Who cares "What Lies Beneath"?

Skip Hollywood's latest scary movie and try one of these haunted-house classics.


Michael Sragow
July 20, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)

From "The Peacemaker" to "Gladiator," DreamWorks generally invests its big productions with all the taste and personality of a summer-camp smorgasbord. That goes double for director Robert Zemeckis' "What Lies Beneath," the Harrison Ford-Michelle Pfeiffer suspense vehicle that's one part haunted-house movie, one part "Rear Window" and two parts "Diabolique" -- the 1955 Henri-Georges Clouzot exercise in terror that did for bathtubs what Hitchcock's "Psycho" did for showers.

Even before it sinks to the desperation of digital spectral visions, the movie reeks of calculation. An elephantine red herring swamps what should have been a slow and steady tide of terror. And from empty-nest syndrome to the burden of living in a father's shadow, this movie's issues smack of a baby boomer gripe list.

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Yet the film's ghost story aspects did spook me for a time. Even the obvious quotes from other haunted-house movies, like the door that opens itself out of "The Uninvited," brought back timeless horror pleasures.

The central paranormal researcher in Shirley Jackson's novel "The Haunting of Hill House" says that the concept of evil homes is as old as Homer's reference to "the house" of Hades. "Hill House has an impressive list of tragedies connected with it," he says, "but then, most old houses have. People have to live and die somewhere, after all, and a house can hardly stand for eighty years without seeing some of its inhabitants die within its walls."

No wonder the same horror tropes recur throughout haunted-house movies: Natural or supernatural visitors pop up in doorways out of nowhere; household items go haywire; window shutters slam; cries emanate from hallways or basements or bathrooms. But in the best haunted-house films, the tinglings have roots -- in twisted families or war or decadence, in amorality or outright evil. The source of the horror might be flesh and blood or otherworldly, but the haunting shouldn't stop when the movie ends.

If you must see a horror film with Zemeckis' name on it this weekend, try renting the 1996 horror comedy-drama "The Frighteners," which Zemeckis executive-produced. Peter Jackson directed Michael J. Fox as an architect who sights and partners up with ghosts after a near-death experience. They cook up a poltergeist racket that turns harrowing when a serial killer comes back to haunt them. A maladroit, misleading "grabber" opening keeps the picture from being first-rate, but "The Frighteners" manages to bring feeling as well as satiric invention into the genre without taking itself too seriously. On the other hand, for a horror film that works best when it takes itself ultraseriously, try Neil Jordan's "In Dreams," which DreamWorks threw away a year and a half ago. It's transcendent when Annette Bening limns maternal loss merging with madness, and hokey when Robert Downey Jr. (in a rare atrocious performance) shows up as a psychopathic murderer.

Or opt for one of these 12 classic films. Why 12? I'm superstitious enough not to tempt fate and recommend 13.

1. Best old dark house
Naturally: "The Old Dark House." Director James Whale's rarely seen masterpiece dates from 1932, but it's so keen-witted and indelible you'd never call it a period piece. Anyone who has ever stumbled into a group that is proud, stubborn and collectively insane can appreciate the predicament of five spiffy urban creatures -- "Titanic's" Gloria Stuart, Raymond Massey, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton and Lillian Bond -- stranded in a ramshackle Welsh home during a vicious rainstorm. When the home's inhabitants, the Femms, come to the fore, the movie becomes a satire of backwater eccentricity and fatalism that's also a comedy of terrors. Inertia rules the seedy estate of the title, from the third floor, where ancient and androgynous Sir Roderick Femm holds sway (he's played by a woman, Elspeth Dudgeon, billed as "John"), to the quarters where mute, animalistic servant Morgan (Boris Karloff) grunts and lurches. (Charles Addams molded the butler to the Addams Family in Morgan's image.) The anchor is religious fanatic Rebecca Femm (Eva Moore), a mighty mite who lords it over both Morgan and her hilariously fey brother, Horace (peerless Ernest Thesiger). The secret to director Whale's success is his ability to maintain a sneaky sort of deadpan. He uses sophisticated wit to pave the way for gargantuan grotesquerie. Before you can stop laughing, you're hooked. (The Kino/Image DVD contains Stuart's recollections and Whale biographer James Curtis' commentary, as well as an interview with director and horror aficionado Curtis Harrington, who recounts how he "saved 'The Old Dark House' from oblivion.")

