The Legend of Hell House (1973)

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This house – it knows we’re here. Elderly millionaire Rudolf Deutsch (Roland Culver) is obsessed with the afterlife and hires sceptical scientist Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill) and his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt) to lead a team into the infamous Belasco House, supposedly haunted by the victims of its late owner, a notorious six-foot five serial killer. Though the rational Barrett does not believe in ghosts, the other members of his group ding, including devout spiritualist Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin) and psychic medium Benjamin Fischer (Roddy McDowall), who has been in Belasco House before and is the only survivor of a previous visit and has therefore seen what horrors can befall those who enter it...  The house tried to kill me – it almost succeeded. Fabled novelist and screenwriter Richard Matheson adapted his own Hell House and transposed it from New England to the old country for financial reasons where it was directed by John Hough (who would also direct the cult Disney horror Watcher in the Woods there a half-dozen years later). This pits science and the rational against the paranormal, with fascinating excursions into the psychosexual – it ain’t too often you see a ghost having its way with a young lady. And Franklin’s presence, a dozen years after that spectacular classic of a haunting, The Innocents, is a guarantee of this film’s integrity and she rewards us with a dazzling performance. Hunnicutt is no less effective although her eroticism is literally in another kind of dimension. Frankly any film that commences with the following statement has me at hello:  Although the story of this film is fictitious, the events depicted involving psychic phenomena are not only very much within the bounds of possibility, but could well be true (Tom Corbett, Clairvoyant and Psychic Consultant to European Royalty). The building’s negative energy has amazing repercussions for these investigators and McDowall has one of his best roles as an unlikely hero, with an unbilled cameo by one of Brit horror/exploitation’s key actors rounding things out as things end rather explosively but paradoxically, giving this a very human affect in a story of things unseen and the detritus of perversion. One of the very best horror films of the Seventies, probably inspired by Aleister Crowley. Shot at Bolney, West Sussex, Blenheim Palace and Elstree Studios. If you’re that clever why are you still a prisoner in this house?

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Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)

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Aka Phantom Ladies Over Paris. Usually, it started like this. When stage magician Céline (Juliet Berto) goes traipsing across a Parisian park, she unwittingly drops first a scarf, then other objects which librarian Julie (Dominique Labourier) cannot help but pick up. So begins a fanciful and obsessive relationship between the two, which soon sees Céline sharing Julie’s apartment and each of them playfully switching identities in their daily lives. As they increasingly indulge their fantasies, they find themselves trying to rescue a young girl Madlyn (Nathalie Asnar) from a supposedly haunted house that Julie worked in and Céline lived next to as a child.  Now it appears to be filled with ghosts (Barbet Schroeder, Marie-France Pisier, Bulle Ogier) …So, my future is in the present.  One of the greatest films ever made, Jacques Rivette’s fragmented narrative of two feisty young women started with two stories by Henry James (The Other House;  The Romance of Certain Old Clothes), giving him a bit of a head start, then he liberally sprinkled some Alice in Wonderland into the mix, created a drama of identity, a rescue fantasy, a story about storytelling, a movie about the cinema, sometimes speeding up and sometimes slowing down, a fiction about fictional creation (because ‘to go boating’ means to take a trip), and came up with a fantasy that adult life could always be as good as your childhood dreams. This is a woman’s film in the very best sense that we can imagine and is of course the source of Desperately Seeking Susan. Devised by Rivette and the stars with input from Ogier and Pisier,and Eduardo de Gregorio, this is a remarkable film of disarming charm, once seen never forgotten, especially with its 194 minute running time. A female buddy film like no other. It doesn’t hurt to fall off the moon!

The Skeleton Key (2005)

