Cinematic explorations of the haunted house trope can pull off tricks novels can’t. A director paired with an excellent set designer or location scout can present a creepy home in great detail. They can pull us through dark hallways and around corners, filling these spaces with manic energy or quiet unease. Sudden creaks and bangs play out differently onscreen than they do on page, of course, and the movies can supplement these environmental queues with music made to menace. The haunted home has a long and illustrious history in film, one that grows longer and stronger every year. These are a few of my favorite examples.
You will once more notice The Shining’s absence, so if you haven’t watched it already, do so. Unlike with my list of the best novels of this subgenre, most of which were relatively tame in the gore and violence department, sensitive viewers might want to take care with some of these selections as some of them can get pretty gruesome. I have included content warnings for the cautious, so if that’s a concern of yours, read the whole review before giving these a watch. That aside, open the door and step inside. It’s time to explore your new homes.
The Haunting (1963)
This is up there with Kubrick’s The Shining as one of the seminal haunted house films and I would’ve left it off this list because of its obvious place in the canon but for the fact that it is still criminally under-watched. Based on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and quite faithful to its source material, it brings to life the titular mansion in gorgeous black-and-white. A group of paranormal investigators descend on a huge old house with a history of tragedies.
Robert Wise’s movie does an incredible job luring us into this space, making us sympathize with the little cast of characters as well as hinting at an unseen presence lurking at the corner of every shot. Even if you haven’t seen this film, you’ve seen its cinematic children in one form or another, so for God’s sake, give the original a try! As with the novel, having seen Mike Flanagan’s excellent Netflix series will not have spoiled this movie for you. But please skip the wretched 1999 remake of the same name. I know that movie has its defenders, but they are wrong.
Okay, so picture a haunted house written by a nine-year old girl who’s been dosed on LSD. Now you’ve got an idea of what this amazing movie is like. It was, in fact, directly inspired by the director’s little daughter, though fortunately he didn’t drug her. Gorgeous, a young girl who has recently lost her mother, is invited by her reclusive aunt to visit her big house in the country. Even better, Gorgeous’s six best friends have been invited too!
After some slapstick adventures, including a sequence in which a man is transformed into a pile of bananas (don’t ask), they make their way to Auntie’s house. Once they’re there, though, their adventures take a turn for the darker. One by one, they are picked off by a dark force in ways that are simultaneously creepy and goofily funny. A girl is eaten by a piano is all I’m saying. This movie is simply one of the strangest fun movies you’ll ever see, and if you can get down with its unique mixture of childish fantasy and scariness, you are going to have a great time watching it.
House by the Cemetery (1981)
This is a gruesome, poorly acted, and messily plotted movie, but what do you expect with renowned schlockmeister Lucio Fulci as the director? That said, this movie has always stuck with me, whether I wanted it to or not. This is the haunted house as a site of nightmarish violence, brutality only tempered by Fulci’s ham-fisted directorial choices. Co-written by Dardano Sacchetti, who also co-wrote another movie on this list, it makes up for these faults with a relentless attack on the audience.
A young couple with a kid move into a house owned by the husband’s dead former colleague. It isn’t long before they start seeing signs that something is wrong with the place, perhaps something having to do with a former owner of the house, the hilariously named Dr. Freudstein. This is the sort of movie American Horror Story was paying tribute to in its first season and I have no doubt it influenced Rob Zombie’s wild House of 1000 Corpses. If you loved either or both of these pieces, The House by the Cemetery may be the right slice of early eighties Italian B-movie for you.
The Church (1989)
Co-written by Dardano Sacchetti, director Michele Soavi (who would go on to direct the equally artsy and nutty Dellamorte Dellamore/Cemetery Man), and the legendary Dario Argento, The Church is a fever dream of a movie, one that could easily fit onto a list about demons, or the occult, or monsters. The story, though, centers on a big old Gothic church, one built over the remains of heretical cultists butchered by self-righteous Crusaders, so I’ve always considered it a haunting.
When an artist working on the restoration of ancient frescoes deep within this busy church finds a strange parchment, she triggers a series of events that eventually lead to the building sealing itself shut, trapping tourists, photographers, and priests inside. A friendly priest, Gus, tries solving the mystery behind these events, but what he uncovers may be a threat to more than just those trapped inside this church. This movie feels like a hallucination, and that’s even before a character eats his own beating heart.
This was actually meant to be a sequel to the Demons series before Soavi decided to put his own imprint of the movie and it features Argento’s daughter Asia in her first starring role. Just let yourself be drawn into this nightmare, but only if you can stomach some scenes of gore and implied assault. It is wild, lushly filmed, and oddly poetic.
