Ghostly Viewing Pleasures
By Kristin Battestella
‘Tis the season for a bevy of haunted house scares, poltergeists run amok, and eerie apparitions! Young and old, recent or classic – stay in with these ghosts galore if you dare!
Burnt Offerings – For only $900, Karen Black (Five Easy Pieces, The Day of the Locust), Oliver Reed (Oliver!, Gladiator), and their aunt Bette Davis (Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, All About Eve) rent a spooky California mansion for the entire summer from kooky Burgess Meredith (Rocky, Grumpy Old Men) and his sister Eileen Heckart (Butterflies Are Free). You know this is too good to be true! Director Dan Curtis (Dark Shadows) takes his time with Robert Marasco’s source novel, developing the happy characters in the first half hour then building the mystery and haunted house disturbia towards the sinister changes to come. Although the 1976 design is quite dated- ascots, station wagons- the period flair is now cool and backwater scary style. The Dunsmuir House filming location is so, so sweet, too- and oh, that chauffeur! Yes, it’s merely PG and has obvious similarities to Phantasm, but there are still plenty of scares, innuendo, and twists to delight here.
The Conjuring –Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air) and Patrick Wilson (Insidious) lead this 2013 possession thriller along with Ron Livingston (Office Space) and Lili Taylor (Six Feet Under). Although some of the cast may seem a bit too modern and it’s tough to tell the kids apart at times, the 1968 beginning has the fashions, feeling, and creepy dolls for immediate atmosphere. No attempted cool opening credits waste time – the opening crawl explaining the true story basis and Warren demonology casework does just fine before the 1971 station wagons, old TV static, home movie reels, and ominous music accent the main Perron tale. Granted, there is always a hardened dad, nobody pays attention to the dog’s warnings, the clocks all stop at the same time, and they go into the previously boarded up basement! The Warrens also seem fake and over confident to start, withholding information amid a slightly uneven back and forth establishment of the Perron haunted house period Poltergeist meets Ghost Hunters Warren family relationships. Fortunately, the plots and sympathies come together amid foggy lakes, eerie wide camera lens perspectives, uneasy upside down pans, creaking doors, and sleepwalking kids – that’s a creepy blindfolded and clapping game they play! The editing on the jump moments from director James Wan (Saw) is surprisingly subtle, startling the simmering audience at different times with different things and allowing for a personal build instead of in your face, all the time unfulfillment. Kids in peril, bodily bruises, excellent silence and darkness, heavy breathing, and over the shoulder fearful reveals keep the phenomenon intimate despite the old time research montage and cliché centuries old history. Most visual tricks happen in camera; the pacing focuses on fear and personal reaction even as complex, multiple occurrences mount thanks to an off kilter contrast, stillness, or action movement. Horror fans accustomed to recent under 90 minute standards may find the near two hours here long or too similar to classic supernatural fair, but the tension follows through from start to finish, progressing to a wild exorcism finale.
The Haunting– It might be fun to make a marathon with the 1999 redo, but for serious chills, stick with this 1963 classic. You don’t see one damn thing in this picture, and that’s what makes it so terrifying. Horror students and film teachers take note of how mere lighting, sound, and visual tricks keep us on the edge of our seats. Psychology, parapsychology, haunted mansions, and a genuinely fearful looking cast. You don’t need anything else, except to continue the sinister vibes with the source novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.
Poltergeist– Maybe in our rapidly changing television technologies, this one will loose some of its luster someday. For old school folks like me, however, who remember big old console sets full of static, Poltergeist never gets old. The warnings of technology being conduits for angry spirits, beasts in the closet, and demonic toys combined with adorable child victims and sassy little psychics remind us to respect the dead and appreciate the line between life and death. Naturally, there are sub par sequels, but behind the scenes documentaries detailing the tragedies surround this film are far more interesting. And the blu-ray is smashing!
The Woman in Black – Harry Potter star Danielle Radcliffe does well in this 2012 nuHammer creepy haunted house ghost story adapted by Jane Goldman (Stardust, X-Men: First Class) from Susan Hill’s source novel. There’s a very nice gothic spirit at work thanks to the moody history, ghostly atmosphere, and mostly silent, one-man scares. Suspicious townsfolk and freaky kid deaths add to the sudden effects and camera tricks, and candlelight and darkness up the sinister for an overall, quite effective spooky. Though the period settings are perfectly decrepit in addition to the smart, darker photography, there is just a little too much drab unnecessarily weighing down the film’s look. Perhaps there was an intentional kinship to something black and white or a depressing palette meant to mirror Radcliffe’s widower Arthur Kipps and his desperate state of mind. However, this devoid, colorless, overly digital, saturated dreary feels amiss –we have the spooky and disturbing elsewhere in set decorations, story, and character. There’s no need to add this layer of off putting heavy – in fact, some rich late Victorian color and flair would have gone a long way in the household fears, local smarmy, and child scary simply because the viewer would have found something pleasing, if creepy, for the eye. This doesn’t look fun to watch, and some horror audiences expecting more action or panache may be disappointed by this style. There’s also a few plot holes and missed opportunities or speculation with Ciaran Hinds (There Will Be Blood) as the upstanding, decidedly not superstitious Sam Daily. Were there townsfolk involved in the ghost causing history? Did Kipps really bring the titular vengeance as the bereaved claim or was something else at work? What the F happened to the dog? There’s room for some debate in the tale as it isn’t all explained in one big reveal, but a few clarifications would have been nice – especially since this budding sequel talk sounds kind of crappy. Despite a few questions and visual flaws, the 90-plus minutes here keep things ominous – the shocks and suspense happen without resorting to the crassness, gore, or nudity we so often find today. Bravo!