For Your Halloween Chills….
The Uninvited (1943)–I first saw this motion picture when I was seven years old and some of the scenes left an indelible impression upon me. I have the film in our video collection and have seen it many times, on each occasion savoring the intelligent and superbly paced script by Frank Partos and Dodie Smith that is at once eerie, compelling, and chilling. As one who has studied and investigated the paranormal for over 50 years, The Uninvited remains, in my opinion, one of the most authentic depictions of haunting phenomena ever placed on film. The principals, Ray Milland and Ruth Hussy, do a splendid job of portraying two intelligent, rational people, who must deal with a place occupied by an evil entity.
Roderick Fitzgerald (Milland) and his sister Pamela (Hussey) purchase a home on the Cornish coast of England that has been abandoned for many years. While Roderick goes off to London on business, Pamela soon discovers that the house is haunted. Gail Russell (a lovely, tragic actress who later committed suicide) plays Stella Meredith, a young woman with mediumistic abilities, whose mysterious past is inextricably linked with the old house and the restless spirits within its dark corridors. Directed by Lewis Allen, the film was adapted from the novel by Dorothy Macardle and includes a strong supporting cast of Donald Crisp, Cornelia Otis Skinner, and Alan Napier. Special effects are virtually nonexistent. The film is extremely subtle in presenting the spirits, and therein lies much of its power to seize the imagination and to provoke genuine chills. Wisely, director Allen never overplays his hand, but concentrates on allowing the audience to feel the mysterious threat from the spirit world along with the actors.
The Haunting (1963)–This film has become one of my favorites for its portrayal of a serious investigation of haunting phenomena. I especially appreciate the decision of director Robert Wise to use subtlety in the manner in which he presents the ghosts. Although the motion picture contains a number of chilling scenes, the spirits themselves are ambiguous, as well as frightening. As the motion picture unfolds, perceptive viewers continually question how much is going on in the minds of the individuals investigating the haunted mansion and how much is in their imaginations. And after the viewers have pondered those questions, they will begin to wonder how much is going on in their own imaginations.
Richard Johnson portrays Dr. Markway, a professor of anthropology who is interested in psychical research. He arrives at Hill House with the intention of conducting a number of experiments to test the accounts of evil spirits who are said to occupy the old mansion. To assist him in his research, he brings Eleanor (Julie Harris) and Theodora (Claire Bloom), two women who have had psychic experiences. Luke (Russ Tamblyn), the heir to Hill House, joins them, hoping that Dr. Markway will somehow exorcise the demons in the place and permit him to sell it. The presentation of the haunting phenomena in this motion picture is extremely effective, and Wise uses camera angles and lighting techniques that emphasize a sense of a terrible reality within a surrealistic world of the supernatural.
While the Wise version of The Haunting ( an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel, The Haunting of Hill House) remains one of the best of all haunted house motion pictures, the 1999 version by Jan De Bont, starring Liam Neeson, Lili Taylor, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, over-emphasized massive sets and extraordinary special effects that combined to remove nearly all traces of authentic psychical research and effectively eliminate an eerie, scary atmosphere.
The Changeling (1980)–Some consider this film the best haunted-house movie since The Haunting. A recent widower (George C. Scott) moves into an old mansion and discovers that the creepy place is haunted by the spirit of a murdered child. Scriptwriters William Gray and Diana Maddox provide a truly eerie ghost story that director Peter Medak builds skillfully into a superior supernatural tale. Other cast members include Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas, and Barry Morse.
The Entity (1983)– Although many will consider the story of a malicious entity that stubbornly molests a widowed mother (Barbara Hershey) to be too far-out to be believable, the fact that we know Barry Taff and Kerry Gaynor, the investigators involved in this actual case, makes the film all the more frightening to Sherry and me. Frank de Felitta respectfully adapts the events of the Los Angeles haunting/ possession, and Director Sidney J. Furie maintains a suspenseful atmosphere throughout the unfolding of the story of a real-life incubus.
Ghost Story (1981)–Four successful elderly men, members of the Chowder Society, have shared a terrible secret and suppressed guilt for 50 years. Although the Peter Straub novel upon which this film is based held many more levels of ghostly phenomena and presented them in a believable manner, director John Irvin does a good job of translating a multigenerational ghost story from the printed page to the motion picture medium. The advertising tagline for the film was “The time has come to tell the tale,” and a superb cast is used to great advantage in revealing the gruesome secret that has haunted the memories and dreams of four men (Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and John Houseman) and certain unfortunate members of their families for five decades. The fascinating, seductive ghost in the story is presented as a multidimensional presence, sometimes very physical, sometimes ethereal, and always something other than it may appear.
The Sixth Sense (1999)–The tearful complaint of young Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) to child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) that he can see dead people became one of the most familiar quotes of 1999. M. Night Shyamalan won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and was nominated as Best Director for this film, ranked as Number 14 on the list of the top-grossing movies of all time. Because the audience is able to see the spirits of the dead along with Cole, the ghosts are presented as solid, physical beings, rather than wispy, ethereal images. The Sixth Sense carried a shock of recognition for many psychically sensitive individuals who said that they could very much identify with the character of Cole, awakening the reality of his paranormal abilities as a child. The film has a twist ending that brought many audiences back for a second viewing.
