You and your attractive young family have just moved into your dream home; a big old place, Colonial, possibly Victorian. While fixing the place up, you discover some lost treasures of past generations; an odd old photo album, a cobwebbed rocking chair... a music box. The house is drafty, as old houses often are, and doors seem to open and close on their own. It creaks a bit, especially at night, but you'll get used to that in time... even if it does sound like footsteps in the attic. Who's calling your name? Surely you're just too tired, with all that's been going on.
It'll be good for the kids, living out here in the country with plenty of room to run around and scream all they like. They're already making up new stories about the kids who lived here long ago. Such detail! How vivid. Wait, where is Mary Ann... WHERE'S MARY ANN?
Now me, I'm of the opinion that ghost stories are the best and scariest in all of the broader genre of horror films. You're certainly free to be wrong about this. While I certainly enjoy the hell out of creatures, I rarely find them scary because they're not real. And while I've definitely found some slasher-type horror that I really enjoyed, I don't rock the gore, and the concept of serial killers is just a little too real for me (ridiculous portrayals notwithstanding). Somewhere in the middle, and yet over to the side, we have ghosts and hauntings. I don't necessarily believe in ghosts, but neither do I fully disbelieve in them. They don't merely straddle the line between real and unreal, they are the unknown. This makes them the essence of fear itself.
Could there be ghosts or other restless spirits? There could be. Could there be something in the house? There could be. Could there be something more terrifying than you've ever imagined be right behind you, waiting to turn your heart to ice? There could be. Could you be losing your mind? You could be.
This is why a creaking floorboard is scarier than a zombie gnawing on a liver. Sadly, in our all-too-human compulsive need for resolution, even our ghost stories tend to become overly explicit in their final acts. We want so badly to know, even when that thing in the basement is unknown, and unknowable. In forgiveness of our humanity, I'm giving a little bit of a pass to some of the films that might go a bit overboard to satisfy the more concrete curiosities in the cinema complex.
So here, in no particular order, are some of the very best entries of the best sub-genre of horror cinema.
Carnivale - 2003
Episodes 5: "Babylon" and 6: "Pick A Number"
Written by Daniel Knauf, Dawn Prestwich & Nicole Yorkin and Daniel Knauf & Ronald D. Moore, respectively
Directed by Tim Hunter and Rodrigo Garcia, respectively
These two episodes form one of the most chilling and unexpected ghost stories I've ever seen. The series was great in the first place, but this particular chapter in the lives of a Depression-era traveling show was a truly impacting gut-punch. Led by their mysterious and unseen "Management" to the dried up mining town of Babylon, about which no good has been said, events turn from bleak to disastrous. After a rough night of drinking (for many of them) one member of their entourage goes missing, waking up to find himself dumped deep in a labyrinth of a crumbling mine shaft. Meanwhile, the Carnivale opens -- at first to little response, before a dark mass of grimy and sullen-faced miners pour in. A subtle anger simmers in them, stirring ill-ease within many. After one of the burlesque dancers drops her drawers, things intensify, and the miners nearly drag her from the stage. Shortly afterward, she turns up dead with "HARLOT" carved into her forehead. This unleashes a frantic hunt for someone responsible, or someone to take the blame and pay in blood for the carnies' rage. What follows is some dark behavior on the parts of all parties involved, and the final fate of the dancer's spirit is flat-out bone-chilling.
The Shining - 1980
Written by Stanley Kubrick & Diane Johnson
From the book by Stephen King
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
I've read that Stephen King disliked Kubrick's interpretation of his book because it placed a greater emphasis on the psychological terror and downplayed the supernatural. This is, of course, exactly what makes The Shining THE greatest haunting movie of all time, so Stephen King can suck it.
The madness, the claustrophobic camera, the twins, the thing in the tub, the maze... pure classic.
The Others - 2001
Written & Directed by Alejandro Amenabar
The Others is just plain spooky. A tightly wound mother (Nicole Kidman) and her two children inhabit a perpetually fog-bound country estate somewhere in England. What's more, someone or something else seems to be in the house with them. Amenabar plays it slow and creepy as he adds elements of strange mystery which build toward the startling conclusion.
