It hadn't occured to me until recently to review any of these classic ghost stories, though, mostly because I thought they had enough of a reputation that they didn't need any further attention called to them. I thought I'd sample some of the lesser-known movies, and report on their strengths and weaknesses, in hopes of finding some hidden treasures.
Unfortunately, I have discovered that Haunted House movies in general are not very good. In fact, there seems to be something defiantly un-cinematic about the Haunted House. What works best in a good spooky story is the eerie atmosphere, and the strong buildup of the sense of the uncanny. You need to feel the chill as the room grows cold; you need to feel the light clutch of cold fingers at your sleeve; you need to glimpse the shadowy figure out of the corner of your eye, turning the corner and disappearing down the stair. But except in very special circumstances, you should never come face to face with the thing that scares you. If you do, there's a very strong chance that the whole carefully-built sense of terror will disappear with a sad little >>pop<<, leaving you and your suddenly de-mystified ghost sitting in silence, trying not to make eye contact and wondering how to make a graceful exit. And the complication is this: while you can avoid having a tangible spook in a story or a legend, it's almost impossible to make a satisfying film that relies entirely on suggestion. Even Wise's film tampered with its source novel a little, and threw in a sudden, visceral, visual shock at the climax, though it's a false shock that only serves to underscore the lack of a real pay-off later.
Wise understood the fine balance that needed to be maintained when adapting a Haunted House story for the screen. It's almost beside the point that his source was a very unusual Haunted House story, one in which it was very possible that there were no actual ghosts. The aesthetic is the same no matter what the source: in your film, you must show something... you must give your audience that climactic visual jolt, even if it turns out to be an anticlimax. In that moment of terror before the audience even realizes what it is seeing, it expects something worse than it can possibly imagine. In Wise's false shock, the audience has a brief moment of relief -- it wasn't as bad as we thought! -- but then is left with the memory of what it expected to see. It's like a magic trick: the audience wants desperately to know how the magician is doing his illusion, and a good magician will sometimes pretend to make a mistake so that the audience will think it's about to get what it most desires. But the magician is deliberately misleading the spectators. While the audience is concentrating on the "mistake", the magician does something different and unexpected, and the trick turns out to be even more astonishing and baffling than before. The audience is left doubly unsatisfied, and it loves it.
An alternative method is to do in images what H.P. Lovecraft attempted to do in prose (and sometimes succeeded at): show just enough of your actual haint or spectre or ghoul to suggest to the audience a horror beyond comprehension. I think The Uninvited succeeds in this until the very end: the ghost we glimpse is shdowy and vague, but there's something so hideous about the features half-formed in the mist that our imagination rebels at seeing the rest... in the end we see the ghost much more clearly, and the effect is somewhat disappointing, but by that time, the atmosphere has built to such a terrifying and chilling point that it really doesn't matter. And if all else fails, the movie can go the Poltergeist route: bombard the audience with images so horrifying and strange that something is bound to frighten.
As it happens, most creators of Haunted House films are neither sufficently subtle to go the former routes, not ambitious enough to take the latter. They seem to think the conventional rules of horror films will get them by. They're mistaken, and the results are generally more disappointing even than usual. We come face to face with their ghosts, and surprise! They're great big lumbering things with kitchen utensils and power tools. Ghosts should not wield power tools: they do not need them to be scary. And unlike a monster, a ghost should never under any circumstances have a visible zipper running down its back. No. Ghosts are scary because of their lack of corporeality; because of their refusal to play by the rules of the physical world as we know it. We must not see them too clearly, or they will lose their effectiveness.
I will eventually get around to reviewing some movies that get the whole Haunted House deal right. They do exist. In fact, they're some of the best known of the genre, including the ones I've mentioned above. But before I get around to that, I have yet another movie to add to the pile of failures, and that is James Roberson's Superstition.
The movie was made in 1982, which was not exactly the best time for a low-budget American ghost story. At the time, the growing influence of the Friday the 13th school of horror film making was crowding out everything else. Combined with the inexplicable success of The Amityville Horror in 1979, this spelled doom for the ghost story.
