One of the main staples of horror is the haunted house, every Halloween all manner of enclosure is turned into a haunted version of said manner of enclosure and people wind through the decorated tunnels of potential frights waiting for someone to jump out at them and give them a good scare. Ellen Degeneres is a big fan of this and has dedicated a hallway to frightening audience members and various famous people on camera (she also has been doing this during interviews, yet another reason why she is one of my favorite people–check out the Dennis Quaid scare, I swear I rewatched that clip like forty times last night).
In fiction, there are two really necessary bits for a haunted house to work: something doing the haunting and a compelling reason why the people who are being haunted can’t or won’t leave.
This entry will not include any analysis of the Paranormal Activity series because I refuse to spend money/ time on something that seems so ridiculously silly, not scary and cheap. I have a pretty broad acceptance for things that I’ll subject myself to, but I have to draw the line somewhere. That line is the Paranormal Activity series, the Twilight series, and most of the Saw movies (the moment that made me give up on the potential of that series was in Saw 2 when they throw the two girls into the vat of hypodermic needles–haven’t seen any of the movies that followed, no desire to).
Some spoilers may follow.
A movie that I watched for the first time this month seems like a good point of entry: The Skeptic. This movie, starring Tim Daly, works pretty well because it’s not an overblown horror show, but rather a quieter movie about a man who is a confirmed skeptic and a rather disagreeable guy. He is separating from his wife (a conversation they had together, but as she puts it, one of them was bluffing) and using the occasion of his even more disagreeable aunt’s death as a motivator. She died in her house and being the only heir, it is naturally his–right? So he moves in and the creaks and odd happenings begin almost immediately. But there is something more about this place, something that he can’t quite put his finger on, and because he doesn’t believe in ghosts he is fine staying there.
Of course there are complications. While he is taking inventory of the items in the house, the sale of which will make up for the fact that there is no family fortune, his friend/ co-worker (Tom Arnold) reveals that his aunt actually had a will and left the house to some institute. He investigates the institute and discovers that they focus on psychic abilities and finding rational/ scientific reasons for presumed supernatural events. A nice twist, the scientist is all about pointing out how the supernatural stuff is not actually supernatural instead of the persistent “I want to believe” vibe in many horror films.
Things get progressively worst for Tim Daly as he delves into his own clouded history as well as the mysterious things that are happening in the house. Everything is pretty subtle and spooky, with no big third act scare show featuring ridiculous special effects. The ending is a bit vague, but the conclusions that came right before it are really good. It truly is a core haunted house story–a mystery that needs to be solved, a ghost that needs to be unveiled, a few nice twists and spooky moments, and some good performances.
A flip to this is Poltergeist, Steven Spielberg’s haunted house story–yeah, according to the credits he is responsible for the story and is a producer and Tobe Hooper is the director, but the stories surrounding the production do muddle that quite a bit. Apparently he was on the set every day and involved in most of the directorial decisions, sometimes giving contrary notes to Hooper. This was a film that he really wanted to direct, but was involved in ET at the time and apparently there is some rule about not directing simultaneous movies, so Tobe may or may not have been hired as a sort of prop to get around that rule. Either the rule has been changed, or Spielberg has gotten much better at budgeting his time, give the way his movies tend to pile up on each other (shooting The Lost World: Jurassic Park while editing Schindler’s List, somehow making The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse seemingly simultaneously). Anyway, regardless of who directed the movie, it is a pretty solid fright show.
Craig T. Nelson heads up the Freeling family, a typical suburban family in the early eighties. He is selling houses in the development where he lives and the developments that are sprouting up around–terror in the most normal of places. The weirdness begins immediately, the credits rolling over the family asleep. He’s fallen asleep in the living room with the TV on. As the channel is stopping broadcasting for the day with the national anthem playing (god, remember when TV channels weren’t programming 24 hours a day? I sort of miss those days …) something wakes up the youngest Freeling, Carol-Ann. She comes down to the living room and sits in front of the TV, now all static and snow, and begins talking to it. She’s talking loudly enough that he wakes up, and soon his wife is there too. They ask who she’s talking to and she tells them that she’s talking to the television people.
