They’re Heeeere! In a sub-genre filled with slow burn atmospherics, these ten stand out.
I think what I appreciate the most about ghost-themed haunts is that they often can build a very scary movie without falling prey to visceral violence… or even killings. If you research blood-less horror movies, a number of them will be ghost stories. This list includes real horror movie royalty but leaves plenty of room for smaller gems, including two of the greatest little movies that could in all of filmdom. Another great aspect of the haunting stories is that they are so easily relatable. Often times the stories feature people who have the misfortune to be tormented in their own homes, unable to shake the malevolent spirits within.
Read this after you listen to The Scariest Things Podcast Episode 6.
Session 9: That does not look like a healthy environment!
10. Session 9 (2001) R: David Caruso and Peter Mullan are asbestos removers who score a huge contract when they get hired to clean up the condemned Kirkbride Mental Health Hospital which is peeling apart on the inside. The asylum is huge, and couldn’t represent a more unhealthy place to be, both physically and psychologically. This movie lures you in and allows you to follow the crew doing their lonely work, and when one of the men finds a series of recordings of the practices that went on in this place, the building begins to mess with their minds and their souls. (Or is it the asbestos?) I appreciate that this is a bunch of ordinary guys, who fall prey to the creeping psychoses that pervade the place. A great set, with a great premise, and a great payoff.
9. The Sixth Sense (1999) PG-13. The mother of all gotcha twist movies. Come for the ghost story, and stay for the big plot zinger! Worth seeing repeatedly to see all the bread crumbs that Shyalaman lays for you. Rightfully earning the six Oscar nominations it received, it kick-started the M. Night Shyamalan sensation and also represents the best work in Bruce Willis’ career. What holds this movie back from the top of my list is that it has almost become so familiar that it is a cliche. But at the time, this film was revolutionary, and it is still a master class in story craft. It holds up to this day, but since the big twist is so ubiquitous, it loses a bit of its luster. A movie with a few mild jump scares, and with no real violence to speak of, this is an ideal gateway horror movie for newbies.
8. The Others (2001) PG-13: Nicole Kidman awaits the return of her husband from battle in WWII, in an old family mansion, with her children. Intruders begin coming in to her home and she starts hearing mysterious noises and happenings. She finds confined to the home with her daylight averse kids (hmmmm…) and then dark secrets begin to unfold. Another spooky but not gory movie. The fabulous plot switcheroo happens right about the time you suspect it, which is incredibly satisfying. Nicole Kidman’s convincing indignity over her plight helps to fend off the initial twist spoilers, as her character buries her secrets so deep, and is in so much denial as to her unfortunate past, that the big plot twists aren’t spoiled too early. Enough of the mystery is kept shrouded for much of the film, but the big moment comes naturally. Even though it’s a post-war piece, it has the feel of a Victorian drama, all languid and dreamy, an the masterful use of light and shadow really play well to the subject material.
7. The Blair Witch Project (1999) R: What a year for ghost stories! This arrived in the same year as the Sixth Sense. Famously low budget, the Blair Witch Project was the face that launched a thousand shaky cam ships. Proof that with limited technology, an extremely low budget, and an absolute commitment to the mission, you can make a great horror movie that can re-set industry expectations. Truly scary, this film will be famous for its natural feel, its fully dialed in social media campaign, and saving the only jump scare until the final brutal finish. It is mind-boggling to consider that, according to IMDB, this movie was made for an estimated $60,000 and has turned a cumulative worldwide gross of $248,639,000. I know people who were convinced that this was a real documentary, and they thought it was a snuff film, and that kind of effectiveness was impossible to replicate. Subsequent sequels failed horribly to re-create the original, proving that this is one genie that can’t be put back in the bottle.
6. Ju-On: The Grudge: (2002) R: High J-Horror art! The Grudge is emblematic of the Japanese horror movement of the 2000’s, which helped drag the horror scene out of the desert that was the 1990’s. The Grudge served up some really mean ghosts… ghosts that weren’t out to scare you, but were out to kill you. They managed to make a little ghost boy extremely creepy… Casper he ain’t! Also, these are ghosts that are “Sticky”… they travel with you, not just haunting a single location. So, that’s a really nasty combination. The subsequent American re-make with Sarah Michelle Gellar was pretty good too. If it weren’t for movies like the Grudge, the Ring, and the very difficult to watch Audition, horror films would have been stuck in the malaise of teenage slasher franchise blandness. The Grudge spoke of the power of the little film, and the personal horror that can come out of a tight, well crafted story. You don’t need to have a huge body count to make something that will make you flinch while watching it. (Guilty as charged! This movie made me curl up in a ball!)
