I recently watched an absolutely lame, formulaic, and vomit generating ghost tale called Dream House, starring Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, Naomi Watts, and Elias Koteas. Sure, the cast is fantastic and the acting is decent for the most part as one would expect, but in short order the predictable plot shined through and the tale was awash in PG-13 ho-hum cliché. By the time the movie comes to its conclusion, the one we could easily see thanks to a big act two reveal, seasoned horror audience members will either be sleeping, or really ticked that ninety-minutes of their lives was wasted on such a mundane venture.
Excellent ghost tales, however, have far much more to offer. As always, we need a great story inhabited by vibrant characters, but we also require that element of suspense to keep us riveted. After all, these are horror movies, not vapid melodramas with happy endings (see Dream House if you prefer a watered down narrative). An oppressive tone certainly adds to the flavor of the film, and if we have a solid theme or two, even better.
As always, my top ten is based upon the life experiences I brought to these films, as well as paying attention to story, transitions, themes, tone, and more. Enjoy:
The Haunting (UK/USA, 1963)
Nell (Julie Harris) enters Hill House with three other souls to find definitive proof that hauntings occur. The film complements Shirley Jackson’s wonderful novel, “The Haunting of Hill House”, and delivers psychological horror in profound ways.
The Legend of Hell House (UK, 1973)
A group of investigators are hired by a rich man to prove there’s life after death in the notorious Belasco house. Roddy McDowall and Pamela Franklin lead the way in this vibrant, intense tale of the macabre.
The Changeling (Canada, 1980)
Still one of horror cinema’s most frightening ghost tales, The Changeling follows George C. Scott as he settles into a haunted house where a ghost has an agenda. Follow the bouncing ball, hold hands in a séance, and watch your back.
The Shining (1980)
Many who hate Kubrick’s masterful horror miss the point that the Torrance family is screwed up and bonkers from the beginning. And this intense film follows them on their deeper journey into madness, mayhem, and murder.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
A mesmerizing and well-calculated psychological horror, The Sixth Sense follows Bruce Willis as he tries to save Cole (Haley Joel Osment) from seeing dead people. A profound mystery with stellar acting and pacing, you may cry at the end as I did.
The Ring (Japan/USA, 2002)
Unlike the original that put me to sleep, Ehren Kruger penned a phenomenal mystery that’s gripping. Beyond excellent performances (Naomi Watts, David Dorfman, Brian Cox, and Jane Alexander), take note of the color and incredible special makeup effects from the legendary Rick Baker.
A Tale of Two Sisters (South Korea, 2003)
Death lingers long after lives are claimed in the hapless Bae family. One of the most beautiful looking horror films thanks to cinematographer Mo-gae Lee, the film’s foundation is intense psychological terror and unease.
Shutter (Thailand, 2004)
After an accident, a photographer (Ananda Everingham) discovers shadows and ghostly images in his pictures. Unsettling and relentless in story and style, this fantastic original outshines the dull and pathetic American remake a thousand fold.
The Orphanage (Spain, 2007)
One of cinema’s greatest and most profound dramatic ghost tales, Belen Rueda leads the way as a mother who brings her family back to the orphanage where she once was raised, with disastrous and gut-wrenching results. Yes, this one made me cry as well.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
This much maligned, low budget found footage phenom relies on sound and pacing to deliver suspense and terror, as a young couple tries to determine if they are being haunted in their home. Curiosity killed the… well, you know.
Ghost stories have probably existed since early humans contemplated their own demise and pondered about what comes next. In all cultures, ghost stories abound, but in Asia the concern that the dead are treated with respect has led to a multitude of haunted tales with no end in site. Ghosts are everywhere in horror, but finding those new narratives with unique foundations is what keeps this well-established subgenre a potent mainstay.
Feel free to leave comments about your favorite ghost tales. And remember to check out THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on Sunday nights at 9 PM on this site and on iTunes.
Other cool ghost films of note: The Innocents (USA/UK, 1961), The Fog (1980), Poltergeist (1982), The Devil’s Backbone (Spain/Mexico/Argentina, 2001), The Innkeepers (2011), and Paranormal Activity 3 (2011).
Most over-rated ghost films: Ringu (Japan, 1998), Ju-on (Japan, 2002), and The Conjuring (2013).
(Photo of The Orphanage from Heave Media.)