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2. Best haunted Bauhaus
Edgar G. Ulmer's only big-studio classic, "The Black Cat," was a 1934 horror parable about the deadening effects of the Great War. It's a heady brew of Satanic schemes and Freudian desires, starring Boris Karloff as Austria's most celebrated engineer and Bela Lugosi as Hungary's most renowned psychiatrist. Decades before Ingmar Bergman made Death and Max von Sydow take up chess, Karloff and Lugosi play the game for blood in a bizarre Bauhaus-expressionist-deco mansion that Karloff has built figuratively on the rubble of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and literally atop a graveyard. Add a row of beauties in suspended animation and a Black Mass culled from a Latin phrasebook, and you've got one spectacle of terror that flays the skin off its characters -- and raises the hair of its audience.

3. Best haunted motel
Too much has been written about Hitchcock's 1960 "Psycho's" making people swear off showers. Not enough has been written about its scaring people away from small, family-run motels. Everything from the titillating opening of Janet Leigh and John Gavin making love during her lunch hour to the slashing shocks and reversals that ensue brought box-office success and immediate legendary status to this oddball trailblazer. But what gives this film its corrosive scuzziness is its nightmare crystallization of the petit-bourgeois side of the director's sensibility. All the characters are trapped in stifling circumstances -- especially poor Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), the motel manager stranded beside a no-longer-traveled road.

4. Best haunted frontier house
In "The Wind" (1928), Victor Sjvstrvm's silent masterpiece of psychological terror, a well-bred Virginia girl (Lillian Gish) goes to Texas to live with her cousin, only to be turned out by his jealous wife and hounded by the men and the wind that pound the countryside. It's a brilliant anti-western: When the heroine picks up a gun, what happens is horrific, not triumphant (despite MGM's attaching a jarring happy ending). From the opening of the train slicing through the landscape to the climax of a corpse buried in shifting sands, the film moves like molten lava. Images such as the cousin's wife gutting a carcass stay with you for days -- and, more to the point, nights. Gish is superb. Her initial, fleeting pangs of fear register visually, like a frayed hemline; so her emotional unraveling is both shocking and inevitable. This performance compelled Vladimir Dantchenko, co-founder of the Moscow Art Theater, to put Gish "in the small circle of the first tragediennes of the world."

5. Best haunted flat
At the start of "Repulsion" -- the concentrated piece of shock treatment Roman Polanski made in 1965 -- a sick but deceptively pretty person (Catherine Deneuve) faces a fortnight alone in an apartment she usually shares with her sister (Yvonne Furneaux). Deneuve alone intuits how loony she'll get: In vain, she begs her sibling to stay with her. In isolation, Deneuve scrapes psychic bottom. Petrifying hallucinations emanate from cracks in walls, and Polanski's hyperconscious technique grabs audiences in a headlock. A thread of feminist satire runs through Polanski's narrative: Deneuve puts desirous men out of their misery -- literally. Polanski's straight-razor intelligence gives her bad dreams of rape and entrapment and the panicky murders she commits an undiminished fright quotient. Deneuve does the best acting of her career, investing this pale manicurist with an underlying tautness that jumps out in gestures as jagged as busted springs.

