Welcome to another entry in the Fourth Wall Weekly Listicle, a weekly tour through the cinematic netherworlds of your ever-faithful Film and TV crew. I know that the writers here share a somewhat notorious obsession with remaining a bit genre-centric, but with James Wan’s really fantastic haunted house flick Insidious hitting theaters this week, I think it’s time we made a brief return to horror-land. Drawing on Wan’s film, we are taking a look at the films and shows that feature places which hold an inherently evil or foreboding presence (and, in some cases, like in Insidious,) the people and monsters who lend their negative energies to a particular location. This being my first at-bat for the Fourth Wall, I’ve decided I’d also inject a bit of my personal interests into the fray, and thus will include a section in which I discuss a few “reality” TV shows that deal with the subject. Join Julia Rhodes, Dan Fields and myself as we journey through some of the most evil locations in the visual medium.
Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (dir. Werner Herzog, 1979)
There are two films that constantly remind me how amazing a film can be even when it’s a remake of an earlier venerated work. The first is John Carpenter’s The Thing, a gory and much-written-about update of the original Howard Hawks production, and the second is Werner Herzog’s masterful retelling of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu: eine Symphonie des Grauens. The original Murnau film virtually disappeared for a few decades in the wake of a copyright dispute from the Stoker family which awarded them the compensation of having all copies of the film destroyed, even though it was argued the film was altered significantly from Bram Stoker’s original novel, Dracula. In any case, once the film resurfaced in the 70s to claim a prominent space in film history, maverick New German Cinema director Werner Herzog stepped up to produce a remake of what he thought was the greatest film to ever come out of Germany.
In the second of his five collaborations with the director, renowned actor-eccentric Klaus Kinski portrays the mysterious Count Dracula, whom Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz), an estate agent in Wismar, Germany, is sent to meet at his castle in Transylvania in order to complete the transaction. When he arrives, he meets the Count, a pointed-toothed, rat-eared feral man with long talon-like fingers and no body hair. The castle itself is dank and old, with untold centuries of evil hanging around like the thick fog that accompanies much of this section of the film.
Particularly ominous is the journey Harker must take up to the castle, mostly on foot, which is accompanied by the droning of the Prelude from Wagner’s Das Rheingold. As the sun sets, we see constant shots of the landscape, the crisp and ever present darkness engulfing everything, and then Harker comes upon the carriage that will take him the final length of the pass to his destination. Like other versions, this sequence culminates with the introduction of Dracula himself, and Harker’s immediate realization thereafter that something just feels off about the whole situtation.
Getting back to the film’s locations, the action soon moves to Wismar, where the Count is attempting to woo Harker’s fiancee, Lucy, and the town has become afflicted with the plague. Yet again there is a powerful and poetic sequence that sees Lucy wandering through the town square as the villagers who have survived the rats dance and eat and seem resigned to their fates, accompanied by the Georgian song “Tsinskaro”. I’m not sure there has ever been a scene in another film that has affected me in a way similar to this. The despair, the heartache and the utter jubilation that their worries are now gone is a profound thought to have, especially in Herzog’s imagery of thousands of plague rats overrunning the town and villagers who are dining outside with them because there is no hope anyway.
In both cases, Dracula’s presence has transformed the location he inhabits: the castle for centuries beforehand, and Wismar upon his arrival in town. For me, at least cinematically, these are the locations I find most evil and foreboding in all of the adaptations of Stoker’s novel. Herzog’s use of droning music and disturbing, jarring imagery is quite masterful. The sadness that pervades the film because of these sequences match the tone of the tragic love interest Dracula has in Lucy from the beginning, and the sacrifice she ultimately makes so that the horror can come to an end.
Poltergeist (dir. Tobe Hooper, 1982)
The house in Poltergeist, the classic Tobe Hooper directed, Steven Spielberg produced horror flick, has always been the embodiment of the haunted abode for me. Many an unsuccessful night were spent trying to get the sense of terror that pervades the film out of my young mind. And though it doesn’t have the same effect on me now (though I’ll admit to finding the preacher from the sequels creepy to this day), it’s an appropriate inclusion to this list because of its overt influence on this weekend’s haunted house release from production design to some of the makeup effects used and even some small plot elements.
