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Monday, November 5, 2007

The Spook Houses, part 1 (originally published 7/99)

Most of us, I suspect, can recall spending part of our childhood gazing in awed fascination at an abandoned house that was, according to the older neighborhood kids, haunted. Sooner or later, of course, we were dared to spend a night in the spook house, but most of us wisely declined. Personally, I can't see any reason to pursue such a risky adventure when this summer's release of "The Haunting" affords me the opportunity to experience it vicariously from the relative safety of my local multiplex. Better yet, I can rent one of the many earlier haunted house films on video and experience the chills without ever leaving my own living room. If that sounds appealing to you, look for the following haunted house titles on home video. Go on - I dare you.

"The Uninvited" (1944). Before this landmark film, Hollywood stories about haunted houses tended to pull their punches in one of two ways. Either the ghost phenomena were played more for laughs than for chills or else the phenomena were explained away as a hoax or a dream or a misunderstanding. This adaptation of Dorothy Macardle's novel uses neither of those dodges. Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) purchase a house on the Cornish coast that turns out to be genuinely haunted. Most of the ghostly manifestations are subtle - an unexplained scent of mimosa, a cold spot in a room, a dog that refuses to go upstairs - but taken together they become increasingly troubling. Eventually the couple learns that their house, like most haunted houses, has a tragic history.

"The House on Haunted Hill" (1959). If you're impatient with the subtlety of "The Uninvited," this raucous William Castle production may be more your style. Castle was the prototypical cheesy Hollywood showman. Consequently, his haunted house movies don't fool around. You paid your money to see ghosts and by golly you're going to see some, along with skeletons, dripping blood, and all manner of other nerve jangling apparitions. The plot involves an eccentric millionaire (played to the hilt by Vincent Price) who offers to pay $10,000 to anyone who can survive a night in his haunted house. The storyline, however, is almost incidental. This is really more of an amusement park ride than a movie. Taken in that spirit, it can be great fun.

"The Haunting" (1963). This year's haunted house release is not the first movie adaptation of Shirley Jackson's shivery novel, "The Haunting of Hill House." It was first rendered for the screen by screenwriter Nelson Gidding and director Robert Wise. Having worked with producer Val Lewton, a master of implied rather than overt cinematic horrors, Wise understood that what you don't see is almost always more frightening than what you do see. The ghostly manifestations in this film, unlike those of the current version, are therefore left primarily to the viewer's imagination. The premise is a simple one: a paranormal researcher gathers together a group of specially selected people to investigate the occurrences in a famously haunted house. I promise you that I'm not exaggerating when I say that you probably won't want to watch this one alone.

"The Amityville Horror" (1979). Here's something you don't see every day: a haunted house movie supposedly based on a true story. What the facts are, however, is a subject of much debate and even some litigation. What is known is that on November 13, 1974, Ronald DeFeo murdered his entire family in their house at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, New York. The following year, George and Kathy Lutz and their three children moved into the house, then moved out again a few days later. Their claim, as recounted in Jay Anson's 1977 bestseller, "The Amityville Horror - A True Story," was that they were driven out by repeated and exceptionally nasty paranormal encounters. The story has since been hotly disputed by those who claim it was an elaborate hoax. Either way, the movie based on the book makes for a creepy evening's entertainment.

These titles represent only a fraction of the haunted house movies available on video. Next week I'll recommend a few more films with which to haunt your living room. Meanwhile, just ignore those creaks and bumps in the night. I'm sure there's a perfectly logical explanation for them.

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