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That Old Haunted House: The Changeling (1980)

by Steve Habrat

Around the same time that I discovered The Amityville Horror, the mother of one of my close friends found out I was looking into ghost movies and haunted house thrillers. One day, while I was over their house, she lent me The Changeling on DVD. She told me it was one of the scariest movies she had ever seen and that it was a really engaging detective story. With anticipation levels high, I dashed home to watch director Peter Medak’s take on the old haunted house genre. While just as understated as most of the classic haunted house movies, The Changeling has such a bleak and depressing atmosphere that really weighs on the viewer. It can be terrifying of it wants to be, especially when it borrows that famous banging from The Haunting, but it really leaves the viewer an emotionally wreck. Credit could also go to the wonderful George C. Scott, who plays the grieving composer who lost his family in a snowy car accident while on a vacation. The Changeling also holds us close as it cleverly blends in a sharp detective story that certainly has a fascinating if a bit messy payoff when it all comes together at the angry climax. Needless to say, the film was certainly an improvement over The Amityville Horror. It still doesn’t feature a massive demonic pig, which is a huge disappointment but I got over it pretty quick.

While on a snowy getaway, kind composer John Russell (Played by George C. Scott) watches helplessly as his wife and daughter are run over in a horrifying car accident. Following their death, John moves to dreary Washington State and rents a seemingly deserted mansion to try to work through the tragedy. After a few nights in the massive Victorian mansion, John begins to experience strange occurrences which include a terrible banging noise from somewhere in the house at exactly 6:00 am. After a particularly disturbing encounter with an apparition, John soon confides in his realtor, Claire Norman (Played by Trish Van Devere), who urges him to investigate the bizarre activity. As John brings in multiple paranormal investigators, he realizes that some of the activity could be linked to wealthy United States senator Joseph Carmichael (Played by Melvyn Douglas). But as the occurrences continue, John’s mental state and grief is pushed to the limit, especially when the ghost begins to make reference to John’s deceased daughter.

I am reluctant to share too much of The Changeling’s plot, mostly because the anticipation of what will happen next within the story does keep you on the line for nearly two hours. Director Medak applies a slow-build pace that heightens the terror with each little creak, bang, and chandelier shake. Things really get spooky when the characters are stalked through the mansion halls by an old rickety wheelchair that chases them down multiple flights of stairs. While I can say that Medak doesn’t particularly bring anything new to the haunted house table, he does construct some seriously disturbing encounters with the supernatural pest driving John bonkers. The standout sequence is undoubtedly a séance sequence, where the ghost manifests itself through a medium and forces her to write out a number of cryptic messages that plead for help from John. If I were John, I’d think about packing up my suitcase and getting the hell out of that house right then and there. Alas, John doesn’t and he gets in too deep with the angry spirit. Adding to the terror is the lonely, isolated, and broken atmosphere that hangs over John’s head like a black raincloud. It adds so much emotion to the story that it is almost hard to resist The Changeling’s pull.

Easily the best part of The Changeling is Scott as the grieving composer who is trying to piece his life back together. The one touch that I absolutely loved about John was that he doesn’t fall to little pieces when the paranormal activity kicks into high gear. He almost seems detached from it and, dare I say, relieved when it starts because it almost seems to distract his painful thoughts that have etched themselves into his weary face. At one point, he weeps in bed only to have his private moment of sadness clipped short by a loud clanking sound that distracts him from his inner pain. There is almost a love story that develops between John and Claire, the understanding realtor who steps into this paranormal mystery willingly. The two have great chemistry and I was really rooting for a romance between the two but grief just seemed to stand in the way. Douglas is wonderfully cool as Senator Carmichael, who flat out refuses to have his family’s name tarnished by the investigation launched by John. John Colicos shows up as Captain DeWitt, who casts a suspicious eye on John and his stories.

