I watched a quartet of ghost movies one weekend just gone, and it seems they really do come back.
Blithe Spirit (1945)
Based on a Noel Coward play, and with the frothy sense of fun and all the polished, urbane wit that you’d expect. Writer Charles invites medium Madame Arcati round to hold a seance by way of research for his next book. Charles, wife Ruth and their friends all think she’s a fake and come prepared to have a good laugh at the Madame’s expense, but she brings back the spirit of dead first wife Elvira, visible and audible only to Charles, who immediately sets to driving a wedge between him and Ruth. This isn’t in the least bit frightening, or intended to be. It’s a comedy of manner, with some acid one liners and ruthlessly capitalising on the fact that Ruth can’t see Elvira and so thinks Charles is talking to her. Rex Harrison and the rest of the cast do sterling turns, but the film belongs to Margaret Rutherford, simply splendid as the hearty Madame Arcati, who plays the role of spirit medium with a blue rinse/WI sensitivity. I’d like to see a crossover in which Arcati runs up against Karswell from Night of the Demon. And with the non-stop gags and ‘misunderstanding’ grounded comedy, not to mention the green faced ghosts, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that this film was in part inspiration for The Munsters. Writers please take note – consider your research options carefully.
The Haunting (1963)
Based on Shirley Jackson’s novel and directed by Robert Wise, this is arguably the greatest haunted house film of all time. The chequered history of Hill House is revealed in a prologue of sorts, all the events that make it the ideal venue for Dr Markway, and his specially selected team of ‘ghostbuster’ volunteers. You could make a case for Hill House being a character in the movie, and if so then the rest of the cast complement it perfectly – ‘playboy’ Luke, who hopes to inherit, sexually ambiguous Theo, and ingenue Eleanor who is running away from her past and tormented with guilt. The film, like Jackson’s book, explores the idea of a ‘personalised’ haunting, with the house focusing its attentions on Eleanor, the weakest link in the chain, using her flaws to force an entry into her psyche and manipulate her to its own ends. Eleanor is driven into a corner by a combination of the house preying on her vulnerability and the others in the party undermining the little self-confidence she has managed to muster, and then like a trapped, desperate animal, she gnaws off her own leg. The irony is that at the end she seems happy, content to be a part of something bigger than herself, in a place beyond pain and joy. Dr Markway may not have proved the existence of life after death, but certainly he’s shown that there are people and places that are haunted. With its adept use of light and shadow, a panoply of understated effects and the tension between the characters, this is an unsettling film, one in which gory excesses and obvious shock moments are eschewed, making those that we do get all the more effective.
The Changeling (1980)
The theme of somebody haunted by their past recurs in this film, with composer/lecturer John Russell (George C. Scott) witnessing the death of his wife and child in an RTA, in the wake of which he moves to another state and another job. Russell rents a huge old house with a past, and it’s not very long before he is hearing noises, seeing things etc. At the top of the house he finds a sealed room, and all his instincts tell him that something terrible happened here, with visions of the murder of a child. Prompted by the spirit he sets about uncovering the secrets of the past, paving the way for spectral revenge. I have mixed feelings about this. Scott is excellent of course, and so are the rest of the cast, with his relationship with estate agent/history society lady Claire developed convincingly, while the death of Russell’s wife and child add an extra frisson, giving him a reason to believe. While it’s strong on atmosphere, this is a plot driven film, one in which there is a mystery to be unravelled, and it’s with the plot that I have some reservations: I found it hard to accept that a single man would wish to live in this huge, isolated old house, and I wasn’t sure why, when it obviously has the power to act beyond the walls, the vengeful spirit would need Russell to help draw its nemesis back ‘home’. The mood changes, with an initially strong atmosphere, tiny things used to set up an air of expectation and unsettle viewer and protagonist both, but the pyrotechnical finale doesn’t fit well with this carefully crafted mood of brooding menace. It felt like somebody on the sfx side of things got tired of subtlety and decided to do something flashier than have a red ball bounce down some stairs, to go out with a not entirely appropriate bang.
