Mid-October: fall is here, winter is coming, the holiday season is soon to begin. It’s a good time to curl up on chilly evenings, with a good book or a good movie, preferably one that’s a little dark….
It’s also the season of lists, so here’s mine. Ten (plus one) ghost movies that I love, and re-watch. Tastes are subjective, so your mileage may vary. I’m missing a lot of the classics, of course; there’s only room for so many, and while these probably aren’t everyone’s picks, they’re movies I love. And the advantage of this is that maybe I’ve suggested something you haven’t seen yet, or wouldn’t mind seeing again.
Note: I’m more a fan of ghost stories than horror. While the two are related, they aren’t identical. A few of the movies I’ve listed might be considered horror, but many of them clearly aren’t. Some may give you a chill or a sense of unease, and some of them are just interesting movies that happen to feature ghosts.
Here we go, in no particular order:
High Plains Drifter (Director Clint Eastwood, 1973)
The town of Lago hires a mysterious gunfighter to defend them from three outlaws who have sworn to burn the town down. The Stranger agrees, for reasons of his own.
According to Eastwood, who directed and starred in the film, the original story was a non-supernatural narrative of a man investigating his brother’s death. Eastwood dropped the lines that made the Stranger the murder victim’s brother, and turned this into a Sergio Leone flavored tale of karmic revenge.
Pale Rider (1985), also directed by and starring Eastwood, is a movie on a similar theme, but I like High Plains Drifter better.
Carnival of Souls (Director Herk Harvey, 1962)
Church organist Mary Henry survives a terrible car accident. Soon after, she moves to another city for a job, and finds herself hunted (or haunted?) by a mysterious man. She is also obsessed with the ruins of an old amusement park on the shores of the lake just out of town.
As I said in a previous review, this is a great movie, but it’s not a good one. It feels like a cross between a Twilight Zone episode and a PSA, with some cheesy scenes, stilted dialog, and wooden acting. Herk Harvey was primarily a director of public service films; this was his only feature film.
One the other hand, Carnival of Souls is an interesting enough film that Criterion chose to rerelease it. Some of the actors (the lead, Candace Hilligoss, in particular) are pretty good, and the cinematography is striking, especially the scenes of the abandoned amusement park, Saltair. There’s a scene that was quite likely the original of a famous scene at the end of Apocalypse Now, and another scene that may have shown up in The Shining, too. Not bad for a B movie by a first time feature filmmaker.
You can download a watchable print of the movie free, at the Internet Archive, here.
Ugetsu (Director Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953).
Two humble potters in 16th century Japan leave their wives behind after their village is overrun by marauding armies. One runs away to become a samurai; the other one begins an affair with the beautiful Lady Wakasa. Their wives, in the meantime, don’t fare so well. Based on two stories from Akinari Ueda’s classic 18th century ghost story collection Ugetsu Monogatari, and the story “How He Got the Legion of Honor” by Guy de Maupassant.
This is a gorgeous film. The cinematography, the music, the actors, the plot — everything. It’s a story of how the politics and warfare of the ruling classes played havoc on the lives of the common people, and of how two men’s ambitions ruined the women they loved. And it’s the also the tale of two ghosts who haunt for love….
Kurokneko (Director Kaneto Shindo, 1968).
Another movie set in civil-war era Japan. This time, samurai fleeing a battle rape and murder two women, Yone and her daughter-in-law Shige, who lived alone and unprotected in a bamboo grove because Yone’s son was forcibly impressed into military service by the very lord of those samurai, Raiko Minamoto.
Soon after, a beautiful woman turns up night after night near Rashomon gate, asking lone samurai to walk her safely home. These samurai are found the next day, their throats ripped out. Lord Minamoto sends a young samurai to investigate.
I read somewhere once (though I can’t find it now) that because of his sympathies with the common people and their struggle, Shindo wanted to never depict the samurai in a favorable light. As Toshiro Mifune’s character says to his fellow warriors in Seven Samurai:
They [farmers] pose as saints but are full of lies! If they smell a battle, they hunt the defeated! They’re nothing but stingy, greedy, blubbering, foxy, and mean! … But then who made them such beasts? You did! You samurai did it! You burn their villages! Destroy their farms! Steal their food! Force them to labour! Take their women! And kill them if they resist! So what should farmers do?
