The last two weeks of August marked the release of The Apparition, and Sam Raimi’s presentation of The Possession. They’ve both essentially got the same plot as many ghost stories do: restless spirits screw with the living. But there are ghost stories that transcend cliche, expectations, and even their own genre. In homage to the spectral films of cinema, let’s kick September off with the top ten ghost stories captured on film, as considered by Anthony Fertino.
*Note: Demons and the Devil will be excluded, as they are truly a genre of their own.
10.) The Fog (1980)
We’ll begin with this strange little thing that plays out like The Birds with Ghosts. Although its ending has enough camp to put you to sleep, the sour payoff is nothing compared to the genuine shocks that precede it, and we remember why Carpenter had such an enduring career blurring the fantastic with reality in such a, well, real way that he’s terrified us with numerous classics from They Live to The Thing.
*Look for a neat cameo of Janet Leigh, from Psycho fame.
9.) The Entity (1982)
Based on true events. Now that makes any story immediately more heavy-handed, but when you hand it over to a ghost story, you are literally ordered to accept the afterlife as reality, as in The Amityville Horror. The Possession of course hangs that tagline all over its marketing.
But this doesn’t feel compelling unless the film’s fidelity is strong enough, and the viewer is open-minded, already a believer, or entirely doesn’t care. It is very common for the film to falter on any or all.
However, The Entity, a story of a rapist from beyond life is so strange, and disturbing—with the help of a director that harnesses truthfully rather than exploits the rape violence as “tastefully” as David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—that it remains a wholly unique experience and has you paranoid as the protagonist, to the point that forgetting her keys becomes terrifyingly torturous.
8.) The Ring (2002)
This is yet another side to ghost stories: horror, in place of suspense, through the presence that is articulated—typically with a mysterious reason for its contacting or killing the living. Japanese ghost stories use this structure the most, so it’s only natural The Ring, a remake from that genre (and indeed cornerstone in Japanese cinema) should follow suit. The Japanese mystery ghosts utilize fear of the unknown, that is, misunderstanding the ghost.
This film therefore has a unique angle on the story, if not a now familiar and overused one thanks to American remakes. But it all comes down to this: do visuals, or performances get you scared? If the former, you will argue Ringu, but the latter is what makes me choose this one. Naomi at full throttle, here, and American dollars make effects and Samara’s supernatural behavior more formidably real.
7.) Insidious (2010)
This addition to the list features a demon, but not only a demon. There are many ghosts, and as far as I’m concerned, this story deserves to break any rule to get on a top ten list of ghost stories anywhere.
The most recent film selected, it is everything that made Paranormal Activity such a neat little exercise in Blair Witch cinema, but without the restriction of the found footage genre choking it to death like every other film in the exhausted category. It’s gotten to the point they’re running out of reasons for people to randomly begin recording things.
The film utilizes every single technique that was ever used to frighten people, from mystery, to slight of hand, corner of your eye, to frozen smiles, the spirit world, mirrors, supernatural interference in daily routines, strangely ironic music for creepy things—you name it, it’s there. It serves as a dictionary for ghost-stories, and still, accomplishes genuine fright. A solitary viewing past midnight is preferred.
6.) The Evil Dead (1981)
But what about the independent side? Sam Raimi’s first and finest film of his entire career was realized at the conclusion of film school, and due to its low amount of funding, became a ghost story of—as usual—possession. But the telling of that story is anything but usual: it’s a B movie.
An incredibly shocking and relentless B movie that exploits blood and gore, but it’s winking charm and a “dead-on” performance by Bruce Campbell made for a perfect combination irresistible to fans of horror and ghosts. It’s a landmark of low-budget exploitation movies that truly kicks off its decade, and weighs equally on either sides humor and horror, the latter best detailed when the forest rapes a woman.
Guillermo Del Toro has his very own voice, and it translates well no matter what genre he tackles. Perhaps it’s a matter of properly deciding, but it was clear that tension and fear were his strongest arsenal throughout his entire career, culminating in an unforgettable sequence in Pan’s Labyrinth concerning a creature with eyes in its hands.
Del Toro’s talent for unique special effects drive his style, and the balance between drama, mystery, and history has always been a juggling act he excels at. This creates a blur between reality and fiction, and the more you believe, the more Del Toro will haunt you.
4.) The Haunting (1968)
If I could describe the sixties in one word, I’d say: radical. In 1967 we got Bonnie and Clyde, and The Graduate. It was a time for pre-ratings cinema to bite after all their barking throughout the decade, and The Haunting, releasing in the same year as Night of the Living Dead, made its mark in ghostly history with its black and white visuals, a solid mythology, and a slow camera that forces you to anxiously approach the inevitable.
3.) The Shining (1980)
Like Stanley Kubrick always proved, more is…more. At least, in the hands of one of the great geniuses of cinema. Although this story about a haunted hotel is definitely not developed very rigidly from its source material by Stephen King, striking images provided by Kubrick embed in your mind like the great German Expressionists of the twenties, like Kurosawa paintings, of horrid blood and psychosis until we feel as helpless as the poor child with a wretched case of ESP. Shocking, definitively terrifying, and endlessly memorable.
2.) The Others (2001)
Nicole Kidman gives a fiercely subtle performance so smooth that even granted a masterful script worthy of Rod Serling himself, it is Kidman that drives the film home and into cinema’s history of classic suspense films. The film’s strength relies on its flair for eeriness rather than shock value, which always makes a more appreciated ghost story—or any film of the horror genre, really. The period piece backdrop also allows for a return to folklore, steamy grounds fully developing a world of its own, and the pace broods with uncertainty. The story also perfectly sets up the manual for ending with a twist.
True, the work of M. Night Shyamalan has been all but disregarded, now that a film like The Last Airbender exists. But it’s unquestionable and ubiquitously accepted that this film is a superior harmony of every piece of the filmmaking process, from performance to direction, and is a remarkable addition to the many ghostly films out there. Nothing forced, everything complimentary within, this movie establishes and exploits genuine fear and suspense. Another fine Twilight Zone exercise, expertly crafted, it requires little insight to understand why it deserves to be number one. Released in a big year of cinema, where The Matrix and American Beauty roamed, this ghost story reminded audiences the strength of horror. This may be the most incredible child performance yet, too.