The Frighteners (1996)
This is very much a movie of two halves. Michael J. Fox is fake medium Frank Bannister, only fake might be over egging the pudding as he actually can communicate with ghosts – three of them work for him, haunting premises which Frank later exorcises at considerable cost to the owners. This is pretty much played for laughs, like a dark matter version of Scooby Doo! but there’s other stuff going on in the background, with the town beset by a series of mysterious deaths and a ‘black reaper’ figure driving the action. As the film proceeds, with Frank under suspicion of being responsible for what is taking place (in the past his wife died in similarly mysterious circumstances, which adds another complication), the mood changes, and the comedy, while never lost completely, takes a back seat to the fight against a spectral serial killer with an ambition to be #1 with a bullet. Fox is as likeable as ever, and if the plot seems to be trying a bit hard at times it never tips completely over the edge. There’s some great visual comedy courtesy of Frank’s spirit entourage, though I could have done without the antics of the nut job FBI agent on the case, and the effects are very easy on the eye. The initial idea is intriguing and pitched to almost perfection, while the end game with a sort of virtual reality fight against the bad guy and girl was exciting enough. And any film that plays out with ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ has my vote in the bag.
The pattern recognition centre of my brain has registered that there’s a sequence to the years in which these films appeared, and so I really should now have a film from 2011.
But I don’t.
Perhaps you do.
And if not, what’s your favourite spooky movie anyway?
I love Thorold Dickinson’s THE QUEEN OF SPADES, which has never gained the recognition it deserves:
That takes me back, Mark. Must be a gazillion years since I saw that film, and I think I’ve also read the Pushkin story in one of those huge anthologies of supernatural fiction that used to be the fashion when I was a kid. I can’t remember anything much about either now, other than some vague impression of a very old lady with a hand of cards.
QUEEN OF SPADES captures beautifully a sense of Russian winter, offers two powerful shock scenes (at least, they shocked me!), has a score by Georges Auric and velvety-black photography by Otto Heller. Along with DEAD OF NIGHT, it’s one of the most assured and haunting ghost stories I’ve seen on film.
I’d certainly agree with you Pete about The Haunting. Julie Harris is perfectly cast. A lot of the unsettling power of the movie, to me, comes from her character being helpless to stop what’s happening to her. Loved the scene where she thinks she’s holding the other woman’s hand, and then with a quick cut we see the other woman’s bed is across the room. And those inward-bending doors! Another great film along the same lines (although not about a haunted house) is Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, where the female protagonist also finds herself in a situation that leads to a greater and greater sense of dread.
Also, my vote to the opening paragraph of The Haunting as the one of the greatest openings in genre literature.
I’m glad that you mentioned LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH. The film does many things well, but it’s the performance by Zohra Lampert that holds it all together. As you say, it’s not about a haunted house, but it’s very much about a haunted woman.
Agree about Julie Harris, Rob. Excellent performance, capturing the character’s vulnerability to a tee, and as the film goes on I think she doesn’t want to stop what’s happening to her, embraces it. The ‘hand scene’ was superb. I think I’ve seen the idea used before, in an M. R. James story possibly, or something similar. And also agree about the power of the opening sentence in “Hill House”.
Lowering the tone for a moment, I recall the remake starring Catherine Zeta-Jones being an sfx driven damp squib. I saw it with a friend as a Halloween treat, and we were sorely disappointed, though I guess it was pretty much what we should have expected in the circumstances.
You’ve both mentioned “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death”, and I’ve heard others speak highly of it (Kim Newman writes about it as his favourite horror film in the Mark Morris edited “Cinema Macabre”, for one). I don’t believe I’ve seen it, and the DVD isn’t available on Amazon UK except in expensive Region 1 imports, but just checked and somebody appears to have uploaded the entire film to YouTube, so I’ll have to give it a look some time soon before the copyright owner becomes aware.