Superstition begins promisingly: we see a boy and a girl parked in a car in front of a spooky old house. The boy has driven to the local "haunted house" to have a little undisturbed make-out time with his girlfriend. Unfortunately for his plans, the creepiness of the place makes the girl very uncomfortable. She'd be even more creeped out if she knew that the house's caretaker, a loony old woman, was watching surreptitiously from her cottage. This being an early-80's horror flick, we can expect them to be sliced and diced... so we're hardly surprised when a less-than-convincing bloody corpse slams down onto the windshield. The two kids panic and drive off... suprisingly still alive. Then we see that the spooky stuff has been engineered by two other kids, one inside the old house and the other outside, as a practical joke.
Giggling over the success of their prank, the kid outside attempts to come into the house, and the kid inside attempts to get out. And here we have an immediate lapse in quality: first, the interior of the house itself has no atmosphere. It's old and dusty, and cluttered with junk, but there's nothing even remotely spooky about it. Even the junk is of modern, unthreatening vintage. Anyway: the kid starts on his way down the stairs, and the camera gives us a menacing POV shot just behind him. The boy starts to realize there's something creeping up behind him. He finds himself unable to get out the front door, so he doubles back into the house. Entering the equally anatmospheric kitchen, he is surprised to see a small kitchen knife stuck feebly into the wall. Evidently this is supposed to be scary.
I think you can guess what's in store for teen victim number one, so let's take a look at teen victim number two, who is taking a supernaturally long time to get up the hill to the house. He has no trouble getting in, but can't seem to find his co-conspiritor. Instead of going upstairs, though -- where he could have reasonably expected the other kid to be -- he goes into the kitchen. In the kitchen he sees a microwave, which (in spite of the lack of power) begins to glow. Let's consider this for a moment: a microwave. In a long-abandoned house. In 1982. And it's glowing. This isn't scary: it's absurd. What's even more absurd is that the other kid's severed head is in the glowing microwave, and that instead of merely cooking quickly and efficiently, it explodes.
Go ahead: write me about pressure from boiling cerebral fluids building up in the skull. I will have this to say to you: Phooey. Watch the movie and you'll be saying the same thing.
The remaining teen victim tries to get out of the house, followed closely by the Unseen Presence. Though the kid is unable to get out the doors, he does find a window that... well.. just seems to fly open in front of him. Being an idiot, the kid attempts to climb out said suspiciously convenient window. (Super)naturally, the window just happens to snap closed on him, chopping his body neatly in half.
Two things about this: first, I can see how a window might crush the kid's internal organs and cause a fatal injury. I can't, however, see your average storm window slicing him in two. Nevertheless, the important point about this typical early-80's splatter scene is that the kid's death-throes are horribly, horribly believable. The camera lingers as misfiring neurons cause the discorporated legs to twitch; while the top half, flopping to the ground, stays alive long enough to try to crawl away, before subsiding into shock and death. This is the most convincing gore effect in the film, and it is not enjoyable. It is very disturbing, and in stark contrast to the mindless, harmless brutality of the rest of the film.
Opening Credits follow.
The body of the film concerns the events which follow the massacre of the two kids. It seems the old house and its grounds are the property of a local church, to which it had been donated many years ago. The police are exasperated by the church's failure to take responsibility for the place, figuring that the abandoned building has become a haven for dangerous drug addicts and vagrants. Actually, Police Inspector Sturges has little to complain about: all he seems to be able to do throughout the movie is hang around the old house and mishandle the investigation. Still, he is probably the only even remotely sympathetic charcter in the whole movie, so I suppose I shouldn't be too harsh on him.
Sturges demands action from the parish, which is headed by his old friend Reverend Meir. Meir is on the verge of retirement, so you know he won't be alive by the end of the picture. Meir's successor, Reverend Thompson, explains to the police that the house is about to be renovated and restored. The house will be occupied by the family of a priest who is being relocated to the area: one Father Leahy, who has experienced a few problems with alcohol (oh, for the days when the major problem troubling the priesthood was mere alcohol!).