The Innocents (1961)–Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw has been adapted many times for the motion pictures and television. This cinematic interpretation is made particularly effective by director Jack Clayton’s decision to allow the audience to see the ghosts only through the eyes of the protagonist, the governess Miss Gliddens (Deborah Kerr), therefore allowing both a paranormal and a psychological interpretation of the events. As Miss Gliddens catches a fleeting glimpse of a man or a woman in the shadows of the manor, the audience comes to accept, as does she, that a servant named Quint (Peter Wyngarde) and a former governess (Meg Jenkins), reported by staff members to be dead, are now spirits negatively affecting the children Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens). Miss Gliddens resolves that she must save the children from the two evil spirits that she fears are slowly possessing them. The film becomes a psychological masterpiece, dealing with ghosts that may or may not be truly there.
Lady in White (1988)–Writer/Director Frank La Loggia has fashioned a classic ghost story that takes place in Willowpoint Falls, New York, on Halloween 1962. Ten-year-old Frankie (Lukas Haas) falls victim to a schoolboy prank and is locked in the school cloak room on the scariest night of the year. While imprisoned in the cloak room, he views the ghostly re-enactement of the murder of Melissa (Joelle Jacobi), the victim of a mysterious serial killer who has struck ten times in the past ten years. Later, in addition to the spirit of Melissa, Frankie encounters the “Lady in White” who haunts the small town and finds to his horror that he must evade the serial murderer, who would like to make Frankie his eleventh victim. Other cast members include Len Cariou, Alex Rocco, Katherine Helmond.
The Others (2001)–Alejandro Amenabar, who both wrote and directed the film, has crafted a classic haunted house story with nicely sustained suspense. The Stewart children (James Bentley, Alakina Mann) suffer from a disease that does not allow them to be touched by direct sunlight. Such a rare condition understandably puts an additional stress on their mother Grace Stewart (Nicole Kidman), as she awaits the return of her husband in the final days of World War II. The Stewarts live in an old mansion on the island of Jersey, and Grace sternly orders all the domestic help to keep window shades lowered at all times and never to open a door until they have closed the previous one. The home must be at all times kept in complete darkness.
The children begin to complain that the large old house is haunted, and they insist that they have actually seen ghosts materialize in certain rooms. Grace dismisses such talk, and she sternly informs Bertha Mills (Fionnula Flanagan), her principal domestic, no member of the household staff is to encourage such childish fantasies. But such orders become increasingly difficult to fulfill as children and servants alike become more and more aware of the Others invading the mansion. Eventually, in a shocking turn of events, Grace Stewart must also face the reality that has overtaken all of them.
Poltergeist (1982)–I was disappointed with this film upon my initial viewing, because in interviews prior to its release, screenwriter Steven Spielberg stated that in Poltergeist he and director Tobe Hooper sought to walk the thin line between the scientific and the spiritual. Based on my interpretation of those remarks, I went to the film expecting a presentation based on the generally accepted parapsychological hypothesis of a poltergeist as an explosion of psychokinetic energy. However, in the course of viewing the motion picture it became clear that Spielberg and Hooper had taken the premise that poltergeists are disembodied spirits who don’t know they are dead and who need a guide to take them into the next plane of existence. Upon a second viewing of the film, I set aside my prior expectations and was able to appreciate the motion picture on its own terms, as a well wrought ghost story.
Steve and Diane Freeling (Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams) move into a new home which unknown to them has been built over a graveyard. The tension in the film centers on little Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke), who announces that “they’re here,” shortly before the entities pull her into a spiritual vortex. The challenges faced by the Freeling family as they struggle to reclaim Carol Ann from the spirit world make for a presentation of unrelenting suspense. While it might be said by purists that the special effects were overdone and far too elaborate for anything other than a Hollywood-type haunting, such scenes as the ones in which Robbie (Oliver Robbins) must face a sinister and animated clown doll and Diane must enter the vortex to bring Carol Ann back to the world of the living are very effective. Zelda Rubenstein, as the diminutive medium Tangina Barrons, is a believable guide into the unknown, a role that she reprised in Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986) and Poltergeist III. Neither of the sequels were able to maintain the edge-of-the-seat tensions of the original film.
The Shining (1980)– An isolated mountain hotel has been vacated by its staff for the winter months and is now inhabited by caretakers John Torrance (Jack Nicholson), his wife Wendy (Shelley Duval), and their young son Danny (Danny Lloyd). At first, only Danny, who has what the hotel handyman Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) calls “the shining,” a mediumistic and telepathic ability to perceive spirit entities and “hear” others’ thoughts, is able to see the ghostly inhabitants of the sprawling mountain resort. The entities–all murderers or murder victims–become increasingly menacing as Torrance sinks deeper into depression over his inability to write productively. Later, as Torrance’s nerves grow frayed by his lack of productivity and the monotony of the family’s forced snowbound isolation, the ghosts appear to work on the writer’s weaknesses and bring him into their evil mindset. Little Danny’s torment by the phrase “red rum,” comes to be clearly understood as “murder” when Torrance hunts his wife and son with an axe. Adapted from Stephen King’s novel, director Stanley Kubrick crafted a film that interacts with the viewer’s own imagination on many levels, thereby making even more credible the appearance of the ghosts and Torrance’s descent into violence and insanity.
Brad Steiger’s most recent book is the Second Edition
of Real Ghosts, Restless Spirits, and Haunted Places
Photo credit (top of page) IMDb