One of the superior cinematic ghost stories, this Canadian horror gem does find its conclusion getting a bit bogged down in the answer-heavy final frames. My one other complaint I have with The Changeling is the silly ghostly voice that echoes through the hallways of the spooky mansion. It seems manipulated and almost a little too friendly, like John is being terrorized by Casper. Despite these two flaws, there is still plenty of dread and unease in The Changeling, making it one that sticks with you long after it ends. Your stomach will fall every time John enters the house after going out. He stops in the doorway, looks around like he is surveying for any apparitions peering down on him, and then slowly eases himself through the rest of the house. You’ll tremble when a ball that belonged to John’s daughter comes bouncing down the grand staircase right to her father’s feet. And I dare you not to leap off your couch when that seriously wicked wheelchair wheels in for the kill. Overall, The Changeling remains stationed just outside the long list of horror classics and I’ve never been able to figure out why. It is a must for those who love character driven terror and it is blast for those who love a good shock. It may not reinvent the haunted house but The Changeling certainly knows how to make the familiar scary as hell.

Grade: A

The Changeling is available on DVD.

That Old Haunted House: The Legend of Hell House (1973)

by Steve Habrat

If Robert Wise’s The Haunting is too tame for you, you’re in luck because there just happens to be a haunted house film that has plenty of gore and ghostly sex to please the edgier horror fan. That film happens to be John Hough’s 1973 film The Legend of Hell House, a film that is quite similar to The Haunting in the plot department but separates itself through the use of color and racy subject matter. While I personally do not find the film as creepy as Wise’s masterpiece, The Legend of Hell House has a suspenseful first act, one with slowly manifesting ectoplasm, supernatural intercourse, and tumbling chandeliers (those are the worst) but then collapses in its second act with corpses in hidden rooms and a seriously scrappy black cat (those are pretty bad too). Based on the novel by Richard Matheson, the man who brought us the classic vampire tale I Am Legend, The Legend of Hell House is never as understated and as slow building as The Haunting and it comes up short because of it. It can’t wait to show off a few special effects and throw a few of the snippy actors and actresses through the air. At least the film packs a hell of a séance sequence doused in vibrant red lighting and stunning exterior shots that conceal the house behind rolling walls of fog. It’s scenes like this that inject quite a bit of atmosphere and allow the film to receive higher marks.

The Legend of Hell House introduces us to physicist Lionel Barrett (Played by Clive Revill), who is sent to the legendary Belasco House, the “Mount Everest of haunted houses” to research the paranormal activity that is said to go on in the house. The Belasco House was originally owned by Emeric Belasco (Played by Michael Gough), a sadistic millionaire giant who enjoyed toying with the occult and may have even murdered people within the walls of the home. It is said that Emeric mysteriously disappeared after a brutal massacre at the lavish compound and was never heard from again. Barrett sets out for the home with his wife, Ann (Played by Gayle Hunnicutt), medium Florence Tanner (Played by Pamela Franklin), and Ben Fischer (Played by Roddy McDowall), another jumpy medium who has investigated the Belasco House before with another paranormal research team and was the only survivor of the previous investigation. As they explore the house, Lionel reveals to the team that he has created a machine that is able to rid the house of any nasty paranormal activity. Things become complicated when Florence becomes convinced that Emeric Belasco is not the one haunting the house but is actually his son, Daniel. As the group attempts to communicate with Daniel, madness begins to plague the group, possession is a daily occurrence, and repulsive horrors turn up behind doors that have been sealed many years.

Embracing more the macabre freedom that was surging through the veins of the horror film, The Legend of Hell House doesn’t settle on just telling us about the morbid back-story of the Belasco House. It dares to show us a little bit of the sleaze that took place and even enjoys some bloodletting from time to time. We hear about vampirism, orgies, alcoholism, mutilation, necrophilia, and cannibalism, just to name a few. Sounds like a kicking party, right? This is a film with plenty of sexuality boiling to the surface as characters plead with other characters for sex while even the shadowy spirits are getting busy. Most of it is unintentionally hilarious, especially when one character offers herself up sexually to a ghost (I dare you to watch that scene with a straight face). Despite some of the silliness, the film never seems to loose its grip on the gothic mood that creeps about it. The outside of the house is downright terrifying and certainly a home I would never dream of going in. The cherry on top is the black cat that waits in the fog outside, the ultimate Halloween touch. The interior of the home is crammed with shadows and hidden rooms that spit out decaying corpses and discolored skeletons. It’s all earth tones, which give the whole place a rotten feel, appropriate for what took place inside.