The Ring - 2002
Written by Ehren Kruger
from the Film by Hiroshi Takahashi
from the Book by Koji Suzuki
Directed by Gore Verbinski
I haven't seen this movie in quite a while because, frankly, I'm scared of it. This is one of the most pant-crappingly scary ghost stories ever committed to film. It certainly benefited from being the first Japanese-originated ghost story that most American audiences ever saw. The foreign nature of the ghost made the whole thing just that much stranger and unsettling. It was pitched to audiences a little bit like an urban legend derived slasher, with an emphasis on the videotape that leads to the unavoidable death of anyone who views it, but that was only the gateway to the bizarre, disturbing and HOLY SHIT GET IT AWAY FROM ME haunting that was to follow. Even the picture you see here is making me a little uneasy.
Note: The kind of people who get fussy about that sort of thing insist that the Japanese version is better (small surprise, knowing them), but of the three big Japanese ghost stories that got prompt American remakes (The Ring, The Grudge and Dark Water) the less fussy consensus seems to be that Verbinski's version is the best American version; just as good, or close enough to validate the advantage of not placing a layer of text in between nightmare and viewer.
Dark Water - 2002
Written by Ken'ichi Suzuki & Yoshihiro Nakamura
From the book by Koji Suzuki
Directed by Hideo Nakata
Another of the Big 3 Japanese ghost stories, I felt that Dark Water had far and away the best story, if far fewer out-and-out scares. It, nevertheless builds up a much deeper and more personal horror, masterfully manipulating parental fears. There's the more overt physically protective fear seen through aspects of health, safety and the specter of abduction, but much subtler fears about letting them feel alone, afraid or unwanted, about providing for them and being someone they can be proud of, and about damaging their psyches for life. It's a simple and masterful tale of haunting built around a mother and daughter who have to move into a low-rent apartment while the mother struggles to become strong and independent during a pending divorce. The apartment's ceiling leaks, and as the water stain spreads, so to does the growing sense of dread. This just might be a perfect ghost story.
Note: There seems to be a consensus of more than just the sort of people people who get fussy about that sort of thing that the Japanese version is considerably better than the American one with Jennifer Connelly (which is a shame, 'cause... Jennifer Connelly). I've only seen part of the American version, but I expect this is true. It's hard to imagine an American version would maintain the more delicate plucking of the fear strings that makes the Japanese version so absolutely special.
Sinister - 2012
Written by Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill
Directed by Scott Derrickson
This one is a little bit of a cheat since it's not technically a ghost story, although it behaves like one for most of the movie. It does, however, fully qualify as a haunting, and one of the most chilling movies mine eyes have ever beheld.
Ethan Hawke plays a true-crime writer who, like a dick, moves his family into the "murder house" that he's researching for his next book. The shit gets real when he discovers a box of old home movies in the attic; home movies with a... sinister twist. Derrickson ignites a slow burn of creaky floor boards, "what was that?" jolts and dreadful revelations that had me questioning my judgment for viewing Sinister on a cold winter night. The burn explodes with a bit of overkill in the last 5 minutes, but I guess that's what the kids like these days. It's like watching Baryshnikov dance for 80 minutes, then rip the seat of his tights while taking a bow and stay for a five minute curtain call. Great, but oh jeez, can you believe...?
The Conjuring - 2013
Written by Chad & Carey Hayes
Directed by James Wan
The Conjuring is like the modernized version of the 1970s haunting/possession movie. This is perhaps not so surprising when you consider that it's based on a case file from paranormal investigators/potential charlatans Ed & Lorraine Warren, who were also involved in the Amityville haunting. Further enhancing the spirit of the archetypal haunting, there's the big creepy old colonial farm house with a big creepy old tree, a music box, a demon doll, plenty of bumps in the night and a witch to blame. It really is kind of back-to-basics haunting, but refined by Wan's heavy/stylish hand for modern audiences that have been trained to respond to ominous tones and jump scares in specific ways. It builds a really excellent sense of growing fear and danger for most of the film. The ending seemed a bit much to me, but with that kind of tension, it's generally expected that one will find release in the climax, so to speak.
