“Do you have an imagination?” asks Michael Redgrave’s selfish uncle in the opening scene of The Innocents (1961), Jack Clayton’s definitive screen adaptation of Henry James’s 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw. It’s asked of new governess Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), a study in sexual repression who will come to believe that her two young wards (Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin) have been corrupted by the ghosts of their previous governess, Miss Jessel, and her abusive lover Quint (Peter Wyngarde).
The question seems throwaway at first but becomes more pertinent as the film proceeds. We come to question how much of what we’re seeing is really the fault of the supernatural forces that Giddens believes are stalking this country estate and how much stems from her own damaged psyche. It’s returned to many times throughout the film as other characters (including the children) question events that Giddens is certain about. She herself is forced to admit that “sometimes one can’t help imagining things.”
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As Giddens psychologically unravels, it becomes less clear what the greatest threat to the children in The Innocents really is – the supposed ghosts of Quint and Jessel (who, tellingly, no-one but Giddens ever sees) or Giddens’ paranoia over what she believes they may have done to them. The children are clearly odd but are they really the destructive, corrupting force that Giddens comes to believe they are or just the product of a far from satisfactory upbringing? The answers are as elusive – and potentially as unsettling – as the ghosts that haunt Giddens’ imagination.
With The Innocents now available on BFI Blu-ray, here are 10 more definitive examples of the haunted house movie to send a shiver down your spines.
House on Haunted Hill (1959)
Director: William Castle
The title role is this daft but hugely loveable shocker is filled by Ennis House in Los Angeles, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Vincent Price gathers together a group of people in a supposedly haunted house, offering them the then princely sum of $10,000 if they can make it through the night. Inevitably, many of them don’t, as the house’s residents’ ghosts do their worst – or do they? Is the house on haunted hill really haunted or is there a more worldly explanation for what’s going on?
Director William Castle – rarely one to let a film go by without a good gimmick – here gives us ‘Emergo’, a hokey device designed to give the impression that ghosts would appear to fly off the screen to terrify audiences in some cinemas thanks to an elaborate pulley system. He cheats at the end, but this is such fun throughout that the mundane ‘twist’ ending (you’ll guess it a mile off) is forgivable.
The Haunting (1963)
Director: Robert Wise
One of the first truly great haunted house films, which created a template from which films are still being struck today. A group of psychics, scientists and interested parties assemble at the notorious Hill House, a sprawling mansion seemingly composed of spatial and temporal distortions (its internal geography is deliberately and unnervingly confusing). It’s supposedly haunted by the ghosts of the many people to have died there in mysterious circumstances.
Beautifully shot in widescreen black and white, with excellent performances from leading ladies Julie Harris and Claire Bloom, an ambiguous stance on the supernatural events it’s presenting (like The Innocents there are hints that much of what we are seeing stems from the mind of its heroine) and possibly the creepiest line of dialogue in any horror film (“I’m not holding your hand”). The Haunting remains the haunted house film against which all others are measured.
The Legend of Hell House (1973)
Director: John Hough
There’s more than a hint of Nigel Kneale (The Stone Tape, Quatermass) about this tale of a scientists and mediums joining forces to purge the notorious Belasco house (“the Mount Everest of haunted houses”) of the malignant forces that haunt it.
Adapted from his own novel Hell House by Richard Matheson, who considerably watered down the original’s sex and violence, it’s handicapped by some uncertain and at times overwrought performances, the director’s over-reliance on fish-eye lenses and a disappointing ending (the house is effectively exorcised by someone shouting at it). But it benefits enormously from some impressive set pieces (a poltergeist attack in the dining room is particularly well done) and a creepy electronic score by Doctor Who regulars Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson.
The Amityville Horror (1979)
Director: Stuart Rosenberg
The half-baked debate over how much of this really happened tends to obscure the fact that is rather a good haunted house chiller that didn’t really deserve the critical drubbing it got when it was first released. The public commendably ignored the critics and the film became one of the most successful independent films released to that date.
A series of mostly awful sequels followed as well as a pointless 2005 remake, all helping cement Amityville and the story of its haunting in modern legend. Indeed the word “Amityville” passed into the popular lexicon, becoming as synonymous with anything a bit spooky as the Twilight Zone theme. James Brolin, Margot Kidder and Rod Steiger head the cast list but the real star is the iconic house itself, with those unforgettably sinister eye-like windows staring implacably down on its tormented owners.
The Changeling (1980)
Director: Peter Medak
In this largely unsung masterpiece, George C. Scott plays a New York composer grieving the deaths of his wife and child. After retiring to a creepy old mansion in Seattle, he is haunted by the ghost of a murdered child.
