Haunted houses are supposed to be steeped in history. Ghosts of the long-dead should rattle about attics, flitting by turrets and scaring anyone who dares to venture beyond the top floor.
Writer Anne Rivers Siddons blasts that notion with her terrific thriller, "The House Next Door," which Lifetime uses as the basis for its Monday, Oct. 30, movie of the same title, starring Lara Flynn Boyle ("The Practice"), Colin Ferguson ("Eureka") and Mark-Paul Gosselaar ("NYPD Blue").
In this spooky tale, a beautiful, contemporary house shatters the peace of an upscale neighborhood. Col and Walker Kennedy (Boyle and Ferguson) adore each other and have one of those marriages where they seem to have little need for others. They have no children and live in a lovely home, which abuts a wooded lot. Many have tried to develop it, but the rugged terrain vanquishes them.
Brash and talented architect Kim, (Gosselaar) however, creates an exquisite home that seems to grow from the land it complements. Everyone who walks through its open spaces and gleaming floors falls in love with it. Yes, the house seems to have some rather human qualities. Not to worry, though; this is not one of those films where the house jumps to life and starts gobbling inhabitants.
Rather, it is much more subtle. No one realizes it for a while, and though the movie is slow, it comes together in the second half.
The house was built for chipper newlyweds who have everything in their favor. Young and rich, she's pregnant and stays at home, while he quickly climbs the corporate ladder at his law firm. On the night of their housewarming, the husband behaves in an awful, out-of-character way.
Dreadful fates befall all of the families that live there. Col figures out that something evil is afoot and spends a while trying to convince her good friends, who are her neighbors, and Walker.
"Walker is very practical, very logical and a very loving husband," Ferguson says. "And not in a cliched way. He loves his wife and wants to give her the benefit of the doubt, and because he loves her, he can't sign off on the fact that the house is evil and he's always looking for the way out. For the first half of it, he is the skeptical audience, and she has to win him over. And when he gets won over, the audience should be won over, and we also enter the haunted ride together."
It takes an awful lot of sinister deeds before others realize that Col may be right. Still, no one wants to say anything because to run around warning that a house is haunted tends to label people as hysterical, if not delusional.
Yet as Col watches family after family get destroyed, she knows she must do something.
"I believe in ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances," Boyle says. "I don't know the things you can describe them by. I just try to look inside what their circumstances are."
During the 18 days it took to film the movie in Toronto, Boyle says she did not feel scared, but she had been on another set just before this that changed the way she thinks about the occult.
"We shot at a house that was known for its paranormal studies, and of course, being a cynic, I thought, 'This is stupid,'" she says. "But over a period of two weeks, I became quite fascinated by the energy in the house. It felt like people were watching you."
On this set, however, none of the principal actors reported any strange happenings. And, apparently, if anyone would have been aware of something scary, it would have been Ferguson.
"My suspension of disbelief is sort of silly," Ferguson says. "I am the guy who can't watch a sitcom where the guy makes two dates for the same night. I'm the perfect audience. I don't go to scary movies because I get so scared."
In "The House Next Door," the scariest things are the inhabitants, and they look pretty ordinary. It's what they become that's scary; the house seems to sense what the very best of them is, then saps that from them until they turn on one another.
The second family was already fractured when it moved in. The soldier son was killed at war, and the mom's grief consumes her. The husband develops a drinking problem. Yet these issues existed before they moved there, and even once she seemed to improve and he got sober, life in that house got very strange.
Does the house do them in? Or is it the harshness of life?
Finally, the third family, in which a tyrannical father abuses his wife and daughter, moves into the house. Their ending is particularly heinous.
Fans of Siddons may be taken aback by the many changes between the book and the movie.
None of the actors read the book, though Gosselaar says he usually does. "I just thought I should stay to what the script was and not get mixed feelings because the script contradicts the book," he says. "I didn't have a lot of time. We were starting relatively soon on the project. I am going to make the choice of not having read the book. Sometimes it can put things in your head that can work against you."
For those who are sticklers, be aware that the TV movie characters are much younger, the time was changed from just after the Vietnam War to today, Walter is now Walker, and the ending, which will not be divulged here, is decidedly happier than the one in the book.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times