Insidious & Insidious: Chapter 2
Written by Leigh Whannel
Directed by James Wan
Like Wan's The Conjuring, Insidious does a good job building up the sense of danger throughout and then overdoes the finale with a fairly contrived journey into the "spirit world." Insidious 2 picks things up immediately after those events and takes the story much deeper, including backtracks to the first film that give in a much richer context. It repeats the spirit world silliness, but now that it's an established contrivance of their narrative universe, it works, and like the rest of the movie, deepens the meaning and context. Not only is Chapter 2 as-good-or-better than the first, but it makes the first one better by fleshing out the story, which is perhaps one of the greatest shocks a horror movie ever delivered.
Read the full article here: A Very Scary Pairing.
The Innkeepers - 2011
Written & Directed by Ti West
I've registered a number of complaints about movies that overdo their finales after slowly building up fear throughout. The Innkeepers is the remedy to that plague. It's a lean production that could almost have been (but mercifully wasn't) assembled as a found footage film. During its last week in business, the last two employees of the Yankee Pedlar Inn tend to their last few guests, and investigate the old rumors of its haunting. If it had been found footage, it would have been required to make some very specific decisions about what was real and what wasn't. With its more traditional but naturalistic style of narrative, certain questions must remain about what they, and we are experiencing. The spookiness builds slowly to a tragic conclusion that continues to rely on fear as its most important special effect. It might be a bit too subtle for viewers whose taste in horror skews to the obvious, loud and bloody, but those with a palate for organically grown fear with fewer artificial fillers will find a lot to savor in The Innkeepers.
The Haunting - 1963
Written by Nelson Gidding
from the book by Shirley Jackson
Directed by Robert Wise
Given the way that movie scares have become almost codified, I had my doubts whether a movie from before my time could be effective. Well, Robert Wise is no slouch, and he directed The Haunting between West Side Story and The Sound of Music. Fifty years later, The Haunting remains as stylish and emotionally engaging as its neighboring musicals, respectively. It takes the most basic haunted house premise; a group of strangers meet to stay in a legendarily haunted house and gather proof, but adds an unexpectedly personal element to it. One of the ghost hunters has more reasons than the others for being there. While stagey at times, the set decoration creates an excellent sense of the weirdness of the place and the practical effects are used, well, effectively. The creeping sense of madness remains fresh after all this time, and all the training we've had from the evolution of the genre.
What Lies Beneath - 2000
Written by Clark Gregg (yes, Agent Coulson)
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
This is a rock-solid ghost story with plenty of delicious twists and turns. It's also a classic example of the literal & metaphorical meanings of "the past coming back to haunt you." Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford are a couple who have moved out to their lake house, and soon fall into the grip of a hand from beyond a watery grave. Who is haunting them, and why? Danger comes in both the living and deceased varieties, and tension abounds. One nice thing about What Lies Beneath is that it's not populated by idiots, as so often occurs in horror. It benefits overall from the presence of top-quality talent on both sides of the camera.
Fragile - 2005
Written by Jaume Balaguero & Jordi Galceran
Directed by Jaume Balaguero
Calista Flockhart is a pediatric nurse with a past sent to work in a children's hospital with a past. The hospital is in the process of being shut down, and only the most delicate children remain while a new place it prepared for them. Unfortunately, something or someone is not prepared to let them go. Rumors of a decades-prior scandal intersect with the children's "lively imaginations" to hint at something more than interpersonal drama on the ward. It's a well-shaped haunting narrative with a classical feel to it, although it really overdoes some of the supernatural conflict for my tastes. It's much spookier when it sticks to subtlety.
