by Barbara Roden
Halloween is the time for haunting tales of “ghosties and ghoulies and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night”. If you’re looking for movies that are long on chills but short on gore, and which rely on atmosphere rather than flashy special effects to achieve a sense of terror, then settle back and reach for one of these films. They’re all proof that what you can imagine is much more frightening than anything a filmmaker can show you, and will have you looking over your shoulder and turning on the lights once the credits have faded to black.
All of these films have been released on video and/or DVD over the years. Some are also available free to view online; links have been supplied. You can also keep an eye on specialty TV channels such as Turner Classic Movies, especially at this time of year.
The Old Dark House: YouTube or bigfiveglories.com ; The Uninvited: Released this week on DVD by the Criterion Collection; Arsenic and Old Lace: viooz.co/movies ; The Body Snatcher: not available; Dead of Night: not available; Carnival of Souls: YouTube or amctv.com ; The Haunting: flixattic.com ; Plague of the Zombies: watch32.com ; Theatre of Blood: veoh.com ; and The Changeling: watch32.com
The Old Dark House (1932)
Almost every movie about a spooky house in the middle of nowhere, and the group of travelers who must reluctantly seek shelter there, can trace its roots back to this film, but few can match director James Whale’s classic. It’s a delicate mix of horror and dark comedy, splendidly acted by a wonderful cast including Boris Karloff, Raymond Massey, Charles Laughton, and the stunning Gloria Stuart, 65 years before she received an Academy Award nomination for “Titanic”.
The Uninvited (1944)
A composer from London (Ray Milland) and his sister (Ruth Hussey) fall in love with an abandoned house on the coast of Cornwall, and promptly move in. All seems perfect at first; but a series of increasingly strange and sinister events makes them wonder if the house is haunted, and who its next victim will be. A classic, old-fashioned ghost story that also gave us the jazz standard “Stella by Starlight”.
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
Not really a horror film (although Raymond Massey as cousin Jonathan strikes a sinister note), this Halloween-set comedy is a delight from start to finish. Theatre critic Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) wants nothing more than to go on his honeymoon; but first he has to deal with his sweetly murderous aunts, his mad cousin Teddy (who thinks he’s Theodore Roosevelt), criminal-on-the-run Jonathan and his accomplice Dr. Einstein (no, not that Einstein), several dead bodies, a couple of inquisitive cops, and the fact that insanity doesn’t so much run in his family as gallop. All together now: “Charge!”
The Body Snatcher (1945)
Based on the short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, the film is a fictionalized account of the notorious Burke and Hare body-snatching case from early 19th century Edinburgh. In the film, marvelous character actor Henry Daniell plays Dr. MacFarlane, whose medical research depends on a steady supply of fresh corpses to dissect and study. One of his students soon realizes that the sinister cabby John Gray (a wonderfully creepy Boris Karloff) isn’t just digging up the recently dead; he’s turned to murder in order to ensure a constant stream of cadavers. Bela Lugosi has a small but effective role as one of MacFarlane’s assistants, and the final moments are truly chilling.
Dead of Night (1945)
A mild-mannered architect travels to a house in the country, to advise about some renovations. He’s never met the owner, or any of the guests – except in a recurring dream, of which all he can remember are a few jumbled details. The other guests, intrigued by his story, begin recounting strange events that have happened to them, which we see in flashback. As the evening draws on, the stories become stranger and stranger, and the architect becomes more and more convinced that something terrible is about to happen. All five of the stories told within the film are excellent, but the most famous is the chilling “Ventriloquist’s Dummy”, starring Michael Redgrave as a man convinced his dummy, Hugo, has developed a life of its own.
Carnival of Souls (1962)
A young woman (Candace Hilligoss) survives a car accident, and moves to start a new life in Utah. A series of strange and unsettling events plague her, however, and she finds herself drawn to an abandoned pavilion on the edge of the Great Salt Lake. The only film director Herk Harvey ever made had a budget of $33,000, was filmed in three weeks with a cast of unknown actors, and was barely seen when it was first released. Over the years, however, it has gained a (deserved) reputation as one of the most haunting movies ever made, its eerie black-and-white photography, organ score, and lean script all contributing to a sense of pervading fear and isolation.
The Haunting (1963)
Avoid the dire 1999 remake and head straight for director Robert Wise’s classic haunted house film, based on the novel “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson. A group of paranormal investigators decide to spend a few days at the notorious Hill House, to determine whether it really is haunted. The movie never answers the question, leaving viewers to decide what – if anything – walks the house’s halls. The scene in which two of the characters seem to be menaced by something just outside their bedroom door is one of the most terrifying moments ever filmed.
Plague of the Zombies (1966)
A product of the legendary Hammer Films studio, this eerie movie features classic zombies – those reanimated through the use of magic, so they can provide cheap slave labour – rather than the flesh-eating zombies of more recent years. The movie does, however, feature a truly nightmarish scene in which the recently dead, looking believably the worse for wear, rise from their graves, seemingly intent on finding human victims.
Theatre of Blood (1973)
The great Vincent Price stars as Edward Lionheart, a hammy Shakespearian actor who doesn’t so much chew the scenery as devour it whole. When he’s denied an acting award he thinks should have been his, he vows revenge on the group of critics who snubbed him, and looks to the Bard of Stratford’s plays as a source of inspiration. A gleefully demented mix of horror and (very) black comedy, the film features a witty and literate script and a “who’s who” of distinguished British actors, as well as a chance for Price to show – in a scene from “King Lear” at the end – what a fine classical actor he could have been.
The Changeling (1980)
One of the first major feature films to be shot in Vancouver, the movie stars George C. Scott as a composer whose wife and daughter have recently been killed. He moves to a new city and buys an old house, determined to bury himself in his work in order to forget his grief; but a series of increasingly unsettling events lead him to believe that his new house has a sinister past, and that learning the secret might prove deadly. An elegant and assured ghost story that makes the ordinary seem terrifying.