"The Innocents" (1961)
The many adaptations of Henry James’ novella “The Turn of the Screw” have over the years attracted everyone from John Frankenheimer and Ingrid Bergman to, um, Patsy Kensit and Julian Sands. But the 1961 version, “The Innocents,” is really all the adaptation you need: co-written by Truman Capote, directed by Jack Clayton and championed by Francois Truffaut, it features a note-perfect central performance by Deborah Kerr, all clipped vowels, self-righteous piety and sexual repression. The gathering hysteria in the film’s dark heart is genuinely unsettling, and has influenced countless films since, like those in which a similarly pale woman with children in her care goes gradually mad – or does she? – in a big house: “The Others” and the excellent “The Orphanage” spring to mind as the best recent examples of that sub-genre. And yet the level of creepiness that “The Innocents” achieves sets it apart from even those films; perhaps it’s the verging-on-camp melodrama that it shamelessly embraces, perhaps it’s the disturbing themes of pedophilia and necrophilia that are all the more tangible for never being fully acknowledged. Either way, the film’s build to its devastating, poetic, can-be-read-either-way denouement is its greatest strength and for all the exquisite horror of ghosts standing in broad daylight and leering spectral faces appearing at windows, we are ultimately persuaded that the more prosaic explanation of isolation- religion- and repression-induced insanity is even more frightening still. Which would make it almost as frightening as the idea of the Kensit/Sands version, then.
Of all the outré stuff that nestled inside the "Steven Spielberg presents," PG-rated "Poltergeist," one of the most shocking moments occurs in a sequence of relative innocence, when the parents of the suburban family (Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams) share a before-bed joint. That alone would earn the movie an R-rating today and we haven't even factored in the sequence when the young research assistant rips off his own face in large, pinkish blobs. "Poltergeist" ingeniously re-imagines classic Gothic tropes as transplanted into Reagan's sunny suburbia. Instead of creaking doors or claps of lightning, menace now exudes from the hushed fuzz of a television and the inquisitiveness of modern science. When a young girl (Heather O'Rourke) gets kidnapped from her family by malevolent spirits, it's up to her gung-ho parents, the aforementioned researchers, and a dwarfish medium (Zelda Rubenstein) to bring her back. In the end, "Poltergeist," directed by "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" auteur Tobe Hooper and overseen by Steven Spielberg (there's still some debate as to who did what, as the film carries an undeniably Spielbergian touch), is a balls-to-the-walls haunted house tale, emboldened by then cutting-edge technology from ILM and enriched by sly social satire. The fact that the haunted house in "Poltergeist" looks like it could have been down the street from Elliot's home in "E.T." just made things even more identifiable, and that much creepier.
"The Haunting" (1963)
There are very distinctive types of horror films: those with a taste for the gore and those that root their terror in the psychological. “The Haunting” is the classic psychological thriller, in that it forces you to confront a nightmare come true - a house literally out to kill you. Academy Award winning director Robert Wise directed the adaption of Shirley Jackson’s novel “The Haunting of Hill House” in between classic musicals “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music,” almost as if he needed to submerge himself into the darkness. And dark he went. “The Haunting” follows a paranormal investigation conducted by Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) on Hill House, a creeptastic mansion that is believed to haunted. The owner invites Dr. Markway and Luke (Russ Tamblyn), who is set to to inherit the house, to stay over for a few days and inspect the house for supernatural activity. Dr. Markway invites two young women, Eleanor (Julie Harris) and Theodora (Claire Bloom), who have had previous experiences with paranormal activity as a kind of bait. The supernatural instances are more than just creaking stairs and lights flickering: the house seems to be trying to harm all those who inhabit it. For a pre-CGI thriller, Wise’s ability to trick us into thinking a Victorian mansion is morphing into a murderer before our own eyes borders on genius. There’s a reason that after fifty years this film still remains one the scariest to ever be made and lauded by some of the most prestigious directors. “The Haunting” hits us where it hurts the most -- where we lay our heads and sleep. But the less said about Jan De Bont's noisy, charmless remake, notable only for the unintentionally hilarious decapitation of Owen Wilson, the better.