The Legend of Hell House does feature some pretty good performances, especially from Roddy McDowall as the spooked medium who refuses to help out. Only there for the large some of cash he was promised, McDowall’s Fischer is an irritating and prickly geek with oversized glasses who has to man up in the final moments of the film. I would never expect his character to suddenly become as brave as he does but that is part of the fun of his character. Revill plays Lionel much like every other head of a paranormal research team. He is deadly serious and always just a tad bit dry as he drones on about scientific theories. His wife Ann, however, suffers from a severe case of ennui and sexual repression, something the spirits of the Belasco House prey upon instantly. Wait for the scene where she tries to seduce Fischer. Rounding out the main players is Franklin as Florence, who seems vaguely similar to The Haunting’s Eleanor but also drastically different. She appears to be connected to the house and also a bit reluctant to leave. She is really put through the ringer as a nasty demonic kitty claws at her bare skin and a ghostly presence wishes to get busy with her. Franklin does get the film’s creepiest moment, a séance sequence that is lit entirely by harsh red lights. And keep a look out for Michael Gough as a very still Emeric Belasco.

While there are plenty of flashy moments strewn about The Legend of Hell House, it does take a page out of The Haunting’s playbook and does spend a good chunk of time allowing its character to really develop. They argue and fight much like they did in The Haunting but they are never allowed the depth that Wise’s characters were. There is no question that Edgar Wright’s fake trailer Don’t, which appeared in 2007’s Grindhouse, was inspired by the film. All it will take is a quick glimpse of the outside of the Belasco House and you will see what I am talking about. The second half of The Legend of Hell House is what really derails the film. The last act twist is sort of silly and doesn’t shock us nearly as much as it wants to. Despite how cheesy it may get, you can’t take your eyes of McDowall and his suddenly tough medium who was such a pain in the ass before. Overall, The Legend of Hell House is a fun little erotic spin on The Haunting and visually it is something to behold. The heavier use of special effects have caused the film to age poorly but as a lesser-known horror film of the 1970s, it actually manages to be a fun little ghost party. There is no doubt that you can do better but for those on the search for something they haven’t seen before on Halloween night, The Legend of Hell House may be just what the goth doctor ordered.

Grade: B

The Legend of Hell House is available on DVD.

The Innkeepers (2011)

by Steve Habrat

After 2009’s The House of the Devil, I was curious to see what director Ti West would do next. Turns out, he returned to the horror genre and made a film that was even better than his awesome if a bit flawed 2009 retro offering. The Innkeepers improves upon what West did in The House of the Devil, still brandishing the slow burn intensity but here, West doesn’t begin to fall apart in the final stretch like he did in The House of the Devil. The Innkeepers is old school horror, one that pokes fun at the jump scare approach in the opening moments and then quickly assures us, by the distant thumping and ghostly whispers, that this isn’t that kind of a horror film. Sure, West does slip in the obligatory fake out scare once or twice but it’s his images, ones that are incredibly spooky and borderline traumatizing, that really make this a film that you will hesitate to watch when the sun goes down.

The Innkeepers invites us into the Yankee Pedlar Inn, an old hotel that has been in operation for over one hundred years. We are introduced to the two slacker employees, Claire (Played by Sara Paxton) and Luke (Played by Pat Healy), who moonlight as amateur paranormal investigators, determined to find out if the Yankee Pedlar Inn lives up to its haunted reputation. The hotel is in its last days of operation and Claire and Luke are determined to find hard evidence of Madeline O’Malley, the woman they believe is their resident ghost. After a handful of old guests return to the Yankee Pedlar Inn, strange noises are heard and Claire has one hell of a close encounter, sparking the two amateur paranormal investigators to double their efforts. The more they begin to uncover about the hotel’s undead inhabitant, the more they put their lives in danger.

Director West knows how to expertly pace the events within his film, leaving us hanging on what will come in the next frame. He teases us here and there, a whisper is heard, a piano key suddenly plays, and then he backs off and dares us to ask for more. Like fools, we do and that is when he REALLY delivers the goods. The Innkeepers has a ghostly encounter that almost that turned me into an icicle. This scene let me know that West means business and in every tense scene after, my knuckles were white. To some, The Innkeepers may be boring or too slow, but the patient pace adds to the old school feel to the film. Throughout the run time, I was reminded of such otherworldly creepouts like The Innocents, The Haunting, The Changeling, and The Shining, all films that would be incredibly proud of West’s effort here and compliment The Innkeepers on a double feature night. West also pulls off the impossible and gives us a climax that doesn’t completely underwhelm or fly wildly off the tracks. The film remains consistent, something that most horror films of today fail to do, and boldly resists giving in to overkill, which was a trap that West himself tumbled into with The House of the Devil.

