Horror Films 101: Favourite Ghost Stories.

Can I let you in on a secret? This hardcore horror fan is scared of ghosts — OK, more specifically, films that feature ghosts. I’ve watched zombie hordes feast on flesh, and vampires drink human blood. I’ve seen the minions of Satan perform gory midnight rituals, and serial killers dispatch their victims in creatively sadistic ways. None of these have frightened or unnerved me to the degree that a good, old-fashioned ghost story can. If anything can cause me to cower beneath the bed covers at night, it’s the suggestive power of a ghost story that relies on psychology rather than gore or cheap scare tactics to frighten the bejeezus outta you. Therein lies its true potency.

Film still from "Ugetsu Monogatari" (1958).

The Lady Wakasa from “Ugetsu Monogatari” (1953).

1. The Japanese have always had a knack for constructing effective tales of the supernatural. Ugetsu monogatari (dir. Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953) is a beautifully-shot, black-and-white masterwork from Japan’s “Golden Age” of cinema. This film is a  jidaigeki (period drama) set during the Edo period, and is ostensibly a morality play on the theme of personal responsibility. As is customary in many Asian ghost stories, the supernatural co-exists with the world of the living in a straightforward, matter-of-fact way. Ghosts can be the benevolent souls of the dearly departed who dwell on the earth to protect family members, or they are malevolent spirits bent on revenge. The ghosts in Ugetsu are more the former than the latter, although the Lady Wakasa has a definite sinister side to her. I would characterize this film as a tale of misfortune and poor-choices-with-tragic-consequences than as a ghost story whose raison d’être is to merely frighten.

The malevolent ghost-child Samara climbs out of the TV in the now-iconic conclusion to "The Ring" (2002).

The malevolent ghost-child Samara climbs out of the TV in the now-iconic conclusion to “The Ring” (2002).

2. While we’re on the topic of Japanese ghost stories, my next pick The Ring (2002) is the English-language remake of the Japanese film Ringu (1998). When a foreign-language film is remade into an English version, I almost invariably prefer the original film — in fact, I very seldom watch remakes of foreign-language films as I feel that much of the original context is lost in translation (ie. the [REC] films are enriched by their location in Spain, with everyone speaking Spanish, etc). Gore Verbinski’s The Ring is that rare exception where the remake is an improvement over the original. Verbinski maintains the visual aesthetics of the original, but torques up the fright factor. The remake also removes some of the problematic (for a Western audience) gender issues that are present in the original film.

3. Ti West is one of my favourite new directors working in the horror genre. He is the master of the slow-boil, and while the snail’s pace of his 2011 film The Innkeepers is definitely not for the thrill-a-minute horror fan, I truly believe that the slow pace works to amplify the creepy-as-hell finale. West gives us ample time to get to know his two main characters Claire and Luke, two employees — and amateur paranormal investigators — who work at a supposedly haunted New England hotel. I actually switched this movie off twice whilst viewing it. The first time, it was out of sheer boredom. It was 45-minutes into the film, and virtually nothing had happened other than some banal, somewhat-flirty banter between our two protagonists, and the occasional hotel guest complaining that they had no towels in their rooms. I decided to try again. The second time I switched it off, it was because things were finally happening, and the suspense had me too much on edge.  My advice: stick with it, because the ending is worth it.

"I know, Luke. We should totally hang out in the dark, creepy basement of this haunted hotel."

“I know, Luke. We should totally hang out in the dark, creepy basement of this haunted hotel.” Claire and Luke try to record the ghost of Madeline O’Malley in “The Innkeepers”.

Majorly creepy dead guy from "Carnival of Souls" (1962).

Majorly creepy dead guy from “Carnival of Souls” (1962).

4. An overlooked gem from the early 1960’s, Carnival of Souls (1962) has received some well-deserved recognition from genre fans these past few years. An impressionistic, almost surreal black-and-white film that follows the lone survivor of a car accident who’s haunted by visions of a ghoulish man who stares silently at her, grinning. Did she survive the car accident, or is she truly dead and a ghost? That’s the question that torments poor Mary throughout Carnival of Souls, and while the story is somewhat threadbare, the visuals and atmosphere are superb.

