If you know me at all, you know I’m a sucker for a good, creepy ghost story. I love to write’em, read’em, and watch’em on the big screen. Since we’ve officially entered Halloween season, I thought I’d list a dozen of my favorite movies from the last century. (There are a few new ones I haven’t seen so far this year, but I’m sure I’ll catch them on DVD at some point. Feel free to give me your own recommendations.)
Here’s my personal favorites list, from oldest to newest:
“THE UNINVITED” (1944) – Directed by Lewis Allen; starring Ray Milland, Gail Russell, Ruth Hussey
This black and white movie was based on Dorothy Macardle’s novel, and tells the story of a composer and his sister who fall in love with a beautiful, English seacoast mansion called Windward House. They soon find out why it sold for such a reasonable price: the house and the cliffside property are haunted by two entities – one benevolent, one malignant. Eventually they discover the truth about the long ago tragedy involving a love triangle that ended badly for all concerned. (But…when do love triangles ever have a happy ending?) I like the fact that there’s more than one decent plot twist in this old-fashioned story, and some genuinely eerie moments to enjoy.
“THE HAUNTING” (1963) – Directed by Robert Wise; starring Julie Harris, Richard Johnson and Claire Bloom
Based on the excellent novel by Shirley Jackson – “The Haunting of Hill House” – this creepy black and white film is about a team of paranormal investigators who decide to “conquer” Hill House, infamous for its lurid past of violent deaths and insanity. Unlike the book, which Jackson considered to be purely supernatural, the screenwriter decided to also turn it into a psychological horror flick, playing up the vulnerable female character’s mental instability. Needless to say, all hell breaks loose on the team and the consequences are disastrous.
“THE SHINING” (1980) – Directed by Stanley Kubrick; starring Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Scatman Crothers
Stephen King made it known that he hated this movie version, unfaithful to his novel of the same name, and he eventually had it turned into a TV mini-series (1997), which he approved. He thought Jack’s performance was over the top, and he disliked Shelley’s wimpish portrayal of her character. Oh, well. It’s scary fun, in my opinion (although I also liked the TV version). You probably already know this story well: A couple, John (“Jack”) and Wendy Torrance, and their young, psychic son, move to an isolated hotel (The Overlook) in the Rockies, where they must spend the entire winter. The alcoholic dad has the job of caretaker, and he soon falls under the influence of the evil entities haunting the huge place. I love the twin girls – and the “lady” in the tub. The scene where the young, psychic Danny encounters her in Room 217 gives me chills to this day. (Incidentally, I’m getting ready to read King’s long-awaited sequel to “The Shining” – “Doctor Sleep.”)
“THE CHANGELING” (1980) – Directed by Peter Medak; starring George C. Scott, Melvyn Douglas, Trish Van Devere
Classical composer John Russell relocates from NYC to Seattle, trying to get over the sudden death of his wife and young daughter in a car accident. His new friend, Claire, talks him into renting a monstrously huge mansion, and it doesn’t take long for John to realize he’s not alone in the house. To quote writer M.R. James, I felt “pleasantly uncomfortable” pretty much all the way through this film. I also felt moved to tears on occasion, not just from the grief displayed by John due to the loss of his family, but by the terrible secret he uncovers about the child entity that haunts the mansion. Spooky stuff.
“GHOST STORY” (1981) – Directed by John Irvin; starring Fred Astaire, John Houseman, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Melvyn Douglas, Alice Krige
Four elderly, successful gentlemen (Ricky, Ed, John, Sears) have a private club they call “The Chowder Society” – they meet every week to tell horror stories. For fifty years, they’ve also shared a horrible secret. When they were young, they were all in love with a beautiful, mysterious woman named Alma. A tragedy unfolded, and now they must pay the price. Alma: “I will show you things you’ve never seen, take you places you’ve never been. And I will see the life run out of you.” Based on Peter Straub’s novel – one of my favorites.
“POLTERGEIST” (1982) – Directed by Tobe Hooper (Written by Steven Spielberg); starring Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Heather O’Rourke
I never get tired of this one. A subdivision was built over top of a cemetery, and the unscrupulous businessmen didn’t bother to move the bodies. Tsk, tsk. The Freelings must be punished first, apparently, and things really get serious when their young daughter is “ghost-napped.” Good scares (I really hate clowns), and I also appreciate the humor throughout the flick. “They’re heeeee-re.”