The main suspect in the two killings is the troubled son of the house's caretaker, Mrs. Sharack (Elvira Sharack, that is. Are you scared yet?). Arlen Sharack is a little odd: he's mute, and has an obsession with Black Pond, a small pond on the property. Mrs. Sharack hints that Arlen is protecting a woman (who may or may not be imaginary), and that he consideres it his duty, as his father had considered it when he was alive. Mrs. Sharack is the sort of caretaker who spends the whole film on the periphery, mumbling vague hints about what's really going on, and generally being no help whatever. She never actually comes out and says, "There's a reincarnated witch living in the Lake, who comes out at night and kills people", thought she really should have. The movie would have been over much quicker, and with less loss of life... including Arlen's.
The police keep a very close eye on the renovations. Apparently they have nothing better to do, though they certainly don't seem to do anything well. When they do manage to catch sight of the fleeing Arlen, one of the policement gives half-hearted chase. Arlen has time to dash to the pond and peer in, then run away. The detective, arriving too late to see where he's run off to, also stops to look in the water. He sees nothing, so he goes for a little walk on the lake's dock. Of course, something drags him in.
The clergy aren't exactly having a good time of it, either. First Rev. Thompson runs into a little girl dressed in her Sunday best, who obviously shouldn't be wandering about the house... especially during construction. But the Reverend is completely unperturbed by her appearance. He doesn't seem particularly concerned by her subsequent disappearance, either. But immediately afterwards, something very nasty happens to Rev. Meir: a circular saw blade jumps off the tool, flies across the room (while still rotating), embeds itself in the priest's chest (while still rotating) and cuts straight through him (while still rotating)! Wow!
Now you see why I mentioned earlier that ghosts don't need power tools...
WIth three nasty deaths and a disappearance, you'd figure everything would grind to a halt and the grounds would be closed off. You'd be wrong. Sturges frets, while Rev. Thompson decides to drain the lake. This inspires more muttering from Mrs. Sharack, especially when Thompson, investigating a clog in the pump, discovers an old crucifix. "Whoopsie!" says Mrs. Sharack in so many words: "You removed the crucifix! We're all doomed." Thanks a lot, Mrs. Sharack.
Before you know it, the Leahys are moving in. The Father/father is not only a drunk, he's also completely ineffectual. This leaves his exasperated wife, his two scantily-clad teen bimbo daughters, and his little son Jason. Jason is played by a child actor so annoying that even Bob from House by the Cemetery looks good by comparison... bad dubbing and all. Before the family has even finished unpacking, an elevator repairman is dragged up into the shaft and lynched by the cables. In spite of the horrible things that have happened in the house, nobody notices. The Leahys go off for a nice dip in the Black Lagoon, or whatever it's called, and sure enough, something in the water menaces one of the bimbo daughters. Rev. Thompson, who has been drooling over the daughters from the lakeside (oops... I guess alcohol wasn't the only problem associated with the priesthood in 1982), pulls the girl out. The lost policeman's hand is found clutching her ankle!
OK. Now you'd figure everyone, police included, would pack up and get the hell out. Again you'd be wrong. Mrs. Leahy prepares to cook a nice dinner for her nice family and all the nice policemen. Dad goes off to have a drink in the basement, where little Jason comes and interrupts him in some painfully unfunny comedy. Not long after, Jason meets the little girl we've seen earlier (Sturges had previously mentioned that a little girl had been one of the house's earlier victims). Then comes one of the film's few relatively pleasant surprises: Jason gets butchered. Yes: the obnoxious little kid is the first of the family to get killed. By now, the audience is firmly on the side of the ghost.
