That old Eddie Murphy bit in Delirious about haunted house movies like The Amityville Horror and Poltergeist has been on my mind a lot lately. The routine consists of Murphy explaining the always-present problem inherent in haunted house movies, namely: why do people stick around when it's clear that the freaky ghosts don't want to share the place? "Blood in the toilet," explains Murphy. "Well that's peculiar."
He goes on to advise that, when admiring your new home, if you hear the walls snarling, "Get out..." your response should be, "Too bad we can't stay."
Of course, hardly anyone in movies follows this advice. A young couple is tormented by middle-of-the-night slamming doors and the sound of footsteps in Paranormal Activity. Response: They videotape it in order to better "understand" the evil presence.
A family moves into a former mortuary populated by the tormented spirits of the dead who were defiled by a necromancer in The Haunting in Connecticut. Response: Stick around, hope they'll be nice and wait for them to eventually ghostbust themselves.
Sarah Michelle Gellar meets a grudge spirit in The Grudge. Response: Weather the murders and suicides, try to battle the ghost, hope for the best.
In recent doom-house movies, the closest anyone's come to skipping out on the mortgage was in this year's Insidious, not that it did them much good. If only they'd been privy to the marketing campaign's come-on: "It's not the house that's haunted."
So now, in this remake of a scary 1973 TV movie, Guy Pearce, Katie Holmes and young Bailee Madison move into a huge, historic mansion that -- surprise -- has a secret basement and an even secret-er wall grate that leads down, down, down to... well, Somewhere and... Something.
Naturally, The Something starts talking to the little girl. And since she's already depressed and upset that she has to live in the spooky place anyway, she decides to investigate and make friends with whatever it is. Dad Pearce can't be bothered to notice the strange goings-on (minor events like the property maintenance man's mutilation at the hands of The Something) and poor Stepmom Holmes can't get close enough to her non-daughter to earn the trust that might save them all.
Thanks to decent performances by the surprisingly emotional Holmes and the serious-faced Madison (if you saw Bridge To Terabithia, she was the little girl who declares she hates going to church because she's scared of the image of Jesus dying on the cross), this un-scary thriller keeps you concerned. And instead of real terror--which, really, is always just sort of icing on movies like this, anyway--you're rewarded with creepy, great-looking, atmospherics (thanks to producer Guillermo del Toro) and effective tension. It's also perfectly allegorical in its externalization of internalized family strife.
Of course, they still could have hashed all their issues out in a nice, comfy therapist's office and saved themselves a lot of grief. But then it would be Ordinary People. And that movie suffered from a serious lack of evil basement creatures.