It hasn't been a great era for haunted-house movies. The third version of "House of Wax," in 2005, was awful enough to kill off the form, at least as far as big American studios were concerned. The day my review ran, a filmmaker friend who was in town for the Maryland Film Festival said, in sympathy, "Gee, Mike, you review everything."
No form of horror this strong can ever completely go away - not with a heritage as rich as this one. Here's my list of films - a lucky 13 -- that prove how well haunted-house movies can blend claustrophobia with many other phobias. If you start now, you can see them all in time for Halloween.
Best old dark house movie
Naturally: " The Old Dark House." Director James Whale's rarely-seen masterpiece dates from 1932, but it's so keen-witted and indelible you'd never call it a period piece. Anyone who has ever stumbled into a group that is proud, stubborn, and collectively insane can appreciate the predicament of five spiffy urban creatures -- Gloria Stuart (of "Titanic," Raymond Massey, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton and Lillian Bond -- stranded in a ramshackle Welsh home during a vicious rainstorm. When the home's inhabitants, the Femms, come to the fore, the movie becomes a satire of backwater eccentricity and fatalism that's also a comedy of terrors. Inertia rules the seedy estate of the title, from the third floor, where the ancient and androgynous Sir Roderick Femm holds sway (he's played by a woman, Elspeth Dudgeon, billed as "John") to the quarters where the mute, animalistic servant Morgan ( Boris Karloff) grunts and lurches. ( Charles Addams molded the butler to the Addams' Family in Morgan's image.) The anchor is religious fanatic Rebecca Femm (Eva Moore), a mighty mite who lords it over both Morgan and her hilariously fey brother Horace (the peerless Ernest Thesiger). The secret to director Whale's success is his ability to maintain a sneaky sort of deadpan. He uses sophisticated wit to pave the way for gargantuan grotesquerie. Before you can stop laughing, you're hooked. (The Kino/Image DVD contains Stuart's recollections and Whale biographer James Curtis' commentary, as well as an interview with director and horror aficionado Curtis Harrington, who recounts how he "saved 'The Old Dark House' from oblivion.")
Best haunted Bauhaus movie
Edgar G. Ulmer's only big-studio classic was this 1934 horror parable about the deadening effects of the Great War. "The Black Cat" is a heady brew of Satanic schemes and Freudian desires, starring Boris Karloff as Austria's most celebrated engineer and Bela Lugosi as Hungary's most renowned psychiatrist. Decades before Ingmar Bergman made Death and Max Von Sydow take up chess, Karloff and Lugosi play the game for blood in a bizarre Bauhaus-Expressionist-Deco mansion that Karloff has built figuratively on the rubble of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and literally atop a graveyard. Add a row of beauties in suspended animation and a Black Mass culled from a Latin phrase book, and you've got one spectacle of terror that raises hair right down to the follicles.
Best haunted motel movie
Too much has been written about Hitchcock's 1960 "Psycho" making people swear off showers. Not enough has been written about it scaring people away from small family-run motels. Everything from the titillating opening of Janet Leigh and John Gavin making love during her lunch hour to the slashing shocks and reversals that ensue brought box-office success and immediate legendary status to this oddball trailblazer. But what gives this film its corrosive scuzziness is its existential claustrophobia. All the characters are trapped in stifling circumstances -- especially poor Norman Bates ( Anthony Perkins), the motel manager stranded beside a no-longer-traveled road.
Best haunted frontier house movie
In "The Wind" (1928), Victor Sjostrom's silent masterpiece of psychological terror, a well-bred Virginia girl ( Lillian Gish) goes to Texas to live with her cousin only to be turned out by his jealous wife and hounded by the men and the wind that pound the countryside. It's a brilliant anti-Western: when the heroine picks up a gun, what happens is horrific, not triumphant (though MGM attached a jarring happy ending). From the opening of the train slicing through the landscape to the climax of a corpse buried in shifting sands, the film moves like molten lava. Such images as the cousin's wife gutting a carcass stay with you for days -- and, more to the point, nights. Gish is superb. Her initial, fleeting pangs of fear register visually, like a frayed hemline; so her emotional unraveling is both shocking and inevitable. This performance compelled Vladimir Danchenko, co-founder of the Moscow Art Theater, to put Gish "in the small circle of the first tragediennes of the world."
