#8: The Orphanage (2007)
First up on our list is a new (relatively speaking) classic of the genre. Guillermo del Toro makes some seriously scary and disturbing films when he sets his mind to it. Even his more whimsical stories have an element of horror to them; therefore, when he set his mind to producing a pure horror flick you knew that something terrifying was coming. This film didn't gain a lot of traction in the United States due to the fact that it is a Spanish-language film and God forbid that American audiences have to read our films. That being said, those that can get past the subtitles are in for a seriously spooky and heartbreaking treat. Del Toro imbues this film with an with a constant sense of dread throughout the story of a woman and her family who, while trying to turn her childhood home into an orphanage, finds that there is something paranormal going on. The film has its share of actual scares in it, but what makes it most intense is the growing suspense and ominous atmosphere that builds throughout the movie. Director J.A. Bayona uses the orphanage to great effect too; he does what is largely essential in a good haunted house film by making the house its own character of sorts. The performances are top-notch and Bayona and Del Toro hit all the right notes for one hell of a creepy film.
#7: The Others (2001)
Hey, remember when twist endings weren't something that happened in every horror film made? Back then before the days of the much-heralded "gotcha" moments that became a staple of the genre, horror that decided to twist things up were more effective because you were less likely to see it coming. Case in point: The Others. Alejandro Amenábar's period horror film is set in England during the aftermath of World War II and sees Nicole Kidman's character stuck in her home and caring for her two children, who she believes has a disease which makes them highly photosensitive. Of course, that means that nearly all the film is set within the dark and that allows Amenábar to create a wonderful, slow-burning creepy atmosphere in which to set the narrative. The film is beautifully shot and the hauntings plaguing Grace and her children are very well-staged; Amenábar slowly but effectively builds the tension and by the time you get to the climax things are at a fever pitch for the shocking reveal at the end. I will be honest and say that I legitimately didn't see it coming and it completely threw me; of course I feel dumb when I watch it now and see all the clues I should have noticed. But it's a marvelous, high-end horror film that simply works in every way.
#6: The Conjuring (2013)
Obviously this is the newest film on this list and I debated it for a while before I decided to include it. Ultimately even if it is still fresh in my mind, I honestly think that it is more than good enough to occupy a space on this list. James Wan has established himself as one of the premiere directors working in horror right now and with The Conjuring he applies his old school approach to horror to great effect. The film focuses on a supposedly real-life incident in which the famed and controversial paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren looked into a Rhode Island home that was allegedly haunted by a witch. The Warrens are most famous for their investigation that became known as the Amityville Horror, by the way. Wan has a great cast here; Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are exceptional as the Warrens while Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston do great work as the parents in the home. I loved that this film puts the ladies at the forefront and not as victims (or not just as victims, anyway). Jump scares happen but they're not cheap jump scares; the shocks and the creepy mood and atmosphere all genuinely frighten. Add in some beautiful work from the cinematographer, a story that doesn't try to be too smart and yet keeps the bar high and you have a film that, despite its newness, earns its spot with ease.
#5: Stir of Echoes (1999)
There were two big "ghost story" movies that were released in 1999, and it pains me to say that one of these was criminally overlooked in favor of the other. Now let me be clear; I am not trying to argue that M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense is a bad film, because it's not at all. Quite the contrary, I enjoy it a lot. That being said, Stir of Echoes is the infinitely creepier film and the better ghost story. (Of course, Sixth Sense isn't a haunted house film which is why it misses the list; otherwise it may have made it.) Kevin Bacon is fantastically cast here as Tom, the blue-collar down-to-earth guy who finds himself experiencing a close encounter with the ghostly kind in his house after being hypnotized by his hippy Silver RavenWolf-style/"I'm an occultist 'cause it's cool" sister-in-law. Tom becomes a man obsessed with finding the truth behind the ghost's demise now that his eyes have been opened and will not shut. Bacon has a wonderfully driven energy to his performance that also allows a bit of humor to come in so that it doesn't take itself too seriously. This was David Koepp's second directorial effort and he does a great job of building the mood and scares, not to mention giving the movie a very "Chicago" feel that grounds the film within its setting. The supporting cast is great and the film works both as a ghost story and a mystery, leaving us guessing until the end. That it doesn't get more credit is completely unfair.