House on Haunted Hill (1999)
While I know the original, the one starring the always wonderful Vincent Price, has a special place in the hearts of many horror fans, it didn’t do much for me aside from Price’s acting. The remake, starring Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen, and Taye Diggs, is a far more disturbing movie for all its B-movie trappings. Rush plays an amusement park mogul who offers a group of strangers $1 million each to anyone who stays the whole night at the former site of the Vannacutt Psychiatric Institute for the Criminally Insane. The Institute’s former chief, played with characteristic diabolism by Jeffrey Combs, tortured his patients until they revolted and massacred most of the staff. When these fortune-seeking modern strangers find themselves locked inside the asylum, the games begin, both supernatural and criminal.
It’s entirely appropriate that this plan has been set in motion by an amusement park owner, as this movie is a rollercoaster of a B-movie. The Vannacutt is a massive, archetypally Gothic structure, and everyone in the movie has a great time chewing up the scenery. Stick around for the twisted post-credits scene.
The Orphanage (2007)
J. A. Bayona
Produced by genre powerhouse Guillermo del Toro, this movie is about Laura Rodriguez, a woman returning to the shuttered orphanage in which she was raised. Accompanying her are her husband and their son, Simon. Laura plans on reopening the orphanage as a safe place for disabled children, but her plans are interrupted by her son’s strange games, including his insistence that he’s made a new friend wearing a sack cloth mask. When a mysterious tragedy strikes, Laura is forced to delve deep into the history of the big building.
The orphanage is a spooky setting, apparently inhabited by more than one phantasmic child. This movie is more deeply affecting than most haunted house movies, even heartbreaking in some of its revelations, and is filmed in a stylish, often subdued way. It’s more old-fashioned than some of the other titles on this list, but in this case, that’s a wonderful thing.
A well-worn cliché in this subgenre involves a family innocently moving into a house that is revealed to be the site of horrific murders. Sinister upends this brilliantly. Ellison Oswalt, a wunderkind true crime writer who has fallen on hard times intentionally moves his family into one of these murder-houses, hoping to uncover the truth behind the simultaneous hanging of the family that previously lived there and to parlay his investigative work into a new bestseller. Soon enough, Ellison finds a collection of super 8 reels in the attic, horrific footage he can’t stop himself from watching.
The Oswalt’s home looks pleasant enough on the surface, but oh boy is this house haunted. A sequence in which the writer stalks through the building looking for an intruder is just the first revelation of what lies behind its placid façade. Ellison is going to wish he never went looking for the truth. Though not particularly gory, this movie suggests some terrible things that may haunt your dreams. It’s also a must-watch for anyone as interested as I am in stories about cursed films.
In this horror-comedy from New Zealand, a young woman is arrested after an inept attempt at stealing money from an ATM goes wrong. Kylie Bucknell is sentenced to house arrest in her mother and stepfather’s decrepit house and, at first, is just annoyed with being stuck with the older couple for eight months. Soon, though, her mother reveals that the house is haunted by a spectral figure, a claim Kylie disbelieves until a terrifying experience changes her mind. When she starts digging into the history of the old place, she finds a mystery that may implicate someone she knows.
Housebound’s house is no grand mansion, just a rambling and rundown place you wouldn’t want to be stuck in for eight months. This is a fun and spooky ride, oddly heart-warming, with the only real gore restricted to a single and satisfying scene.
I hesitate to put this amazing and soul-crushing movie on this list because it is almost unclassifiable in its deployment of horror tropes. Preserving its secrets from being spoiled, however, forbids me from including it on some of my other lists, and it does focus so heavily on the house in which its hapless protagonists live that its inclusion here seems justified. The Graham family has just lost their secretive and aloof grandmother. Her daughter, miniature-building Annie, catches glimpses of her mother around the family’s gorgeous house in the forest and finds odd symbols carved into the walls. After another tragedy, the family finds themselves pulled apart by both grief and unseen forces.
Whether ghosts are stalking the Graham family or something worse, the house is saturated with menace. Hereditary is a beautifully filmed work with some of the strongest acting seen inside or out the genre. This one gets dark fast, and the last fourth of the movie seems determined to wound its viewers. Highly recommended, but this movie isn’t for the weak of heart or stomach.
Natalie Erika James
Kay’s elderly mother Edna has gone missing from their family home, and when Kay and her daughter Sam arrive at the place, they find it infested with black mold. The next morning, Edna reappears with no memory of where she’s been. Whatever happened to her, Edna is convinced there’s something in the house with the three women. What follows is a tense, grim, and superbly acted exploration of aging, inheritance, and the dark spaces within.
Relic is similar in tone and intensity to Hereditary, though it far more thoroughly engages with and subverts haunted house tropes. The house in this movie is simply put one of my favorite houses in the subgenre, but you are going to have to watch it to see why. The film ends in a sequence simultaneously gruesome and touching, so if you can hang with that vibe, check out this Australian film.