Eli Roth’s foray into family-friendly horror might have more in common with other orphan-peddling, YA-friendly gothic fare like Percy Jackson and 2004’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. But here’s the thing: the magic of The House with a Clock in its Walls (which, I’m sorry to report, isn’t all that magical) is by no means the most interesting thing about this film.
Because look: if a film centers around an old spooky house with old spooky secrets — Jack Black fireballs and magical rigamarole be damned, this is a haunted house film, baby. Gnarled iron gates and garish interior design are like my bat signal and I refuse to have my mellow harshed.
As a delivery device for chills and thrills, spooky houses have the potential to go one of two ways. A haunted home can be a horrible thing; a disturbing testament to the way residual trauma infuses itself into domestic spaces. From the special effects showcase of Poltergeist to the quiet creep of The Legend of Hell House, haunted house films have supplied some of the creepiest horror offerings to date.
They have also supplied some of the goofiest. Whether a loving send-up or accidental camp, the haunted house cannon is lousy with comedy. And really, a lighter touch is a boon when you’re trying to convert the next generation of genre dorks. Heck, even Annihilation’s Alex Garland has a family-friendly/gateway haunted house flick in the works. Start ‘em young, I say.
Halloween’s just around the corner. So if you’re searching for something sillier to chase the rest of your hardcore horror diet you’re in luck. Here are seven haunted house films with a goofy bent:
House on Haunted Hill (1959)
“Well if I were ever going to haunt anybody, this would be the house I’d do it in.” In House on Haunted Hill, an eccentric couple throw a party in an isolated mansion with five random strangers and offer them $10,000 each to spend the night. Soon enough the guests are equipped with guns, blood starts to drip from the ceiling — oh right, and there’s a pool of acid under a trap door in the basement. You know. Normal house stuff.
The Chills: Beneath all the good spooky fun, the domestic murder at the heart of the film is pretty damn unsettling, particularly for camp master William Castle. The scenes between the host couple (Vincent Price and Carol Ohmart) are far and away the creepiest in the film.
The Goofs: House on Haunted Hill is a throwback to the old dark house format of the 1920s and 30s, and its self-awareness is easy for modern audiences to miss. Nora, in particular, can’t seem to bat an eyelash without stumbling into a histrionics-prompting jump scare. Likewise, the janky puppeteered basement skeleton is unabashed comedy gold.
The Frighteners (1996)
When it comes to horror served with a non-negotiable side of goofs, Peter Jackson reigns supreme. The Frighteners is no exception. After his wife dies in a car accident, a traumatized Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) finds he’s able to commune with the dead, and immediately monetizes that shit. With the help of three of ghost buds, Bannister “exorcises” haunted houses for a price. But when an aspiring serial killer ghost played by a marvelously cast Jake Busey starts knocking off townsfolk, Bannister has to put his haunted house con game on hold.
The Chills: Unafraid to get serious when it counts, The Frighteners definitely scratches a macabre itch. The film is also tinged with a certain drab melancholy, helped along by the unique misty landscapes of New Zealand.
The Goofs: Okay so look, the Busey reaper is a super fun effect. But Jeffery Combs’ performance steals the goddamn show. Jackson cast Combs off his performance in Re-Animator, and boy oh boy what a masterstroke. Combs is creepy, unpredictable, and downright campy as an anal Hitler-lookalike with a hemorrhoid problem who pukes when women yell at him. Brava.
Troubled and recently separated author Roger Cobb has taken up residence in the house where his aunt recently committed suicide. His fans (and publicist) are clamoring for another horror novel, but Cobb wants to write about his experiences in Vietnam. Also his son is missing. Did I mention this is a horror comedy?
The Chills: There are a couple of universal truths in this world: the sun rises, taxes suck, and monsters in the closet are fucking terrifying. Especially when they’re jump scares.
The Goofs: House is pleasantly round-edged given its depressing premise. The moments when Cobb’s fear shift to annoyance are particularly fun (hellooooo, reanimated swordfish).
An off-kilter haunted house romp that oscillates between giggles and gore, Housebound is an eerie suburban satire that’ll make you laugh your socks off. When delinquent Kylie Bucknell (Morgana O’Reilly) is placed under house arrest at her parent’s house, she takes her mother’s (Rima Te Wiata) claims of hauntings with a grain of salt. But then she starts to notice it too: something’s off. Time to enlist the local security guard-cum-ghostbuster.
The Chills: If there’s one thing that’s scarier than basements, it’s not knowing where your phone is. Wait, I lied: turns out having to retrieve your phone from the basement is the absolute goddamn worst.
The Goofs: Te Wiata’s performance, somewhere between suffering and insufferable, is downright hilarious, and shines in the madcap circumstances.
The House by the Cemetery (1981)
“Read the fine print…you may have just mortgaged your LIFE!” Sometimes the biggest goof em ups are the accidental ones. A notorious video nasty, the third part of Lucio Fulci’s “Trilogy of Death” is a confusing and unintentionally hilarious romp through (you guessed it) a very spooky house. But what do you expect when the previous tenant was a sadomasochistic mad scientist who doesn’t appear to have fully moved out?
The Chills: As ever, Fulci excels in visceral special effects that make me think long and hard about how delicate the human body is. There are also a good handful of genuinely tense “nope nope nope” basement scenes. But then, after one too many ankle grab shots, it’s rare I meet a movie basement that doesn’t automatically fire off my fear receptors.
The Goofs: Here’s the thing. The dubbing is so, so bad. Every time the film threatens to build anything in the way of a serious creepy mood, the dub barges in like the Kool-Aid man and turns things into an SNL sketch. The whole-hog Italian horror zooms and general aloofness only add to the silliness. It’s marvelous.
Monster House (2006)
In a rather literal rendering of the “Lady of the House of Love” quote “she herself is a haunted house,” the titular Monster House isn’t just haunted, it’s possessed. Imbued with the soul of the cranky owner’s dead wife, the house has it out for our over-curious young trio. You see, unfortunately for them, she hates children.
The Chills: While the stop motion-like animation, nightmare sequences, and overall design of the house are certainly spooky, the circumstances of Constance’s death (being buried in the house’s cement foundation) are absolutely morbid. There’s a scene where DJ and company find her encased corpse in the house’s basement, and after getting too close, the cement flakes away to reveal a skeleton. You know…for kids!
The Goofs: Of the physical comedy beats sprinkled throughout, John Heder’s performance as the videogame-obsessed teenage supernatural geek is a total hoot.
After falling prey to an unfortunate car-plunging-into-the river accident, Barbara and Adam find themselves amongst the recently deceased. As if being dead weren’t bad enough, a new family moves into their house and begins to mangle it into a modern art hellscape. What’s a distressed soul to do? Haunt the shit out of the offending party to scare them away, of course. Or, that failing, ring up the local, chaos-loving bio-exorcist. What could go wrong?
The Chills: That goddamn animated Michael Keaton sand snake thing is the stuff of nightmares. Big nope.
The Goofs: While Time Burton’s signature gallows humor and Keaton’s endearingly bonkers performance assure goofs aplenty, the “Day-O” set-piece is just pure, absurdist joy and I cannot eat prawns without thinking about it.