#4: Beetlejuice (1988)
Not all haunted house films have to be scary. And that's not to say that Tim Burton's 1988 horror-comedy isn't creepy; there are some distinctly twisted moments in this and I know some people who crawl up the walls at a few of the effects stuff even today. But Burton's focus here is on humor and that focus makes the film's charm undeniable. It might not be the first movie you think of as a "haunted house" film, but outside of a few jumps across to the underworld pretty much the entire film takes place within the house in question. Michael Keaton has played a lot of memorable characters throughout the years but with all due respect to Batman and Mr. Mom, this will always be his most iconic role for me. He took the idea of this slimy, used car salesman of a ghost and ran with it to such a degree that you really can't imagine anyone else in the lead role. Add in an inspired performance by Winona Ryder, a couple of solid protagonists in Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis and a cast of memorably bizarre characters and you have something brilliant. There are so many memorable scenes from this; the attempted exorcism in particular stands out along with the dinner party and Adam and Barbara waiting in the lobby of the afterlife. This is quite simply one of the all-time great horror comedies and a great haunted house movie as well.
#3: The Haunting (1963)
Forget the insipid 1999 version and let's move on to the original adaptation of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. In many ways Robert Wise's creepy film is the definition of a "haunted house movie," due in no small part to Jackson's material. The film draws great performances from its cast including Richard Johnson as Dr. John Markway, who brings a team of investigators in to investigate the supposedly-haunted home that once belonged to Hugh Crain and his wife. Wise does an incredible job of using the tools available in the early sixties to build an overwhelming sense of dread throughout the house; this is one of those films that proves how in horror, less can often be more. Julie Harris is great as Eleanor and the house is used to great effect. As the supernatural incidents escalate and the group becomes terrified, we as viewers are drawn in all the way through to the fantastic finish. I almost feel like this film's reputation has suffered a bit because of that unfortunate Jan de Bont remake and that's unfair because this is an amazing haunted house flick.
#2: Poltergeist (1982)
No movie emotionally scarred me as a child quite like Poltergeist. I'm not joking about that; this movie is at least partially responsible for my legitimate case of caulrophobia. I remember seeing that damned clown doll in this movie when I was young and I was forever terrified (though Tim Curry in It didn't help). And can you blame me? That thing is freaking terrifying. But enough about terrifying clowns; this list is about haunted house movies and Poltergeist may be the film most closely associated with the genre for obvious reasons. It is widely believed that Steven Spielberg actually directed it instead of just producing it; he had a contract clause in E.T. that prevented him from actively directing another film while he was working on that one and many people associated with Poltergeist said he essentially directed it instead of Tobe Hooper. Whoever really did direct it did a fantastic job, and my nightmares owe them a serious debt. This set a lot of the template for a modern haunted house film and it has so many iconic moments, from Heather O'Rourke's ominous "They're here" to Zelda Rubinstein's great work as Tangina and so on. Sure, the movie has no absolutely level of subtlety to it, but it doesn't need it. In fact, keeping it low-key would have likely hurt the film and going crazy gives it a demented genius that sticks with you forever.
#1: The Shining (1980)
There are those who argue that The Shining should not count as a ghost movie (and thus a haunted house movie) because of how Stanley Kubrick downplayed both the psychic and ghost elements in favor of focusing on the lead character's mental collapse. With all due respect, I thoroughly disagree. While there are undeniably some leanings away from the supernatural elements of Stephen King's book you can't not consider this a legit ghost and haunted house (or hotel, at least) film. And what a fantastic one it is, too. Kubrick created a chilling film featuring a glorious performance by Jack Nicholson, not to mention Shelly Duvall and Danny Lloyd. Kubrick's famously picky attention to detail paid off in spades as every frame of this film contributes to the growing tension as the hotel becomes increasingly hostile. That's essential to establishing the mood and it makes the film all the better; despite the building's size and space, it seems very claustrophobic toward the end of the film when Wendy and Danny are trying to escape. The ghosts are all incredibly creepy whether Grady, the twins, the horror in Room 237 or so on. This is truly a ghost story for the ages and my favorite haunted house film of all time.
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