5. The Haunting (1963)
“An evil old house, the kind some people call haunted, is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored,” is how Robert Wise’s adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House begins, and it’s a perfect summation of what is so terrifying about the “old dark house” concept. A house that is as alive as a jungle is an indescribable horror that is so audacious that you want to engage with it because it dares to push the boundaries of the typical ghost story – and your own imagination.
This isn’t a place filled with spirits but instead infested with an age-old evil that is intellectually incomprehensible. Davis Boulton’s cinematography is meant to evoke the looming menace of the house like it was some gigantic dormant creature you fear rousing. While we do linger on the dead stares of marble statues – in what is likely the first time creepy-ass sculptures were used to motivate fear – it’s the dramatic camera movements and sound design that epitomize the living, breathing structure.
It doesn’t take a cinephile to realize that all of The Haunting’s camera tricks and jump scares would be lifted wholesale by Sam Raimi for his Evil Dead franchise. Just look at the paranormal activity Nell (Julie Harris) and Thea (Claire Bloom) experience on their first night in the house and tell me that isn’t exactly what happens during Ash’s cabin freakout scenes in Evil Dead II.
Do know that this Haunting ain’t really like the popular Netflix adaptation from Mike Flanagan? The ideas and themes the show explores are all here though, such as the juxtaposition between the house and the mental health problems of its family, so if your patience typically wears thin for classic films, just know there is a lot for you to discover here as a fan of the show. (Jacob Trussell)
4. The Legend of Hell House (1973)
Shag carpet, erotic statues, and more wood fixtures than a shipyard: this is the Belasco House. The (don’t laugh) “Mount Everest of haunted houses.” It was built by a 6’5” sadist, and when he died, he never really left. A scientist, his wife, and two mediums enter the mansion with the intent to prove the existence of the afterlife. That is if the house doesn’t kill them first.
While many of the old dark houses on this list feature a lingering malevolent spirit, few are as perverted or as tacky as Belasco. The man never met a velvet lampshade he didn’t like. He painted wood paneling periwinkle — unspeakable evil indeed. The Belasco manor is an over-saturated, over-decorated nightmare. All the more chandeliers to shake and fireplaces to erupt, I suppose. Oh to be murdered by a gaudy, ’70s mansion. That’s how I want to go. (Meg Shields)
3. House (1977)
Upset that her father has remarried, Gorgeous decides to visit her aunt for the summer. She takes six of her best friends with her, all of whom are named after what they like to do — Kung Fu because she likes martial arts, Melody because she likes to make music, and so on. When they make it to the aunt’s house, weird shit begins to happen.
House is a haunted house movie, technically, but to try and explain what happens in it is nearly impossible. It is the definition of surrealism. There’s a cat that meows a lot and is maybe controlling things to some degree. At one point the decapitated head of one of the girls is floating around and bites one of the other girls on the butt. Look man, it’s a weird movie. I don’t know what Nobuhiko Obayashi was on when he made the film, but I thank him for it because the world is better for it. (Chris Coffel)
2. House on Haunted Hill (1959)
While William Castle shot the majority of this film on sound stages, the exteriors belong to the famous Ennis House tucked away in the hillside L.A. neighborhood of Los Feliz. The director was a firm believer in working smarter, not harder. If genius already exists, take advantage. Don’t torture yourself trying to replicate another person’s masterpiece.
The Ennis House sprung from the mind of Frank Lloyd Wright, and it’s crafted using his textile block style. The technique visually connects the residence to ancient Mayan architecture and will cause you to scramble for your Lego bricks. Even when it was brand spanking new, the structure suggested a deep history where all manner of nasty deeds could have occurred.
The house was used in film productions as early as 1933, but it didn’t reach its iconic status until after the release of House on Haunted Hill. In the years that followed, the location became a hot property appearing in Blade Runner, The Karate Kid Part III, Black Rain, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Still, it’s in House on Haunted Hill where the Ennis House exudes the drippiest of dread. (Brad Gullickson)
1. The Changeling (1980)
The best haunted houses keep pieces of their history within their walls, physical relics that tie the past and present together in an indelible and often terrifying way. In The Changeling, grieving composer John (George C. Scott) moves into a Seattle mansion that has stood empty for over a decade. The unsettled house soon begins to tell John its sad story through an eerie music box, a possessed wheelchair, a self-shattering mirror, and more.
Peter Medak’s meditation on grief and family is a masterful work of horror, one that delivers scare after genuine scare through thoughtful writing and cinematic execution. By the film’s end, when all is revealed, The Changeling makes it easy to believe that a place really could have unspeakable past trauma imprinted on its very foundation. (Valerie Ettenhofer)