The story is pretty simple: a family moves into a house in a newly developed neighborhood, and then their young daughter Carol Anne begins to communicate with a menacing, seemingly vengeful, spirit through the television and various other sources. The ghosts eventually abduct Carol Anne and the family must rally together with a clairvoyant (a legendary performance by Zelda Rubinstein) to regain possession of their daughter by going into another dimension and literally ripping her out of their grasp.
Of course, the film’s ending reveals that the houses in the development were built over a cemetery and the bodies were never moved, and the events culminate in corpses rising from the earth in a groundswell from a thunderstorm to terrorize the family as they try to leave the house. There’s even a swimming pool littered with bodies overflowing it that allows no escape! Literally, for an evil location movie, Poltergeist has everything.
There were two sequels of diminishing returns, which track the evil spirits’ attempts to lure Carol Anne to the other side, but the original remains the most frightening. It’s also one of the coolest haunted house flicks ever made, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s akin to a roller coaster, and it being produced by Spielberg, definitely bears his indelible blockbuster mark. And then there’s the creepy theme song. It’s really creepy.
Hausu (dir. Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1977)
This is without a doubt the oddest horror film I’ve ever seen. Created in 1977 by commercial director Nobuhiko Obayashi, most famous for a series of commercials with Charles Bronson for Mandom cologne, House follows a schoolgirl named Gorgeous who, furious with her father for inviting her soon-to-be stepmom on their vacation, decides instead that she will visit her estranged aunt, who lives alone in the countryside in an old house. Accompanied by her friends who all, like Gorgeous, display the traits that give them their names (Prof, Melody, Kung Fu, Mac, Sweet and Fantasy), she journeys into a bizarro realm replete with possessed cats, cannibalism, soul-devouring and really really hungry grand pianos.
After arriving at the house, the girls begin exploring and splitting up until, eventually, they begin to go missing one by one. There are several mind-boggling scenes in the film, and most of the girls show up again after their deaths to torment those still alive, including the decapitated head of Mac flying through the air, and Sweet’s body found bleeding profusely inside a grandfather clock. The end of the film sees none of the girls surviving and the reveal that the aunt died long ago, but that her spirit lingers, devouring unwed girls who set foot in the house. The morning after, Ryoko, Gorgeous’ stepmom, shows up at the house to reconcile with the girl and finds her, and is told that soon her friends will be awake and they will be hungry. Not exactly a happy ending.
Still, things aren’t all serious and gore-drenched. The film is a fever dream of childlike wonder and ideas, which is to be expected when the many set pieces in the film were based on the ideas of Obayashi’s daughter. Most of the effects were also intended to look as if a child had created them, and the film utilizes many different types of visual effects work toward this end, including matte, blue and green screen, practical over-the-top gore, and an overall sense of joyful abandon. Obayashi’s creation is an unabashed, gleeful entry into the horror-comedy canon, albeit one that is slightly incomprehensible and totally, recklessly original.
House is a very Japanese riff on the haunted house flick, and the location of the house itself is about as evil as can be. It devours young girls body and soul, for cryin’ out loud. And, it’s a wickedly fun and surreal ride as well, and one that I recommend anyone looking for something totally unexpected in cinema take. You won’t know what hit you; I sure didn’t.
Ghost Hunters, Destination Truth and Ghost Adventures(2004-2011)
No, this isn’t a joke. I’ve spent a lot of the previous six years of my life watching a ton of reality haunted-house and ghost hunting shows. I’m simply fascinated by the medium. The idea that every week you have a team of investigators actively looking for evidence of the paranormal in real-life “haunted” locations is an opportunity for chills and intrigue that somehow speaks to me on a gut level, but which I find myself thinking about in terms of representations of reality long afterward. Don’t worry, I won’t get too theoretical here, and merely want to discuss the phenomenon of reality ghost hunt shows as entertainment and as representations of “evil” locations.
For those unfamiliar, there are a lot of shows out there now that feature investigators seeking footage, audio and photographic evidence, of spirits, voices, and any other activity that may be behind a certain location’s haunted activity. The science behind these shows is admittedly a bit shaky, but I give them credit most of the time for at least trying to adhere to some sort of scientifically minded methodology to protect the integrity of their evidence. The shows are wildly popular, particularly Syfy’s Ghost Hunters and the cryptozoological truth (and sometimes ghost hunting) show Destination Truth, and are also the subject of huge speculation about doctoring with evidence, manipulation of audio and an overall lack of visual representation of the majority of claims made by cast members during the investigations.
