The haunted house is an undisputed staple of the horror genre. In fact, if you were to ask a random sampling of people what came to mind when they heard the word “horror,” it wouldn’t be surprising if it was one of the first concepts to pop into their brains. Naturally, this trope has translated easily into box office success, with a great number of haunted house films making up the list of the top-grossing horror movies ever. The following are the subgenre’s 8 most successful. Get ready for a lot of titles starting with “The.”
8. Paranormal Activity, 2009 – $112,876,600
Director Oren Peli’s debut film—and, until Area 51 comes out later this year, the only movie he has actually helmed—used “real” camcorder footage to depict a young couple’s torment at the hands of a demon in their Los Angeles home. Relying on minimal special effects, creepy time lapse footage and effective, show-nothing trailers, it was both a critical and commercial hit, and since then has spawned three sequels, with another due out later this year.
Paranormal Activity was the first big found footage hit since The Blair Witch Project and was even more successful, with the Guardian reporting that (not factoring in marketing costs) it received the biggest return on investment of any film ever made. To give some perspective, Box Office Mojo reports that its budget—adjusted for 2014—was only $17,061.
7. The Others, 2001 – $135,745,700
A relatively restrained period piece set in post-war Jersey (the island off of France, not the state), The Others is the first English language feature film by Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar, previously known for Open Your Eyes (later remade as Vanilla Sky starring Tom Cruise). It stars Nicole Kidman as a widowed Englishwoman who lives with her two children in a remote estate. Her children become convinced that four other unknown people are residing in the house with them, and in time it becomes apparent that the line between life and death is much more blurred than any of them could have thought.
Apart from netting a positive critical reception, The Others became the first non-Spanish language film to win Best Picture at the Goyas, Spain’s film awards. It also took home trophies for Best Director, Cinematography and Sound, among others.
6. The Conjuring, 2013 – $139,464,200
Director James Wan made his name helming the first film in the gory Saw series; The Conjuring, a haunted house/possession movie based on the supposed case files of exorcists Ed and Lorraine Warren, couldn’t have been more different. Set in 1971 (and with all of the distinctive fashion and hairstyles to boot), it sees the Warrens (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) investigate a series of paranormal phenomena at the Perron family’s home in rural Rhode Island. Crows, possessions and a pair of detached, ghostly hands ensue.
Apart from its box office success, The Conjuring was generally critically praised, currently holding an 86% positive consensus on Rotten Tomatoes. The Hollywood Reporter’s Sheri Linden particularly praised the film’s more subdued effects and atmosphere compared to most modern horror movies.
5. The Grudge, 2004 – $141,459,000
The Grudge was the next Japanese horror movie to get an American remake following the success of The Ring in 2002. Based on Ju-on: The Grudge, itself the third movie in the Ju-on series, it starred Sarah Michelle Gellar—who had previously dabbled with horror as Buffy the Vampire Slayer—as an American exchange student who moves to Japan and becomes swept up a curse that affects the families residing in a certain house in suburban Tokyo. Where Ringu/The Ring had Sadako/Samara, The Grudge had chalk white mother-and-son ghosts Kayoko and Toshio.
The film, while successful, received somewhat understandable criticism for feeling too similar to the then-recent Ring film, with some reviewers noting the physical similarities of both movies’ ghosts. Besides being a box office success, Sony Pictures said it was also one of the most profitable films of 2004, according to Box Office Mojo.
4. The Haunting, 1999 – $143,234,800
A remake of Robert Wise’s seminal 1963 haunted house film, which in turn is based on Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting was the first horror outing for Jan De Bont, who was previously best known for his action-heavy thrillers Speed and Twister. In contrast to the comparatively subdued casting and aesthetic of Wise’s film, De Bont’s The Haunting featured big-name actors Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Owen Wilson and gave Hill House a gothic and vaguely steampunk-ish makeover—not to mention a vaguely splatter-horror vibe.
While a box office hit—making $177,311,151 worldwide according to Box Office Mojo—The Haunting was roundly panned for overuse of CGI and a bad script. It was nominated for eight Razzie Awards including Worst Picture, Worst Actress (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Worst Screen Couple (Zeta-Jones and Lili Taylor, who would later appear in The Conjuring). Thankfully, for its sake, it “won” none of them.
3. Poltergeist, 1982 – $207,410,200
Produced and co-written by Steven Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre fame, Poltergeist was a marriage of the frightening and the fantastical, with a healthy dose of the family dynamics seen in many of Spielberg’s movies. It focuses on the Freeling family, headed by parents Steve and Diane (Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams), who discover that their suburban home has become infested with lost and confused spirits. Though the haunting starts off benignly, with chairs moving of their own accord, it quickly escalates to involve violent clown dolls and literal buried skeletons.
Well-received by critics, Poltergeist made the 2014 equivalent of $207.4 million domestically and received Oscar nominations for Visual Effects, Original Score (Jerry Goldsmith) and Sound Editing. Young actress Heather O’Rourke also popularized the creepy-sounding “They’re heee-eeeeere.”
2. What Lies Beneath, 2000 – $229,581,400
Part ghost story, part relationship drama, What Lies Beneath starred Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer as a couple whose past indiscretions come to the fore as the supernatural starts to intrude on their lives. It was directed by Robert Zemeckis of Forrest Gump and Back to the Future fame and co-written by Clark Gregg, who Marvel and superhero fans may know as Agent Phil Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D. It received middling reviews, though Pfeiffer was praised for her performance, and made over $291 million worldwide.
1. The Amityville Horror, 1979 – $274,103,100
Arguably the most famous haunted house movie ever made, The Amityville Horror was based on a supposedly real haunting that occurred in Long Island, New York. Starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder and directed by Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke), it follows a young family who moves into an old, colonial-style home that, unbeknownst to them, was the site of a mass murder just a year prior. As in the traditions of many so-called hauntings, the violent occurrence has “tainted” the house, manifesting in flies, demonic appearances and increasing disturbed behaviour on the part of patriarch George Lutz (Brolin).
Though poorly received in its time, The Amityville Horror was a smash hit and is now regarded as an iconic haunted house movie. It has grossed nearly $275 million since its release (adjusting for inflation) and spawned a 2005 remake starring Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George. It should be noted that, despite the actual Lutzes’ claims to the contrary, there is little evidence that anything supernatural actually did occur at 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, and a lawyer involved with the Lutzes told People magazine in 1979 that they invented the paranormal phenomena while intoxicated. Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time “based on a true story” has helped a movie out.
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