Friday, October 24, 2008

To Haunt or Not To Haunt


Horror fans love a good ghost story but the movies don't care for them much at all. Great ghost or haunting movies come out at a far lower rate than slasher, vampire or zombie movies and half the time they're not even real. What do I mean by that? Basically, there are the true haunted movies where the ghosts really exist (The Others, The Uninvited) and what I call the Scooby-Do genre where it's all just a ploy because someone wants someone dead, wants money or wants to scare everyone off their property and would have succeeded if only those meddling kids hadn't gotten involved (The Cat and Canary, The House on Haunted Hill). If the story is well told I can go either way, but in a pinch, I prefer when the ghosts are real.

I do find the Scooby-Do phenomenon odd at times though, I must admit. No other sub-genre of horror fools its audience into believing that Dracula really is a vampire, only to be revealed at the end that he really wasn't a vampire but a land developer trying to finagle a shady deal on Carfax Abbey until that meddling Jonathan Harker got involved. That just doesn't happen. Or a fake werewolf? Or a fake serial killer? Nope. But fake ghosts, yeah, they've got their own sub-genre.

They are also the only characters that truly reach across all literary boundaries. William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens never once wrote a play or story that contained a werewolf or a vampire. And no flying monsters or re-animated corpses. But ghosts? Shakespeare used them more than once and Dickens wrote one of the best ghost stories ever in A Christmas Carol. Ghosts are an accepted part of the culture and unlike horror monsters like vampires, many people really do believe in their existence, which makes a good haunting movie that much more effective, whether real or of the Scooby-Do variety.

The Uninvited is one of the best I have ever seen and I've mentioned it here before. It brilliantly combines humor with suspense and detective story with chilling tale of revenge beyond the grave. It is a favorite of mine and I've probably seen it three times, if memory serves, in the last two years alone. I also like The Changeling and The Others as far as more recent works go (well, if you consider the late seventies to the present to be recent - I do). Works from the sixties such as The Haunting and The Innocents are also favorites. And yes, The Cat and the Canary and The House on Haunted Hill as well. I don't care much for Poltergeist though I know it's a favorite of many. It's ending is too filled with special effects and big loud setpieces to work effectively for me. It feels more like a big-budget summer action movie than a ghost story. And despite today's banner I find The Amityville Horror rather forgettable.

And the reason I'm talking about ghost stories at all is because in the last month I viewed two others that are favorites of mine that I shall review here on Monday. Both hold up extremely well but my reaction to one, a revered classic, quite surprised me. I hadn't seen it in fifteen or twenty years and my reactions to it were completely different then I thought they would be. More on that Sunday and Monday. For now I leave you with the apologetic Christopher Lee and his quest for the truth behind ghosts: Are they real or not? Happy Hauntings.



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22 comments:

EVIL CLOWN said...

I'm not a big fan of ghost movies. If they can pass through me and make my shall smell all musty like my attic, that doesn't scare me.

Now if they can push me over and cut off a limb, that's really something.

But I do believe in ghosts. Evil Clown's grandma was haunted by her husband for some time. Never freaked her out, but there were some scary stories to tell.

Arbogast's Ghost said...

Have you dipped at all into the wealth of Asian ghost movies, even of recent vintage? I wonder what you would think of The Eye or Inner Senses or any of the Ring films or knock-offs. There's great stuff in there, even when the product itself may be derivative or an abject cash-in. Of course, the cultural relationship of the living to the dead is vastly different than what we imagine here in the United States.

I chuckle at the late George Carlin's characteristically acidic remarks about America's fascination with Guardian Angels, snorting as he did at the notion that our deceased have nothing better to do than serve as a kind of postmortem Make a Wish Foundation.

Jacob Marley Lapper said...

Evil Clown, we're definitely in different camps. While I enjoy almost all horror sub-genres to some degree, ghost stories are high on my list. I love atmosphere and mood and ghost stories, when done well, provide that in great quantity.

Jacob Marley Lapper said...

No, I'm so goddamn far behind on so much cinema has to offer but definitely on Asian horror which Peter and Kimberly have written about extensively. I will see them, it will just take me some time. I am quite interested in how Asian culture presents the afterlife, so many of them are in my queue, I just need to push them to the top.

I love that bit from Carlin. And what about those kind, good and caring people who suffer horrible deaths or tragedies? I guess their dead loved ones just didn't have time to look out for them.

Krauthammer said...

I think, though I may be mistaken, that pre-1931 Dracula american Horror movies that DID have supernatural elements (including vampires and werewolves) tended to end in the scooby-doo method. I believe London After Midnight ended this way.

But, yeah. I agree with this post, especially on Poltergeist. There are a couple of really good moments but the whole thing feels like diluted Spielberg.

Jandy said...

Second Arbogast. I'm just working on getting into Japanese cinema, but they've got some great ghost stories.

I just watched The Innocents for the first time last week, and I liked how it was never really clear whether the ghosts were real, or if the governess was delusional. That may be my favorite horror subgenre, where you don't really know if [insert terrifying thing] is real or psychological. Val Lewton's Isle of the Dead does that too, but with vampires (vorvolokas).

Marilyn said...

I love ghost stories and movies (even tried to write a ghost novel). I don't think they're as popular as they used to be because of our culture's remoteness from death.