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The thing folks just don’t understand about sacrifice… sometimes it’s more of a trade. Twentysomething Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson), a good-natured nurse living in New Orleans feels guilty about not being around for her father’s death while she was on the road working for rock bands. She quits her job as a carer at a hospice to work at a plantation mansion in the Terrebonne Parish for Violet Devereaux (Gena Rowlands), an elderly woman whose husband, Ben (John Hurt), is in poor health following a stroke. When Caroline begins to explore the couple’s rundown house where Violet bans mirrors, she discovers strange artifacts in a locked room at the back of the attic and learns the house has a mysterious past to do with servants from the 1920s, Papa Justify (Ronald McCall) and Mama Cecile (Jeryl Prescott) and the practice of hoodoo. She realises that Violet is keeping a sinister secret about the cause of Ben’s illness and wants to get the old man out of there. When she appeals to their estate lawyer Luke Marshall (Peter Sarsgaard) for assistance she finds that he’s not quite what he seems to be …  It gets harder every time. They just don’t believe like they used to. Gotta get ’em all riled up. An immensely appealing excursion into folk horror that is as much about the history of Louisiana and race relations as it is a genre exercise (though it’s a fairly efficient suspense machine too). Beautifully staged and atmospherically sustained by that very stylish director Iain Softley, it’s written by Ehren Kruger, who burst on the scene with the surprising Arlington Road, another look at Americana (of the homebred terror group variety) who has spent his time since this either a) making a shedload of money or b) squandering his immense talent (take your pick – perhaps both?) making the Transformers films. Hudson is very good opposite screen great Rowlands while Hurt spends his time silenced by the stroke, emoting with his eyes and making a failed suicide attempt off a roof. That’s how badly he needs outta here. Gorgeous location shooting around New Orleans and Louisiana make this a feast for the eyes and the twist ending is very satisyfing, cherI don’t believe I don’t believe I don’t believe

Winchester (2018)

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Aka The 13th Hour. A house in permanent construction on the orders of a grieving woman. In 1906 the board of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company solicit the services of widowed and dissolute laudanum-addicted Dr Eric Price (Jason Clarke) to assess the mental health of Sarah Lockwood Winchester (Helen Mirren) heiress to the Winchester fortune.  She is in the middle of a neverending building project that stands seven stories tall and contains hundreds of rooms. To an outsider, it looks like a monstrous monument to her unravelling mind but for her it is an asylum for hundreds of vengeful ghosts – and the most terrifying among them have a score to settle with the Winchesters and her niece Marion’s (Sarah Snook) son Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey) seems to be the vehicle for revenge… Instruments of death have a powerful connection with the afterlife. Tom Vaughan and directors the Spierig Brothers write a not very scary supernatural horror that excavates the legend of America’s most haunted house via the ghosts of the Civil War, killed by the rifle that won it for the Union. Clarke is more sympathetic than usual while the great Mirren in her widow’s weeds isn’t given much space in a narrative that has an interesting focus on what happens in life involving the afterlife and ghosts with PTSD but seems to lose the plot. It’s lavish but I wouldn’t call it home. Do you know who the most terrifying monster is? The one you invite in

The Little Stranger (2018)

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What this house needs is a big dose of happiness. During the long, hot summer of 1948, Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) travels to Hundreds Hall in Warwickshire, home to the Ayres family for more than two centuries. The Hall is now in decline, and its inhabitants – mother (Charlotte Rampling), scarred and crippled son Roderick (Will Poulter) suffering after serving as a pilot in the war and daughter Caroline (Ruth Wilson) – remain haunted by something more ominous than just a dying way of life. When Faraday takes on a new patient there, he has no idea how closely the family’s story is about to become entwined with his own as it transpires he spent time there as a child with his mother who was a housemaid to the family in the aftermath of WWI...  I’m afraid I was horribly jealous of her. She seemed to have such a charmed existence. Adapted from the Sarah Waters novel by Lucinda Coxon, this quasi-Gothic outing has the veneer of sociopolitical critique but is basically a haunted house story with a personal mystery at its core. That mystery is embodied in the doctor – in a case perhaps of Physician, heal thyself, the problems of childhood experience writ large. It’s a sinister and rather elegant exercise but the destiny of the largely unattractive cast seems prefigured in the mouldy decay of the house itself and doesn’t really add up to a hill of beans, complicated by Gleeson’s opacity and the ending, which is true to the obscure conclusion of Waters’ novel. Is this England? Directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Where will it all end?

What a Carve Up! (1961)

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Aka No Place Like Homicide. One thing is certain – this is only the start. When wealthy recluse Gabriel Broughton dies of fright his heirs are summoned to his isolated country mansion Blackshaw Towers for a reading of the will. Then they are killed off, one by one and the nearest telephone is in the village … If he thinks I’m going to wait here and wind up in a deckchair on the lawn he’s got another thing coming. Adapted from Frank King’s novel The Ghoul by eminent British farceur Ray Cooney and Tony Hilton (they had co-written The Hand the previous year), this is an opportunity for Carry On regulars Kenneth Connor and Sid James to essay a pleasing Laurel and Hardy act (including a shared bed) as proofreader Ernest (nephew of the deceased) and his bookmaker roommate Syd, attending as his legal advisor. They are accompanied by pretty Linda (Shirley Eaton) a nurse, whom Ernest fancies; Ernest’s cousin Guy Broughton (Dennis Price) an ex-Army officer with an alcohol problem; Guy’s grasping sister Janet (Valerie Taylor); their father Doctor Edward (Michael Gwynn); their batty aunt Emily (Esma Cannon); solicitor Everett Sloane (!!) (Donald Pleasence); and the butler, Fisk (Michael Gough). It plays with all the notions of the haunted house and might remind some of Clue but is mainly a showcase for some good slapstick and mild innuendo which might still raise eyebrows. Genial fun performed by a very game ensemble with pop star Adam Faith turning up in the final sequence, which is explicitly used by author Jonathan Coe in his titular satirical homage to the film. Produced by Robert S. Baker and Monty Baker and directed by the brilliant documentary maker Pat Jackson. Syd, look! French Impressionists – Rembrandt!