The Ward - 2010
Written by Michael & Shawn Rasmussen
Directed by John Carpenter
A young woman is picked up by police, slumped in front of the farmhouse she just ran through the woods to burn down. She, Kristen soon finds herself in a mental hospital with four other young women, each struggling with their own particular conditions, and the ghosts of their past. Something is in the ward with them, and it's angry. Kristen will have to solve the mystery of her own mind, if she can survive the mystery of the ward long enough. The Ward is creepy, sure, but it also leans on a strong sense of mystery to drive it through, and many of the pieces that seem not to fit simply haven't fallen into place yet.
Read the full article here: Ghoul, Interrupted OR One Slew Over The Cuckoo's Nest
see link for writing team
Directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun & Parkpoom Wongpoom
This twisted and twisting tale of haunting from Thailand centers on a pair of Siamese twins... who also happen to be conjoined twins (see, 'cause they're from Siam... and... why doesn't anyone enjoy this joke as much as me?). Pim and Ploy were eventually separated, and only one of them survived. Now, called back to Thailand due to her mother's illness, the past has come calling in more ways than the metaphorical. Is it survivor's guilt or something more? If that's not enough to hook you, then revealing any more simply won't help. From the same team as 2004's Shutter (also good), Alone is simply creepier with a fuller, more developed story.
The Changeling - 1980
Written by William Gray & Diana Maddox
Directed by Russell Hunter
George C. Scott was the kind of actor you could believe had lived enough to accrue some pain. He takes that pain and loss to a ridiculously huge Seattle mansion for some solitude while he gets a little composing done, but discovers he's not alone. Is it just the nagging absence of his wife and child, or something in the mansion's own troubled past? I'll go ahead and tell you, it's the latter, centered around a hidden room with an child-sized wheelchair covered in cobwebs. Some incredibly creepy moments here, including a haunting music box before they started turning up every-damn-where. The story throws some depth and neat twists into the mix, giving it a real emotional richness. Even the vintage of the film seems to add to the spooky texture. This is a strong case against remakes. They'd cast some butt-chinned 30 year old if they made it today.
A Chinese Ghost Story - 1987
Written by Gai Chi Yuen
from the Book by Songling Pu
Directed by Siu-Tung Ching
A Chinese Ghost Story is based on one of the most popular tales from 17th Century Chinese author Songling Pu's classic Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio. The story has been adapted in a variety of ways over the years (I, for one, also own a manhua (the Chinese word for manga (the Japanese word for comic books) adaptation of the tale) with certain elements intact and others changed or moved around. The 1987 version, however, is a much beloved classic in its own right. A hapless tax collector on the road makes the mistake of camping out overnight in a haunted temple. There, he meets a beautiful young woman and falls in love. Unfortunately, she turns out to be a ghost charged with collecting souls for her master, and therein lies much drama, comedy and kung fu. Two sequels continue/vamp on the same themes (ACGS2 is the funniest, as I recall) but neither they, nor the 2011 remake seem to have captured the "breakthrough" gestalt of Ching's vibrant and energetic original.
A Chinese Ghost Story: The Tsui Hark Animation - 1997
Written by Tsui Hark
Directed by Andrew Chan
...Except maybe this one! This is my personal favorite version, and one of my favorite animated films ever. It uses some of the same themes -- specifically the hapless tax collector and the beautiful ghostess -- but thanks to the magic of animation, it's able to delve far deeper into the supernatural world. "Delve" or soar, as the case might be. The spirit world is a candy-coated amusement park of strangeness. Characters have strongly defined, unique designs. There's just a constant over-the-topness about the whole spectacle, and yet it has the most solidly defined storytelling of any adaptation. I love this film. It literally changed my life as an artist a writer. It's really not scary and is perfectly suitable for kids. Especially weird kids.
Okay, now the bad news; it looks as if this film has fallen out of print, so I wish you the absolute best of luck in tracking it down. That's not sarcasm. I want you to see it.
