I made an unfair statement in my extremely harsh review of this past weekend’s The Haunting in Connecticut. What I said was that I hate haunted house movies. But upon further reflection, I realize that that’s not entirely true. I guess what I hate is the painfully standard template that’s used for haunted house movies. Movies like The Grudge, An American Haunting and even classics like Robert Wise’s original The Haunting, The Amityville Horror, and The Innocents just bore me to tears. I don’t know what it is about them, I just don’t like them.
But to suggest that there aren’t any horror films depicting a “haunting” of some type that aren’t any good is just wrong on my part and I take it back. There are plenty of films out there depicting evil spirits or ghosts creating havoc for a group of unsuspecting people that are pretty impressive little ventures. And wouldn’t ya know it? I’ve got five of ‘em in yonder paragraphs.
5. The A Nightmare on Elm Street Franchise (1984-1994, dirs: Wes Craven (1), Jack Sholder(2), Chuck Russell (3), Renny Harlin (4), Stephen Hopkins (5), Rachel Talalay (6), and Wes Craven (7))
Like it or not, friends, this series is totally a string of ghost movies. Freddy Krueger is nothing if not a ghost, and he haunts the house at 1428 Elm Street. It’s mainly considered a slasher series, and it is, but it’s got more visual mastery and supernatural creativity in a random sampling of five minutes than any Friday the 13th or Halloween movie out there. Horror master Wes Craven started it all off with his creepy 1984 original and it continued with six sequels (plus Freddy vs. Jason). Highlights among the sequels include the massively underrated A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge which doesn’t exactly follow the rules established by the other films but nevertheless helms a pretty fascinating little picture all on its own (and with great make-up effects and a very interesting beneath-the-surface character study). Part 5: The Dream Child, I greatly enjoy for its darker nature. None of the other (pre-New Nightmare) films were able to mine humor from Freddy as well as this film does, managing to keep all of the laughs in the vein of the macabre and of general discomfort. “Bon appetit, bitch,” has always been a favorite Freddy one-liner of mine. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is another terrific gem in which Craven stepped back behind the camera (as well as in front of it, too) to tell a totally different kind of Freddy story. Lots of dark self-referential humor abound in this one as Freddy Krueger stalks all of the people involved with the making of the first film. All in all, this is an outstanding series involving some rough ghostly business that cannot and should not be easily dismissed.
4. The Evil Dead (1982, dir: Sam Raimi)
This first film in Sam Raimi’s quirky franchise has always been my favorite. It’s not exactly a “ghost” movie, but I figure that demons and evil spirits are close enough. Truly great low-budget horror begins and ends here. No one can do it with the abrasive, cheery gusto that Raimi brings to the table. The imcomparable Bruce Campbell steps into the role of Ash for the first time in this film where a group of four friends, spending the weekend in a cabin in the woods unwittingly stumble across the Necronomicon (Book of the Dead) and awaken a hoard of demons who have been resting for years. Terror ensues. Its sequels, Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness were much more in the vein of off-the-wall slapsticky splatter comedy, but The Evil Dead likes to keep all of its elements, including the humor, in a much darker tone. It’s got brutal violence, gobs of gore, tree-rape, and totally deranged and genuinely frightening demon make-up. But, while this movie can certainly be pretty rambunctious at times, Raimi gets his biggest chills from the more low-key moments in the picture–like a lightbulb slowly filling with blood. It’s always been one of my favorite supernatural fright flicks and really one of my favorite horror movies in general. Because sometimes the best means of fighting off evil spirits isn’t seances or the chanting of ancient incantations, but using a big damn chainsaw. It’s a big freaky tongue-in-cheek ride that never seems to get old. I can’t wait to see Raimi’s long-awaited return to the horror genre with next month’s awesome-looking Drag Me to Hell. I may soon find it in myself to forgive him for the debacle that was Spider-Man 3.
3. Ghostbusters (1984, dir: Ivan Reitman)
It’s not really a horror movie, per se, but it’s certainly a movie where haunted houses cause a lot of problems for a lot of people. And since I’m feeling really honest and lovely right now, I have to admit that there were many a moment in this movie that scared the ever-loving shit out of me when I watched it as a kid. But to look at it today, it’s plain to see that it’s one of the smartest and funniest comedies of the eighties. It’s got all of the ingredients that I can’t stand about traditional haunted house movies, but they’re all mere side-notes–catalysts for the much larger beast that is Ghostbusters. Ivan Reitman’s film really knows how to subvert a whole genre in ways that you wouldn’t think of, creating a wonderfully outside-the-box kind of ghost story. The whole cast, including Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Sigourney Weaver, and Rick Moranis (who I’d really like to return to movies) are all on their best game, creating a constant stream of memorable moments. “We came, we saw, we kicked its ass!” I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone in my life that didn’t love Ghostbusters. There’s a reason for that, friends. Go watch it now, and then come back and check out my picks for numbers 2 and 1.