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6. Best haunted English manor
"The Innocents" (1961) is the rare psychological horror film that can be enjoyed afresh each time you see it. It's a tense, exquisite rendering of Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw," the tale of a governess (Deborah Kerr) at a secluded country estate who becomes convinced that her two young charges (Pamela Franklin and Martin Stephens) have fallen under the spell of ghosts. The director, Jack Clayton, understands the Jamesian power of suggestion. He etches whole sexual histories in facial shifts and single strokes of dialogue. He also suffuses the material with a palpable creeping terror possible only in the movies. This is one of the few James adaptations that clarify the source without simplifying or vulgarizing it. Clayton and his screenwriters (William Archibald, Truman Capote and John Mortimer) tell the story from the nanny's perspective, and take their emotional pitch from her fervor and excitability. It's a tribute to the brilliant, inventive black-and-white cinematography of Freddie Francis, and to Kerr's eloquent tremor of a performance, that when the heroine witnesses apparitions, they're immediately credible to the audience. The filmmakers, though, never downplay her peculiar Victorian mixture of propriety and romanticism, her willingness to be "carried away." And as the children, Franklin and Stephens embody the kind of precocious, eerie high spirits that could be construed as "corruption." The governess sights the ghosts at all hours, but the ambiguities reach their fullness in the dark. The whole movie is frighteningly beautiful: a night-blooming flower.

7. Best haunted New England manor
And now for a digression on theory. In the new millennium everyone seems to be an auteurist: Even the least movie-savvy critics are up in arms because "Home Alone" director Chris Columbus landed the Harry Potter film, no matter how splendid the script, the cast or the finished film might turn out to be. Throughout the '60s, director Robert Wise was an auteurist whipping boy, stigmatized because of his lavish middlebrow successes with "West Side Story" and "The Sound of Music," though in previous decades he'd made a number of memorable genre films ("The Body Snatcher," "The Set-Up," "The Day the Earth Stood Still"). His 1963 version of "The Haunting" was a critical and box-office disappointment, yet it has come to be regarded as a classic. Intelligently adapting Shirley Jackson's novel, it updates old-dark-house conventions with a psychological self-consciousness that, for once, intensifies the horror instead of defusing it. Academic ghost hunter Richard Johnson summons two women who are sensitive to paranormal stimuli -- a lesbian with ESP (Claire Bloom) and a ravaged virgin (Julie Harris) who once had a poltergeist experience -- to an ominous architectural behemoth in the Massachusetts countryside. (Potential heir Russ Tamblyn also shows up.) The horror is rooted in Harris' uncanny ability to convey a perilous loneliness. Her character has spent too much of her life attending a sick, uncaring mother; she now yearns to belong, even to a group as odd as this one. Wise brings home the eerie presences that prey on her (or seduce her) with the audiovisual equivalent of musique concrhte. (The result is infinitely more unsettling than Jan de Bont's 1999 DreamWorks remake, with its garish designs and special effects, and its stupid reframing of the research team as insomniacs turned guinea pigs for a study of human fear.) Auteurists should have taken note: "The Haunting" wasn't the first time that Wise had centered a suspense film on a troubled daughter and followed her through a supposed haunted house. He did it at the very start of his career, in his bold and tender 1944 debut, "Curse of the Cat People."

8. Best haunted home office
Georges Franju's 1959 "Eyes Without a Face" is a hyperaesthetic horror classic with more impact than any gorefest. Like some exotic arachnid, it transfixes, then stings, you. Pierre Brasseur stars as a surgeon who lays waste to one young beauty after another as he attempts to replace his daughter's face -- totaled in a car accident -- with massive skin grafts. When the daughter isn't being summoned for the next attempt at her repair, she wanders through the corridors of their house like a sadly graceful, wounded alien. Although the film is based on a novel by Jean Redon, it may remind Americans of Hawthorne's great short story "The Birthmark" -- a fable of a scientist who strives for physical perfection at all costs. Franju wickedly juxtaposes grisliness and idealism, while contrasting our childish love for all things shiny and new with our childish fear that their ruin signals damnation. Noting "the elaborate contrasts in clothing -- satin, leather, rubber and toweling," and "the black branches dancing in car headlights or reflected black-on-black, in the sleek 'skin' of a Citroen," British critic Raymond Durgnat gave this movie just the right creepy encomium: He called it "an epidermal film." (Thomas Narcejac and Pierre Boileau, who co-wrote the original novels of "Diabolique" and "Vertigo," collaborated with Redon, Pierre Gascar and future director Claude Sautet on the script.)

