In his provocative and somewhat “high-brow” book, DARK PLACES: THE HAUNTED HOUSE IN FILM (2008), Barry Curtis observes that “All houses are haunted–by memories, by the history of their sites, by the owners’ fantasies and projections or by the significance they acquire for agents or strangers.”
Further, houses “inscribe themselves within their dwellers, they socialize and structure the relations within families, and provide spaces for expression and self-realization in a complex interactive relationship.”
Taking Curtis’ cue, this installment of my yearly “Halloween Horrors” series will focus on perhaps the most familiar trope in horror literature and film–the horror of place, most commonly, but not always, represented as a haunted house. Needless to say, nearly every horror movie can in one way or the other be seen as either an in-your-face haunted house flick or a variation of this theme. I won’t pretend to any sort of comprehensiveness here, but will focus on a few representative “horror of place” films.
Let’s begin with one of the best, but also one of the most obscure–Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1932 German haunted house movie, “Vampyr.” As the title suggests, this is a vampire movie, but upon closer inspection it is more interestingly a horror-of-place film that only incidentally is about vampires. Loosely based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s nineteenth century female vampire story, “Carmilla,” Dreyer’s movie follows a young man named Allan Gray, whose life is increasingly terrorized by a series of frightening presences as he travels through several haunted places, including a house, an inn, and an old mill. Dreyer’s film is one of the most hypnotic and creepy horror films ever made, and if you want to see it at its best, check out the new Blu-Ray version that is being released by the Criterion Collection this week. I have the DVD version and can’t yet convince myself that spending twenty-five to forty bucks for the Blu-Ray edition will be a wise decision, considering that the supplementary features are the same on both versions.
Another film from the Thirties that will soon be getting the Blu-Ray treatment it deserves is James Whale’s “The Old Dark House” (1932), a quintessential haunted house movie that in many ways established the familiar ingredients of this genre for the twentieth century and beyond. Starring Boris Karloff, fresh from his career-making stint as the “Frankenstein” creature, Gloria Stewart, who is familiar to modern audience’s as Jack’s ill-fated love interest in James Cameron’s “Titanic,” Charles Laughton, and Ernest Thesiger. The all-too-familiar band of travelers who are forced to spend the night in a house of horrors (satirized in Rob Zombie’s “House of 1,000 Corpses”) find themselves in the wrong place indeed. If you are a haunted house movie fan, you must see this one to understand and appreciate how this familiar story evolved on the big (now small) screen.
Perhaps only I would include Orson Welle’s much-lauded film, “Citizen Kane” (1941), in this column. Yes, I know it might be a stretch to call this often-referenced American masterpiece a haunted house story, but from its first frame to its last this is a story about how Kane is a ghost in his own house and how he is haunted by the ghosts of his own childhood. Rewatch it again (or view it for the first time) and see if you don’t agree. There are no doubt other movies that belong in the horror-of-place genre that on first glance don’t appear to fit the mold. Movies like “The Great Gatsby” (including the evocative novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald), “Sunset Boulevard,” and “In Cold Blood.” I have just finished watching the innovative new film by David Lowery, “A Ghost Story,” starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, and found it to be a refreshing take on the well-worn haunted house story. Perhaps this could fit into a new category, the “poignancy of place,” more adequately than in the “horror of place,” because it is not really a horror movie but more of a romantic ghost story. And in so many ways it appears to be inspired by Richard McGuire’s fascinating graphic novel, HERE (2014). Add this to your reading list, along with Colin Dickey’s GHOSTLAND: AN AMERICAN HISTORY IN HAUNTED PLACES (2016), a book I reviewed a few columns back.
Before I go, here are a few more movies that are captivating examples of this horror-of-place genre:
“The Haunting” (1963), based on Shirley Jackson’s novel, THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, and the most frightening haunted house movie I have seen. It still gives me the creeps
“The Innocents” (1961), based on Henry James’ late 19th century novella, “The Turn Of The Screw,” is an essay on how horror doesn’t need monsters and special effects to frighten your socks off.
“The Changeling” (1980), starring George C. Scott in a neglected and seldom-discussed haunted house movie that is one of the very best. Where is the remastered Blu-Ray version that we have for far too long deserved?
“House On Haunted Hill” (1956), Vincent Price’s shining moment, and the best entry in William Castle’s catalog of B-movie masterpieces. A tongue-in-cheek movie that takes place in a not-so-haunted house, is strangely mesmerizing, and begs for repeated viewings; I recommend your watching the “Mystery Science Theatre” commentary track by Mike Nelson that is included with some versions of this film.
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other examples, but I will leave you with those I’ve given you this week.
Stay tuned for Part Three, “The Horror Of Other People.”