Okay, it’s October, Halloween’s coming, I love ghost stories, here’s a list of ten of my favorite ghost movies. The list rules: movie has to be about ghosts, not zombies or vampires or something; and it has to be creepy – no whimsy or love stories like The Ghost & Mrs. Muir or A Christmas Carol or Ghost, grand as those may be. So here’s ten:
1. The Innocents – The winner and still champion. Henry James’ brilliant novella “The Turn of the Screw” written for the screen by the inimitable (unless you happen to be Philip Seymour Hoffman) Truman Capote based on the play by William Archibald and with additional scenes and dialogue by John Mortimer of Rumpole fame. Repressed mistress suspects her two charges are possessed. Quiet, subtle, uncompromising and sends shivers up your spine.
2. Diabolique - The only movie that ever moved me literally to the edge of my seat. The wife and mistress of a cruel school master get together to plot his murder – then the scary stuff starts. This is the quiet, black-and-white thriller that inspired Hitchcock to make Psycho. Like Psycho, you can watch it again and find a lot of fascinating cultural and psychological commentary that you missed the first time by hiding under your seat.
3. The Ring – I watched this again just the other day and it holds up beautifully. You watch an incredibly creepy video, then seven days later you die… unless you can find the answers. So much is right about this picture: the premise and the story to name two things right off. But other stuff too: Naomi Watts is luminous, a discovery, and the way they let her be womanly, leaving the heavy lifting to boyfriend Martin Henderson, makes her seem both more courageous and more vulnerable. But Gore Verbinski’s direction is the big difference: every scene is shot as if something frightening is about to happen. The result is nerve-bending.
4. Dead of Night – Classic British anthology from Ealing Studios. The frame story is as scary as the rest, but the mirror and the dummy also can’t be beat. It’s just good, delicious, creepy stuff.
5. The Haunting – The 1963 original, it should go without saying. A group of neurotics and misfits come together to investigate a haunted house. From the Shirley Jackson novel, The Haunting of Hill House. The first ten minutes and the last one minute are the creepiest part but there’s also the famous: “Who’s hand was I holding?” scene. Again, as with most of the films on this list, the scares are delicate not shocking, but they’re definitely there and after you’re done and start thinking about them, they stick with you.
6. The Sixth Sense – The film that started – and probably ruined – M. Night Shyamalan’s career. Why ruined? Because everyone thought it was the ending that made it work and he went on trying to imitate it. It wasn’t the ending at all, it was the fact that, after the ending, the emotional drama still works and holds true and hasn’t been undermined, only deepened. The interaction between the guilt-ridden psychiatrist out to redeem himself by helping a troubled boy who sees dead people–that’s what makes it happen. If Shyamalan had sought out that sort of emotional truth again, his considerable talent would’ve kept him on top.
7. What Lies Beneath – A little too much Hitchcock homage to cover up some story flaws, but basically a good, fun old-fashioned ghost story with a great big scary climax and lots of little chills along the way. A wife suffering from the empty nest blues begins to see strange things in her house. Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer do that movie star thing the way it should be done. Make popcorn, turn out the lights, it’s on.
8. The Changeling – George C. Scott is completely miscast as the grieving husband and father in a haunted house, but he’s such a good actor he pulls it off. One of those by-the-book ghost tales that just gets it all right with plenty of moments that make you shiver. Nothing cheap, nothing gaudy, just that sense of discomfort creeping up your spine. A while back, someone sent me the DVD and asked me if I’d be interested in writing a remake. I re-watched it and said I couldn’t do it because I wouldn’t change a thing.
9. Lake Mungo – From Australia, the best of the “found footage” creepers. A girl drowns but keeps reappearing. It’s a shade spookier and a lot more subtle than Paranormal Activity, which I also liked, and much, much better than Blair Witch Project, which I didn’t think was scary at all. There’s a plot glitch as writer/director Joel Anderson tries for a twist too far, but that’s the only problem. Otherwise, this mocumentary builds and builds. In fact, the end credits made me sorry I watched it alone.
10. The Fog – I know, it’s goofy, but it’s good anyway. Fog sweeps over a California town and there are murderous ghosts inside it. Involving, scary, suspenseful with a couple of scenes that make your heart race. John Carpenter’s follow-up to his classic Halloween can’t compete with the previous film but still does what it does just right. Plus Adrienne Barbeau, Carpenter’s wife at the time, is wonderfully sexy.
Plus here are a couple I think are over-rated: Blair Witch, as I said, and The Others. All the style in the world don’t matter if it ain’t scary.