5. Poltergeist: (1982) PG: Pure popcorn scary fun! A perfect blend of director Toby Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and producer Stephen Spielberg. Poltergeist brought the haunted house to the suburbs. No longer is the realm of ghosts limited to dilapidated and forgotten Victorian homes. Filled with some of the great tropes ever brought to the genre: The clown on the shelf. Carrie Anne watching the static of TV and communicating with the spirits in the house. The face peeling scene! JoBeth Williams fighting like mad to save her kids. Zelda Rubenstein’s bizarre Elvis-glasses wearing mystic, Tangina. And Craig T. Nelson’s glorious accusation “You son of a bitch! You moved the cemetery, but you left the bodies and you only moved the headstones!” This movie has earned a reputation for being cursed, due to the death of the two young actresses in the film Domonique Dunn who was strangled by her boyfriend shortly after the film was released, and Heather O Rourke who died at 12 from intestinal stenosis. Creepy! (and, honestly, quite sad) I think I saw this with Robert when we were in middle school, and represented the first horror movie I saw in the cinema… ah, memories!
4. The Innkeepers (2011) R: This film is an under-the-radar little indie horror flick by retro-horror auteur Tai West, that follows the final days of the Yankee Pedlar Inn (A real hotel in Connecticut… rumored to be haunted) as the two remaining young employees Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) stand watch as the final few guests arrive… and they want to finally catch a sight of the rumored ghost of Melodie O’Malley, the woman who killed herself after being left at the altar on her wedding day, who purportedly has taken up residence in the hotel. There’s a bit of fun paranormal investigation, Scooby Doo enthusiasm to these young innkeepers, but they end up getting involved in much more than they can handle. It’s great to see the return to the screen for Kelly McGillis, now no longer a “Take Your Breath Away” beauty, but still manages to steal every scene she’s in, as the paranormal medium drawn to the stories of the ghost. This, like many of these ghost stories, is a slow burner… and like most of the good ones, builds up the dread, first as quirks, and then as more aggressive manifestations ramp up, the curiosity turns to fear. Bad decisions, innocuous at the time, come back to bedevil our protagonists in the third act of the movie. This film wins you over with its intimacy, and it allows you to get comfortable with the proceedings before hitting you with the horror hammer.
3. The Conjuring (2013) R: No gore. No cussing. No nudity. And yet this movie was rated R… for being scary! And yes, it is a fantastically scary movie, even for hardened horror movie fans. Why? I believe this is the prime example of having protagonists who you actively root for, and invest yourselves into. (Eric’s #1 rule for effective horror movies… it’s not scary if you don’t fear for your protagonists.) The Warrens (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are earnest and serious paranormal investigators, and the Perron family (Headed by Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) are good people to whom an evil spirit is messing with. Classic haunted house tropes are in abundance here… from the spooky tree to the clunking wardrobe, to the great period piece ghost-chaser equipment. What sets this film apart is that it all feels natural. Nothing feels forced, even the wild climax of the movie is built on the backs of people making largely rational decisions being pushed past their limits. This is another good gateway horror film… a next step up for those willing to go for scary without going for gross.
2. The Babadook. (2014) R: A study of coping with grief, by way of representing the sadness as a monster. First-time director Jennifer Kent painted a dreary, yet somehow beautifully stark psychological horror movie, that follows Amelia (Essie Davis), a mother struggling with how to handle her son Samuel’s (Noah Wiseman) struggle to cope with a perceived Boogeyman, the Babadook, a storybook nightmare who turns out is a lot more real than just a child’s fantasy. Amelia still is struggling with the loss of her husband, who died in a car crash on the trip to the delivery room to birth Samuel, and now this Babadook is the manifest shape of regret and fear that comes to torment both mother and son. This is a very melancholy piece, but it’s very affecting. I expect great things to come from Jennifer Kent in the future and this little film is a darkly shining example of the current new wave of serious horror films to be released in this Golden Age of horror films.
1. Paranormal Activity. Borrowing a ploy from The Blair Witch Project, the crafty producers of Paranormal Activity took the extremely limited tools they had, and came up with a brilliant way to maximize suggestive terror. What’s cheaper than a fixed handheld camera? Fixing the cameras forced a lot of the scares to be happening just beyond the field of view. Combine that with some simple and effectively timed sound effects, and the results are that your brain fills in the gap. Other simple moves, like having Katie just stand and stare creepily at Micah while he sleeps were hugely affecting. The subsonic drone that presages something supernatural created a pavlovian jitter that is like a wink in the dark. This is the movie upon which BlumHouse is built, and it bears the hallmarks of Jason Blum’s philosophy. Do more with less, and trust that scary can be best played on the margins, and allow your imagination take hold.
The Innkeepers: I wouldn’t go down there if I were you!