The Innkeepers features some incredibly convincing performances from its young leads. Sarah Paxton is a real treasure, possessing a cute girl-next-door pep while also sighing through disgust and exasperation over her dead-end job. She is incredibly charismatic and will charm your pants off. She works great with Pat Healy’s Luke, who slumps over the check-in desk and sips Schlitz beer while tinkering with his paranormal website. Luke seems like the American twin brother to Simon Pegg’s Shaun in Shaun of the Dead, as I kept getting the strangest feeling that they would have a ball together chattering on about video games, zombie flicks, and pot, all while Healy informs Pegg that he has red on him. Their performances coast on the waves of West’s solid dialogue that rolls off the tongue like real conversation. Their highlight moment comes when they decide that they are going to investigate the ominous basement, Claire calling out questions to Madeline O’Malley as West’s camera vacillates back and forth between Luke’s face, the recorder, and Claire’s face. West doesn’t give us multiple fancy camera angles or any flowing movement around the room. West jumps back and forth until finally he freezes on Claire’s wide-eyed stare at something behind Luke, just off screen for our imaginations to be sent into overdrive. Luke asks if she is here and Claire informs Luke that she’s right behind him. Talk about a new classic moment for the horror genre! The Innkeepers also welcomes in Witness’s Kelly McGillis as a former star with a drinking problem and who may have more of an understanding about what is going on in the hotel than the two kids do.

Throughout The Innkeepers, West paints terrifying images that will lock themselves into your brain until it is time for you to shut the lights off to go to sleep. His ghost has got to be one of the creepiest apparitions to haunt the screen in recent memory (and I was fairly convinced that the spook in The Woman in Black was pretty darn creepy). This thing is the stuff that nightmares are made of and West keeps her just hidden enough in the shadows, only showing her briefly so we can never truly process her. At one point in the film, Luke describes a paranormal experience that he once had and he says that it is hard to remember exact details of what he saw. West applies Luke’s description in the final frames when the guests who never left the Yankee Pedlar Inn come out to play with Luke and Claire. West either douses them in shadows or only briefly illuminates them with Claire’s trembling flashlight as they reach out for her to come join them.

Unlike The House of the Devil, I really didn’t find any aspect I was disappointed in while watching The Innkeepers. Usually, newer horror films let me down in some way, shape, or form, but The Innkeepers is an exception. With all the hype that surrounded this film, I was afraid that it would fall short of my expectations but I was steadily impressed every step of the way. The Innkeepers joins the ranks of some of the best recent horror films that I have seen and West is a new hero of the genre. I hope that he continues to operate just outside the major studio system, making smaller and tighter pictures than CGI laced garbage for the preteens to see on a Friday night. It’s safe to say that West knows how to really scare us, to leave out firm explanations that other horror films of today are so fond of. With The Innkeepers, West has earned my full respect and in the process, he has made a film that down the line will become a celebrated horror classic. Trust me.

Grade: A-

The Innkeepers is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The Woman in Black (2012)

by Steve Habrat

Hollywood must have finally understood that America has had enough of the mindless torture porn horror films that they pushed upon audiences for years. I think the Saw franchise finally coming to end allowed multiple demonic horror and haunted house fright films to make their way back into local theaters. Sadly, these ghost films relied too heavily on the mockumentary/found footage technique that also worn out its welcome by the second Paranormal Activity. As far as straightforward horror films go, last year’s Insidious was a stand out and now we have The Woman in Black, a Hammer horror film that retains the gothic flourishes that was popular in films like 1959’s House on Haunted Hill and 1963’s The Haunting. Hammer Productions was famous in the 1950s for giving Universal’s Monsters alluring makeovers. Their hunger for style is alive and well in The Woman in Black as is a whole slew of good, old-fashioned bumps in the night.

