In 1964, one-and-done filmmaker Louise Sherrill wrote, produced, and directed a crude, avant garde reinterpretation of The Haunting and called it Ghosts of Hanley House. No one cared.
While hanging out at the local bar, Hank and Dick make a bet. If Hank spends the night at the abandoned Hanley house and proves that it’s haunted, he wins Dick’s new Ferrari. Dick is obviously on dust, because he agrees to this raw deal. After interviewing random locals about the Hanley house, including Hank’s mom (“So they’ve been calling me a witch again?”), the pals decide to make the wager more fun by throwing a party at the house. Exactly three people show up. One of them is Gabby, who has psychic powers and can speak to spirits. The group replace light bulbs, set up for the party, admire paintings, hang drapes, and listen to classical records. Then they retire for the evening. And the haunting begins.
I’ve always secretly believed that ghosts exist. Just like Santa Claus and Bigfoot. But unlike those two, I’ve actually had a real-life encounter with a phantasm. During my junior year of college, I moved into a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. My roommate told me that the grounds were haunted by an old woman who died while on bed rest. For proof, she showed me a decrepit bed and oxygen tank in the attic. A week later, I was woken up in the middle of the night by what felt like someone breathing softly on my face. I opened my eyes and saw an old woman standing over me, her face inches from mine. I shot out of bed and hit my head on the wall. She was gone.
Ghosts of Hanley House wasn’t made by professionals. The pacing is uneven, the photography is more bland than a collaboration between H.G. Lewis and Andy Warhol, and there are long scenes of people trying to start their cars. And failing. 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 who made a movie that no one else could.
Like Ray Russell’s gothic horror novels and Robert Berry’s House of Dreams, Ghosts of Hanley House moves slowly and favors experimental mood over action. Ambient organ drones drown in slapback delay while single bass guitar notes thump, making us feel like we’re trapped in the basement of a Satanic church. Actors stare into the camera and speak while spotlights blow out their facial features. There are abrupt inserts of a flaming circle and recurring shots of a glowing man in black; neither of these elements is ever explained. We see empty coffins, open graves, and a mysterious box that holds a grisly secret. None of this signifies anything deeper than servicing a plot that feels like a 1950s pre-code horror comic adapted by Dan Curtis at the height of his work on Dark Shadows. Luckily, I don’t need anything more than that from this movie.
There’s no doubt that Ghosts of Hanley House is the healthiest sleeping pill that I’ve ever taken. Especially in the form of the original, uncut version that was only ever released on VHS by Something Weird, and later, Sinister Cinema. The early 2000s DVD from Alpha Video was cut and “updated” with iMovie effects that were . . . not good. But after watching this movie for a third time in 15 years, I enjoyed it more than ever. And when I watch it again in 10 years, I’m pretty sure I’ll still feel the same.
If I was hanging out with Louise Sherrill right now, I’d give her a hug.