Table of Contents
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House on Haunted Hill
The B-movie maestro William Castle lards “House on Haunted Hill” with one high-concept hook after another: A millionaire (Vincent Price) offers a $10,000 prize for anyone who can survive his “haunted house” party, complete with loaded pistols issued to guests in miniature coffins, and a burbling vat of acid on site. Part chiller, part whodunit, the film is like witnessing a deliciously macabre parlor game.
Four people are summoned to a creepy mansion for a paranormal investigation, but the house itself is the star — all creaky floorboards, pulsating walls and a doorknob turning back and forth. The awful 1999 remake turned Hill House into a C.G.I. light show, but Robert Wise’s original, shot in luxuriant black-and-white, burns on a slow wick of shadows and suggestion. There are haunted house movies of greater psychological complexity and invention, but “The Haunting” remains the gold standard.
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death
Fresh from a stay in a mental institution, Jessica (Zohra Lampert) seeks refuge at an old Connecticut farmhouse, which happens to be the site where a woman drowned on her wedding day in 1880. As she, her husband, their friend, and a mysterious drifter settle into the place, the bizarre events that follow — and the sinister whispers and tension between the conspiratorial townspeople (all wearing bandages) and these hippie interlocutors — loosen Jessica’s tenuous grip on her sanity.
The Legend of Hell House
“The Belasco House” was named after an unspeakably perverse, six-foot-five millionaire who indulged in every vice imaginable, running the gamut from alcoholism and heroin addiction to incest, necrophilia, bestiality and cannibalism. “Bad vibes” don’t begin to describe the psychic energy on the premises, but four intrepid paranormal investigators poke around anyway, including a half-dazed Roddy McDowall as a man who visited the house before and barely lived to return. The libertine sexuality of early ’70s cinema gives “The Legend of Hell House” a sensual charge, but it’s equally blessed by the dry British humor that undercuts the horror.
Released at a time when “Scream” and its knockoffs were simultaneously deconstructing and reviving the slasher genre, “The Others” moved decisively in the other direction, introducing modern audiences to the classic (and good-for-all-ages) style of classic haunted house movies. Nicole Kidman’s haircut alone is a time machine, as are the atmospheric mysteries shrouding a Victorian home visited by ghosts.
In J.A. Bayona’s gothic Spanish frightfest, a woman and her husband buy the creepy seaside orphanage where she was raised with the intention of turning it into a home for sick children. What follows is a barrage of horror tropes: Children as ghouls in burlap masks, references to fairy tales like “Hansel & Gretel,” Super 8 home movies, the séance of “Poltergeist.” Rooted in the scares is the vulnerability of the young — and Bayona’s uncanny ability to make his adult audience feel it, too.
Indie director Ti West turned to the haunted house movie with this throwback about an old New England inn on its last night before shutting down. The wage-slave banter between Sara Paxton and Pat Healy as the stewards of this nearly empty hotel recalls “Clerks,” but West dredges up a dark history that expresses itself one final time before the sun comes up. As he does with his retro-’80s horror movie, “The House of the Devil,” West delivers a slow-as-molasses film that builds dread deliberately until its explodes in the final act.
The title “Crimson Peak” refers to the burbling red clay that rises through the snow like blood in Guillermo del Toro’s vibrant homage to Victorian horror, and the evocative images keep on coming. Del Toro recalls the old-school gothic atmosphere of classic ghost films, but updates it with pulsating walls of C.G.I. As a woman anxious to hold onto the secrets of her crumbling family estate, Jessica Chastain swishes every sinister line like red wine across the palate.