The pacing may be a touch too sedate for some tastes and the grim back story may alienate some, but an excellent performance from Scott and his dogged investigation of the mystery of what really happened in his new home is nicely handled by director Peter Medak. Italian director Lamberto Bava made an unofficial sequel, Per sempre, in 1987.
The Shining (1980)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
To this day Stephen King dislikes Kubrick’s adaptation of his 1977 novel for deviating too far from its source material (though his own disastrous TV adaptation proves that Kubrick got it right). The film strips the novel down to basics and made the appearance of two little twin girls one of the creepiest things to be seen in cinemas that decade.
Jack Nicholson is alternately terrifying and hilarious as the family man who may have fallen prey to the destructive forces that haunt the Overlook Hotel. Alternatively, he may just be a madman whose overactive imagination and mounting frustration with his lot in life (he’s an aspiring writer forced to take on a glorified caretaker’s role) drive him to try to murder his family. Kubrick is commendably ambiguous on the matter. When it was first released, audiences and critics alike were perplexed and fans of the novel bemoaned the many changes Kubrick saw fit to make. The film is now regularly – and quite rightly – hailed as one of the classics of the genre.
Director: Tobe Hooper
It’s brash and it’s noisy (what else would you expect from a collaboration between Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg?) but it’s also irresistible fun. Hooper brings the traditional ghost story out of the remote, creepy mansion and puts it into an undistinguished suburban home, where supernatural havoc is wreaked on a nice all-American family who are unaware that their new estate has been built on a desecrated cemetery.
At a time when home video was starting to affect box-office takings, it’s no surprise that the film’s main villain is a TV set that sucks the youngest daughter into a beyond from which she has to be rescued by her father and an annoying psychic. The accumulation of supernatural menaces becomes rather hysterical towards the end (mouldering corpses in the swimming pool, a strange creature in the closet, a creepy – is there any other kind? – clown doll), yet it’s all done with such gusto that it’s hard to resist.
The Others (2001)
Director: Alejandro Amenábar
Owing more to Henry James than any other film on this list, The Others may not be the most original ghost story ever told (the twist ending had already been done on TV in an Armchair Theatre episode also titled ‘The Others’ and in Kevin Billington’s big screen adaptation Voices, 1973) but Alejandro Amenabar makes effective use of the creepy location (it’s set in a perpetually fog-bound Jersey just after World War II) and stages some memorable scares.
Nicole Kidman does a fine job as the mother so terrified of the harm she believes may befall her sickly, pampered children that she inadvertently becomes their greatest threat (echoing Deborah Kerr’s destructive paranoia in The Innocents), while Christopher Eccleston has a small role as her husband. After years of the horror genre being dominated by violent slasher and special effects-led films, The Others was one of a clutch of films (alongside The Blair Witch Project, Ring and The Sixth Sense) that helped revive the understated supernatural horror movie at the end of the 1990s.
The Grudge (2002)
Director: Takashi Shimizu
Following the global success of Hideo Nakata’s Ring (1999), Japanese ghosts were everywhere for a few years. Takashi Shimizu’s film The Grudge (Ju-on) welds the stylistics of the new wave of J-horror to a traditional haunted house scenario, while tipping a hat to the always popular anthology-style horror films.
A group of loosely connected people fall foul of a curse unleashed by the murder of Kayako and Toshio Takeo in an otherwise unassuming Tokyo house. Poster boy Toshio is the creepiest ghostly child since the Grady twins in The Shining and his mother is a croaking, wild-eyed monstrosity who slithers revoltingly down the stairs to menace anyone foolish enough to invade her home. Inevitably the film was remade in the States, nowhere near as well, in 2004. Later, a series of sequels expanded the story, some (Ju-on 2, 2003) more successfully than others (Ju-on: White Ghost and Ju-on: Black Ghost, both 2009).
The Innkeepers (2011)
Director: Ti West
Ti West is one of the best of the current crop of horror directors, unapologetically trading on old-fashioned scares in the 70s-flavoured The Roost (2005) and 80s slasher/Satanism throwback The House of the Devil (2009). The Innkeepers draws heavily on The Shining (the rooms and corridors of the Yankee Pedlar Inn are haunted as much by the ghost of Kubrick as it is by the malevolent spirits of its former residents), but creates an identity all its own with its likeable leads (Sara Paxton and Pat Healy) and relentlessly creepy slow-burn atmosphere. Not to mention an ambiguous ending that hints (albeit in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fashion) that the haunting is far from over.
On the evidence of this and his previous films (with the exception of the disowned Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever, 2009), West is a rare modern horror director who realises that the greatest weapon in any horror filmmaker’s arsenal isn’t a disc drive full of CGI images or a makeup bag full of gore effects – it’s the imagination of his audience and its susceptibility to suggestion.