The next morning, everything is normal. The big game is on and Craig T. Nelson’s buddies are in the living room crowded around his small TV set, drinking beer and yelling at the game. Then the channel flips. He changes it back and then a few moments later it flips again. Eerie, right? Turns out that he and the neighbor have remotes set to the same frequency (ah, the stone age) and instead of just changing the channel on the TV (or changing the frequency on the remote) they combatively “flip” each other off. Then we come to the next day, another normal day in the neighborhood: he hustles off to work, the other two kids head off to school and mom stays at home. There is a pool going in in the backyard, so she’s kept company by the construction workers who endearingly whistle and come on to the teenage daughter, who endearingly flips them off (I still don’t know why this deserved a smile from the mother and not some sort of “What the fuck are you saying to my teenage daughter?” but I was pretty young in the early eighties …)
Everything is normal, almost boring, and then the chairs start to rearrange themselves in more intricate patterns. The mother is, naturally, amazed by this and spends the rest of the day experimenting and finds the point in the kitchen to put a chair (or their daughter) in order for the chair (or the tiny human being) across the room and into the wall. They show this neat trick to Craig T. and he has the reaction that most of us probably would: no one goes into the kitchen.
But they don’t leave. They talk about how weird it is, how cool that this strange stuff is happening, but they don’t do anything about it. And then the tree tries to eat their son. There is a storm and the kids afraid of the storm and of the tree outside. Craig T. helpfully tells him about counting between the lightening and the thunder to tell if the storm is moving toward them or away from them. This works for the first storm. Then the second storm comes and the tree comes alive and tries to eat the kid. While the family is preoccupied with the tree trying to eat the kid (Craig T. climbs the tree, gets the kid safely to the ground and then the roots try to pull him under–that kid is not having a good night) little Carol-Ann is abducted into the closet. She is in her bed then the closet opens up, a swirling vortex of light opens up and pulls her through the air into her closet.
Craig T. goes to the university to talk to a parapsychologist about helping them. He knows how crazy it sounds, but he also knows that there is no other explanation. The kids aren’t staying at the house anymore, but mom and dad are, because they can’t leave without Carol-Ann. They can talk to her when the TV is tuned to a certain channel, but they have locked her room off–that swirling vortex is still in there, spinning objects around. The investigators come in talking about how much they know, how much they’ve personally witnessed, and Craig T. patiently waits for them to finish talking before showing them how little they’ve seen before. Everyone sets up shop, ready to investigate, but it’s only a matter of time before someone looks in the mirror and tears their own face off.
The rest of the movie involves figuring out the root of the problem (of course the greedy developer has moved the gravestones, but left the bodies behind, in order to build his development), saving Carol-Ann, and escaping. This movie holds up pretty well and mixes the subtle, creepy moments, with big effects moments. It had a pretty compelling reason for them to stay in the house for the first four-fifths of the movie, but the very end is a bit bewildering. After Carol-Ann has been saved, they’re assured that “this house is clean”, so they pack up to move out. But they stay in the house while they’re doing it! Of course this leads to the big climax at the end where mom fights for her babies and then the house implodes. But still. Hire movers, stay elsewhere. It only seems reasonable.
Reasonable doesn’t always work in getting a haunted house story going. Sometimes you need a(n un)healthy mix of ego and ambition and a disregard for others to put yourself in a suitable position to be manhandled by ghosts (or a creepy deity). In Sinister, crime novelist Ethan Hawke needs one more big break to get his career going again. He had a hit, years ago, but craves (contrary to his television interviews, which he videotaped and rewatches) his own In Cold Blood, that true crime story that would make him rich and famous. In the past he had gone so far as to move his family down the street from a crime scene. This time he moved them into the house, something that the local sheriff tells him is in incredibly poor taste.
