We’ve all been there. You find the perfect place: spacious, high ceilings, swimming pool. Sure, it’s a little pricy, but perfection doesn’t come cheap. The only catch: your realtor forgot to tell you it was built atop a Native American burial ground that was also the site of a tragic quadruple murder-suicide-black magic ritual. Before you know it, the kitchenware is floating down the hall, your TV is demanding a blood sacrifice, and an unfriendly spirit has taken to watching you on the john.
It’s the worst.
Didn’t always used to be this way. Used to be if you wanted to have yourself a spectral encounter, you had to be part of a team of paranormal researchers à la The Haunting. Your second best option would be a rich uncle’s will stating that you must spend the night in his secluded manor to inherit his fortune. Or, now that I think of it, to inherit a cursed object, but nobody likes those.
This all changed, though, in 1973 with the release of Robert Marasco’s debut novel Burnt Offerings. The book presented a new kind of house of horrors. One where the down payment had been made, and it was going to take more than a demonic voice booming “get out” to send you packing. You weren’t there to prove the existence of the afterlife, you weren’t out to claim a fortune, you were simply looking for a nice place to settle down.
This scarily relatable scenario went on to spawn the likes of The Amityville Horror and The Changeling, before going supernova in 1982’s Poltergeist. The new status quo was set: home — not a castle nor a crypt — is where the horror is. Although, as the following three films on Shudder illustrate, it can often be less about what’s haunting the house, and more about what’s haunting you…
Horror novelist Roger Cobb (William Katt) has a bit of a problem: he’s come down with a case of the dreaded writer’s block. Also his wife left him, his son vanished into thin air, he doesn’t remove his TV dinners from the box before microwaving them, and his v-neck sweater is cut way too deep. Okay, so he has a lot of problems. But he has a solution: move into the house where his son disappeared, and his aunt was just found hanging from the rafters.
It’s a terrible plan, but that’s because we’ve just entered a very specific sub-genre within the haunted house sub-genre. One commonly known as: Writer Chooses Obviously Cursed-Ass Place to Write (Stephen King is a master of this). Visions of Cobb’s missing son and ‘Nam flashbacks ensue, but his internal trauma is more the flavoring than the focus. The focus is of course on zombie swordfish, and figuring out the best way to flush a ghost hand down the toilet.
Riding high off a wave of Friday the 13th films, hardcore pornography, and a movie about Catholic orphans playing soccer, producer Sean S. Cunningham was clearly out to make his very own Poltergeist with House. Only he forgot he wasn’t Steven Spielberg, so instead we got this supremely silly foam latex fest. One where the gardening tools are out for blood, Norm from Cheers is the nosy neighbor, and a winged skeleton is hanging out in the medicine cabinet.
Excuse me, a winged skeleton is hanging out in the vast, dark void for which the medicine cabinet acts as a doorway. And sometimes, you just can’t ask for anything more than that.
Much like its tonal twin Don’t Look Now, this opens with the shocking death of a child. Shocking in many ways. Shocking in its suddenness, its bluntness. Shocking in that when faced with her daughter choking on an apple slice, Julia Lofting (Mia Farrow) attempts a steak knife tracheotomy in lieu of performing the Heimlich.
After (kinda-sorta-not really) recovering from a breakdown, Julia hails a cab, buys an old house, and is on her way to starting a new life. One that includes visions of a little girl that may be her daughter, being harassed by her gaslighting husband (Keir Dullea), being framed for the murder of a turtle, and hosting a seance gone wrong. Has Julia’s daughter come back to her? Is she losing her mind? Or has she become a pawn for a hate-filled entity?
Farrow’s naturally unnerved state — honed by years of living with Woody Allen — is expertly utilized in the role of the grief-stricken mother. The English setting gives the whole affair a musty quality, reminiscent of an old paperback — fitting as it’s sourced from a Peter Straub novel. You almost feel as if you’re not getting the whole experience by not watching it while sitting in a high-back leather chair, teacup in hand. But don’t send the good china crashing to the floor when one of the film’s slow-churning scares sneaks up on you.
Side note: Screenwriter Harry Bromley-Davenport went on to helm Xtro, which shares none of the above qualities, but does feature a woman giving birth to a fully grown man.
WE ARE STILL HERE (2015)*
Grieving Parents Move into a Haunted House Week continues with this riff on Lucio Fulci’s The House by the Cemetery. After their son dies in a car accident, Anne (Re-Animator star Barbara Crampton) and Paul Sacchetti relocate to New England. Signs of a presence are abound in their new home, and Anne first believes it to be their son. That is until the smoldering, malevolent apparitions of the corpse-selling former owners make themselves known…
What follows is equal parts atmospheric, somber, and as splatter-filled as anything from the patron saint of Italian gore flicks, Lucio Fulci. Only writer/director Ted Geoghegan isn’t interested in mere mimicry. Here he uses Fulci’s work as a launchpad, casting aside the maestro’s penchant for dream logic, and instead bringing the characters and emotion to the forefront.
This is the kind of film where you’ll both be moved, and see a man’s head squished like a rotten melon. Believe it or not, you’ll be moved even after seeing a man’s head squished like a rotten melon. And if that isn’t the hallmark of a classic, I don’t know what is.
*Unfortunately We Are Still Here is no longer available to watch on VRV at this time!