The Lucky 13: Week 10: Ghosts, Haunted Houses and Psychic Phenomena
The Lucky 13: Week 10: Ghosts, Haunted Houses and Psychic Phenomena
By Brutal As Hell Staff
Intro by Marc Patterson
Horror is many things to many people, but the root of horror for so many of us can be traced back to the classic ghost story. Sure, we horror fans will regale you with our earliest memories of the first horror film we ever saw, but I’d wager money that if we delved back further we could remember a time when a spooky story that got told under blankets with flashlights, or around a campfire, scared the ever living piss out of us.
Ghost Stories, haunted houses, psychic phenomena: these things tend to evoke our most primal sense of fear, more so than a serial slasher, or mythical monster. Ghosts and hauntings are the true spine-tinglers of horror. This week we take a look at our favorites in this vast and diverse genre.
Joining us in this summer long series are fellow collaborators from The Vault of Horror, so be sure to click on over for some additional great selections.
Ben Bussey on The Haunting
First off – yes, of course I mean Robert Wise’s original 1963 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House; the tale of what happens when four strangers meet to investigate the possibility of paranormal activity in a house with a dark history. Jan De Bont? Pah.
I don’t tend to be a big one for these kind of films: the “less is more” horror film, where the name of the game is suggestion rather than viscera. It’s not that I have any problem with that approach, but rather that the films which go that way tend to take themselves a wee bit too seriously for my liking. The Sixth Sense was great on first viewing, but that whole wave of them that came in its wake just bored me. A whole lot of tentative, all tease, no payoff chin-strokers that were nowhere near as sophisticated as they made out they were. Naturally I include every subsequent Shyamalan movie in that category, and also – sorry Bryce – The Blair Witch Project.
But The Haunting… that’s a whole different story. It wasn’t long after the release of Blair Witch and The Sixth Sense that I first saw it, late night on BBC2 one Saturday in my first year of university. When most residents of my student halls were either out on the town or partying in their rooms, I was cuddled up in bed in the dark with my then-girlfriend (now wife!) watching this movie on a shitty portable TV with a set-top aerial. But even the less-than perfect reception could not detract from how astonishingly beautiful this film is. Resplendent black and white, in full Cinemascope: it may in part be the rarity of that combination that does it (after all, Cinemascope was a product of the Technicolor age, wasn’t it?) But then there’s also the subject being captured on film. Hill House is truly a character in the movie, with a unique and powerful personality, at once old European Gothic yet All-American, inviting yet repellent. It’s notable how often the camera dwells on the exterior throughout the movie, lingering on it in a slow fade-up in the opening titles, returning to it from all different angles as the story draws on. You buy it to be a haunted house from the word go, just as surely as you know Janet Leigh’s made a bad move when she pulls up to the Bates Motel, or that Von Sydow means business when he pulls up outside Regan’s house.
It’s pretty much a master class in terror by suggestion: oppressive noises, weird camera angles, the terror writ large on the faces of the cast. And yes, the cast are of course excellent; when a movie seeks to terrify without ostensibly showing anything, there can be no alternative in the matter (and that’s where a lot of the less-is-more horror movies slip up). Particularly affecting and memorable are Julie Harris’s sympathetic yet clearly unhinged Nell, and Claire Bloom’s daring-for-the-time lesbian clairvoyant Theo.
And it must be said, we just don’t have enough directors like the late Robert Wise anymore. Take a look at his back catalogue: from The Day The Earth Stood Still to West Side Story to this. He worked in pretty much every genre and made classics in all of them. As I understand it, The Haunting is his tribute to his friend and mentor Val Lewton. And what a tribute. To my mind, easily the greatest haunted house movie ever made, and ranks high amongst the greatest horror movies in general.
Bryce Holland on Pulse (Kairo)
Ah, the ghost story. It’s safe to say that these tales of disembodied spirits are the portal through which most of us entered the wide world of horror. I have pretty fond memories of sitting around campfires as a kid, telling and hearing creepy stories about the specters that supposedly haunted any number of houses or forests. Ghost stories are kind of like the bedrock of the entire horror genre. The stories are usually quite simple, but deal with very potent fears that most us have.
If there is one drawback to the ghost story sub-genre, though, it’s a matter of variety. There are tons of great spook films out there, classics like The Legend of Hell House, Poltergeist, and The Devil’s Backbone, but sadly, most ghost stories all tend to kind of blur together. Many of them even follow pretty much the same plot lines. But every once in a while, you’ll find a ghost story that turns the genre on it’s ear and really injects something unique into it. Such is the case with my all time favorite ghost film, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse.
Annie Riordan on The Innocents
Victorian England’s quaint countryside, filmed through a monochromatic Cinemascope lens. A prim and proper cast seemingly plucked straight from the pages of a Jane Austen story. Elegant Deborah Kerr in a hoop skirt. Added up, you wouldn’t think these elements would equal one of the most chilling ghost stories of all time, but don’t let its pristine veneer fool you: 1961’s The Innocents is a deeply sick and perverted tale of corruption and evil, and the haunting imprint it leaves behind.
Relying almost exclusively on the power of suggestion, The Innocents weaves a tapestry of secrets, sin and specters over a warp of sexual repression. Is Bly Manor truly haunted by the wickedly abusive Quint and his submissive lover, Miss Jessel? Are they back from the dead, seeking to possess the bodies of little Miles and his sister Flora? Or is it all in the mind of the neurotic Miss Giddins, whose arrival at Bly serves as a catalyst for the horror that follows. It’s obvious that something happened to the children at Bly, and the script – based on the story “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James, and adapted for the screen by Truman Capote – is filled with hints of molestation, pedophilia, and incest, but the film ultimately lets you decide if it’s a genuine haunting, a psychotic breakdown, or a combination of both.
The Innocents is the rarest of horror films, one that does not rely on blood, gore, sex, or cheap scares to frighten its audience. The soundtrack is minimal as well, avoiding lame tension hooks and foreboding strings. Instead, the film opens with one of the creepiest songs ever recorded, played over a screen which remains stubbornly black for a full forty five seconds. By the time the movie actually begins, you’re already profoundly unsettled and you’ll stay that way until the final shocking scene.
Look for the sneeringly amoral Peter Wyngarde (who would later don a golden mask for 1980’s Flash Gordon) as the lascivious Quint who, unfortunately, has no spoken dialogue in this film. It’s a shame really, as his seductive purr is quite menacing. However, the lack of his voice robs this film of its creepy factor not one solitary iota. It remains – along with 1963’s The Haunting – one of the most disturbing psychological ghost stories ever put to celluloid.