly presence she feels will inevitably appear. And while she is never beset directly by ghosts, she does notice that the house's gaslights all seem to dim around the same time every night… the same time her aunt was killed. Her hysteria is only compounded by her husband's patronizing attitude, and the rude machinations of the housemaid, played by Angela Lansbury. There are further twists, but I wouldn't want to ruin the surprises for you. Needless to say, Gaslight is a look at how the fear of ghosts can be just as destructive as the ghosts themselves.
House (dir. Nobuhiko Ohbayashi, 1977)
Seriously, dude, this film will melt your face off. I'm not even sure if I can explain it. There's nothing like it. House will serve as a reminder that no matter how far down the cult rabbit hole you go, there will always be a new frontier to explore. Don't give up hope on weird-ass movies, because House is lurking around the next corner. Ostensibly a haunted house picture, House is about a septet of teenage girls who vacation at their aunt's remote summer cottage. What they encounter there is an evil presence that is represented by a sickly old woman, a friendly cat, a killer piano, and, uh… killer mattress? The archetypal gals (each named according to their central personality trait) are killed off by flying severed heads, evil mirrors, and all manner of bizarre forces. A room fills with spectral cat blood. A guy turns into bananas. Um… there's a bear…who makes sushi. And I don't know how that guy died. A character gets sucked halfway into another dimension, I think. In a genre all its own, House is a freakout you will never forget.
The Changeling (dir. Peter Medak, 1980)
Peter Medak's The Changeling features no gimmicks or twists, and stands only on the virtue that it is one of the best haunted house films ever made. Slow-moving and immensely creepy, this film deserves to be on all horror top ten lists next to the slasher standards and spook classics. A mourning composer, played by the always-intense George C. Scott, moves back into his family's remote mansion to compose and perhaps stew in the grief left behind by the death of his wife and child. The mansion is dark, echoey and cavernous, and it seems like just the place for spooks to hang out. It's not long before he begins hearing otherwordly voices and sneaking peeks of shadowy beings out of the corner of his eye. Evidently his despair has attracted the attention of a boy's ghost, equally depressed, and it's up to Scott to solve the mystery, all while clinging to his sanity in a haunted mansion. I like to recommend this film to teenagers, as it's an example of near-classic filmmaking, but still has the genre wickedness that teens crave. Truly a great film.
The Haunting (dir. Robert Wise, 1963)
The spookiest, most atmospheric, and most thoughtful of all haunted house films, Robert Wise's The Haunting is a psychologically manipulative film that holds up by any standard. Watch it sometime with the lights out, and you'll see what I mean. Richard Johnson plays a doctor who has assembled a trio of “sensitive” test subjects to see if they can spot or sense the ghosts in a remote mansion. Locked in overnight, the quartet does begin to sense something going on, and the skittish, nervous Nell (played wonderfully by Julie Harris) seems to panic more than the others. Indeed, Nell seems to teeter between sanity and madness as the spooky sightings begin to pile up, and she reveals that she actually has a personal connection to the events around her. It's eventually revealed that the doctor is not searching for ghosts, but conducting an experiment in fear, haplessly duping his poor test subjects. But by the time this is revealed, though, Nell is convinced that there are ghosts in the mansion, and she seems marked for death. In many ghost films, the ghosts are wispy, death-hungry shadows, eager to kill innocents. But sometimes those kind of ghosts manifest themselves inside our own personal demons. And those demons can be just as deadly.
Full Disclosure: This article has been sponsored by Sony.