For Halloween: favorite “spooky” movies of haunted houses

By Eleanor RIngel Cater

The recent trend in horror has become so vulgar and bloody (“Saw 12” anyone?) that we’ve almost forgotten the satisfying shiver of less obvious scares.

Say, the eeriness of a terrific haunted house movie.

I recently saw the new prequel “The Thing,” (a fabulous film that offers a variation on the Haunted House theme) and that may have set me thinking.

So, as Rod Serling might say, consider these unhappy habitats.

–“The Haunting”
Not the 1999 remake with a bewildered Liam Neeson, but the 1963 original, directed by the inordinately eclectic and talented Robert Wise (“West Side Story,” “The Sound of Music,” “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”). As the movie opens, we learn there have been more mysterious deaths and creepy goings-on in the Hill House than there are likely to be Little Lady Gaga’s trick-or-treating this Halloween. A doctor (Richard Johnson) interested in the paranormal gathers some ghost-sensitive types for a few nights in the notorious Hill House. But are these people psychic or psycho? Claire Bloom and Russ Tamblyn seem to have it together, but Julie Harris is a quivering mess even before she steps inside.

–“The Shining”
Jack Nicholson takes a job as the caretaker for an enormous, isolated hotel where he and wife Shelley Duvall and their psychic little boy soon learn there are worst hotel-management nightmares than unruly guests or bedbugs. Try, elevators that gush blood, spooky twin girls and a bar that’s always crowded…with heavy drinkers from the 1920s. The film is directed by Stanley Kubrick who, when he wanted, could be chillier than anything Stephen King conjured up in his original book. My favorite scene: Duvall decides to check out what her would-be novelist hubby has been so frenetically typing all these months. Sneaking up on his momentarily abandoned typewriter, she reads. “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.” Over and over and over, for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages.

–“The Others”
The only thing that initially seems wrong in the old dark house Nicole Kidman shares with her children on the Channel Islands near the end of World War II is her mania for locked doors and drawn curtains. Her little boy and girl, she explains, have a rare disease that makes them unusually sensitive to light. So she spends most of her time manically rushing from room to room, making sure no one has accidentally opened the blinds. But when rocking horses start rocking on their own and voices are heard in supposedly empty rooms, well, she (and we) knows something’s up. To my mind, this is Kidman’s best performance, better than “The Hours,” for which she won an Oscar.

–“The Devil’s Backbone”
Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro is probably best known for his brutally scary twisted fairy tale, “Pan’s Labyrinth.” But his favorite of his films (and mine) is a shivery bit of business called “The Devil’s Backbone.” We are at an isolated (of course) boys school in 1939, near the end of the Spanish Civil War. Franco’s troops are advancing, which is disturbing. Even more so is the ghost of a sad little former student whose mysterious death on school grounds remains a mystery, The first lines of the movie, spoken by an unseen narrator, sets the tone: “ What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.”

Spooky.

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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