Creeky, old houses that aren’t necessarily haunted can mess with the moviegoers’ mind more than CGI. Shutterstock

I like a good old horror movie monster. Give me tentacles, fangs, maybe some slime, and I’m a happy horror fan. But there’s a unique value in restraint when it comes to movie scares. No movie better exemplifies this than Robert Wise’s 1963 adaptation of novelist Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House,” simply titled “The Haunting.” It’s playing at Portland’s Space on Monday, Jan. 30.

As in Jackson’s book, “The Haunting” revolves around a Massachusetts mansion with a long history of mysterious deaths. A British parapsychologist recruits two women who claim experience with the paranormal to help him study the supposedly haunted house. There are looming turrets, rickety spiral staircases and doors that seem to have minds of their own. You know, typical haunted house stuff.

What sets “The Haunting” apart from other films about creaky old houses is that we’re never certain if anything supernatural is happening at all. That the house appears to be obsessed with Julie Harris’ mousy Eleanor is reinforced by various spooky happenings, but none outside the realm of coincidence, fraud or the increasingly desperate and neurotic Eleanor’s imagination. As the other possible psychic, Claire Bloom’s Theo, playing one of cinema’s first (if only implied) lesbian protagonists, is drawn into the troubled Eleanor’s feverish orbit, while the doctor takes puzzling readings of cold spots and records the house’s symphony of unexplained sounds. Nothing is for sure, and the oppressive tension gradually cranks up to deliciously unbearable levels before the enigmatic, suitably haunting ending.

It’s exactly the sort of masterful exercise in less-is-more storytelling that the horror genre could use more of. It’s understandable why such restrained scares are rare – they’re immeasurably harder to pull off. Gallons of blood and a CGI boogeyman are now all achievable with a few key strokes, the horror audience’s willingness to accept spectacle over suspense an irresistible lure for lazy filmmakers. (I love my fellow horror fans, but we often set our expectations far too low.) “The Haunting” was remade in 1999 with all that implicit fear jettisoned in favor of jump scares and CGI, and it was a complete snore.

What’s even better about the Space screening is that, thanks to Maine’s own film preservationists at Kinonik, “The Haunting” is being shown on film – 16mm film, to be precise, as Kinonik’s passionate, nonprofit mission to archive, restore and preserve actual, projectable film prints of classic movies means that Space viewers will be drawn into “The Haunting”’s black-and-white world the way 1963 audiences were. “The Haunting” is held up as the scariest movie ever made by none other than directors Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, who both saw it on its original run. And while I’m not in their ballpark, I’ll go ahead and recommend the film’s subtle terrors as well.

“Subtle terrors” might seem an oxymoron. After all, terror is generally not an understated feeling. But, like “The Haunting,” some of my most cherished/feared films partake of that same suggestive horror. Like Hill House, where the angles all seem just a little off, and the atmosphere just feels subtly but undeniably wrong, a horror film that sneaks up on you can leave you unnerved for days – or, in my case with regard to the following recommendations, a lifetime.



While director Jan de Bont was working himself into a lather ruining “The Haunting,” that same year saw this micro-budgeted exercise in ingenuity and the unseen scare the pants off the world. Three camping filmmakers are investigating a Maryland witch legend when things begin to go ever so gradually wrong. Sounds, shadows, disappearances. And ending so perfectly inexplicable that you could have offered me a million dollars to walk through some woods on my way home from the theater, and I would have turned you down. With prejudice. (Streaming on Tubi, Pluto TV and Plex.)


Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie have lost a child. In dark and shadowy Venice, the couple goes to heal, while two old women claim contact with their dead daughter, and a strange, elusive figure flits through the oppressive Venetian passageways while sporting a red raincoat similar to their daughter’s. Director Nicolas Roeg gives us as little information as Sutherland’s skeptical husband has, as he attempts to break the old women’s hold on his vulnerable wife. Another ending so explosively inexplicable leaves young Dennis avoiding dark places – and little people in red raincoats. (Streaming on Kanopy.)


This 1964 Japanese not-quite ghost story sees two 14th century women waylaying fleeing civil war soldiers to sell their armor. One doomed samurai sports a frightening ceremonial mask that the older of the two women steals in order to thwart a potential romance between her younger partner and a cowardly soldier. Set in a filed of towering grasses, and tingling always with the promise of a supernatural twist that may, or may not, happen, “Obibaba” is haunted. I’m certain of it. (Streaming on HBO Max.)



Terror creeps up on us like guilt in this 2020 haunted house film about two African immigrants to England whose past in their war-torn homeland appears to have followed them inside the walls of their grimy government housing project. A whole broken world’s suffering, and the things the desperate do to survive, all coalesce as this shell-shocked couple’s attempt to start a new life appears doomed by a specter that knows all the things they’ve so desperately tried to hide. (Streaming on Netflix.)


Australian director Peter Weir went to the majestically jagged and mysterious Hanging Rock (known as Ngannelong to the indigenous people) for this film about a class of boarding school girls gone missing at the turn of the 20th century. Slow, languorous and mesmerizing, the film treats colonialism and sexual repression as unstable artificial elements, just waiting for the jostle of the suppressed and the unknown to explode. Weir noted that, upon screening his slow-burn masterpiece in America, a viewer threw his coffee cup at the screen, shouting that he’d wasted two hours of his life on “a mystery without a solution.” Sounds like my kind of movie. (Streaming on HBO Max and the Criterion Channel.)

“The Haunting” is showing at Space, 358 Congress St., Portland, on Monday, Jan. 30, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $9 for the public, but only $7 if you’re a Space member, which you really should be. Presented by the 16mm cinematic guardian angels who make up Kinonik. For more information, go to

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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