What if House on Haunted Hill had been made without a trace of camp, and shot like a cheap industrial film?
Anything I can say about Ghosts of Hanley House is going to come off as overselling it. Largely absent anything in the way of effects (or plot, or acting, or action), this regional riff on the Haunting/Haunted Hill formula is pure vibes. And if those vibes don’t hypnotize you right away, it’s dull as dishwater.
Let’s turn to some modern reviews to give you an idea, such as this one from The Spinning Image, which calls the film “so inept it turns Edward D. Wood Jr into Stanley Kubrick.” Reading on: “The acting, photography and lighting are wretched in the extreme, with talking heads gazing uneasily past the camera, uttering inane lines of dialogue while the plot lurches from the sublime to the painfully ridiculous, using visual references to The Haunting in search of any vestige of credibility.”
Ouch, right? And I can’t really say that he’s wrong about… any of that. So why the hell am I writing about it? It hypnotized me, like I said earlier. And you don’t have to look any farther than Letterboxd to see other people who had the same experience.
“Ghosts of Hanley House wasn’t made by professionals,” begins one review, from Bleeding Skull. “But for me, this movie does something that the big-budget majesty of The Haunting never could – it makes me believe in midnight seances, eerie lights escaping from under darkened doorways, and a determined woman named Louise Sherrill who made a movie that no one else could.”
David C. Porter puts it more simply: “all-timer glacial doom piece.”
Making a movie, telling a story, is about more than mere competence. It’s even about more than the story. There is an (often accidental) alchemy that transforms the raw stuff of words, pictures, sounds, etc. into something more. Always has been. And I’ve written before about how sometimes even movies that are, undeniably, badly made contain a potency that would have been denied them had they been made any better.
Manos is a terrible film, but its very awkwardness contributes to its unease. The Zapruder-esque quality of Curse of Bigfoot makes it feel genuinely cursed. Similarly, Ghosts of Hanley House captures a sense of the uncanny more effectively than many better films simply by dint of that very rough-hewn unprofessionalism we mentioned before.
The sound effects grate and rattle, seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere. The score sounds like it is being performed deep underwater. The overblown lighting, the lack of any visual effects, the incoherent edits, and the fact that the actors aren’t really doing very much acting all give the film a different sort of verisimilitude, one that renders the events genuinely eerie, even when there… aren’t really any events, to speak of.
It’s not a movie that I necessarily loved, and it’s certainly not one I can recommend without hesitation. It’s not very good, by any traditional measure, if you haven’t figured that out yet, and basically nothing happens. But if, like me, you’ve been tuned to pick up these kinds of uncanny vibes and vibe with them, well, there’s definitely something here…