Halloween may be over, but any time of year is perfect for a good horror movie. When it comes to scary films, I'm something of a classicist — indestructible slashers and Blair Witches be damned. Give me an eerie haunted house, preferably with hidden passageways, cobweb-strewn spiral staircases and spine-tingling organ music.
Following is a guided tour of some beloved cinematic haunted houses. Remember, keep your candelabra held high and steer clear of the remakes; they're not frightening, but they are deadly.
The unfortunate dominance of CGI effects, remake-mania and a lazy, jolt-heavy approach has sucked most of the pleasure out of modern horror. There's more gore but less gratification. While some of the films listed here might seem tame to filmgoers raised on the assaultive, derivative fare now choking the megaplexes, they offer genuine goosebumps — and they're crafted with imagination and affection.
The Legend of Hell House was considered quite a shocker upon its release in 1973. This efficient, low-budget British horror flick, directed by John Hough, places a diverse group of psychic investigators in a huge manse with a sordid history of murder and debauchery. What do the ghosts want? Can they be reasoned with? Can a big machine suck the bad energy out? At times overwrought and frankly preposterous, Hell House still delivers some real chills. Roddy McDowall's rattled performance alone is worth the price of admission.
Producer-director William Castle was more carny than auteur, but his gimmick-filled spookshows still offer frissons aplenty. Castle often trafficked in haunted houses, and his affinity for disembodied spirits, faces at the window and other elements from the periodic table of fear helped form the aesthetic template for latter-day masters like Tim Burton and Sam Raimi. Prints of 1958's House on Haunted Hill came to movie theaters accompanied by a contraption that wheeled a skeleton over the heads of terrified audience members. You won't enjoy that particular thrill watching the film on DVD, but you'll delight in Vincent Price's sardonic, plummy line readings and a twisty plot about a group of guests challenged to spend a night in the titular abode. And there is a skeleton, and it's excellent. Will someone die of fright? Perhaps it will be you! You get the idea. Oh, and at all costs avoid the appalling 1999 remake.
With all the obscure, ungodly crap now available on DVD, why does the 1944 classic The Uninvited still languish on VHS? It's a mystery as baffling as the one at the heart of this elegant chiller. Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey play siblings who buy some seaside real estate with — you guessed it — undisclosed, unabated spirits. While its scares are largely subtle, their cumulative effect will raise hackles on all but the insensate. Filmed in ravishing black-and-white (cinematographer Charles Lang earned an Oscar nomination), The Uninvited is among the most romantic and memorable ghost stories of all time. Here's hoping a definitive DVD version emerges soon; in the meantime, you can catch the film in semi-regular rotation on Turner Classic Movies.
Whenever lists like this are compiled, Robert Wise's moody 1963 film The Haunting invariably makes the cut. And no wonder. While its description may sound generic given how many flicks deposit a team of psychic investigators in a spooky house, its unfolding is unique and unforgettable. Based on Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House (which, incredibly, has nothing to do with the other films listed above), it's suffused with an almost suffocating aura of dread. Julie Harris and Claire Bloom turn in riveting performances. Whatever you do, steer clear of the abysmal 1999 remake.
As I mentioned above, Sam Raimi is among the few modern directors steeped in classic horror, and his profound understanding of the delicate balance of fear and humor is rare among modern filmmakers. Before he graduated to blockbusters, Raimi labored on two low-budget masterpieces, Evil Dead (1982) and Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn (1987), which would become his first signature works.
Here's what you need to know: a cabin in the wilds of Michigan. Some unwary travelers. A copy of the Necronomicon, the ancient, flesh-bound Book of the Dead. Hilarity and gallons of blood — seemingly delivered by water cannon — ensue. Bruce Campbell stars as Ash, Raimi's hunky, wisecracking doppelgänger. In the gory, uproarious second film, he hoists a chainsaw to fend off rampaging legions of the undead, who bellow "I'll swallow your soul" like hecklers at a ballgame. It's extreme fun. There's a third film in the series, the action-fantasy epic Army of Darkness, but since it doesn't take place in a house, it'll have to wait for a future discussion.