October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article about the best old dark house movies is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
A house is something human. They’re built with purpose. They’re built from dreams. Blood, sweat, and imagination are hammered into every wall and floorboard. In each nail, a prayer is answered, but the response may not be what you had in mind.
The haunted houses you’ll find below are poisonous domiciles. The dreams found within soured into nightmares and the guests who dare to cross their thresholds fare about as well as any unwanted cockroach. These buildings are shocking structures designed by filmmakers to cement their desired dreads.
Spooky old dark house movies are a dime a dozen, but too often their foundations lack character. Our beloved Boo Crew — a.k.a. Chris Coffel, Valerie Ettenhofer, Kieran Fisher, Rob Hunter, Meg Shields, Anna Swanson, Jacob Trussell, and yours truly — have erected a list of films featuring mighty mansions and lowly lodgings overstuffed with hateful dread. Each movie selected contains a bold architectural innovation mutated by repulsive humanity.
10. Thirteen Ghosts (2001)
What a dick move. Here we go promising a list of the best old dark house movies only to start it with a brightly lit film set in a high-tech home with glass walls. A new bright house if you will. Of course, that’s part of what makes Steve Beck‘s remake of William Castle’s 1960 original so damn entertaining and memorable. How can a modern smart house with see-through walls and illuminated floors be creepy?
The multitude of non-standard door locks certainly help, as do the ominous collections of geared creations, but it’s the prison cells in the basement that really tip the scales. Ghosts! They hold ghosts, and once the angry undead are out and roaming the halls — visible only to those with special glasses, naturally — the film’s adrenalized terror ramps up alongside the fun. Gone are the usual hiding spaces for jump scares and thrills, and in their place sits a collision of glass, metal, ectoplasm, and flesh. Welcome home. (Rob Hunter)
9. The Old Dark House (1932)
When trapped in a thunderstorm, any potential shelter should come with relief. Of course, not if that shelter is the Femm estate with its Boris Karloff butler and family of mysterious psychotics huddled within. Sometimes, the cure is worse than the disease. The titular Old Dark House looks like any other country home you’ve seen on postcards. It’s a collection of passages and tiny boxes, but hidden behind every door is a secret where whispers echo like screams.
James Whale knew how to bend a set toward terror, and the tricks he learned on Frankenstein solidify with The Old Dark House. The director weaponizes lighting and sound design, transforming his studio sets into nightmares of shadow and incoherent rustling. The Femm house will have you nostalgically dreaming of the luxury and comfort of Bavarian castles. (Brad Gullickson)
8. House (1985)
House is a haunted mansion flick with more on its mind than creaky floorboards and things that go bump in the night. The supernatural elements serve as a metaphor for PTSD, though the film is packed with too much humor to work as a truly effective examination of the condition.
That said, where the movie does succeed is in its ability to balance the laughs with horror elements that are truly menacing at times. More than anything, though, the movie is just pure bonkers and constantly entertaining. The practical effects work is delightfully ghoulish as well, but that’s just a small part of House’s many spooky charms. (Kieran Fisher)
7. The Others (2001)
You don’t need direct sunlight to be able to see that the old manor in The Others is one of horror’s best decrepit houses. It’s got all the hallmarks of a spooky English estate: rolling fog, stuffy furniture, and vast, unexplored corridors. This is all made even more ominous by Nicole Kidman’s pitch-perfect performance as a paranoid mother hellbent on keeping her children, who have a sensitivity to light, away from the damaging rays at all costs.
From the foreboding gated entrance to the shadowy interiors, every inch of this Jersey property instills doom and gloom. Even before ghosts enter the picture, this is clearly the perfect location for a haunt. (Anna Swanson)
6. The Innocents (1961)
Crafting the perfect haunted house is a magic trick. For The Innocents, most of what you see of Bly Manor exists on the sound stages within Shepperton Studios, while a facade was constructed on the lot. For the larger exterior shots, director Jack Clayton selected the old gothic mansion that stood defiantly atop Sheffield Park in East Sussex.
Lit and shadowed by Freddie Francis (who wouldn’t shoot another film until David Lynch came calling for The Elephant Man), Bly takes on the life of a fist. As Deborah Kerr slinks through its corridors, the audience can sense the walls tightening. There are secrets in this fabrication; dark truths better left unsaid, but are definitely, purposefully doomed to reveal themselves. (Brad Gullickson)