“LADY IN WHITE” (1988) – Directed and written by Frank LaLoggia; starring Lukas Haas, Len Cariou, Alex Rocco, Katherine Helmond
The first time I watched this movie, I was haunted by it for days afterward. Horror writer Frank Scarlatti returns to his hometown and remembers the extraordinary events that occurred when he was nine years old in the fall of 1962. It all starts when Frankie is locked in the school’s cloakroom after hours on Halloween night by bullies. He sees the apparation of a little redhaired girl as she’s attacked. Later that night, the masked man who attacked her shows up looking for something in the cloakroom and tries to get rid of Frankie by choking him, but he’s interrupted and flees. The janitor is wrongfully accused. Frankie soon learns there have been eleven children attacked in the area by a mysterious killer. The little redhaired girl, Melissa Montgomery, was the first, and her grief-stricken mother (the lady in white) jumped off the cliff where her body was found. Frankie knows the spirit of Melissa will lead him to the truth.
“THE OTHERS” (2001) – Directed by Alejandro Amenabar; starring Nicole Kidman, Chris Eccleston, Fionnula Flanagan
Inspired by the 1898 novella by Henry James, “The Turn of the Screw,” this movie entertained me all the way through and was genuinely creepy and intriguing. A devout Catholic woman, Grace, lives with her two young children on an isolated estate located on the Isle of Jersey. WWII has just ended and Grace is waiting on the return of her husband, Charles. She’s under a lot of stress – she’s lonely and must take care of her son Nick and her daughter Anna, who are both drastically allergic to the sun. With the arrival of three servants (Bertha, Ed and Lydia), she thinks things will get better, but mysterious things begin to happen right away. Grace thinks the house is haunted, or perhaps she is going insane. I definitely won’t give away the big twist at the end.
“THE GRUDGE” (2004) – Directed by Takashi Shimizu; starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jason Behr, Will Mapother, Bill Pullman
This movie is a remake of the Japanese film, “Ju-On,” which is also worth seeing. Until this flick was released, I hadn’t seen a lot of Japanese-inspired horror. I was completely creeped out by the look and feel of the ghosts and the jerky camera-work. Lots of eerie moments and there were many scenes that had me jumping in my seat. Set in Tokyo, it’s about an exchange student named Karen who is studying to be a social worker. She offers to take over for a nurse who didn’t show up for work, and proceeds to care for an elderly woman in a house that turns out to be haunted. Wow – is it ever haunted! (What did I say earlier about love triangles and tragedy and revenge?) In this case, the grudge is also a curse that passes on to different people throughout the story. I enjoyed it – and not just because I have a girlie crush on Sarah Michelle Gellar.
“THE MARSH” (2006) – Directed by Jordan Barker; starring Gabrielle Anwar, Forest Whitaker
Claire Holloway is a stressed out children’s writer who’s afraid she’s about to have a mental breakdown. She decides to take a vacation in the country, and when she notices an ad for Rose Marsh Farm, which strongly resembles the place she’s been seeing in her nightmares, she feels compelled to visit the property. Claire almost immediately senses something amiss with the old house, and when she begins seeing the troubled spirits of a little girl and a teenaged boy around the nearby marsh, she contacts a paranormal expert to help her solve the mystery.
“THE ORPHANAGE” (2007 – Spanish, with English subtitles) – Directed by J.A. Bayona; starring Belen Rueda, Fernando Cayo, Roger Princep
Made in Spain (“El Orfanato”), this movie not only creeped me out, the ending moved me to tears. It was so much better than I was expecting, mixing chills with a compelling storyline. Laura, a former orphan, buys the old orphanage where she once lived for a while as a child, planning to turn it into a facility for disabled kids. She brings her husband and young adopted son, Simon, there, and soon Simon tells her he has made friends with the spirits of five children who are trapped there. The ghost children tell Simon that he is adopted and that he will die soon. Not long after that, Simon disappears. Laura is determined to find her son and unravel the terrible secret that has been hidden at the orphanage for thirty years.
“INSIDIOUS” (2011) – Directed by James Wan; starring Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Barbara Hershey, Lin Shaye, Ty Simpkins
I should have known there would be a sequel. I’ll have to see it, too, eventually. I was a little upset by the ending when I first saw this movie, since I didn’t realize James Wan planned to continue the story. I liked the original anyway, however, since it had many spooky moments that made me squirm in my seat. Renai and Josh Lambert move into their dream house with their sons, Dalton and Foster, and their baby daughter. One morning they find Dalton in a comatose state, and realize he’s become a vessel for the ghosts who reside in an astral dimension. Apparently, Dalton has inherited his father’s ability to astral project during sleep. Only this time, the boy has become stranded in the astral plane known as “The Further.” Dalton is guarded by a red-faced demon, and many other tormented souls who are determined to escape – including the “shadow woman” who once haunted his father.
So, those are my top dozen so far. And yes, of course I like “Ghostbusters” – but it’s not scary so it didn’t make my list. Happy trick or treating!
NOTE: I probably should have made this a Top 13 List, but “The Woman in Black” (2012), starring Daniel Radcliffe, definitely gets an honorable mention. (I loved the book by Susan Hill, as well.) Many goosebump inducing moments.