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Haunted houses: The film genre that won't die

Hill House is the focus of ominous tales in DreamWorks' supernatural thriller, "The Haunting"

Web posted on:
Wednesday, October 27, 1999 3:44:21 PM EST

By James Verniere

(Los Angeles Times Syndicate) -- Is it just me, or did many of us feel more at home in the Munster and Addams family abodes than in the blandly wholesome residences held up as the norm in such baby-boomer landmarks as "Father Knows Best" and "Leave It to Beaver?"

If your uncle's daughter reminded you more of Cousin It than Gidget, it's probably because you grew up in one of those figuratively haunted houses. Even as a nation, we have been haunted -- by the ghost of slavery, for one, dramatized in the recent haunted house film "Beloved" (1998). During the war in Vietnam, when millions heard the daily body count on the evening news, many were also riveted to a Gothic soap opera called "Dark Shadows."

This may have helped build the foundation for such updated haunted-house films as DreamWorks' summer release, "The Haunting," an adaptation of Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel, "The Haunting of Hill House," and the Warner Bros. remake of the legendary 1958 B-movie, "House on Haunted Hill," which opens October 29. (Warner Bros. is a sister company to CNN Interactive.)

Readers of Jackson's novel confused her title and the title of the 1958 "House on Haunted Hill," so, in an attempt to avoid further mix-up, Jackson's title was shortened simply to "The Haunting" for the 1963 film version.

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  • Of course, there was another haunted house film released this summer. It was a little movie called "The Sixth Sense," a psychological thriller about a little boy (Haley Joel Osment) who "sees dead people" and the anguished shrink trying to help him (Bruce Willis). "The Sixth Sense" wasn't touted as a summer blockbuster but went on to become second only to "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace" at the box office.

    Following on the heels of "The Sixth Sense" was "Stir of Echoes," a thriller in which a blue-collar worker (Kevin Bacon) and his young son are visited by the spirit of a dead girl who haunts their working-class Chicago home.

    Just how receptive to haunted-house tales the public has always been was perfectly clear to Horace Walpole, M.G. Lewis and Ann Radcliffe, authors of the spine-tingling, Gothic best-sellers "The Castle of Otranto," "The Monk" and "The Mysteries of Udolpho." Gothic literature was the rage in late 18th- and early 19th-century Europe, because it was more violent, sexually suggestive and eerily dreamlike than most mainstream fiction.

    Perhaps even more important, it was a perfect, metaphorical agent of our macabre fears, our sense of the dreadful burden of the past and the ghostly persistence of evil.

    It wasn't long before the old dark castles of Gothic literature evolved into the old dark houses of rural and suburban America. In fact, there's a direct line of descent from the Old World's haunted castles to Edgar Allan Poe's narcoleptic "House of Usher," the implicitly incestuous haunted house inhabited by Norman Bates in "Psycho" (1960) and the ghost-plagued residences of the "Poltergeist" (1982) and "The Amityville Horror" series (the 1989 TV series followed the 1979 film classic).

    What makes the haunted-house genre unique? It's those proverbial "things that go bump in the night," the muffled voices, ominous footfalls, knocks and bangs, creaking doors, icy drafts, a face at the window, a family curse or two, secret passages, hidden panels, root cellars, catacombs (in lieu of catacombs, my suburban home had the infernal-sounding "furnace room"). All the things we associate with a house, any house.

    There's a direct line of descent from the Old World's haunted castles to Edgar Allan Poe's narcoleptic "House of Usher," the implicitly incestuous haunted house inhabited by Norman Bates in "Psycho" and the ghost-plagued residences of the "Poltergeist" and "The Amityville Horror" series.

    With its eye-like windows and orifice-like doors and corporeal walls and roof, a house can have the appearance of a living thing. At night, it breathes, murmurs, sputters, shudders and whines. Often, its previous occupants are "dead people." In a sense, a house is a cemetery and library, a repository of all the things that happened in it, however horrible.

    And if the house is also a hotel, as it is in Stephen King's "The Shining" -- a film "The Sixth Sense" and "Stir of Echoes" recall -- then it's probably chock-full of horrors and atrocities. A house might even bear its occupants a grudge or want to drive them out or swallow them up. As the tagline for the new "Haunting" says, "Some houses are born bad."

    The 'dumbing down' of haunted-house movies

    DreamWorks honcho Steven Spielberg, producer and some say uncredited director of "Poltergeist," seems to have taken it upon himself to remake every type of film he loved as a boy. But it's not just Spielberg who loves haunted-house films.

    Just take a look under the word "house" in any film or video guide and see how many haunted-house films you find. One of them, named simply "House" (1986), spawned a sequel a year later with a great title, if nothing else: "House II: The Second Story."

    Robert Wise ("West Side Story," 1961) directed the original 1963 film version of "The Haunting," starring Richard Johnson, Claire Bloom, Russ Tamblyn and Julie Harris. The film tells the story of several people, two of them psychically "sensitive," assembled in an old New England mansion with a troubled history and an evil reputation. Many critics believe it to be one of the most frightening movies ever made.

    The new, turbo-charged, digitally enhanced "Haunting," directed by Jan De Bont ("Twister," 1996) and starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Liam Neeson, Lili Taylor and Owen Wilson, is more warp-driven fun-house ride than classically creepy haunted-house film; its chills and thrills more much reminiscent of gimmicky shocks pioneered by producer William Castle than the shadowy, atmospheric "horror-noir" style of Val Lewton ("Cat People," 1942 and "I Walked with a Zombie," 1943).

    This dumbing down of the genre is dismaying because many of the best haunted-house films have been the subtlest. Among the classics are Lewis Allen's "The Uninvited" (1944), an elegant thriller starring Ray Milland and set on the coast of Cornwall in which the scariest thing is a fragrance. Similarly, one of the most terrifying moments in Wise's version of "The Haunting" is the simple line, "Whose hand was I holding?"

    Castle's trademark was the publicity-generating gimmick. His campy thriller "13 Ghosts" (1960), in which Margaret Hamilton (the screen's most memorable Wicked Witch) played a housekeeper, arrived in theaters in what ads trumpeted as "Illusion-O." Viewers were given colored transparent strips through which to view the action. You looked through one strip if you believed in ghosts, another if you didn't. It was silly, but fun.

    Similarly, Castle's "House on Haunted Hill" arrived in "Emergo" (theater managers pulled a plastic skeleton on a string over the heads of audiences at just the right moment). These low-tech tricks have their high-tech counterparts in the new, amped-up remakes.

    The new version of "House on Haunted Hill," which co-stars Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen, Peter Gallagher and Taye Diggs, was co-produced by Joel Silver ("Lethal Weapon," 1987 and "The Matrix," 1999) and Robert Zemeckis (director of "Back to the Future," 1985 and "Forrest Gump," 1994), filmmakers not known for their subtlety.

    But I wonder if these films will leave as deep an impression as "The Uninvited" or the no-tech, minimalist marvel, "The Blair Witch Project." Technology has its place, but as the classics of the genre show us (and as "The Blair Witch Project" reminds us), when it comes to screen frights, the rallying cry of the Bauhaus movement should probably be our guide: Less is more.

    Copyright © 1999, James Verniere
    Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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