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9. Best haunted cabin
As Sam Raimi told me in 1990, he and his producer, Rob Tapert, couldn't raise enough money to make the sequel they had planned for their low-budget hit "The Evil Dead." So in 1986 they decided "to put the same guy back in the same haunted cabin" and "to make a comedy vs. a straight horror picture." Raimi, who a couple of years ago stunned naysayers with his grasp of adult suspense in "A Simple Plan," had started his career with horror flicks because he thought he could get them made. After studying the effect of horror fodder on downtown Detroit audiences, he decided to use the dehumanization of the genre -- "We all know the characters stink in horror movies; they're used as pawns to frighten the audience" -- as grist for hellbent camerawork and comedy. He went all-out in "Evil Dead 2." The result is a one-time-only horror-slapstick jamboree. The plot is almost nonexistent: The hero (Bruce Campbell) and his girlfriend enter the obligatory remote cabin in an archetypal deep forest and awake the spirits of the dead. The kick of the film lies in its cascade of outrageous gags, involving, among other things, runaway eyeballs and decapitation. Let's just say that in this movie, when the director makes an allusion to "A Farewell to Arms," he really is referring to a farewell to arms.

10. Best haunted opera house
It is, of course, the 1925 Lon Chaney "Phantom of the Opera," directed by Rupert Julian. The star reportedly feared that the production's baroque extravagance would swallow up his characterization of the disfigured musical genius. But the way the movie came out, the cadaverous look Chaney developed for the Phantom and the lushness of the Grand Opera House of Paris (as rebuilt on the Universal lot) meshed in an upsettingly right way. More than ever, the Phantom became the skeleton in opera's closet, embodying the idea that art is dangerous -- as dangerous as sex is in vampire movies and sometimes just as sexy, too. Tony Richardson directed a beguiling version in 1989, filmed in the actual Paris Opera House, with keen casting (Charles Dance as the Phantom, Burt Lancaster as his father) and voluptuous romantic-fantasy interludes -- with everything, in fact, that a great "Phantom" needs except moments of heart-stopping fright. The Chaney version is the one that delivers the payoff of deeply lurid thrills. (Both productions are available on Image DVDs; the Chaney, a Kino release, includes brilliant approximations of the original tints and a startling restoration of the Technicolor masked ball.)

11. Best haunted rock opera house
The Paris Opera becomes the Paradise rock palace in Brian De Palma's 1974 "Phantom of the Paradise," a raucous spoof of '70s rock, media hype, youth movies and slasher flicks. De Palma dares, among other things, to replay the shower scene in "Psycho" with a toilet plunger. Paul Williams is a Mephistophelean impresario, using high-tech toys to punch out teenage fantasies of love and death like candy bars -- supplying audiences with the same cheap energy. William Finley is a tormented artist, caught up in his own solipsistic adolescent longing, who sells his soul for rock 'n' roll. The biggest scene stealer is Gerrit Graham as a singer named Beef -- a flabby rock Schwarzenegger who tries to look like Dietrich, shrieks when he sings and, when he talks, sounds like Charles Nelson Reilly.

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12. Best haunted suburban house
The brilliance of the 1987 film "The Stepfather" (directed by Joseph Ruben, written by Donald Westlake) is that its well-groomed serial killer brings terror into squeaky-clean circumstances. The only traditional thing about the movie is the title, which recalls all the wicked stepparents of literature. Played with consummate shrewdness by Terry O'Quinn, the Stepfather is a villain with a cause: American domestic bliss. The USA for him is a man and wife living with their children in a two-story house in a suburb where the neighbors don't lock their doors. The Stepfather's problem is perfectionism. When the members of his family inevitably disappoint him, he takes the knife to every one of them. He changes his identity, moves to another place in the greater Seattle area and searches for households ready-made for a firm, all-too-caring patriarch. This film is far scarier than any "Scream" or "Nightmare on Elm Street" movie. It's about what you lock in -- and how that can be far more dangerous than what you lock out.


Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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