Stir of Echoes - 1999
Written & Directed by David Koepp
from the Book by Richard Matheson
Following some lighthearted experimentation with hypnosis, Kevin Bacon starts seeing dead people. One dead person in particular; a teenage girl, in and around his Chicago home. He becomes obsessed with finding her and learning what happened, which causes conflict with his family, and draws the attention of those who would prefer that the past remain... buried. It's not the scariest ghost story and it doesn't add much new to the field, but it's well told and carries an emotional impact.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer - 2000
Season 4, Episode 18: "Where The Wild Things Are"
Written by Tracey Forbes
Directed by David Solomon
For all her dealings with the supernatural, Buffy rarely encountered ghosts, and in fact, this episode is not strictly a ghost story, but it does center around a pretty disturbing haunting. During a college party at the house shared by a secret squad of monster-hunting military commandos (it sounds less silly in context), the sexual energy between Buffy and her super-soldier boyfriend (natch), awakens some dark energies from the house's past, and these energies start to expose themselves (so to speak) to the other party-goers. While Buffy and Riley's focus on each other draws them into a trap, it's left to the rest of the Scoobies to experience the more disturbing manifestations and suss out their cause. No, it's not that scary of an episode, but it puts a few fresh and flourishing twists into the old haunted house trope.
Haunter - 2013
Written by Brian King & Matthew Brian King
Directed by Vincenzo Natali
Lisa is like a lot of 16 year old girls. She feels trapped with a family that drives her nuts and every day seems like it's the same with nothing ever getting better. As it turns out, Lisa is not like a lot of teenage girls. Lisa is dead -- a ghost trapped in her house with her family, and she's the only one that understands that things are not okay. Haunter combines a lot of elements that seem familiar from other places, but it does so in an original way that tells a story not-quite-like anything else. The only thing stopping Haunter from being more than an "honorable mention" is the familiarity with which much of the action is displayed. Briefly; there's a deadline of sorts and a chase, and they end up feeling more like a "thriller" than "horror."
Apartment 143 - 2011
Written by Rodrigo Cortes
Directed by Carles Torrens
Following the death of their respective wife and mother, a father and his two children move to the city to get away from bad memories and toxic energies. It turns out that something angry has followed them to their new home, and the father calls in a team of paranormal investigators to help solve the mystery of what haunts them.
Now, for my money (bear in mind I have no money), Apartment 143 outdoes the Paranormal Activity films of which it's accused of knocking-off. There's just more to it, in every possible way except budget. The story is much deeper and more personally engaging. The characters are more interesting and better performed. The haunting aspect is better developed and executed.
The Haunting in Connecticut - 2009
Written by Adam Simon & Tim Metcalfe
Directed by Peter Cornwell
Some ghost stories are already halfway to success simply by bundling a great set of creepy elements into one package. The rest is left to the execution. The Haunting in Connecticut succeeds strongly on the first factor, but it just doesn't quite get there on the second. It's like batting a double, making it to third, and then getting tagged out trying to steal home.
A family moves into a big, creaky old house, which just happens to have once been a mortuary. For some reason, there are still photographs of the dead from nearly a century ago, and though locked (and then mysteriously unlocked) the embalming room in the basement is still full of all kinds of antique mortician's equipment. Okay, not totally logical, but creepy as Hell, right? The family's eldest son starts seeing and hearing things, but struggles to keep it to himself lest he be disqualified for the experimental cancer treatment he's undergoing, which is why the family took on a second mortgage to move there in the first place. As the story unfolds, they discover that the house was site to even darker dealings than the mere management of the recently departed.
Lots of creepy, but sadly the execution gets kind of cluttered and heavy-handed in places. Some of the acting is also, shall we say, without nuance. A handy rule of thumb is that when Kyle Gallner is in the scene, it's pretty good, but when he's not (Martin Donovan, Virginia Madsen) you'll find yourself impatient for it get back to him.
And that pretty much lays this one to rest!
I hope I didn't spoil too much for some people, and I hope I didn't play it too coy for others. I try to encourage the viewing, but I don't want to spoil the discovery. Now go, get haunted by some good movies!
This list is subject to updates pending new information.