Number 5: The Changeling
Considered one of the scariest movies ever made, 1980’s The Changeling stars George C. Scott as prominent music composer and teacher John Russell who, after the tragic death of his wife and daughter in a freak car accident, moves from New York to Seattle, Washington and rents a large creepy mansion from the local historical society. Soon after moving in he begins to hear loud banging–very similar in tone to the banging heard in The Haunting–and then finds sinks and tubs with the water running. In one of the film’s scariest moments, John, alone in the house and standing at the foot of a staircase, watches a small red and white ball that belonged to his daughter come bouncing down the stairs. Soon John finds himself in the middle of unraveling a mystery and unearthing a decades old secret. The film uses atmosphere and the old style scares that frighten us most…the things we cannot see. The film also stars Scott’s wife, Trish Van Devere and long time Hollywood great Melvyn Douglas. George C. Scott, who once turned down the Oscar for Best Actor for playing Patton, passed away in 1999.
Number Four: Poltergeist (1982)
Poltergeist-noun: a ghost of other supernatural being responsible for disturbances such as loud noise and objects being thrown around. Usually associated with a young girl.
Steven Spielberg’s 1982 film directed by Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) was one of the films that helped make the 1980s one of the greatest decades for sci-fi, horror and fantasy movies. Some of the movie’s iconic lines such as “They’re heeere!” and “Go into the light!” remain a part of our lexicon nearly 40 years later. It is also one of the most famous “Cursed Films” with a number of tragedies connected to it including the death of its young star after the third film and the murder of the first film’s oldest daughter played by Dominique Dunne.
Including this film on my Haunted House list was difficult. On the one hand, the movie is about a poltergeist which are connected to people. Hauntings are usually in a fixed location such as a house. The fact that the entire Cuesta Verde Estates was built over a burial sites where only the headstones were moved and the bodies left behind makes me want to include it in the Haunted House category as well as the apparition/ghost category. In any event, it was a spectacular film oozing with Spielberg vibes even though he served as Producer and writer. The movie spawned two inferior sequels and a quite awful remake. But ignoring everything that came after, Poltergeist remains one of the great scary movies of all time.
Number Three: The Amityville Horror (1979)
Panned by critics and revered by horror scholars, The Amityville Horror is based on the bester seller by Jay Anson of the same name and is one of the highest grossing independent films ever. Hollywood has been milking the film ever since with sequel after sequel (including Amityville Doll House!). The sequels are just so ridiculous it reminds you that Hollywood will “sequelize” anything that made a buck.
On a November morning in 1974 Ronald DeFeo jr. took a shot gun and murdered everyone in his family…claiming that voices told him to do it. When George and Kathy Lutz move into the house, strange occurrences begin to happen. The film owes much to the theme and score by Lalo Schiffrin which perfectly accentuates the scenes and the scares.
Number 1&2 (tie): The Haunting & The Legend of Hell House
Both of these movies deserve the number one spot. They are both variations on a similar theme: Psychic Investigators enter a supposedly haunted house to find the truth. In The Legend of Hell House a physicist Dr. Barrett (Clive Revell) is hired by an elderly man to find out if there is “survival after death”. Joined by his wife (Gayle Hunnicutt), a psychic medium Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) and a physical medium Fischer (Roddy McDowall), the group is sent to the one place where survival has yet to be refuted, The Belasco House aka “Hell House”. It’s known as the Mount Everest of Haunted Houses. Fischer is the sole survivor of a previous investigation where everyone else was either crippled, driven insane or died. Emeric Belasco, a self centered egotistical hedonist who was known as “The Roaring Giant” due to his height, had owned the house and gave it its reputation… committing an abundance of debaucheries in the house: “…drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, bestiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism and a gamut of sexual goodies” (Fischer). Dr. Barrett wants to prove there is no such thing as hauntings, Tanner believes it’s surviving personalities and not hauntings while Fischer just wants to collect his money and get out. The Legend of Hell House is the very definition of “atmospheric”…the unusual music score combined with the camera work and lighting lends a sense of unease throughout the film. It was written by master storyteller Richard Matheson (The Incredible Shrinking Man, Duel, Trilogy Of Terror) based on his book. From beginning to end The Legend of Hell House is a perfect horror movie.
By contrast The Haunting, based on Shirley Jackson’s book The Haunting of Hill House”, plays on a much more subtle atmosphere. Julie Harris turns in one of her greatest performances as Nell, a woman who has spent her life taking care of her mother up until her death. She jumps at the chance to get out of her sister’s house and join Dr. John Markway’s team investigating Hill House. However, only one other person shows up, Theodora (Claire Bloom) and along for the ride is the current owner of the house’s nephew (Russ Tamblyn of West Side Story). The film’s writer saw it as a story of mental breakdown and even after being assured by Shirley Jackson herself it was a supernatural story he injected elements of mental breakdown into the script anyway. This might be the reason for Nell’s narration throughout the movie–I have not read the book since elementary school so I can’t be sure. The Haunting, directed by famed director Robert Wise (The Sound of Music, The Day The Earth Stood Still, Star Trek The Motion Picture) is thought of as the scariest movie ever made by many industry professionals. It is also known for having one of the first lesbian characters in a starring role. A scene where Nell and Theodora are alone in a bedroom while a deafening pounding is happening outside the room and Nell feels her hand being squeezed too hard by Theodora only to find her on the other side of the room still scares the hell out of me every time I watch it.
A special Honorable Mention must be given to the films I had to cut from The Five…Burnt Offerings, The Others, Cabin In The Woods and Stephen King’s Rose Red. All are great Haunted House stories (or Cabin as it were!).
The Five: Best Haunted House Movies
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