Poltergeist (1982)

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Look, Dr. Lesh. We don’t care about the disturbances, the pounding and the flashing, the screaming, the music. We just want you to find our little girl. Steve Freeling (Craig T. Nelson) and his wife Diane (JoBeth Williams) live a quiet life in an Orange County, California planned community called Cuesta Verde, where Steven is a successful real estate developer and Diane looks after their children Dana (Dominique Dunne), Robbie (Oliver Robins) and little Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke). Carol Anne awakens one night and begins conversing with the family’s television set, which is displaying static following a sign-off. The following night, while the Freelings sleep, Carol Anne fixates on the television set as it transmits static again. Suddenly, a ghostly white hand emerges from the television, followed by a violent earthquake. As the shaking subsides, Carol Anne announces They’re here. Soon she disappears and the family fall apart as it becomes clear the house is being haunted.  An exhausted Steven appeals to parapsychologists (Beatrice Straight, Richard Lawson and Martin Casella) at UC Irvine to find out where his daughter is while she calls out from inside the family’s TV. They arrive to a house turned into a maelstrom of chaos. When their intervention doesn’t work it’s time to bring in Tangina the exorcist (Zelda Rubinstein) … Carol Anne is not like those she’s with. She is a living presence in their spiritual earthbound plane. They are attracted to the one thing about her that is different from themselves – her life-force.  Brilliant, hilarious and terrifying all at once, this is one of the outstanding memories of my childhood and on an autumnal morning approaching Halloween it doesn’t lose its bewitching power. The story of a family unwittingly haunted by the ghosts of people whose remains were left in their resting place while houses were built above them with their headstones moved operates as a caustic commentary on how the west was really won; while the dangers of television and other addictive communication devices hardly need laying bare. There’s great humour here amid the restrained playing out of the horror theme and it really makes it work:  when the parapsychologists first arrive in the house and Steven refuses to accompany them to Carol Anne’s bedroom their faces are a classic picture of stunned astonishment as the objects fly at them, giggling. The leads are great as the parents – Nelson is marvellous as the determined dad while Williams is a joy as the deadpan, driven mom. And you will never forget Zelda Rubinstein! The little demon fighter that could. It’s an incredible portrait of life in the ‘burbs, beautifully shot by Matthew F. Leonetti with an atmospheric score by Jerry Goldsmith. Produced by Steven Spielberg and co-written by him with Michael Grais and Mark Victor, this was directed by Tobe Hooper.

 

A Ghost Story (2017)