Japanese ghost stories from Kwaidan to Ju-on are great, but perhaps my favorite recent ghost story was The Devil's Backbone. That really scared me. Have to say I didn't like The Uninvited that much. It was well made and plotted, but the family just didn't come to life for me, especially the mother, who is crucial to the film.

Even though I guessed the secret of The Sixth Sense almost immediately, I still liked it.

Jacob Marley Lapper said...

Krauthammer, Poltergeist does have some good moments and I don't dislike it, it just leaves no more trace on my mind than any other big-budget multi-plex movie. I don't think of it terms of a ghost story or horror movie ever but as a summer blockbuster.

Jacob Marley Lapper said...

Jandy, I really like The Innocents a lot and Val Lewton had an uncanny sense, with director Jacques Tourneur, for creating atmosphere. I wish they had done more together.

Jacob Marley Lapper said...

Marilyn, I have seen Kwaidan and think it's great but there is so much more I need to see. But The Uninvited, I just love it. It all works for me in that movie, splendidly.

I guessed The Sixth Sense immediately but I cannot take credit for it really. I saw it late and there was so much chatter about the amazing twist at the end that I was actively looking for it. As such, knowing the tagline, "I see dead people," I guessed as soon as Willis was shot that he was in fact dead. Had I seen it without hearing anything I wouldn't have been looking and it may have surprised me but I still liked a lot about it too.

EVIL CLOWN said...

Arbogast makes a good point. I do find Asian ghost movies to be rather terrifying.

And come to think of it. The Shining would be considered a ghost movie and that's one of my favorites.

And I was always partial to the first Blair Witch Project.

And jeez, is The Fog considered a ghost story?

But Lapper, you make a good point. The general feeling of a ghost story always makes for good tension. That's lost on a lot of horror movies today.

Jacob Marley Lapper said...

The Shining combines a few different subgenres. You could argue the mad killer angle, supernatural powers, possession (of Torrance) and ghosts. And Wendy sees the same ghosts in the end so I think those who argue that it could all be in Torrance's mind lose points by the finale. Wendy may freak out at the end, but seeing the same ghosts from the same era, that her husband never told her he saw? That's a bit of a stretch unless there really are ghosts there.

Fox said...

I agree with Arbo on the Asian angle. Wishing Stairs is a favorite "ghost" movie of mine. Without recent Asian films I think the horror genre would be rather dead. But I think the Spanish, Russians, and Scandanavians are doing interesting things. Modern American and French horror, in my opinion, is complete garbage (yes, there are exceptions as with Stuck, Bug, Slither, Vacancy or the "atrocious" Diary of the Dead.)

I mean, even the Pang Brothers came over and made a decent ghost story with The Messengers.

Arbogast's Ghost said...

I think ghosts are fairly popular right now but that has a lot to do with the John Edwards fad for talking to them and making amends and "closure" and all those typically New Millennium concerns. There are also a lot of non-fiction books out about spirit photography, the spiritualism movement of the early 20th century and the very popular reality TV series Ghost Hunters and its spinoff Ghost Hunters International and their clones.

I'm actually thinking these days about writing a ghost TV show centering on one family and a very specific haunting by one person through the entire run of the (necessarily short) series. Unfortunately, the very minimalism and emotional honesty that appeal to me would be a turn-off to prospective producers or networks, so the real trick will not be in the writing but in the pitching. But I think the genre is fertile and I'd like to counter a lot of the current feel good pablum concerning ghosts.

Fox said...

I don't believe in ghosts - I figure this goes hand in hand with my lack of belief in God - but I find the idea of them (and God) to be beautiful and thus very useful in film and narratives in general.

Same goes for angels. Don't believe in them, but I love the idea of them. I like angelic imagery and artwork. It's comforting to me.

Jacob Marley Lapper said...

Fox, I don't believe in them either but oddly that doesn't stop me from loving ghost stories.

Jacob Marley Lapper said...

Arbo, how do you get a chance to pitch something in L.A. Seems like you'd have to have a few big connections just to get in the door. I'd love to pitch several ideas for scripts or stories (and someone else can write the script, I don't care) but I have no idea how to even go about it.

I'd love to see a series like the one you want to do and am curious who does the haunting (family member, anonymous, former resident of home who was killed, etc) but I wouldn't want you to divulge your info before your pitch.

Fox said...

What if - as a follow-up to our The Exorcist remake - we can remake The Player but with ghosts.

Orel Hershieser used to pitch really well in LA! HAHAHA... erm... sorry.

Jacob Marley Lapper said...

Nobody pitched better in L.A. than Sandy Koufax. In fact, it is statistically arguable that no one, outside of possibly Bob Gibson, pitched better than Koufax anywhere ever. We will never see ERAs like that again as long as we shall live.

Fox said...

I think this is the first time I've experienced a Cinema Styles comment section w/o Bill. Where is Bill? Yo quiero Guillermo?

Jacob Marley Lapper said...

He hasn't responded to comments on his blog so I'm assuming he's busy. He did mention yesterday on his post that it was a shitty day and expected it to be today too. Something along those lines.

Nellhaus has Risen from the Grave said...

Not only are ghost stories popular in Thailand, where it seemed like a new film opened every other week, but American Haunting played for months when I was there.