Tuesday, October 8, 2013

My Top 5 Favorite Ghost Story Movies

Sure, it's on the list. But the Spielberg
stuff in the movie keeps it out of the
top 5. But Oh, that Clown Doll...

Ghosts are everyone’s first exposure to the horror genre, unless you came from weird parents. Despite the proliferation of Vampires and Zombies, ghosts and ghost stories remain the most prolific (and oldest?) form of horror story. Even children’s picture books include stories about ghosts. They are, figuratively (or literally) everywhere.

Maybe because ghost stories are so commonplace, it’s easy to dismiss them as “not that scary” or effective as a vehicle for blood-curdling horror. I, of course, disagree with that. In fact, I think ghosts are the most versatile means of scaring the bejeezus out of someone. 

A good ghost story, in print or film, should linger long after you’ve finished it, like heavy garlic in a pasta salad. Done well, a good ghost story will have you questioning your perceptions of what constitutes reality. And it doesn’t hurt if it makes you not want to sleep for three days, either.

One of the many tortured visuals that add to the mood.
The Haunting (1963)
The Haunting is one of the great “something out of nothing” movies, a film that manages to be scary and suspenseful using something that Hollywood used to value called acting. Based on the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, the adaptation isn’t so important here (although it is actually very accurate) as the strong psychological sense of dread that director Robert Wise creates. This movie makes it onto everyone’s Top Haunted House Movie lists, and with good reason. This is the perfect thing to show to teenagers who think old movies can’t possibly be scary.

Oh, and it should go without saying, but avoid the remake like the plague. It make no sense and isn’t really based on the same material, thus begging the question: why do it in the first place?

Having Cole do much of the spook investigation added
to the suspense in the movie. And she really scared me.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
Released the same year as the terrible remake of The Haunting, this is the movie that put M. Night Shyamalan on the map (and kept him there for probably far longer than usual). And with good reason. This is easily his best film, and it’s also a cracking good ghost story with a terrific Serling-esque twist at the end. Even if everyone knows it now, at the time, it was quite the mind-blower, especially since Shyamalan plays fair with the audience the entire time.

What makes this movie so good is that the ghosts, even as they are “pictures that can’t hurt us,” are still genuinely frightening because of how Shyamalan films them. They appear suddenly, and once we get to know Cole better, we find out they are all around him. Those creepy glimpses into Cole’s worldview are well-done. The Sixth Sense is not intensely scary during the watching of the movie, but it does make you reluctant to turn off the light at night.

This is not Doctor Strange's Astral Plane.
Insidious (2010)
Well, if you’re going to re-do a “done to death” genre, here’s a good way to do it. Director James Wan (who gave us the first Saw movie) takes a few good whacks at a ghost story with a meat cleaver and manages to make a pretty good stew.  The plot of the movie bears more than a general resemblance to Poltergeist, probably because that’s become such a template: average American family + creepy old house – one of the children = dramatic tension we’re all forced to care about.

Thankfully, Insidious makes new assumptions and conclusions around this creaky old plot, and serves up some genuinely disturbing imagery and a nice combination of jump scares and psychological moments to keep this movie rolling. Granted, Insidious covers no new ground, but it re-imagines things in a fresh way that make me all squirmy inside.

Incredible. two girls in a hallway. And yet, we pee our
collective pants. That's why Kubrick is a genius.
The Shining (1980)
One of Nicholson’s finest efforts, along with one of Kubrick’s most sensational films. Stephen King recently kicked Kubrick’s corpse for the utter disregard for his novel in making the movie (and sidebar: there’s an amazing conspiracy theory around this), but he’s wrong, and here’s why: when the two-night mini-series of The Shining was made, two decades later, it was very faithful to King’s book and utterly not scary at all. Kubrick, 1. King, 0.

I don’t think anyone but Kubrick could have made this movie scary in the way that he did. He really uses space, symmetry, and structure in all of his movies, but in The Shining, we see that by repeating an image or a shot, and then putting new things in that shot, we get a sense of both intrusion and a sense that the new thing should not be there. This is how you make twin girls suddenly very scary. This movie still chills my spine to this day, thanks to the masterful slow burn unwinding of Jack Nicholson and the subsequent hysterics of Shelly Duvall.

I can't show you any more than this. It's too scary.
Ju-On (2002)
What IS it about those wacky Japanese? Their pop culture is so alike, and yet so different from us. For instance, their ghosts do not play by the rules. Forget that “they are just pictures, they can’t hurt you.” No, in Japan, the ghosts can do a lot of damage, especially ghosts who harbor a grudge.

Ju-On (literally, “the Grudge”) is a movie I almost walked out of. It’s creepy as hell, from start to finish, and my god, what strange, freaked out visuals. This is one of those movies that you have to see for yourself. Cathy and I both had nightmares after watching it. The white child ghost? Brrrrr. Still freaks me out. The American remake is good, but largely unnecessary. You’ll get your money’s worth, right here.

Cronenberg never saw this coming in Videodrome.
Bonus Film! The Ring (1998)
This is another Japanese import—really, the first one that started it all. You probably know the plot: anyone who watches the whacked out images on the video tape will die shortly after seeing it.

The visuals in this film are frankly, amazing. When the supernaturalness shows up, it’s brilliantly done. However, what’s missing for me is a little bit of explanation. Is the tape haunted? Or does the tape summon the unquiet spirit? It’s all confusing, and I suspect, got lost in the translation. When it was remade by an American company, they provided some needed scenes that explained for me what was probably implicit in the original film if you were a native speaker or culturally immersed. But what the American version adds in explanation, it takes away in alien horror.

I like both films—flaws and all. But I still don’t quite know where to put this movie on my list. Ghost story? Demonic possession? Techno-Lich? It’s a corker, to be sure. But the film’s key spooky pieces are tremendously effective and worth seeing.
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