Tuesday, September 25, 2012

On Building a Good Haunted House Movie: THE HAUNTING and THE SHINING

Jane Rose is the award-winning special effects makeup artist of The Big Bad and Anniversary Dinner. Jane's not afraid of no haunted house ... but she finds it a daunting (or is that haunting?) task to find one that actually scares her. Two haunted house movies, at least, definitely do the trick; come inside, light a candle and traverse the winding halls, if you dare.

I love all kinds of horror movies ... good ones, at least. Sometimes even bad ones, provided that they're ridiculous or gory enough, and since zombies are still hot right now, I guess, there is plenty of that kind of fare out there to be entertained by. But my favorite horror subgenre, whether in books or movies, is the haunted house story.

This can be a difficult passion to maintain since it seems like there are fewer haunted house movies produced than some other kinds, like the aforementioned zombie movies or slashers, and among those produced really good ones are even fewer still. A terrible zombie movie can be a tolerable experience ... or a really fun one, when paired with booze and the right company. A terrible haunted house movie is murder to sit through, and not in a good way. I think that concocting a ghost story that sends a real chill down the viewer's spine is very tough to do, and I really respect it when a film pulls it off.

If I were to pick a favorite haunted house movie, it would be a tie between two of the classics: The Haunting (the original 1963 version) and The Shining (the movie, not the TV version, duh). Both, however, achieve their respective successes in some pretty different ways.  

The Haunting is pretty remarkable for a horror movie because it manages to be scary without a single drop of blood. Creepiness -- bordering on a sense of dread -- is accomplished entirely through camera angles, pacing, acting, sound effects and the occasional voice-over representing the thoughts of the movie's heroine, who seems to draw supernatural occurrences to her. Sometimes the camera angles are high, as if the characters were being watched by something above them. But some of the simplest and most effective camera work happens when the camera tracks slowly -- in close-up across a wall, making you wonder what will be revealed in the next inch, or when it lingers on a specific spot of wall, while the soundtrack lets us know that something dreadful is happening behind it.  

The Haunting gets a lot of mileage out of close camera angles and the power of suggestion. Much of the sound effects consist of loud booms (similar to those in another great haunted house movie, The Changeling) or muffled voices or laughing, stock ghost stuff that could come across as cheesy in less deft hands. Interestingly, the movie omits the one bloody scene from the book it was based on, where the characters enter a room that has been mysteriously doused in blood. I don’t miss it, though. Overall, the movie manages to be scary in a very minimal way.  

The Shining, which is a lot more familiar to people and arguably one of the scariest horror movies ever made, uses a few more tricks and overt effects than The Haunting to achieve its scares. Whereas The Haunting is defined by subtlety, one needs only to watch the version of The Shining trailer where blood pours from the elevator doors to know to expect something a little less genteel.

 However, the scariness of the movie is still largely created through pacing and interesting camera work (this time, long angles and slow drifting shots through large spaces are incorporated to emphasize the size of the hotel and place its horrors where you can't always see them that clearly). Gory effects are used sparingly as payoff (the flashes of the dead girls in the hallway, and who can forget the rotten bathtub lady?). The movie relies a bit less on suggestion than The Haunting does, but the pace is still measured, even slow at times as director Stanley Kubrick likes to let things play out at their own speed, unrushed. This seems to be another necessity of scary haunted house movies: things have to build up slowly, allowing the viewer to get sucked in.

While these two are my favorites, several other haunted house movies deserve honorable mentions: the aforementioned The Changeling (1980), The Legend of Hell House (1973), Paranormal Activity (2009) and The Sentinel (1977). Enter them all at your own risk!

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