If you've ever laid in bed and listened to the disquieting creak of a relaxing floorboard, or questioned why you hadn't previously noticed that the wardrobe door was ajar, you'll understand why the haunted house movie continues to be the sub-genre that refuses to die. Unlike torture porn, slashers or monster movies, these films don't necessarily require any special effects. Just a handful of believable actors and a production crew willing to double as the Pickfords men, whenever the camera looks away.
Last week saw the release of Insidious, which brought together the underwear-soiling maestros responsible for the Paranormal Activity and Saw franchises. More like the former, this is a low-key, low-budget spooker that manages to unsettle and upset, without looking like a butcher's apron.
Like the vengeful spectres synonymous with the genre, Insidious is happy to revisit its own history, piecing together the best bits from a host of unnerving classics. So rather than writing a conventional review, here's a countdown of the best haunted house movies ever made, and the scenes that Insidious has cleverly repurposed for its own demonic ends.
The Amityville Horror (1978)
Supposedly based on a true story, this tale of luckless real-estate chancers could act as a post-meltdown cautionary tale for the mortgage-impaired. Overstretch yourself on your dream property and you'll be harassed by floating pigs, booming voices and Lois Lane's tits. The walls drip blood, doors get ripped off their hinges and every conceivable surface is covered in garish floral prints. This is what nightmares look like. The Lutz family were famously discredited for having participated in one of the most notorious supernatural hoaxes of all-time, and yet Rod Steiger walked away relatively scott-free, despite committing his own scandalous crimes against subtlety.
Insidious theft: A cautionary tale about the perils of moving house, and a troubled wife who calls in the god-botherers to cleanse their troubled new home.
The trailer can't be embedded, so here's the link instead.
The Changeling (1980)
Perhaps the least known of Insidious' influences, this slow-burning and relentless creepy ghost story has Oscar-rejecting George C Scott as a grief-stricken composer moving into a vast mansion. Is he imagining the paranormal incidents, or is he going mad following the needlessly spectacular death of his wife and child? Instilling a life-long fear of bathtubs, wheelchairs and tennis balls in anyone who sees it, this film also boasts the definitive 'medium channels spirits with a pencil and stack of A3 notepaper' scene in cinema history.
Insidious theft: The creepy seance and a lead character who makes music. Although it didn't sound like George's compositions were destined to end up as Miley Cyrus album tracks.
The Haunting (1963)
Based on Shirley Jackson's bestseller The Haunting of Hill House (not to be confused with similarly titled The House On Haunted Hill or The Legend of Hell House) Robert Wise's black and white classic proved once-and-for-all that the imagination is the greatest tool in the film-maker's kitbag. Whereas Jan DeBont proved, with his effect-heavy remake in 1999, that he was simply the greatest tool. In The Haunting, nothing is more powerful than some compelling sound design and the power of suggestion.
For most people, one scene lives on as the most terrifying ever filmed. Eleanor and Theo, two women taking part in a paranormal experiment in this most haunted of houses, are disturbed in the night by terrifying banging and disembodied voices. Tremulous Eleanor asks Theo to take her hand in the dark, only to complain "Theo, you're breaking my hand!" as the grip grows tighter. It's only when we hear Theo stir and wake up across the room that we, and Eleanor, realise that something else was holding her in bed. Trust me, it works better than a Senokot sandwich.
Insidious theft: Disembodied voices, mysterious back-stories and the threat of inexplicable footsteps in the hallway.
The Shining (1980)
Stephen King always hated Stanley Kubrick's take on his third novel, possibly since the notoriously finicky film-maker changed most of the source material in order to fashion a fairy tale out of the material. It also didn't help that he cast Jack Nicholson in the lead - it's hard to portray a descent into madness when 'batshit crazy' is your default setting. Nonetheless, the rivers of blood, the perma-grinning twins and Shelly Duvall's teeth are all enough to keep audiences peering nervously from behind the couch.
Insidious theft: A gifted child who knows more than he lets on, and a pair of twins more terrifying than Jedward.
For most people my age, Poltergeist is the definitive haunted house movie, gradually building from wonder to terror without missing a beat. The kids are cute, the parents are realistic and the tone successfully balances humour with horror to create a genuine ghost train experience. Despite rumours of directorial wrangles between Tobe Hooper and his all-powerful writer-producer Steven Spielberg, the film manages to entertain, scare and surprise throughout its 114 minute runtime. Rather than trying to educate kids about the dangers of Ronald McDonald's artery-clogging offerings, they should simply be made to sit through this film - they'll never look at a clown in the same way again.
Insidious theft: Pretty much everything - family in jeopardy, disbelieving dad, paranormal investigators, a journey into the unknown and a quirky expert with all the answers.
The Entity (1982)
Another story rumoured to be based on actual events, this one features Barbara Hershey as Carla Moran, a woman who is regularly grabbed and molested by an aggressive but invisible force. So it's My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding meets Most Haunted. Aside from the curiously novelty of seeing breasts manipulated by non-existent hands, and a pounding, dissonant soundtrack, the film also has some strong performances and a constant feeling of unease. It's an uncomfortable watch, made that much more unbearable by an ending where the experts effectively shrug and say "Oh well, we had a go."
Insidious theft: Barbera Hershey shows up as the kind but troubled mother-in-law, and the sound mixer has clearly been paying attention - the opening titles are almost unbearably loud.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
The most recent addition to this list, but in many ways the most relevant. Oren Peli's low-fi home movie was a genuine phenomenon. Shot in his own home, using static security cameras, Paranormal Activity encourages its audience to hungrily devour every inch of every frame looking for something out of the ordinary. Primed for shocks, we end up jumping out of our seats every time a door opens of its own accord or a faulty light flickers. The effect is diminished somewhat for anyone who's ever spent time in a Wimpey new build.
Insidious theft: The dispassionate camera-work and a family going through the motions, until inanimate objects start displaying motions of their own.
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