It is fast approaching that unique portion of the year when all true matters arcane and diabolical are given the festive treatment, as Halloween prompts folks to deploy their broomsticks for something other than sweeping up after the household pet. Although we have recently seen cinematic quotas of the supernatural gobbled up by vampire and zombie flicks, it would be remiss to overlook the genuine chills instilled by the most successful exponents of the ghost movie genre. So here are ten of the scariest ghost movies to put the frighteners on us poor, trembling cinema-goers.
10. Dark Water (2002)
Leaky plumbing becomes an unlikely source of spine-tingling terror in this J-Horror offering from director Hideo Nakata, the man who had previously attached creepy connotations onto video cassettes and cold-calling in the first two Ringu films. Sharing some narrative ground with his earlier horror hits, Dark Water finds Nakata once again casting a supernatural child as his primary wellspring of unsettlement, as the spirit of Mitsuko (Mirei Oguchi) seeks some redress for her premature demise. The red of Mitsuko’s lost bag and the prevalence of water in the movie both establish a link to Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, and the blend served up on this occasion by Nakata was beguiling enough to inspire Hollywood to deliver an unexceptional 2005 remake starring Jennifer Connolly.
9. The Fog (1980)
Gar! Me hearties! Spectral seadogs resurface to wreak vengeance upon the small coastal town of Antonio Bay, as Jamie Lee Curtis collaborates with director John Carpenter on a more expansive chiller than their earlier Halloween. The Fog sees Curtis cast alongside her mother, Janet Leigh, and although the shock ending of Carpenter’s movie is certainly not up to Psycho standard, the enveloping mist of the title provides an effectively eerie shroud under which the succession of revenge killings can be enacted. And, as ever with horror aficionado Carpenter, there some teasing little genre nods too – such as a twosome of characters turning up bearing tributary monikers to Robert Fuests’s Abominable Dr. Phibes and Great God Pan writer Arthur Machen.
8. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Better known for the bizarre, tactile mutant bodies that inhabited his Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy movies, The Devil’s Backbone saw Guillermo del Toro adopting a rather less-outré approach to the paranormal than that which we have come to expect from the fuzz-faced Mexican auteur. Death looms large over the film’s scenario, with the Spanish Civil War-era action taking place in an orphanage in which roams the restless spirit of deceased young resident Santi (Junio Valverde). A sense of unease stalks The Devil’s Backbone throughout, as the darkest facets of human behaviour overshadow Santi’s baleful haunting – although del Toro himself might have felt like he was the one coming back from the dead, as he fully grasped the opportunity to rebuild following the production difficulties and poor reception of Mimic.
7. Poltergeist (1982)
And we reach the first haunted house movie of the list. Tempted as I was to include The Legend of Hell House (which sees the astral presence of Michael Gough’s devilish Emeric Belasco spreading misery as an expression of the resentment he harboured about his titchy little legs), I decided to plump for this successful collaboration between writer-producer Steven Spielberg and director Tobe Hooper. The sense of wonder one has come to typically associate with The Beard’s output is given a darker tint here, with Carol Anne Freeling (Heather O’Rourke) being ripped away from her family and subsumed by the static of the television set. Meanwhile, Texas Chainsaw Massacre helmer Hooper keeps the schlock coming; as evinced by Martin Casella’s psychic researcher clawing his own face to shreds, and some slightly bathetic final revelations about a defiled burial ground.
6. The Haunting (1963)
Blimey, wait for one haunted house movie and then a pair of the blighters show up at once. What are the odds? Well, probably significantly better than finding someone who prefers the Jan de Bont-directed remake of The Haunting to the 1963 original. Coming as it did between his work on West Side Story and The Sound of Music, The Haunting perhaps represents a slightly unlikely interjection in the production schedule of the period for its director Robert Wise. However Wise brings the kind of intelligence to proceedings that you might expect from the man who cut Citizen Kane, delivering a disquieting thriller that is high on aesthetic quality and psychological sophistication.
5. The Sixth Sense (1999)
Imagine if you will, an antediluvian filmic era. Before The Happening. Before The Village. Before Signs. Welcome to the golden age of M. Night Shyamalan, when The Sixth Sense briefly transformed him into the hottest new film-maker in Hollywood and he could deliver a twist ending that had viewers choking on their pop corn in surprise, rather than weakly sobbing at the lameness of it all. Starting a trend for chiller flicks featuring kids delivering their dialogue in loud whispers (which persists to this day) and a trend for movies starring Haley Joel Osmant (which proved to be far, far, far-shorter lived), The Sixth Sense attempted to establish a cogent relationship between the living and the deceased, without diluting the spiritual atmospherics.
4. Don’t Look Now (1973)
Ah, I have to confess to a bit of con-job on this one. Because, rather than sitting here resplendently in fourth place on my list, Don’t Look Now should face technical disqualification on the grounds that there aren’t actually any ghosts in it. But! The elliptical story related by Man Who Fell to Earth helmer Nicholas Roeg suggests that grieving John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) is being stalked round Venice by a red coat-clad phantom version of his dead daughter – consequently giving Don’t Look Now at least a partial ghost film credit. And there is no shortage of creepiness in the central scenario, which culminates with one of the most heart-stopping finales in cinema, when Baxter discovers that the ‘daughter’ he has repeatedly sighted is a ***spoiler***. Sounds laughable on paper, bloody terrifying and terrifyingly bloody in practice.
3. The Others (2001)
It may have been penned way back in 1897, but Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw still seems to exert a sizeable influence over the motion picture ghost story. The literary original was successfully adapted as The Innocents with Deborah Kerr in 1961, and James’ narrative components of a young woman inhabiting a strange gothic property, a perplexing set of events which appear to be supernatural in nature, and kids conversing with the spirit world were all adopted by director Alejandro Amenábar for his Nicole Kidman-starrer The Others. Privileging a nebulous sense of anxiety over blaring great shocks (although the bit where Kidman finds her daughter has been replaced by a knobbly pensioner is certainly a jolter), Amenábar’s movie even manages to find a sinister purpose for British comedy veteran Eric Sykes, as gardener Mr. Tuttle.
2. Ringu (1998)
A second entry in the list for director Hideo Nakata and the movie that ensured we would spend the opening years of the 21st century being deluged with J-Horror and J-Horror remakes alike. Despite the plethora of imitators, Ringu remains a genre benchmark though, boasting as it does a highly effective marriage of tight, surprising plotting and evocatively uncanny imagery. Around the conceit of being able to sign your own death warrant without even knowing it, Nakata weaves a race-against-time dilemma and downbeat denouement, while Rie Inou’s herky-jerky moving Sadako instantly establishes herself of one of the most identifiable characters in modern horror cinema.
1. The Shining (1980)
Much of Stanley Kubrick’s take on The Shining has undeniably become the stuff of all-too frequent parody; the Diane Arbus-inspired twin girls, the elevator of blood, the revelation of ‘REDRUM’ in the mirror, and Jack Nicholson’s manic cry of “Heeeeeeeeeere’s Johnny!”. However The Shining delivers so many moments of oddness that it still never fails to unsettle (the briefly-glimpsed guy in the bear costume and Joe Turkel’s sallow-faced bartender always succeed in putting a cold breeze up my flagpole). Kubrick’s Steadicam relentlessly glides the corridors of Overlook Hotel, trailing little telepathic Danny (Danny Lloyd) trundling round on his tricycle, searching out the spiritual malevolence that finally sends Jack Torrance’s booze-fuelled caretaker over the edge, and gives Nicholson opportunity to cut loose. With a really big axe.