Ten Favorite Ghost Movies

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:

Boo!

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.

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  • Graham Nickerson

    I really like John Carpenter. The Thing was just so well done. One of my favorite horror movies of his is “In The Mouth of Madness”….Everyone hates it I know,….but not me. Perhaps everyone is waiting for that Lovecraftian film to come along and they finally say….”nailed it!!”
    One of my favorite ghosty movies is Ju on…(The grudge). I like the original the best subtitles and all.
    For me however the best scares are now coming from the video game industry. Games like Dead Space and Fatal Frame scare the crap outta me. I just love being scared I guess……

  • Ellen

    The Innocents scared me so bad that to this day I will not watch it alone or in the dark.

    There’s a made for TV British movie called The Woman in Black featuring a malevolent ghost that hates children. Chilling. I wish they’d release it on DVD.

  • ari

    thanks for the list. I’ll be crying come the end of october, and i’ve seen all of these.

    but, yikes, the blair witch project had a documentary, too. and the documentary had a realistic woodcut of a puritan- looking woman floating up in the air, headed toward a couple of children walking towards water. That one woodcut still gives me nightmares. It’s been close to 15 years, and I still.to.this.day.wake up. in a sweat and panic, stomach in pain, queasy what is wrong feeling, when that shows up in a dream. or with the lights low- ish.

  • Philip Taranger

    Hello Andrew,

    I applaud your choices with the possible exception of Lake Mungo, which I have not seen. I’m glad you included The Changeling. I’m curious as to why you think Scott was “completely miscast,” because I’ve always felt the same about Harrison Ford in Blade Runner. Every time I say that, though, I get a blank stare. Is it that he’s just “wrong” somehow?

    P.

  • Nora Charles

    Oh Ellen, you’re quite right. I watched The Woman In Black alone and was scared out of my wits! Brilliant stuff.

    The 1989 telemovie has a much better ending than the 1983 book it was based on.

  • Frank

    I would like to add Stir of Echoes with Kevin Bacon. It came out around the same time as Sixth Sense so it was completely over-shadowed but this one is full of spooky scenes and Kevin Bacon knocks it out of the park.

  • IllTemperedCur

    The Woman In Black is awesome. One of the creepiest movies ever made. It’s actually available on DVD, but it’s really tough to find. You’ll have to get it from one of the online DVD specialty houses. That’s the only way I was able to pick it up. I don’t think it’s on Netflix though.

    It’s also up on YouTube, in about 10 parts, which kind of kills the suspense.

  • http://stevemillerreviews.blogspot.com/ Steve Miller

    It’s nice to see someone else appreciate “The Changeling” for the great ghost movie it is.

  • Smudge

    The Others rips off The Changling pretty badly. The director’s movie prior to the Changling ain’t so good. Don’t bother. But the Changling is the tops.

    But Dude! Where’s my Devil’s Backbone (G. Del Toro)?

  • Martin Banner

    Great list. Hollywood just doesn’t have the talent anymore to tell a good adult ghost story. My one quibble with your picks is how could you forget THE UNIVITED (1944) with Ray Milland? The movie is very subtle but still sends chills up my spine when I watch it. As a bonus choice, I would add a very creepy Italian ghost story called KILL, BABY KILL (1966) directed by horror master Mario Bava. Terrible title but well worth seeking out this atmospheric gem.

  • SouthSideShorty

    WHAT!?!?
    ‘Innocents’, ‘Changeling’, ‘Ring’ . . . . scary? Hah! About as scary as any movie with Miss Piggy in it.

    The one true classic ghost movie? ‘Poltergeist,’ of course. Scary, funny, violent, creepy . . . it’s modern-day paranormal shenanigans from the incomparable mind of Spielberg.
    ‘Nuff said.

  • sherlockzz

    I second The Devil’s Backbone. Epic backdrop, great cinematography, creepy scenes, one or two “jump out of your seat” moments and Del Toro plays slight of hand with the characters. First impressions do not hold true and the characters reveal layers of themselves throughout the movie.

  • Tim

    I third The Devil’s Backbone. Another excellent Spanish ghost story- The Orphanage (2007) . Terrifying/beautiful/thrilling.

