The "haunted house" is one of my favourite subjects in the realm of horror. Ghosts, madmen, torture, dark secrets; all are contained within the dank stone walls of these particularly troubled mansions. What follows is (quite obviously) not a complete list, but a small sampling of some of the best the subgenre has to offer.
The Haunting (1963)
Robert Wise's interpretation of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House is considered by many to be the granddaddy of all haunted house films. And with good reason, I now see, after first viewing it just last night. I'm not sure that this film can be topped for its class and restraint, its lack of reliance on visual cues, and its study not of supernatural phenomena and ectoplasmic occurrences, but rather of the ghosts of the mind and the soul.
While featuring all the usual trappings of the haunted house picture (dark corridors, forbidden rooms, cobwebs, and things that go bump in the night), The Haunting is a study of psychological and emotional frailty, where one's greatest fear isn't some wispy apparition, but the very real fear of being forgotten, unloved, of dying alone. That I found Julie Harris' Nell to be both annoyingly martyrish and shrewy as well as heartbreakingly lost and desperate for something to cling onto is a testament to the actress' craft. Russ Tamblyn's unbelieving frat boy, Richard Johnson's tea and tweed paranormal researcher, and Claire Bloom's Sapphic-leaning clairvoyant all round out the solid cast.
What gets me about The Haunting is that there is actually very little in the way of your typical "haunting". And you have to think that Wise was a fan of Hitchcock's Psycho, released three years earlier; if Harris' "stolen car" sequence near the beginning of the film, replete with scared, uncertain voice-over, is anything but a tribute to the master, it is nothing at all. While I wasn't as taken with The Haunting as I thought I might be (unrealistically high expectations have a habit of doing that), it is a very, very good film, and one any horror/haunted house fan should see if they haven't already.
The House on Haunted Hill (1959)
What we have here is almost the exact opposite of The Haunting, filled with deliciously exaggerated acting and cheap frights. Where The Haunting might be likened to being lost in a slowly darkening forest, The House on Haunted Hill is akin to a carnival spook-house. But that's not to say it is any way the inferior film, and in many ways I preferred the William Castle gimmickry and the hammy acting of my lord and saviour, Vincent Price as Frederick Loren. And there are a few genuinely dark moments, and at least one sequence where I actually jumped, even though I knew exactly what was coming. Effective stuff, indeed. The best of the cast here (other than VP, natch) are Spider Baby's Carol Ohmart as Price's conniving, cold-hearted bitch of a wife Annabelle. So, so great. Elisha Cook's scared souse Watson Pritchard bookends the rest of the group, all hoping to collect the $10,000 promised them for simply spending the night (and surviving) in Loren's home. Great, light fun.
The Changeling (1980)
"How did you die Joseph? Did you die in this house? Why do you remain?"
This Canadian classic is not only one of my favourite haunted house films, but one of my favourite horror films period. George C. Scott is terrifically cast as a pianist mourning the recent freakishly accidental death of his wife and daughter, and has holed up in a chilly, isolated mansion in order to lose himself in his work. He soon realizes that there is something else in the house with him. What follows certainly ranks among the most spine-tingling ghost stories ever to be filmed. Haunting, elegiac, moving, and at times, blood-curdling, The Changeling is a bona fide classic. Melvyn Douglas provides great support as a senator with a dark past. If there is one film on this list that I must insist you watch if you haven't, it is this one.
The Legend of Hell House (1973)
I've said it before and I'll say it again, The Legend of Hell House is a true treat. Do yourself a favour and check it out. A giant of the genre.
So, what are your favourite haunted house flicks?