Creaky floorboards. Rattling window shutters. Creepy noises in the attic. What could be scarier than a lonely old house on a dark and stormy night?
The haunted house subgenre has been around for a long time and has proven to be endlessly fascinating to moviemakers and audiences alike. What makes haunted house movies so fun is their unpredictability. Unlike, say, a slasher movie, where the young hero/heroine is on the run from a defined antagonist, in a haunted house film, the threat can be invisible and come from anywhere—the possibilities are virtually limitless.
Today sees the release of two new haunted house movies: James ”Eden Lake” Watkins’ The Woman in Black and Ti ”The House of the Devil” West’s The Innkeepers. In The Woman in Black, Daniel Radcliffe, fresh from playing Harry Potter for the final time, stars as a young lawyer who travels to a remote English village where the vengeful ghost of a scorned woman is terrorizing the locals. In The Innkeepers (currently available On Demand), the haunted house in question is the secluded Yankee Pedlar Inn. Two employees (Pat Healy and Sara Paxton) determined to uncover the hotel’s disturbing past before it closes its doors for good have some disturbing experiences of their own as some strange guests start to check in.
Will either of these haunted house movies live up to some of the classics? We’ll find out soon enough. In the meantime, join us as we take a look back at some of the scariest haunted house movies of all time.
The Uninvited (1944)
directed by Lewis Allen
No, this isn’t the recent Japanese remake of the same name. It’s the classic, genre-defining ghost story in which Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey play siblings who move into an old, abandoned seaside house with a dark past. Soon after, they start hearing noises and, well, you can probably guess what happens next. The Uninvited is notable as being one of the first haunted house movies made in Hollywood. While it’s certainly dated by today’s standards as well as being a bit predictable, it still manages to convey a suitably creepy atmosphere, especially an eerie séance scene.
House on Haunted Hill (1959)
directed by William Castle
This entertaining movie features B-movie master Castle at the top of his game. The plot concerns an eccentric millionaire (Vincent Price), who offers five guests $5,000 to spend the night at the notorious House on Haunted Hill, which has seen seven murders. Needless to say, it isn’t long before the body count begins to rise. This undeniably cheesy movie is a lot of fun and manages to scare up a few unexpected chills. Castle was infamous for his hokey theater gimmicks. For House on Haunted Hill, when a skeleton makes an appearance in the film, a lighted plastic skeleton on a wire would swoop over the heads of the audience. Cheap scare? You betcha. Effective? Absolutely.
The Innocents (1961)
directed by Jack Clayton
This creepy film proved to be something of an inspiration for The Others (to appear later on this list), which hit theaters 40 years later. The Innocents takes place in Victorian England and centers around a governess (Deborah Kerr) to two children who becomes convinced that their house (and the grounds surrounding it) are haunted. Based upon the classic Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw and co-scripted by Truman Capote, The Innocents is genuinely unnerving, with atmospheric cinematography by Freddie Francis (who later became a prolific horror director in his own right). What makes this subtle film especially thought-provoking is the ambiguous nature of the story. Are the ghosts, in fact, real? Or are they just hallucinations of the governess’ increasingly fragile mental state?
The Haunting (1963)
directed by Robert Wise
Adapted from Shirley Jackson’s acclaimed novel The Haunting of Hill House (considered by many to be one of the best ghost stories ever written), The Haunting centers around the conflict between a team of paranormal investigators (among them Julie Harris and Claire Bloom) and the foreboding mansion (complete with a sinister past) in which they are determined to spend several nights. The Haunting is a masterpiece of implied horror; very little in the film is actually seen. Instead, the unnerving sound effects and Davis Boulton’s disorienting camera work merely suggest the scares, to terrifying effect. The ghosts here are never actually visible, and the film is all the more disturbing for it. An abysmal 1999 remake starring Catherine-Zeta Jones and Liam Neeson replaced the understated scares of the original with over-the-top CGI effects and a general disregard for anything approaching subtlety.
The Legend of Hell House (1973)
directed by John Hough
Genre legend Richard Matheson adapted his own novel for this engaging riff on The Haunting (Note the similarities between “Hill House” and “Hell House”). As in the earlier film, a group of paranormal investigators (including Roddy McDowall and Pamela Franklin, who made her movie debut as one of the children in The Innocents) conduct an investigation into a supposedly haunted house, which has previously either killed or caused madness in its visitors. Like The Haunting, this film is concerned with cerebral and psychological horrors instead of typical shock effects. MM