We chart the movie ghost story from 1961 to this weekend’s The Woman In Black…
The best thing about the release this week of The Woman in Black is that it reminds us that in this age of ‘torture porn’ horror flicks and graphic, stomach-churning violence, the most effective scares come from suggestion, sudden jumps, head-scrambling images, and by tricking you into thinking you’ve seen something that isn’t really there.
We love a proper old school ghost movie here at movies.ie, and so in tribute to he Daniel Radcliffe’s new film THE WOMAN IN BLACK, we present to you 10 other titles that will similarly induce the shivers with some old-fashioned scares:
The Innocents (1961): Deborah Kerr stars as Miss Giddens, a governess of two small children, who becomes convinced that her charges and the very grounds of the house itself are haunted by the ghostly spectres of two former estate staff. The genius of The Innocents lies in its ambiguity. It’s possible that Giddens could be having a slow-burn nervous breakdown. Or the ghosts might just be real. This is an adaptation of Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, which has proved to be one of the biggest influences in this movie genre over the past century.
The Haunting (1963): No, not the late 1990s Jan de Bont re-make with Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones (which is scary for very different reasons), but the 1963 original. It’s the story of three people staying in a haunted New England mansion under an observant parapsychologist who wants to determine if ghosts really do occupy the gaff. The results are genuinely goosebump-inducing, with loads of things going bump in the night, strange noises, and visits from folk who refuse to rest in peace.
Don’t Look Now (1973): Masterfully contructed, and haunting in every sense of the word, this movie is so much more than the startlingly realistic sex scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie that has made Nicolas Roeg’s film so famous. Don and Julie play a grieving couple who travel to Venice to get over the drowning of their young daughter. But there’s no getting away from their pain: Don keeps seeing a young figure scuttling about wearing the same red cloak his daughter wore that fateful day, while Julie takes to hanging around with a terrifying pair of blind psychics who claim to have a message for her from the other side. With its disorienting editing, jumps in time, and artful imagery, this film is a genuine head-f*ck. And that ending gets you every time. Do look, right now.
The Exorcist (1973): This one is most famous as a horror movie, but at its dark, possessed heart, it’s really a ghost story with the ultimate spook – the Devil – at its centre. A little girl in a nice Washington DC suburb has her body taken over by Beelzebub. That simple premise is why this one will mess with your mind: it’s so damn ordinary and believable. And cast members Ellen Burstyn, Linda Blair, Jason Miller and Max von Sydow play it entirely straight, only adding to the scary atmosphere.
The Shining (1980): Personally I wasn’t convinced about The Shining’s bona fides as a sweat-inducing frightener until I watched it one Christmas at about one in the morning, alone in a dark house, and it unnerved me and got under my skin like few modern ghost stories ever have. Like The Exorcist and Don’t Look Now, Stanley Kubrick’s film is so effective because of its utter strangeness, its intercut scenes, and subliminal messages. Martin Scorsese has referred to The Shining as a “majestically terrifying movie, where what you don’t see or comprehend shadows every move the characters make.” What’s more, a new documentary that screened at Sundance last month entitled Room 237 argues that The Shining contains all manner of hidden messages, from Kubrick’s supposed involvement with helping the US government to stage the Apollo moon landings, to the recurrence of motifs about the Holocaust (look out for the repetition of the number 42, which, one fans maintains, is a reference to the year the Nazis implemented the ‘Final Solution’).
Poltergeist (1982): They’re heeeeeeeere! In what has to be one of the scariest PG-rated movies ever made, director Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and producer/co-writer Steven Spielberg, no less, conjure a plot where ghosts invade a family home through the TV set in the living room. What makes it spookier is fact that the actual Poltergeist franchise itself appears to be haunted due to the deaths of several people associated with the films, including original child star Heather O’Rourke. Oh, and get this: seeing as the family house in the movie is haunted because it’s built on an ancient Indian burial ground, some goatee-stroking, brandy-swilling academic types have interpreted that as a metaphor for America itself being the ultimate ‘haunted house’ due to its bloody occupation of Native American land.
The Blair Witch Project (1999): Lost footage flicks are so passé now, but at the time of the Blair Witch’s release, the format was a sensation. Bolstered by a staggeringly effective online promotional campaign that blurred the fine line between fact and fiction, audiences’ nerves were already so stoked going into the film that it took very little to push us over the edge. To this day I can’t see someone standing facing a corner without getting a shiver.
The Sixth Sense (1999): That twist ending aside, this is a genuinely spooky movie with some magnificently jumpy and scary set-pieces (Mischa Barton has never been so terrifying, even when trying to emote on The OC). This has the added bonus of a strong emotional core thanks to the frankly extraordinary performances, in particular, of Haley Joel Osmont and Toni Collette as the haunted little boy and his frantic single mother.
The Others (2001): An isolated, old house in a fog-cloaked environment during WWII. Creepy servants. Photosensitive kids. A piano that plays itself. Doors that lock and unlock with no explanation. An old woman with a dicky eye. And a highly-strung mother (played by Nicole Kidman in one of her finest performances) who is clearly on the verge of cracking up. The Others may be a trifle hackneyed, but by gum, it puts all its spooky ghost story elements together with élan.
The Orphanage (El Orfanato, 2007): Guillermo del Toro helped to bring this stunning ghost story to the screen, starting something of a mini-trend for similar Spanish shockers. Plot-wise, all you need to know is that a woman brings her family back to her childhood home, where she opens an orphanage for handicapped children. Her son then starts to communicate with an invisible friend… The scares are brilliantly orchestrated, the plot genuinely unpredictable, and the dénouement ultimately, utterly devastating.
Honorable mentions: What Lies Beneath (2000); Paranormal Activity (2009)
WORDS – DECLAN CASHIN
THE WOMAN IN BLACK IS NOW SHOWING IN IRISH CINEMAS