Even with these colossally bad and selfish choices, this movie is incredibly engrossing because it is really a mystery with horror elements. Hawke’s true crime writer is investigating what could be one of many serial crimes, spread out long enough to indicate that it’s not necessarily a serial killer, but maybe some cult’s ritualized killing. With the help of a professor that he consults via iChat and a starstruck Deputy So-and-so who wants to be the guy that helps the author and gets thanked on the acknowledgements page, he tracks the history of these killings. He is greatly helped by a box of 8mm films that he found in the attic, films that show him the murders as well as a ghostly figure that seems to be involved. The more he digs in, the more he detaches from his family and fails to notice how truly dangerous this place is for them all. In then end, he realizes his mistake in moving them there and in his entire endeavor, and he decides to leave. I’ll leave it to you to see if they’re able to escape or not.
In the 60’s, William Castle made a ton of gimmicky scary movies, films that proclaimed that they had a nurse on hand to help people suffering from terror, buzzers in the seats, wavers that needed to be signed before watching the movie, etc. The films themselves hold up well as kitschy nostalgia, which is what they were then. In the late 90’s, Dark Castle entertainment began producing some remakes of these movies that amped up the humor and knowingness with the jump-scares and special effects. The first of these was House on Haunted Hill with Geoffrey Rush playing a Vincent Price character in battle with his vicious gold-digging wife at a ghoulish birthday party in a closed down Insane Asylum with guests who are all strangers to each other as well as the hosts. Rush’s amusement park millionaire is known for special effects, which is why some of the initial happenings are suspect, but the more people are killed by the house the more desperate they need to find out how to escape. The asylum was the scene of not only a mad doctor who, with the assistance of his staff, experimented on and vivisected his inmates, but was also the scene for an orgy of murder and mayhem when the inmates rose up and killed the doctor and his staff. Before being killed, fires are started and the asylum was thrown into lockdown, which meant that everyone died. First, ghosts start playing with the guests and then the house itself tries to kill them. This movie hit the right tone and is pretty successful overall–the only thing that struggles to hold up is some of the late-90s CGI, which is very noticeable now.
Dark Castle followed the movie up with Thirteen Ghosts which keeps to the haunted house concept, but places it on its head a little. The (recently deceased) owner of the house collected all the ghosts that are housed within, carefully contained by special glass and spells, until his nephew and his family come with the lawyer to claim their inheritance. Then, one by one, the ghosts are released. The blood letting starts and with the help of one of the uncle’s former associates, the family tries to stay alive. There is a lot of people wandering off in this movie and a lot of people starting to explain everything while the other person shouts “I don’t care about that, all I care about is this other thing” which amounts to a situation that could have probably been contained and resolved if everyone had just had a calm conversation right away. But then there wouldn’t have been the movie. And we wouldn’t have seen a glass house that was “a machine designed by the devil and powered by the dead” reconfigure itself into a glass house with a spinny motor of doom in the middle. Eh, it’s still a fun movie.
Ghost Ship tried to play it less flashy and more serious, but they did give both a compelling reason for the characters to be in the haunted place, in this case, an ocean liner, and for them to not be able to escape. It dialed down the excess of Thirteen Ghosts, but played up the ensemble cast and the mystery behind the ship much better. A pretty fun and creepy flick.
And finally, one of my favorites, Event Horizon, a movie set on a haunted spaceship. It’s like if 2001 had gone very dark, very quickly. An experimental ship with an experimental dimensional drive that allowed it to travel great distances by folding space-time, suddenly reappears after 7 years and a crew of a rescue ship is tasked to find out why, with they guy who built the ship. Almost as soon as they board the ship, things start going crazy and as the movie goes forward and they piece together what happened to the crew, we find out that the ship traveled to Hell and that it came back alive. Lots of Lovecraftean stuff in this haunted spaceship movie. I watched it again last week with my friend Meaghan, who is maybe now just getting to the point of not being terrified by it.
So, that’s all for now. I’ve cracked 31 movies for October and will probably add a few more before I’m all done. Once I finish with these entries I’ll do a complete list of the flicks I watched in October.
More later …