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Monday, November 5, 2007

The Spook Houses, Part 2 (originally published 7/99)

Last year's release of "What Dreams May Come" presented a perspective on life after death that contrasts sharply with most movie portrayals of the afterlife. Usually, if a movie character lingers on after passing away, it's in the form of a ghost. And more often than not, Casper and Patrick Swayze notwithstanding, a ghost that appears in a movie is not there for benevolent purposes. Your average movie ghost is bent on doing some serious haunting. Naturally, they prefer to conduct their shivery business in large, dark, and probably abandoned houses. That's the grand old ghost movie tradition to which we have returned this summer with the release of "The Haunting," the second film adaptation of Shirley Jackson's novel "The Haunting of Hill House." Last week we considered some earlier examples of movies set in haunted houses. Here are a few more predecessors of "The Haunting" to look for on home video.

"Night of Dark Shadows" (1971). In 1970, producer Dan Curtis's quirky, horror-tinged television soap opera called "Dark Shadows" spawned a movie version called "House of Dark Shadows," which featured Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins, the resident vampire of Collinwood. The sequel turned the focus away from Barnabas, choosing instead to weave a haunted house story around Quentin Collins (David Selby), another member of the tragically cursed Collins family.

"The Legend of Hell House" (1973). Fantasy master Richard Matheson, one of the principal scriptwriters for the original "Twilight Zone" television series, published a novel in 1971 called "Hell House." Its plot, involving a specially selected group of individuals confronting "the Mount Everest of haunted houses," seems to represent both Matheson's tribute to Jackson's Hill House and his attempt to outdo her. Knowing that he could not improve on Jackson's masterly characterization of Eleanor Vance, which is the real centerpiece of "The Haunting of Hill House," Matheson instead took on the challenge of creating an even more malevolent house with even more mind-bendingly terrifying manifestations than those of Hill House. The film version of Matheson's novel, although a bit toned down, is still a chain-rattling good time for those who enjoy a good fright.

"The Changeling" (1980). Haunted houses are usually sad houses, troubled by a history of tragic circumstances. The backstory of how the house came to be tainted is therefore an integral part of haunted house stories. This film, adapted by screenwriters William Gray and Diana Maddox from a story by Russell Hunter, brings together a house with a tragic history and a forlorn man with a tragic present. John Russell (George C. Scott) is still trying to cope with the deaths of his wife and child when he moves into his new home in Seattle. In this house a young boy was murdered by his father, then replaced with a substitute, a changeling, who took on the murdered boy's identity. As John soon discovers, the house is still haunted by the spirit of the murdered child, just as John is still haunted by the memory of his own deceased loved ones. Don't miss this one; it's one of the best ghost stories Hollywood has produced.

"Poltergeist" (1982). This was producer Steven Spielberg's effort at creating the haunted house movie to end all haunted house movies. To direct it, he hired Tobe Hooper, who had directed "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (1974). There are some interesting new ideas here, most notably the use of the television as a conduit for malevolent spirits. It's one of those fantasy conceits that makes more sense the longer you think about it, until it starts making so much sense that you decide not to think about it any more. The stylistic contrast between Hooper and Spielberg both helps and hurts the film. When they're able to get out of each other's way and let the synergy work, the screen really comes alive.

The list of haunted house movies goes on and on, including "The Shining" (1980), "The House Where Evil Dwells" (1982), "The Innocents" (1961), and many others. Whether they jump out at us and yell "Boo!" as in "Poltergeist" or whether they take shape only in our mind's eye as in the 1963 version of "The Haunting," the appeal of the inhabitants of haunted houses for movie audiences remains undimmed.

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