Best haunted flat movie
At the start of "Repulsion" -- the concentrated piece of shock treatment Roman Polanski made in 1965 -- a sick but deceptively pretty person ( Catherine Deneuve) faces a fortnight alone in an apartment she usually shares with her sister (Yvonne Furneaux). Deneuve alone intuits how loony she'll get: in vain, she begs her sibling to stay with her. In isolation, Deneuve scrapes psychic bottom. Petrifying hallucinations emanate from cracks in walls, and Polanski's hyper-conscious technique grabs audiences in a headlock. A thread of feminist satire runs through Polanski's narrative: Deneuve puts desirous men out of their misery -- literally. Polanki's straight-razor intelligence gives her bad dreams of rape and entrapment and the panicky murders she commits an undiminished fright quotient. Deneuve does the best acting of her career, investing this pale manicurist with an underlying tautness that jumps out in gestures as jagged as busted springs.
Best haunted English manor movie
"The Innocents" (1961) is the rare psychological horror film that can be enjoyed afresh each time you see it. It's a tense, exquisite rendering of Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw," the tale of a governess ( Deborah Kerr) at a secluded country estate who becomes convinced that her two young charges ( Pamela Franklin and Martin Stephens) have fallen under the spell of ghosts. The director, Jack Clayton, understands the Jamesian power of suggestion. He etches whole sexual histories in facial shifts and single strokes of dialogue. He also suffuses the material with a palpable creeping terror possible only in the movies. This is one of the few James adaptations that clarifies the source without simplifying or vulgarizing it. Clayton and his screenwriters (William Archibald, Truman Capote and John Mortimer) tell the story from the nanny's perspective, and take their emotional pitch from her fervor and excitability. It's a tribute to the brilliant, inventive black and white cinematography of Freddie Francis, and to Kerr's eloquent tremor of a performance, that when the heroine witnesses apparitions, they're immediately credible to the audience. The filmmakers, though, never downplay her peculiar Victorian mixture of propriety and romanticism, her willingness to be "carried away." And as the children, Franklin and Stephens embody the kind of precocious, eerie high spirits that could be construed as "corruption." The governess sights the ghosts at all hours, but the ambiguities reach their fullness in the dark. The whole movie is frighteningly beautiful: a night-blooming flower.
Best haunted (New) England manor movie
And now for a digression on theory. In the new millennium everyone seems to be an auteurist, lionizing directors who have recognizable trademarks, down playing the importance of a script or cast to a finished film. Throughout the '60s, director Robert Wise was an auteurist whipping boy, stigmatized because of his lavish middle-brow successes with "West Side Story" and "The Sound of Music," though in previous decades he'd made a number of memorable genre films ("The Body Snatcher," "The Set-Up," "The Day the Earth Stood Still"). His 1963 version of "The Haunting" was a critical and box-office flop, yet it's come to be regarded as a classic. Intelligently adapting Shirley Jackson's novel, it updates old-dark-house conventions with a psychological self-consciousness that, for once, intensifies the horror instead of defusing it. Academic ghost-hunter Richard Johnson summons two women who are sensitive to paranormal stimuli -- a lesbian with ESP ( Claire Bloom) and a ravaged virgin ( Julie Harris) who once had a poltergeist experience -- to an ominous architectural behemoth in the Massachusetts countryside. (Potential heir Russ Tamblyn also shows up.) The horror is rooted in Harris' uncanny ability to convey a perilous loneliness. Her character has spent too much of her life attending a sick, uncaring mother; she now yearns to belong, even to a group as odd as this one. Director Wise brings home the eerie presences that prey on her (or seduce her) with the audiovisual equivalent of concrete music. (The result is infinitely more unsettling than Jan De Bont's 1999 DreamWorks remake, with its garish designs and special effects, and its stupid reframing of the research team as insomniacs turned Guinea pigs for a study of human fear.) Auteurists should have taken note: "The Haunting" wasn't the first time that Wise had centered a suspense film on a troubled daughter and followed her through a supposed haunted house. He did it at the very start of his career: in his bold and tender 1944 debut, "Curse of the Cat People."
Best haunted office-in-the-home movie