  • Mike

    A minor oversight might be Jeff Goldbulm in: Mr. Frost. Goldblum is a psychotic murder committed to a mental institution who contends to his psychiatrist that he is, in fact, the devil. A contention attributed to the ravings of a mad man, until the film progresses.

  • Mary

    Hey, no mention of Ghost Story? Adapted from the Peter Straub novel. It starred Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., John Houseman and Patricia Neal, and while it might have had it’s weak moments, it’s a ghost movie that still scares the heck out of me, it’s always on my October playlist.

  • http://whatwouldtotowatch.com Christian Toto

    Another vote for ‘The Orphanage” – smart, spooky stuff. I find the haunted house genre to be on life support these days. Those creaking floorboards and flashes of lightning just don’t bring the scares any more. Or, at least, the folks directing the new haunted house movies can’t add anything new to the genre.

  • http://www.macabremagazine.com Don Herion

    Where is ‘Legend of Hell House’? Adapted from a great novel by Richard Matheson.

  • Bennett Owen

    “The Others” scared the crappola outta me. I’d definitely trade out “What Lies Beneath” to get it on the list. The rest of the list is golden.

  • Toby

    There is a scene in The Sixth Sense that literally brings tears to my eyes every time I see it (and I am all but incapable of crying). The scene where the boy and his mom are in the car and she finally believes he can see ghosts and he gives her a message to her from her late mother. Just watch her face in the progression of that scene, the way she goes from normal to distressed to crying. Great great acting by what’s her name.

  • Mark

    Sorry, but its “Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein” is my all time Halloween favorite. Abbott & Costello, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr. What’s not to love?

  • chukmaty

    The Devil’s Backbone is a great ghost movie I just saw, Del Toro has a fetish for Spanish Reds but if the viewer can get over that then his non studio films are brilliant. Brilliantly, brilliant.

  • Wyatt Wingfoot

    You can discount The Others, but please check out Robert Mulligan’s The Other (1972). The story, set in the 1930s, concerns identical twin brothers who share a terrifying secret. It reminds one of TV’s The Waltons as filtered through American gothic.

  • JD

    Love the list, though I have to defend both “The Blair Witch Project,” which makes wonderful use of the little things (cracking branches, screams in the distance, those handprints of children on the walls), and “The Others,” which, though it does lag a little, creates a spooky and unrelenting atmosphere.

    One I’d like to thrown in for consideration is the original version of “The Eye” out of Hong Kong. I’m not big into the whole Asian horror genre, but this one absolutely gave me the creeps. That scene with the floating man in the elevator…I don’t even want to think about it.

  • Tickleddragon

    I appreciate your list. But if you’re going to pick THE RING, it only makes sense to pick the ORIGINAL Japanese version. Much much scarier, and less cheesy mugging by the lead actor. (Naomi Watts?? Really?? Please.)

  • Citizen Jerry

    An often-forgotten gem that turned into a cult classic is 1962′s “Carnival of Souls,” directed by industrial filmmaker Herk Harvey. No blood and gore, just an overwhelming creepy feeling that’s perfect for a cold October night when the wind is whistling through the eaves of the house.

  • http://rickshick.com stick

    When I was a kid, The Ghost And Mr. Chicken was whimsical, but also truly scary. Atta boy, Luthor!

  • http://www.barrymorgenstein.com barry

    The Univited with Ray Milland

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  • http://8-tracksfierce.blogspot.com Scott Salsman

    I wanted to read your list just to see if The Innocents was on it, and it’s number one! Excellent.

    And I’m on board with The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. My mom still loves to tell everyone how I would run through the house screaming when the organ would play by itself–and I was fifteen! Naw, I was probably five, actually. :)

  • http://www.runespinner.net Cobalt-Blue

    I agree with you about The Fog. Actually, I think it’s Carpenter’s best work- but then again I don’t have much of an opinion of him.

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  • Anonymous

    I’d like to add a couple of excellent chilling ghost stories from the Boris Karloff anthology “Thriller”. The first is “The Hungry Glass” with William Shatner & Donna Douglas and “Mr. George” directed by Ida Lupino. The series aired 1960 – 1962 and is available on DVD.