5. I’ve already written about Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) in a previous post, but I felt it definitely needed to be on this list. Let’s all pretend that the abominable 1999 remake didn’t happen, shall we? This is such a beloved Gothic ghost story. Watch the clip below to see why:

Lady Lazarus’s Halloween Party Movie Night, 2012 Edition.

Hello, my darklings! The leaves are down, the sweaters are on, and it’s that time of the year that Lady Lazarus carefully crafts a list of horror films to whet your pre-Halloween appetites. Traditionally, I’ve had a theme for each Halloween list, such as “Best Horror Films of the 2000s” or “Favourite Horror-Comedies“, but this year I thought I’d open up and share with you, plain and simple, the horror films I’ve been watching of late. Some are new, and some are just new to me. Perhaps there’ll be a discovery or two for your own ghoulish viewing pleasure.

Isabelle Adjani proclaims “[He] is very tired. He made love to me all night” in Andrzej Zulawski’s challenging film  Possession (1981)

1. I first learned of Andrzej Zulawski’s cult classic Possession (1981) through the writings of Canada’s First Lady of Horror Kier-La Janisse, who’s an enthusiastic champion of this film. Equal parts arthouse, domestic drama, and gory supernatural-horror, this film defies any attempt at easy categorization. Ostensibly an unflinching gaze at a marriage in turmoil, the film ultimately — and quite surprisingly — veers into the realm of abjection, absurdity and visceral horror. Isabelle Adjani plays her character’s descent into madness to the hilt, earning her the Best Actress award at the Cannes Festival for Possession in 1981. Sam Neill turns in a strong — if affected and somewhat stylized — performance as her estranged husband. I don’t want to give away any of the plot points, as the film works best the less you know about it. If you like your horror with a big dash of the unexpected, then you’ll probably enjoy this one. If you just want to see some naked coeds get sliced, steer clear.

Investigating a strange noise, Samantha ventures upstairs with a kitchen knife in Ti West’s “The House of the Devil” (2009).

2. I had heard many good things about Ti West’s The House of the Devil (2009) and, fortunately, those things turned out to be true. This is an accomplished psychological-horror in the vein of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, where the terror builds on a slow-boil. What’s that, you say? You’ve been invited to babysit for creepy strangers in an isolated, in-the-middle-of-nowhere house? Why, sure. You need the money, and what could possibly go wrong? Let’s suspend that disbelief and just roll with it, ’cause it’s a fun, suspenseful ride. Kudos go to the art direction and costume design, as The House of the Devil boasts the most authentic recreation of that 1980s-look that I’ve personally viewed on film. Nice little cameo by that darling of ’80s horror, Dee Wallace (The Hills Have Eyes and The Howling).

3. Oh, Joss Whedon. You don’t always hit it out of the park, but when you do…wow! Admittedly, taking the piss out of the slasher-horror is a little like shooting fish in a barrel and, yes, this is well-trodden ground that the Scream franchise visited sixteen years ago. All the same, Cabin in the Woods (2012) seems fresh and original, and is heaps of fun with a clever twist or two. Again, I don’t want to spoil the surprise, so I’ll simply end with —  zombie redneck torture family.*

Placing the bets in “Cabin in the Woods” (2012).

*SPOILER ALERT. Wanna know what all the various beasties and baddies were in Cabin in the Woods? Click here.

4. The horror genre has traditionally loved the anthology format. This love affair possesses a kind of logic. If one particular scenario doesn’t frighten you, then perhaps the next one will do the trick — after all, fear can be very subjective. One of the major pitfalls of anthologies is that they’re often hit-or-miss in terms of ratio of success. Such is the case with the 2012 ‘found-footage’ anthology V/H/S which, although it’s initial premise seemed promising, suffered from it’s weaker components. The first 35-minutes of hand-held shaky-cam is nauseating to the point of being almost unwatchable, though this does improve with the subsequent stories. The best offerings in this anthology were the fourth story of a couple communicating via FaceTime, and the final segment — created by a team of directors out of L.A. who call themselves Radio Silence — which follows a group of guys trying to find a Halloween party.

The rationale for the found-footage actually makes sense in one of the stronger offerings in V/H/S (2012).

Happy Halloween, everyone!