San Diego County’s Friendly Neighborhood Haunted House Gets a (Sort-of) Star Turn in Jose Prendes’s The Haunting of Whaley House

I don’t exactly believe in ghosts, but I am a bit of a sucker for haunted house movies, depressingly formulaic though they often are. I like the sense of atmosphere, the reminder that the heartbeat of the past still pulses in the quiet, forgotten corners of the present, and the subtle warning against opening doors that should remain locked.  The films that look overly typical, I can usually  resist—I never felt a strong pull toward Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, for example—but a haunted house flick with a halfway unique approach usually gets my attention pretty fast. So, when I stumbled upon a 2012 horror film based on a real “haunted” house that I have visited many times, I couldn’t say, “no”. (Although, I did hesitate a bit when I saw that it was made by the often nausea-inducing Asylum film company). I decided to give the film ten minutes to either drive me off or hook me in: if I was invested in the story after ten minutes, then I would at least attempt to tolerate whatever over-the-top gore and tasteless moments that it wanted to throw at me.

The film’s opening features the kind of foul-talking, unlikeable, irritating characters that populate most modern horror films, but thankfully, they are not part of the main cast here. After we were properly introduced to the actual, much more likeable, core players, I was thoroughly hooked in for the ride.

The film centers on the legendary “hauntings” at the Whaley Mansion in Old Town San Diego. I went to college in the San Diego area, and have been through the actual Whaley Mansion many times.  I’m well acquainted with the house, and familiar with the details of its history. I think that’s why I found the fact that the movie wasn’t filmed in the actual house a little bit distracting at first. (I spent the first sequence of the film that takes place inside the house with a broken record in the back of my mind: “that’s not the Whaley House…That’s not the Whaley House…That’s not the Whaley…”).

Once I got comfortable with the “Long Beach for San Diego” filming quirk, though, I was surprised and impressed by the attention to accuracy in regard to the actual history of the house. All of the historical details presented in the film, from the mansion’s use as a court house and general store, to the hanging of “Yankee Jim”, to the circumstances of Violet Whaley’s tragic death, are true to record. The only possible exception to this accuracy rule is the assertion at the beginning of the film that the house was once used as a mortuary. The Whaleys were prominent citizens in the budding city of San Diego, and over time, their house served a variety of public uses, but if it was ever used as a funeral home of any kind, the official history of the place doesn’t highlight it.

This faithfulness to the details of the past only serves to make the more questionable statements about the museum’s modern operations all the more noticeable. Toward the beginning of the film, a long-time docent who claims that she knows how to “handle” the house instructs her younger, less experienced colleague: “never go into the house at night—that’s their time, reserved for them alone.” No one who had been working at the Whaley Museum for as long as she claims to have been there would say this to a colleague, mostly due to the fact that the younger docent in that scenario might be scheduled to lead a tour through the house that same night. The Whaley House has been doing nighttime tours for years. In fact, many of the reports of strange sights/smells/sounds/unexplained orbs in the house have come out of these after-sunset strolls.

Of course, the film needed a statement like that in order to properly set up what was coming later. I don’t really hold that line against it, but it was still a little amusing, just because I happened to know better.

The film also exaggerates the “paranormal activity” aspect of the house quite a bit, even in the first act. I know that people frequently report seeing/hearing/smelling strange things in the house, and I’ve even heard a Whaley House “ghost” story from a friend or two, myself, but I’ve walked the house in the daylight dozens of times, and I can say from experience that those kinds of odd events are not happening several times a minute, twenty-four hours a day. Also, I’ve never seen anyone “have a reaction” to the house and end up “wheeled away to the hospital,” nor have I ever heard of this occurring on a tour that I did not happen to attend. There may have been an incident like this at some point during the house’s tenure as a historical site, but it certainly doesn’t “happen all the time,” at the real Whaley Museum.

But I don’t really hold any of that against the film, either. If they didn’t amp up those elements, they wouldn’t have a movie, and, as a haunted house movie, this thing shines. Well-executed surprises and genuine shocks are made even weightier by the refreshing lack of jump scares. The core characters are genuinely likeable, and their friendships are so believable that it’s easy to invest in their emotions, from their excitement to see the dark side of the house, to their confused terror when that dark side starts to actually manifest itself. The tension builds with subtly and a good sense of pacing, drawing the viewer in with a comfortable blend of both familiar “haunted house story” conventions and unusual twists and turns.   (I’m only a little embarrassed to admit that I spent a good deal of the film’s runtime talking back to the screen).

Just in case you are unfamiliar with The Asylum’s catalogue, I should mention that this film has its share of blood, and a little bit of blue talk, but its bloody and raunchy elements are actually very scaled-back, compared to its modern horror peers. Speaking of unpleasantly common elements in modern horror, the pointless nudity in this film is also very minimal, relegated to a single, brief scene. (I’m pretty sure that horror directors have a nudity requirement clause written into their contracts. Thankfully, Prendes seems to have negotiated his quota down to less than 1 per cent of the film’s total run-time). If you’re interested in the film, but would rather miss this shot, just look away while the blond woman in the pink sweater is on screen. This will allow you to miss one of the bloodier moments in the film, too, if you prefer.

Since we’re on the subject of trends and tropes in modern horror, let’s take a moment to talk about the score. Some horror films have a bad habit of pumping up the music over the actor’s dialogue, or relying too heavily on the score to “tell” the audience what we should be feeling. I tend to notice this misuse of “movie music”, both because it annoys me, and because I love how truly artful and effective film scores can be when handled well.

The music in The Haunting of Whaley House is very well executed. (I assume that a lot of the credit for this goes to the man listed in the credits as “Adam ‘the man with the magic keyboard’ Lima”). Never bombastic or in-your-face, the score foregoes an intrusive orchestra in favor of a simple, restrained melody on a single piano as the musical centerpiece of the film. This choice sets the intended mood beautifully, even allowing the volume and pace of the simple tune to build in intensity where appropriate without ever becoming distracting or intrusive.

The audience isn’t generally meant to notice the score of a film, but music can be a powerful accent to cinematic storytelling, inviting us in and offering us an understated emotional touchstone on which to rest.  The creative minds behind The Haunting of Whaley House wield this important tool with subtlety  and wit, right down to the wryly appropriate, 80’s-flavored number that plays over the credits.

I will admit that I was not expecting much when I decided to try an Asylum-made haunted house film, but this slightly cynical horror fan has found a new Halloween tradition in The Haunting of Whaley House.

I’m always up for suggestions: what’s your favorite haunted house/hotel/apartment/hospital movie?