Predictably, I’m kicking off my list with The Shining, arguably the king* of haunted-house movies. Stephen King complained that Stanley Kubrick’s adaption stripped away most of the motivation and plot, but I contend that the film (co-written by Diane Johnson and Kubrick) necessarily pares away distractions from a baroquely overplotted novel. While that elaborate web of motifs may work in a page-turning book, onscreen they would meld into a sloppy, tension-smothering stew of images. (And if you don’t believe that, check out the King-endorsed miniseries: it preserves as much of the text as possible, which makes it a flabby, slogging mess.) Kubrick’s film creates terror from nothing by winding up the three main players, emptying out that enormous labyrinthian space, and letting them blunder around in there. Kubrick’s The Shining is like a drum: it resonates because it is empty.
For once, I’m going to make a case for an American-language remake. In
The Ring, Naomi Watts brings a somber, unnerving note to her role as Rachel, a reporter following up doggedly on a story about an urban legend and a string of teenager’s deaths. The blankness that sometimes overtakes Rachel’s face makes the dubious plot turns all too convincing. The Ring not only fills the standard criterion of a haunted-house tale (by identifying one place as the site of a terrible deed and the locus for a ghost’s manifestation); it transcends the genre by removing all boundaries. No longer can we rest easy, knowing that the punishing spirit is safely stashed away in its house; this ghost can — and will — follow us anywhere. Even more chilling, The Ring devastatingly throws off the rules of resolution so familiar from campfire tales and old-timey short stories; we think we know how to quiet the dead, but we are oh so wrong.
It’s a well-chewed nugget of story: a motley group is called together to stay in — and to study — a notorious and putatively haunted house. But Robert Wise’s The Haunting (based on Shirley Jackson’s justly renowned novel The Haunting of Hill House) sets the standard for this trope. Instead of cheap jumps and scare chords, this film allows the pressure to simmer away slowly, letting us absorb not only the drab grimness of Hill House’s foreboding rooms but also the mounting tensions between the characters, especially between timid Nell and her roommate, the entrancing bohemian Theo. (note: Be sure you get the 1963 original starring Julie Harris and Claire Bloom, not the flabby 1999 remake.)
Stir of Echoes. This gritty little chiller defies a trope common to the haunted-house genre. Instead of a blandly comfortable upper-middle-class family stumbling upon a vacant ramshackle mansion and snapping it up for a song (without ever wondering about its dark history), Stir of Echoes starts off in a working-class Chicago neighborhood where telephone lineman Tom (Kevin Bacon) lives with his wife and kid. Tom is a forthright, no-nonsense guy who has little time for the mystical puffery spouted by his sister-in-law (Ileana Douglas), which makes his upcoming experiences all the more jolting. It’s a rough, plucky story about trying to carve out a life in rough times, even though death lurks in the corners.
A Tale of Two Sisters. Based on the Korean folktale Rose Flower & Red Lotus, this modern psychological thriller/haunted-house tale retains some of that folk-story pedigree in its balance and grace. The essence of the tale is as familiar as any fairy tale: two troubled girls cling to each other in the face of family strife, a most-unwelcome stepmother, and their belief that some evil force is manifesting itself in their rooms at night. It’s stylish and suspenseful without ever being dismissively slick, at times genuinely terrifying, and in equal parts devastating and heartening in its glimpse inside a family’s private moments.
In The Devil’s Backbone, director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Cronos) manages to deliver a genuinely harrowing ghost story wrapped in a surprising blanket of genuine warmth and heart. While his father is off fighting in the Spanish Civil War, young Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is consigned to an orphanage, and we join him as he explores the landscape, learning its mysteries and trying to carve out a place for himself. Del Toro is a master of atmosphere and darkness, but more than that, he knows how to allow character and time to shape a story until each moment is a dark little poem weaving together personal and political history.
In The Orphanage, director J.A. Bayona (funded in part and advised by del Toro) brings a similarly sorrowful tale to light; Laura (Belén Rueda) brings her husband and newly adopted son Simon to the long-abandoned orphanage where she herself grew up; Laura plans to refurbish the building and start a center for disabled children. Though The Orphanage delivers some chilling moments (including at least one that made us two seasoned horror-movie fans jump and holler), it also creates a curious and potent blend of sorrow and sweetness, an elegiac note in an often debased genre.
Okay, it’s not a house, strictly speaking, but director Brad Andersen’s low-budget high-tension psychological thriller Session 9 captures the essence of haunted-house stories. A small team works long hours at on the lonely grounds of an abandoned mental hospital; each member of the four-man team brings his own personal pressures to the job with them, but their tension is compounded by the rush job and by the oppressive atmosphere of the site. The hulking architecture of the actual long-derelict Danvers State Hospital lends its uniquely sinister air to the film, casting dread and a literal shadow over the landscape.
*See what I did there?
These reviews are cross-posted to The VideoReport.
Because the weekly print version of The VideoReport has limited column inches, I left out some fantastic haunted-house films, including: The Innocents (which makes a great double-feature with The Others); Beetlejuice; Ghostbusters; The Changeling; Poltergeist.
I want to give special attention to a little-known film that The Fella brought home for me this week: The Eclipse is an unexpected morsel of a ghost story, thoughtful and tender and punctuated with a few simple, terrifying moments. The craggy, cliff-like face of Ciarán Hinds (Persuasion, Rome, Margot at the Wedding) is captivating, and he brings great presence and heart to his very quiet character. Michael (Hinds) is a widower, but wait — it’s not the story you expect.
Indeed, The Eclipse is not at all what we expect from a movie haunting. Rather than a ghost story fleshed out with characters, this is a character study in which one character may be seeing a ghost. Even the direction is unexpected. The scenes are framed intelligently, attentively, but not flashily; the moments of ghostly appearance don’t hit the usual beats and jumps, but let us see the images presented simply — a surprisingly affecting (and just occasionally terrifying) method.