2. Kwaidan (1965, dir: Masaki Kobayashi)
Kwaidan is, without question, one of the best anthology films of all time. It’s a terrific collection of four ancient Japanese ghost stories that clocks in at a monstrous (for a horror film) 161 minutes. This is the only horror film I’ve ever seen to truly capture the quiet awe of sitting and listening to someone else tell you truly frightening ghost story. Masaki Kobayashi’s film is an expressionistic and heavily atmospheric movie that uses light, shadow, and color against gorgeously painted backdrops to create a dream-like mood that puts you into a trance while its stories unfold before you. The first story is The Black Hair and may just be my favorite. It’s about an impoverished samurai (Misako Watanabe) who comes to regret (in more ways than one) leaving his wife for the daughter of a wealthy official. The second story, The Woman of the Snow is also quite powerful and perhaps the most beautifully shot piece in the film. The story involves a woodcutter (played by Kurosawa frequenter and star of Kobayashi’s outstanding Harakiri, Tatsuya Nakadai) who is trapped in a snowstorm with his brother and recieves an unwelcome visit by the titular lady. Hoichi the Earless is the third story and probably the one that the film is most famous for. It’s a stirring bit of folklore about a blind musician (Katsuo Nakamura) who is called on by ghosts to perform a ballad, but for protection against them must have all of his flesh marked in ancient scripture by a Buddhist monk (played by another Kurosawa regular, Takashi Shimura). Only, he missed a spot… In the last story, In a Cup of Tea, a renowned samurai (Kanemon Nakamura) begins to see visions of another samurai staring back at him in his tea. When he finally sees him in the flesh, he challenges him to a duel. But there’s more to this visitor than meets the eye. Like I said, it’s 161 minutes, so you may have to clear your schedule for this one, but it’s well worth it.
1. The Shining (1980, dir: Stanley Kubrick)
Often times I like to stay a little less obvious than a movie like this. I’m a fan of throwing movies on my lists that either stretch the generally accepted boundaries of the genres I’m placing them in (kinda like A Nightmare on Elm Street) or are something that most people haven’t heard of (like Kwaidan). The Shining is really the only one on my list that is indisputably a haunted house/ghost movie that you’ll find on every list of the best of ‘em. But there’s a damn good reason. No horror movie out there embodies the term “horror” as wholly and powerfully as this masterful film from the master himself, Stanley Kubrick. It starts out with that same template that I don’t like: a family moves into a big old house with a haunted history of madness and murder and slowly things start to go a little nutty. But there’s just more to it than that. Everything that anyone could ever find terrifying is in this movie. Within the confines of both supernatural terror and serial killer suspense stories, The Shining creates a terrifying portrait of the kind of horror where no safety exists whatsoever; where those you love and trust the most are now your enemy and you cannot escape. It’s one of those movies (not unlike many a Kubrick movie) that, for whatever reason, may rub you the wrong way the first time you see it, but it grows on you more and more until you find yourself completely mesmerized by it. For one thing, it used to bother me that the titular “shining,” Danny’s and Scatman Crothers’s means of communicating through telepathy, seemed inserted in the film only as a very convenient plot point. And to some extent, I still feel that way, although its convenience kinda gets thrown out the window in the most brilliant of ways. But on the other hand, I kinda love it because it’s just so bold of the movie to ask you (or is it just telling you?) to accept the existence of these supernatural tendencies as a given. As a result, the movie is a twisted fusion of a realistic descent-into-madness movie and an epic piece of haunted house fiction. At the end of the day, no movie has ever used the standard template that I hate so much to better effect than this endlessly spooky film. The Amityville Horror would like to think that it has, but The Amityville Horror is fucking wrong. The performances are stellar, the cinematography is outstanding, and–for lack of an adjective that will do it justice–the direction is Kubrick.
And so ends another ShepRamsey Top 5. Hopefully you learned something today. I know I did.