Set in the early 1900s, The Woman in Black follows the young lawyer Arthur Kipps (Played by Daniel Radcliffe), who has found himself on rocky terms with firm he works for. Arthur carries a broken heart for his deceased wife who passed during childbirth and he also faces financial difficulties that have put a lot of pressure on his job. The firm he works for assigns him to handle the estate of Alice Drablow, who owned Eel Marsh House, a marooned mansion that sits on an island in the northeast of England. Despite the protests of his young son Joseph, Arthur departs to a small village just outside of where the mansion is located. Despite warnings by the locals, who tell him to leave and forget about the mansion, Arthur stays to complete the paperwork and protect his job. Arthur also happens to become friendly with a wealthy local man named Sam Daily (Played by Ciarán Hinds), who fills him in on superstitions that run rampant through the village. After witnessing a bizarre string of suicides by several local children and the appearance of a disturbing apparition of a woman in all black, Arthur begins uncovering family secrets that are buried in Eel Marsh House.

Carried by a damp, nippy atmosphere, The Woman in Black establishes an ambiance and it never budges. There is barely any sunlight in the film and few characters ever muster up a smile or grin. The film only pauses once to give the audience a quick chuckle before it shifts back into gloom. To director James Watkins, atmosphere is everything, giving the scares more oomph. The downside to all of this is that he accompanies most of the scares by loud blasts on the soundtrack to make us jump. To make it worse, half the time it is a fake scare that only turns out to be a raven or a carriage driver. When Watkins isn’t falling back on easy creeps, he composes an image that confidently gives you the willies. The woman in black stands in a graveyard and in the blink of an eye, she is gone. Arthur peers out into the trees from the porch of Eel Marsh House in a storm and he slowly discovers that a group of ghostly children stare back at him, only distinguishable by their silhouettes. Our title antagonist peers down at Arthur from a second story window, resembling a ghostly photograph. It’s these scares that give credibility to The Woman in Black, making the film an above average haunted house treat.

In his first starring role since Harry Potter, Daniel Radcliffe makes a smooth transition from boy wizard to distressed adult.  I worried I would have a hard time taking him seriously, on the grounds that this film demands, and would instead still see him a kid. Radcliffe has grown up, folks, and here he gives a performance that is safe but allows us a glimpse of his range. I sometimes found him to be a bit stiff as Potter but here, he seems contented and confident, almost thrilled to be in something other than Harry Potter. In The Woman in Black, Radcliffe is disconnected and  distant, appearing drained and at times, he could be inches from collapsing from fatigue. There are moments when he’s courageous, racing into the decrepit mansion after an otherworldly sighting in an attic window or grabbing an axe and inching towards strange footsteps that creak behind a closed door. He plays nicely off of Hinds, who makes Sam just as emotionally wounded as Kipps but a bit wiser. He seems to be keeping Arthur level, warning him not to go “chasing shadows”.

The Woman in Black also makes a near fatal error with the haunted mansion it takes place in. It is never good when your friend leans over and whispers, “That house looks like the stereotypical haunted house in every scary movie!” There is nothing setting Eel Marsh House apart from every other haunted mansion expect the location. Sure it is an imposing structure, any given rundown structure will be, but there is nothing setting it apart. The inside resembles an abandoned haunted house that has been left until next Halloween. There are perfectly placed cobwebs and everything has a thick layer of dust covering it. One room does stand out and that is the room the most ghostly activity occurs in. Radcliffe spends most his time snooping around a child’s room, crammed with creepy clown dolls that suddenly burst with chirping music box tunes and a rocking chair that will suddenly rock violently back and forth.

Better than many will give it credit for, The Woman in Black succeeds because it doesn’t embrace the found footage gimmick. Sure, the film has its fair share of flaws including minor plot holes and a final act that begins to flirt with silliness. With horror, I’ve learned to be a bit forgiving to films that get it even half right. Last year’s Insidious also had its fair share of problems, but it gave me the creeps, which is what it set out to do, so I overlooked the sputtering final act. The Woman in Black’s ending doesn’t fall apart that bad and it wisely ends before things can get more outlandish. Ultimately, the film manages to give you the chills and leaves images in your head that you’ll wish weren’t there. And it does it barely a drop of blood to be found! The Woman in Black will restore your fear in those bumps in the night and I promise that you will be sleeping with a night light on for more than a few nights.

Grade: B+ 

Haunted House Flicks… GO!