Of the three most prominent (and best) paranormal investigation shows on television, Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures is the only one that actively seeks venturing into the locations where there are reports of violent spirits and even supposed demonic activity. I find the idea that these men are looking to be attacked by spirits as evidence of their existence to be, for whatever reason, particularly compelling. Week after week the hosts, Zack Bagens and his two friends, Nick and Aaron, bumble around in the dark with only their cameras and nightvision as a lightsource, collecting evidence in what I think most people would agree are among the creepiest locations in the world (asylums, prisons, hotels), belief in the paranormal or not.
There is a particular episode of Destination Truth, however, that I want to dwell on for just a second. The crew, led by host and travel guru Josh Gates, is given clearance to wander around the crumbling remains of Chernobyl, a site that has certainly seen its fair share of misery and sadness. While investigating a school that has long been abandoned, there are thermal images of people that appear in windows, viewed both inside and outside of the building. The crew is accounted for at all times, and the images can’t possibly be reflections of body heat in the glass, because the angles don’t add up, and from outside the images are seen several floors off the ground. This is compelling, creepy and really interesting for a variety of reasons, some of which actually have their roots in the science behind thermal and magnetic recording of energies in particular types of areas, geologically or, in the case of Chernobyl, the raw energy that could be recorded via atomic meltdown. But the evidence isn’t the most important thing about conveying what we think of as reality in regard to these shows.
The infrared cameras play a large part in our perceptions, particularly since we can’t see that well in the dark anyway, so by amplifying the ability to see beyond the shadows, we create a more heightened sense of reality for ourselves and are thus more likely to believe an image created using such technology than someone saying they saw something with their own eyes. The visual aesthetics of these shows themselves go a long way in convincing us of their reality, because they’ve played a part in conditioning our perspectives on what we see as reality in the situations they present.
House on Haunted Hill (original dir. William Castle, 1959, remake dir. William Malone, 1999)
An eccentric millionaire invites you to a party at a notoriously haunted location, with the promise of an exorbitant reward if you manage to stay the night. You have little prior knowledge of this man, only an understanding that he’s an aging playboy who deals in scares. What do you do?
Why, you go, of course! Such is the premise for both versions of House on Haunted Hill.
The original deals less with a cursed place and more with horrid excuses for human beings. The William Castle flick was made at the very heyday of classic B-horror, and with scream king Vincent Price in the lead as Frederick Loren it’s a serious treat for those who love camp. The film teeters back and forth in its intentions – Loren shares conspiratorial smirks with the audience, breaking (drumroll, please) the fourth wall for our benefit. “How will it all end?” he asks us. Caretaker Pritchard (Elisha Cook, Jr.) stumbles around drunkenly whining about ghosts, but in the end it appears there are none. Just depraved, desperate people taking advantage of others’ fear and a spooky old house.
The remake (which, don’t get me wrong, is really bad) transplants our terrible humans to an abandoned asylum in which a crazed psychiatrist, shall we say, disregarded the Hippocratic Oath. The asylum’s tortured patients left on the building itself an imprint of their lengthy agony, and the implements of Dr. Vannacutt’s psychotic “treatments” serve as murder weapons. The newer version of House on Haunted Hill deals in spooky effects and easy scares. Geoffrey Rush steps into Vincent Price’s shoes with nary a problem, while Famke Janssen plays his murderous wife. SNL’s unfunny Chris Kattan takes on the role of Pritchard, making him screamier and more hysterical than Cook’s version. Taye Diggs, Ali Larter, Brigitte Wilson, and Peter Gallagher round out our cast of iffy people–but in the remake, the cursed asylum serves up a gloriously rambunctious crop of ghosts, including patients, the psychiatrist, and eventually Pritchard himself. As far as haunted places go, the original doesn’t give us much to work with, but the remake is a tale of agonized spirits whose tortured souls remain in their place of death to torment the living (most of whom deserve it).
Rebecca (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)
Long before he adapted Daphne du Maurier’s short story “The Birds” in 1963, Alfred Hitchcock took on her gorgeously written gothic novel Rebecca. Book and film tell the tale of a young wife (Joan Fontaine) who moves in with her secretive husband Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) at his country manse, Manderley. Mrs. de Winter (who has no first name, a deliberate move on du Maurier’s part to dehumanize her) shortly discovers Maxim and his housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) harbor a terrible obsession with Rebecca, the previous Mrs. de Winter.