Rev. Thompson finally puts together enough fom old Mrs. Sharack's mumblings to figure out the key to the killings is buried in the distant past. He goes to the local Catholic church, where he finds a journal of a priest who had lived in the area some 400 years before. Then, we're treated to a wacky flashback, as the priest attempts to exorcize a mid-size Korean car named Elondra. No, no, I'm sorry: she's not a mid-size Korean car, she's a convicted witch, who has been tied to a cross and foaming at the mouth. She curses her tormentors in an artificially deepened voice, telling them she will return and destroy the descendants of those who yadda yadda, blah blah blah; we've heard it many times before. All through this scene, I was wondering which part of the New World had been colonized in the 17th century by Catholics, who built large stone cathedrals, and who then persecuted witches. That seems to be playing a little loose with early Colonial religion and architecture, if you ask me. Anyway, Elondra gets tossed in the lake (but not burned, which is apparently the source of the troubles). A year later, the priest ended up squished to death on his own wine press.
The Rev. dashes back to the house, but he's way too late. While he's been gone, the police have started searching for the missing Jason. Sturges, puzzled by the size of the basement, discovers a sealed-off compartment where Arlen has been hiding... along with the rest of the policeman's remains. Sturges then fails to look in the closet, where Arlen has been hiding. There is a struggle,and Arlen is subdued and led off. Just as Sturges is left alone in the basement, a hideous claw comes out and grabs him...
Look: I really don't want to have to go into all this in detail. Suffice it to say that everybody gets it. Mrs. Leahy is unable to get her cowardly husband to do anything, so she goes down... alone... in the dark... to investigate a strange noise. Exit Mrs. Leahy. When the Rev. gets back, he finds Leahy dithering by a loacked door. Thompson's crucifix causes the door to burst open... but there's no Mrs. Leahy. Thompson runs upstairs to get everybody else out of the house (good thinking), and the inevitable ensues. Of the two bimbos, one has the sense to run out of the house, and the other goes back... because she heard a noise. Sigh. She ends up with a spike through her head. Leahy manages to go back for his daughter, but finds only his wife's remains under a sheet. Exit Leahy.
Now we actually get a look at the spooky who's been messing with the house's color scheme. Actually, she's reasonably impressive, considering the low grade of the goings-on so far: we only see her shadow, and her nasty green claws, as she chases Rev. Thompson around the house. Each time she seems about to grab him, Thompson uses the cross to drive her away. Evading the witch at the last possible moment, Thompson manages to get to his VW bus. And then...
...remember the bimbo who actually did have enough sense to run out and hide in the car?
Ever open a can of potted meat food product?
Yeah; well, that's what's waiting when Thompson opens the car door.
This leaves the final confrontation at the pond. Thompson spills gasoline into the lake and lights it, to complete the exorcism. Then the little girl in her white dress shows up. Thompson, who still doesn't see the connection between this bizarre little girl and the witch-ghost, tells her that he's finished off the curse. Yes, says the girl, that would have been just the thing... if the witch had been at home. Ha ha. The frantic Thompson then impales her with his cross, and she disappears into the flames.
If you're expecting one of those standard "it's-over-but-it's-not-over" endings, bully for you. In the last seconds of the movie, something grabs Thompson and drags him off to a watery grave. Oh well. The witch would have won on points, anyway.
The only thing more astonishing than the movie's incredibly high body count (what was it? 14? 16? I've lost count; that's very high for a "haunted house" movie) is the fact that the film actually gives us that many characters to kill... and we don't care about any of them. Oh: except for the obnoxious little kid Jason. It was a hoot seeing him reduced to a smear of red on the floor. Otherwise, however, the film is a complete write-off.
With that said, I hereby resolve that the next several reviews I will add to this particular section of the Braineater site will focus on good Haunted House movies... or at very least, movies whose merits outweight their deficiencies. Sure, the bad ones outnumber the good ones by a considerable margin, but I know that I can't stand any more crap ghost stories. I'm sure you, patient readers, feel much the same. So let's just consign Superstition back to the oblivion it has earned for itself, and go looking for something better.