There comes a time in every child’s life when they get too old to don a costume and harvest candy from benevolent strangers (or so I’m told). For years, I dreaded the moment I would no longer be able to go trick or treating, and wondered what in the world people did on Halloween instead. I’ve yet to find the perfect answer, but the movies offer some balm for the wounded soul. To mix things up, we took a few liberties with our theme this All Hallows Eve. Everyone loves a good haunted house, and these movies are all set in houses “haunted” in some way by the supernatural.
Cast: Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, George Sanders, Judith Anderson, Reginald Denny, Nigel Bruce, Gladys Cooper, C. Aubrey Smith
Available on YouTube, on disc from Netflix
There’s a moment in “Rebecca” when the camera pans slowly towards a set of majestic, double doors. Flanked by columns and guarded by a black spaniel, the doors are menacing, the patterns on them looming like eyes, filling the frame with dread. It’s part of the vague feeling of unease that fills the entire movie. The title character never appears, but casts a long and deepening shadow over the entire production. She was the former mistress of Manderley, the grand English estate of Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), a man whose tortured eyes hint at the secrets behind his stoic manner. His young bride, played by Joan Fontaine, has no idea what she’s in for until she arrives at Manderley, contending with a new social class, a housekeeper slavishly devoted to her former mistress, and most problematically, the pall Rebecca casts over every corner of her new home and husband. Manderley looms large throughout, paradise and prison for its inhabitants, a place where anything feels possible.
“After Life” (1998)
Cast: Arata Iura, Erika Oda, Susumu Terajima, Takashi Naito
Available on disc from Netflix
The purgatorial holding zone of Hirokazu Koreeda’s “After Life” isn’t a terribly unpleasant place: it looks an awful lot like a run-down school or social services building, out in the middle of a quiet, mist-shrouded countryside. But here all the recently dead gather, given a week to choose one memory from their life – at the end of the week, they will re-enact and then relive that moment for eternity. These ghosts shuffle through abandoned hallways and courtyards, guided by a staff of patient and earnest “counselors,” pondering just what it meant to be alive. Melancholy, poignant, and ultimately affirming, Koreeda’s film suggests that just as the thought of death haunt the living, the memory of life haunts the dead.
“Spirited Away” (2001)
Cast: Rumi Hiiragi, Miyu Irino, Mari Natsuki, Takashi Naito, Yasuko Sawaguchi
Available on disc from Netflix
Anime master Hayao Miyazaki has always been known for his fantastic, elaborate creature designs – monsters that can alternatively fright and delight. His 2001 masterpiece is probably the best showcase for this particular talent, as the supernatural bathhouse encountered by our young human protagonist, Chihiro, is chock full of witches, gods, freaks and spirits. Again, most “haunted house” films regard intrusions by other-worldy into our realm; “Spirited Away” goes the other way around, showing us what happens when a girl stumbles into the place where things that go bump in the night make their home. Since it’s Miyazaki we’re talking about here, the spirit world turns out to be a place not just of monsters (memorably the terrifying, ravenous No-Face), but of beauty, heartache and sympathy as well.