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When I was little and we would move all the time I would write these notes and I would hide them in different places so that if I ever wanted to go back there’d be a piece of me there waiting. Recently deceased composer C (Casey Affleck) returns as a ghost, clad in a large white sheet from his mortuary gurney, to his suburban home to console his bereft wife M (Rooney Mara) after he has died in a car crash only to find that he is unstuck in time, forced to watch passively as the life he knew and the woman he loves slowly slip away.  He observes her through the stages of grief, listening to music, packing boxes, then driving away from their home. He befriends another ghost in a neighbouring house. He watches and scares off a young mother with her two children. He is at a party where a guest (Will Oldham) conducts a discourse on death. The house is knocked and becomes a futuristic skyscraper. Then it’s years earlier when the first settlers arrived. And then, finally, he sees himself with M once more in the house, dislodges from a crack in a wall a note left there for him by her, and dissolves … ‘Whatever hour you woke there was a door shunting.’ Simultaneously ridiculous, laughable and intensely moving, this is not like another ghost story. We move through the stages of grief as obviously as though we were ourselves bereaved:  but here it is C who cannot move on, in a place but moving back and forth through time, decades, centuries, backwards, forwards, mute, alone, watching. David Lowery directed Pete’s Dragon and he has written and directed this and I cried at both films:  radically different in form and content and exposition yet they have something ineffable about them.  When M puts in her earphones to listen to a song C has composed, he’s with her, alive, but when he’s gone and she does it, he’s just out of reach as she lies on the floor and her fingers almost touch the frayed edges of his sheet, standing, watching:  it’s unbearable. The song is Daniel Hart’s I Get Overwhelmed, performed by Dark Rooms. When C is then framed in the window with the reflection of the U-Haul driving off it’s shattering. The sequence is conducted as a musical episode, the images carefully constructed to affect a sonorous swirl of feelings. The scene where M eats a pie, starting on the dining table, finishing it in its entirety while sitting on the floor, propped against the kitchen cupboards, is shot in real time. Then she runs to purge.  It feels like grief. The elliptical editing through hard cuts makes you think that Alain Resnais has been put in a blender with Casper the Friendly Ghost. Mara and Affleck are reunited from Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and it’s their unclassifiability, their distance, their lack of expressivity, that paradoxically makes this so intense. That and the fact that Affleck is in a bed sheet for most of the story, a child’s idea of a Hallowe’en costume with blank eyes that make you shift uneasily:  he can see you but can you see what he’s looking at? This is unsettling, emotional, and a reminder that we all die, all stories are about death and that we are living with this knowledge but what do we do with it? Lowery made this on a shoestring budget, in secret. I am so glad that he did. Utterly original, absolutely compelling. You do what you can to ensure you’re still around after you’re gone

 

The Others (2001)

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Mummy you’re letting the light in. Grace (Nicole Kidman) is the devoutly religious mother of Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley). She moves her family to the Channel Islands in 1945. She awaits word on her husband who’s gone missing in WW2 while protecting the children from a rare photosensitivity disease that causes the sun to harm them. Curtains shroud the windows throughout the huge house.  Three new servants arrive, stating that they are very familiar with the place as they worked there years before: Bertha Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), Edmund Tuttle (Eric Sykes) and mute girl Lydia (Elaine Cassidy).  When Anne claims she sees ghosts, Grace initially thinks that the servants are playing tricks but chilling events and visions make her believe something supernatural has occurred and Bertha warns of intruders returning … Owing something of its origins to James’ The Turn of the Screw (which was previously directly adapted as the brilliant The Innocents) this original work by Spanish writer/director Alejandro Amenabar was undoubtedly inspired by the success of The Sixth Sense, another example of visual and narrative sleight of hand but nonetheless has its own particular brand of the uncanny. Unless you’re looking for particular breadcrumbs to follow you don’t see them until you work backwards after the twist ending which is carefully built:  this is a masterclass in control. From the Gothic concept, the empty rooms, the lack of food, the nature of the interactions, the fog encasing the mansion, the graveyard, the clues are there, but Grace is wilfully ignoring them until an unexpected intervention that includes a boy called Victor. Kidman’s performance really holds us in the suspension of disbelief that the story requires – tearful, gutsy, protective, guilty, scared, she plays a gamut of emotions while being terrified in this spooky house where she locks every single door to keep her children safe.  This is a very satisfying thriller with there being no question of feeling conned because the mood is perfectly sustained … No one can make us leave this house.

Scared Stiff (1953)

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– This thing’s dead. – It’s in the right place. Vaudevillian Larry Todd (Dean Martin) thinks he’s killed a mobster in NYC and wants his sidekick Myron Mertz (Jerry Lewis) to get him out of the country on board a ship. Mary Carroll (Lizabeth Scott) inherits her family’s ancestral home on a small island off Cuba and despite warnings and death threats, decides to sail there and take possession of the supposedly haunted castle. Larry sees in a newspaper that he isn’t the killer after all but it’s too late – the ship has sailed. Once on the island the three enter the eerie castle and after seeing the ghost of one of Mary’s ancestors and fighting off a menacing zombie, find the key to the castle’s treasure… The Lewis-Martin shtick may not be to everyone’s taste and in fact they didn’t even want to remake George Marshall’s 1940 Bob Hope hit comedy The Ghost Breakers – because it was just about perfect. But Paramount had their way and it was turned into this (unfortunately monochrome) musical version of the 1909 play by Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard and adapted by Herbert Baker and Walter DeLeon. Norman Lear got his first screenwriting credit here for some rewriting work and Marshall was on directing duties again. Martin and Lewis purvey their spry act and the scene when Myron has to lip sync to Carmen Miranda’s song Mamae Eu Quero as the record sticks on the turntable is a highlight – her own performances aren’t too bad here either! But things really get going in the haunted house. Silly fun with an unexpected cameo (or pair of them.)