Manderley is a Victorian structure nestled in impeccably pruned lawns and blanketed by a palpable aura of menace and gloom. Mrs. Danvers is one of film’s spookiest characters, and film historians have suggested that in Hitchcock’s version of the tale, Danvers was probably in love with Rebecca. Danvers keeps Rebecca’s quarters in exactly the state they were in before she died, and wanders about the house changing the new Mrs. de Winter’s alterations back to the way they were when Rebecca lived there. It’s mostly through the housekeeper’s gestures and tales that Rebecca’s presence lives on in the house.
As it turns out, Rebecca wasn’t the perfect creature Mrs. Danvers makes her out to be; rather, she was a miserable, manipulative woman in a sham marriage. Likewise, Olivier’s Maxim isn’t the loving, gentle husband we thought he was. The movie isn’t a true ghost story by way of clanking chains, pale apparitions, or things that go bump in the night. It is, however, about one woman’s terrible impact on the house in which she lived, and the way her posthumous presence renders those within the walls of Manderley little more than tiptoeing ghosts themselves.
Pet Sematary (dir. Mary Lambert, 1989)
Fun fact: I saw Pet Sematary as a kid and have loved it ever since. But until a friend said something about it, I never thought of it as a zombie movie. Sure, it’s about dead cats and humans rising from their graves. But that’s not zombies, right? Wait…
Dr. Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff) and his wife Rachel (Denise Crosby) move to Ludlow, Maine with their two young children. Their neighbor, elderly but spry Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne, of Herman Munster fame), mistakenly takes Louis on a field trip to an Indian burial ground deep in the wilds behind the Creeds’ home, and things spiral straight to hell from there.
The existence of zombies in folklore and film is a reflection of our basest fear: death. King’s characters, particularly Rachel Creed and daughter Ellie, are absolutely paralyzed by the thought of death and dying. So when Ellie’s cat Winston Churchill bites it in the “rud” (Maine-ian for “road”), Jud shows Louis how to bury Church so he’ll come right back when you tap a can of kitty food for him. Then when the Creeds’ toddler son Gage (Miko Hughes, whom you may also recognize as the creepy kid from Wes Craven’s New Nightmare) meets an unfortunate end beneath the wheels of an eighteen-wheeler, guess what Louis does? Hint: children’s laughter has rarely been this skin-crawlingly creepy, and scalpels should be reserved for those over eighteen and with medical degrees.
If ever there were a haunted piece of land, the Micmac Indian burial ground, with its carved granite plateaus and foo-lights, is that place. Before stepping onto the path to the burial ground, there’s the Pet Sematary: a place where generations of brokenhearted children have interred their beloved canines, parrots, and goldfish. Beyond the Pet Sematary, Louis hikes over a deadfall that resembles a pile of bones, then into a swamp through which apparitions cavort and huge, possibly prehistoric creatures plod. The burial ground has a magnetic pull for anyone who’s visited it–and the book and movie indicate that Jud has no choice but to tell Louis about it. It is a cursed place, one where not even death matters and those who are buried there come back–but they’re not the same, oh no.
Antichrist (dir. Lars von Trier, 2009)
A word before beginning: I did see Lars von Trier’s Antichrist from beginning to end, but it is unlikely that I will again. The first hour or so of the film is a sublime exercise in dread, suspense, and the subtle beauty of the grotesque. The rest is a downhill slide into nearly unwatchable brutality. Not since Takashi Miike’s wrenching Audition have I had such conflicting feelings about a movie, scary or otherwise. I would not presume to recommend this film or to chase you away from it. Only be warned, and decide for yourself with my blessing.Antichrist achieved overnight infamy for a number of reasons. Even before anyone had seen it, the advertisements plainly suggested graphic sex, psychological horror, and evil woodland creatures. All these the movie delivers and more. Lars von Trier has never been accused of pandering to the sensibilities of his audience, and this project brings him no closer. Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg star as a married couple consumed by grief over the death of their young son. They are essentially the only characters in the film, and it is a mighty heavy story for two actors to carry.
The husband seems eager to help his wife let go of the child’s death. All the same, his controlling efforts to master and banish her guilt only deepen his psychological grip on her fragile state. Did this game begin with the child’s death, or has it been in play since their relationship began? There is a disorienting lack of context which forces us to accept only what we see and hear, whether or not they turn out to be the truth. Whether in a genuine attempt to escape the burden of their loss, or for some darker and more calculated purpose, the man spirits his woman away to Eden, a secluded cabin where they can face her fears together. From the very first, the place appears more sinister than serene, but is it a cursed place before their arrival, or does it simply mirror the anguish and hatred they carry along with them?
