In honor of Halloween, I’d like to offer a few (13, apropos) of my favorite exteriors and interiors produced in the genre of the macabre. Dim the lights and prepare for a chilling house tour (in chronological order):
Director Tod Browning’s tale of Bram Stoker’s infamous blood lusting count featured a set that set the standard for Universal’s classic monster films. Bleak environments of enormous scale were melodramatic backdrops for the creepy proceedings. Lovingly cloaked in blacks, whites and grays, these sets were oddly contemporary: they certainly were more surreal than historically correct. Doorways yawned to extreme proportions and stairs ascended to seemingly unending heights.
The is the ultimate tale of the hapless heroine found trapped in a new and strange environment (you’ll find this theme a few times on this list). Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller featured the ultimate big, creepy mansion overseen by an equally creepy caretaker named Mrs. Danvers. Our protagonist (the poor girl doesn’t even warrant a name) wanders the vast halls of this forlorn manse ever shadowed by the ghost of the film’s titled late inhabitant. What always strikes me about the interiors of these mammoth sets is the entire lack of ceilings – soaring windows and drapery seem to go on forever.
HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959)
The 1950’s king of schlocky cinematic scare was undoubtedly William Castle. During his career, he cranked out a number of low budget fright-fests. House on Haunted Hill was probably his most well known. Starring Vincent Price as the owner of said house, this movie features the most schizophrenic haunt on this list – the exterior and interior simply did not match. The shots of the exterior showed the then-innovative Innes house in California designed by Frank Lloyd Wright while the interiors were pure cheap Victorian soundstage. Given his renowned purist nature, I’m sure Mr. Wright was the most frightened of all the viewers of this campy movie.
This classic film (again by Hitchcock – who was wonderful in creating scenic terror) sealed the deal that Victorian architecture was ideally the most terrifying style to house horror. This movie proved the fanciful painted ladies of the Victorian age get very sinister once paint wears off and neglect sets in. Plus there’s all those nooks and crannies for nightmare to gather. Like the house, villain Norman Bates’ facade also begins to crack during the course of the story.
ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968)
New York’s famed Dakota apartment building is the ominous setting for this tale of a new marriage gone horribly awry. A young, meek Mia Farrow plays the title character thrust headlong into a new marriage and into that iconic creepy apartment castle of the Upper West Side. Complete with weird neighbors (a delightfully kooky Ruth Gordon and a pre-Bewitched Maurice Evans), this is another tale in the poor-trapped-woman vein. It differs, though, from our previous offerings: here, unspeakable horrors occurred under the roof of an urban multi-family setting. Despite the films’s satanic theme, I think the most shocking thing is that a young upstart couple could ever have afforded to live in the Dakota in the first place.
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974)
The grandaddy of hey-our-car-broke-down-let’s-go-ask-for-help-at-this-innocent-looking-farmhouse films. The benign look of this movie’s Americana rural house perfectly masked the crazed and psychotic horrors unveiled within – a perfect architectural metaphor for the modern serial killer. This film gets extra design points for having an entire collection of furnishings made from human bones.
THE SHINING (1980)
Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant telling of the Stephen King yarn about a family dynamic gone bad. The vast, vacant and decidedly evil Overlook Hotel was the looming backdrop for this isolation story. Kubrick’s distinctly stylish one-point perspective camera work wonderfully draws you into the mouth of madness. Cabin fever never had such an enormous setting.
THE EVIL DEAD (1981)
The original cabin in the woods tale. A group of young adults goes for an outing in a remote setting only to find themselves beset upon by malevolent spirits. As a result, the tiny bucolic shack becomes a terrifying and claustrophobic prison. Recalling the simple structures and wooded backdrops of classic children’s fairy tales, this naive shanty ends up hosting a slew of nightmares. In one visceral scene, literally every piece of furniture and accessory in the house becomes possessed by cackling evil. Decor demons!
THE OTHERS (2001)
Nichole Kidman stars in this Spanish American offering as a devout Roman Catholic mother who lives with her two small children in a remote country house in the British countryside in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Her children have an odd and rare disease which prevents them from being exposed to sunlight. A handful of ominous and lurking servants completes the dismal picture. The children’s ailment serves as a foil for the darkness of this atmospheric movie. Some scenes were filmed entirely by candlelight to further the confined and airless ambiance. Never has the English countryside looked so dreary.
THE ORPHANAGE (2007)
Another stylish Spanish offering, this etherial film centers around a woman returning to the countryside orphanage she once called home. The combination of dark, cavernous rooms and forlorn little children provide an apt setting for this disturbing tale.
AMERICAN HORROR STORY: MURDER HOUSE (2011)
I’m including this small screen entry on this list simply due to the fact that this dynamic TV show has set new standards in making horror look oh-so-stylish. The first season was a classic haunted house tale (with a twist) set in a turn-of-the-century Romanesque house in a California suburb. The designers of this serial (along with it’s four subsequent seasons) relish high design – they are constantly putting chic slipcovers on things with severely disturbing underbellies.
GOODNIGHT MOMMY (2014)
I’m including this obscure Austrian film for two reasons – one, I saw it recently and two, because it’s the only thriller I can recall set entirely in a contemporary house. The story centers around simpatico twin boys and their severely bandaged mother, who’s recovering from a recent accident (or is it their mother?). The juxtaposition of the cold, austere modern setting and the complex psychological goings-on prove to be quite unsettling.
CRIMSON PEAK (2015)
The final and most recent entry to my little list of horrors, Crimson Peak is an homage to many of the films I’ve already mentioned. It’s a near mix-tape of my previous 12. A throwback to the gothic films of the 1970s (especially those produced by the Hammer Studios), director Guillermo Del Toro’s narrative tells the story of an innocent young Jane Eyre-ish woman newly married to a brooding and near-destitute baronet. Throw in a sinister sister-in-law and the most haunting haunted house ever created and the scene is set. It’s a visible feast – beautiful and revolting all at once.
Greg Tankersley for McAlpine Tankersley
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