Phillip's Horror Lists, Part Eleven: Ghosts and Bad Property Values
Here's where I list a few of my favorite ghost/haunted house films. Whereas my previous lists consist almost exclusively of 4-5 star movies, this particular list actually features a couple 3-star films ("Ghost Story" and "The Changeling") that I think are equally worthy of notice. Here, then, are my favorite ghost/haunted house films:
Ghost Story (1981) – Not a great film, by any stretch of the imagination, but one that I’ve continued to enjoy a couple decades since the first time I saw it as a kid. This is based on one of my favorite Peter Straub books and features some pretty delirious stunt casting: Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and John Houseman! Despite the contributions from these four old-school pros, the film has a tendency to kind of lurch around, squandering good atmosphere in service of plot points. Four old men, friends since youth, meet regularly to tell ghost stories. Ironically enough, however, the scariest ghost story is the truth behind a terrible event from their pasts. When the past begins to interject itself into the present, the old men must try to put right past sins and lay the dead to rest. For a good, old-fashioned, atmospheric ghost tale, you could do a lot worse.
The Changeling (1980) – Like “Ghost Story,” “The Changeling” is a pretty average film that’s managed to worm its way into my psyche. The always excellent George C. Scott plays a man who moves into an isolated mansion only to discover that the place is haunted by the ghost of a young child. Who is the boy and why can’t his spirit rest? Scott decides to get to the bottom of the case. This is very atmospheric and pleasantly slow-paced. In addition, the sound design is excellent, influencing scores of modern films (including the “Paranormal Activity” series) with its reliance on small, mundane noises to create big feelings of dread. The film loses steam towards the end, however, and the whole thing wraps up in a pretty ho-hum way. For much of the journey, however, this is a fine old ghost film.
The Fog (1980) – For my money, Carpenter’s classic chiller is one of the creepiest films out there. A small fishing town harbors a deep secret: one hundred years before, the town caused the deaths of a group of lepers, in order to steal their gold and land (leper gold? Eww…). Now, nearly 100 years to the day, a mysterious fog has rolled into town, blanketing everything beneath a sea of thick white. Strange lights can be seen glowing in the fog, however, and townspeople have begun to disappear. Have the lepers returned to exact their revenge or is something even more sinister at work? Great film with tremendous atmosphere and one of Carpenter’s customarily creepy scores. The cinematic equivalent of the old campfire story that begins the film.
The Ring (2002) – I know, I know: this is an American remake of a foreign horror film…what gives? Here’s the straight scoop: I never cared for the original Japanese version of “The Ring”: I found it to be way too melodramatic and over the top. The Gore Verbinski remake, however, has all of the slow, careful pace and creeping scares that I expected to find in the original. The story, by now, is old hat: a journalist investigates a strange video tape that causes anyone who views it to die within a week’s time. After her family is threatened by the curse, the journalist must uncover the sordid history behind the video and the terrifying little girl that crawls out of a well. The video, itself, is the height of creep (to me, at least), coming across as a somber version of NIN’s video for “Closer.” In particular, the horse part has always haunted me. The performances are nicely down-played and the whole thing has the same gray, rainy, foreboding feeling that “Seven” did. Despite this being a huge pop culture hit, I still find this film to be refreshing and never less than entertaining.
The Ward (2010) – Just when I’d begun to write off John Carpenter, along comes “The Ward” and attempts to set things (somewhat) straight. While not a perfect film, “The Ward” is definitely the best thing Carpenter’s done since “In the Mouth of Madness” in the mid-‘90s. The film concerns a young woman who, after being institutionalized, begins to see ghosts. The mental hospital is a reliably creepy setting and the other patients are just varied enough to evoke memories of “A Nightmare of Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors.” There are a few performance problems, here and there, and the story can get a little creaky. Compared to utter crap like “Ghosts of Mars,” however, this thing is nearly genius. A good, old-fashioned haunted mental hospital tale with a couple interesting twists and turns.
Session 9 (2001) – Another entry in the “haunted mental hospital” subgenre, “Session 9” is actually a pretty scary slow-burn that has a tendency to creep up behind you and wallop you over the end with a good jump scare. A cleaning crew is tasked with removing the asbestos from an abandoned mental hospital as the first step in a planned renovation. Once there, of course, the crew discovers that something evil has transpired there in the past, an evil that continues to spill into the present. Tensions raise, buried rivalries re-emerge and none of them will make it out unscathed. Featuring a pretty good lead performance by David Caruso (I don’t think he slowly takes off a pair of sunglasses ONCE in the film) and a fantastic use of setting, “Session 9” is one of my highest recommended seasonal ghost stories. If you haven’t seen it, yet, take the opportunity this Halloween.
The Legend of Hell House (1973) – Quite simply, this adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel “Hell House,” is one of the scariest haunted house movies ever. Using subtle cinematic tricks, including an emphasis on sound and background movement, “The Legend of Hell House” slowly envelops the viewer in its suffocating embrace. A team of paranormal investigators, including a physicist, psychic and the only survivor of a previous expedition, investigate the terrifying goings-on at Hell House, the former residence of demented millionaire Emeric Belasco. You see, Belasco was a perverted, evil son of a bitch and the team fears that the spirits of his past victims are still trapped in the house. As they will soon discover, however, the spirits of the victims aren’t the only ones trapped in the house. Roddy McDowell is fantastic, as the only survivor of a previous visit to Hell House and the whole thing has a stately elegance that still allows for some huge scares. Essential viewing for horror fans.
And here's the 5-star film, one of my favorite horror films, period:
Insidious (2011) – Holy hell, do I love this movie! I love everything about it: the look, the style, the performances, the effects, the storyline…I just love it to death! James Wan’s homage to classic haunted house/possession films is endlessly stylish but never short on idea’s or plot. A family moves into a new home and feel that something just isn’t right. When their young son falls and slips into a coma, however, he kicks open a door to a terrifying, unseen other reality. Now, the father must enter this horrifying realm and bring back his son, all while being pursued by a horde of horrendous demons. Sort of a modern update of “Poltergeist,” “Insidious” is, quite simply, one of the scariest films I’ve ever seen. I make it a point to watch this one once every few months. Essentially viewing: could not be recommended more.