Whatever the true answer may be, the experience becomes a terrifying spiral of anger, betrayal, cruelty, and unpleasant revelations. The line between waking misery and nightmare is soon gone, but these characters seldom have a moment’s rest from fear and woe. Just ask the deer, and the crow, and the fox.
The source of evil in Antichrist is ambiguous. It is tempting to say that von Trier has conceived a world in which evil is everywhere and proceeds from every living thing. Bleak, yes? Eden certainly seems evil (Transgressive, yes?). The woman herself remarks at one point that, “Nature is Satan’s church.” Within its stylized beauty, all life becomes tortured and perverted. But is it meant to represent the source of sin, or merely a catalyst by which the wickedness of the human heart may curse the world around it? Either way, it is the staging ground for a horrible catharsis. The ordeal in the woods, rather than bringing comfort or peace to the couple, instead lays bare the darkness lurking in each of them.
Ju-On: The Grudge (dir. Takashi Shimizu, 2003)
Of the various Japanese horror hits which fascinated Western audiences in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Ju-On: The Grudge is my pick for the most cleverly conceived and relentlessly horrifying. This movie is in fact the third entry in the Ju-On series, but the first to receive a theatrical release and to be easily available outside Japan. It begins with a hideous murder in a family home. The residual outrage and violence of the crime haunt the house for years to come, dooming all who enter it.
Similar movies, like Hideo Nakata’s Ringu and Dark Water, often concern an innocent person’s attempt to solve a mystery and so appease the vengeful spirits. Ju-On sends the message that some curses last forever, and only exist to destroy those who stray too close. The former films may have more going for them in terms of plot, but Ju-On’s unique, free-form riff on its core premise seems a little less contrived. Once the atmosphere gets set, it is a nonstop avalanche of dread, broken only brief moments of shrieking horror. Fun, yes?
A loosely woven series of vignettes traces the tragic and disturbing tales of each person who comes in contact with the power of the Grudge. Social workers, concerned relatives, detectives, you name it… hosts of folks walk into the house on various business. Some vanish entirely. Those who escape eventually find out that some form of deadly horror has followed them home. In all cases the more benign messenger of doom is a ghostly little boy named Toshio, who lurks impishly about with his cat. Then, of course, there is his mother – Kayako – transformed by violent murder into one nasty force from beyond the grave. Of all the popular Onryo – I understand this is the formal name of those black-haired, white-clad scary ladies in Japanese horror – she is definitely one of the most horrific. She crawls, she twists, and she makes this awful guttural sound which has a nasty habit of invading your imagination any time you are alone in a quiet, dark house. Like the noise of the gasoline generator in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it will be forever seared on the minds of those who watch… and live. So watch with care. As in, put the kiddos to bed first, please. When they’re older, maybe.
The Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn (dir. Sam Raimi, 1981 and 1987)
Anyone familiar with these movies knows that, though built upon the same idea, they present two very different experiences to an unsuspecting viewer. The original Evil Dead is a supremely nasty and downbeat affair, in which several friends summon demonic forces to a cabin in the woods. One by one, the unfortunate campers fall prey to intrusion by dark powers and transformation into hideous undead. The film is gross, upsetting, and relentlessly creepy, but it introduced the world to Ash (Bruce Campbell), a beloved, swaggering, devil-may-care fighter of the undead. However, the signature cocksure charm for which the character is famous did not fully mature until the more popular second entry.
Dead By Dawn is somewhere between a wacky sequel and an all-out comedy remake of the first Evil Dead. Sure, it has buckets of blood, rising dead, severed body parts and plenty else nasty, but it also brims with wisecracks, ghoulish mischief, campy rednecks, and chainsaws grafted in place of hands. This time around, director Sam Raimi takes time for a few laughs, in other words.
If you ever get confused, just remember that Part 2 has all the lines that people love to quote, such as, “I’ll swallow your soul!” The common ground of both films is the ramshackle house in the deep dark woods, where daylight always comes a minute too late and never stays long. In both versions of this bizarre story, Raimi creates a true nightmare world. Running outside… bad idea. Staying inside… doesn’t help. And mercy on your soul if you even think of going down in the fruit cellar.