But Kurosawa, nonetheless, has a soft spot for samurai. Shindo, as he shows both in Kuroneko and the more famous Onibaba, does not. Though I’m not sure the peasants come out so well, either.
Kwaidan (Director Masaki Kobayashi, 1965)
Another gorgeous, gorgeous film, four vignettes based on ghost stories by Lafcadio Hearn, one of which is probably based on an Akinari Ueda story (see Ugetsu, above) — or at least both tales derive the same original source. The theatrical sets give the movie a gothic, fairy tale feel, perfect for the subject matter. I really like Toro Takemitsu’s sound design for the movie, too: spare but perfect.
I will say my husband thinks some of the vignettes “take forever to get to the point.” This is not a movie for people who like jump-cut style scares. And it’s long: over two hours. But if you want to lose yourself for a while in some gorgeous dark fantasy, then check out Kwaidan.
Throne of Blood: (Director Akira Kurosawa, 1957)
Macbeth in feudal Japan: what more can I say? Great kabuki-style performances from Toshiro Mifune and Isuzu Yamada in the Lord and Lady Macbeth roles. Yamada is the scariest Lady Macbeth I’ve ever seen. The movie is short, for a Kurosawa film, too. Macbeth is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, and this is my favorite adaptation.
Rashomon (Director Akira Kurosawa, 1950)
A samurai is found murdered in a grove, and the bandit who killed him is brought to justice. But what really happened? We hear different stories from the farmer who found the body, the bandit, the samurai’s wife — and the ghost of the murder victim. Based on two short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa: “In a Grove” and “Rashomon”.
Not really a ghost story, per se, but the scene where the medium calls up the victim’s ghost is pretty cool. The samurai and his wife are played by Masayuki Mori and Machiko Kyo, who go on to play the potter and Lady Wakasa in Ugetsu. Kyo is awesome.
Körkarlen (aka The Phantom Carriage) (Director Victor Sjöström, 1921)
“Körkarlen” means “the coachman”: the last person to die in the year (midnight when New Year’s Eve turns to New Year’s day) must drive Death’s coach for the entire following year, collecting the souls of those who have died . This year, it’s the fate of a bitter, abusive, alcoholic wastrel whose wife and family have fled him. He delights in avenging himself on the world by coughing his tubercular breath on all and sundry.
This 1921 silent film was directed by and stars the Swedish master Victor Sjöström, based on a novel by Nobel prize winner Selma Lagerlöf. It’s a Dickens-style morality tale with a more folkloric flavor. Sjöström and his cinematographer Julius Jaenzon achieve some remarkable special effects for a movie done in 1921: transparent ghosts walking through walls; Death’s coach driving through the ocean to fetch a drowning victim (a beautiful scene). I’ve read that this film was an influence on Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, and on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (the axe through the door scene).
There is a watchable print of the movie free at the Internet Archive, here, with Swedish intertitles and English captions. The Internet Archive print has an electronic music soundtrack that doesn’t seem to go with the film; I turn the sound off and listen to Philip Glass’s soundtrack for the 1931 Dracula, instead. The Criterion Blu-ray that I linked to has an electronica soundtrack by KTL, and another one composed by Matti Bye. There are other good DVD releases of the film, too.
Below (Director David Twohy, 2002)
An American submarine during WWII rescues some survivors of a British hospital ship that was sunk by a German U-Boat. Soon after, strange things begin happening on the submarine….
This film doesn’t seem too well known, but I like it. It’s creepy and suspenseful, and with its good-looking leading cast, it does a nice job of subverting Hollywood cliches of handsome, heroic, wartime soldiers (more than that, I won’t say). Also, I couldn’t look in the bathroom mirror for days after I first saw it.
Still gets me, too.
The Shining (Director Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
I’m a wimp. Despite my love for ghost stories, I don’t watch hard-core horror films. There are probably only a few films I watch (and re-watch) that remotely qualify as horror, and The Shining is one. Kubrick’s film scared the BEJEEZUS out of me, the first time I saw it. Not the “blood out of the elevator scene,” that’s just silly. Those little girls, though….
Ghostbusters (Director Ivan Reitman, 1984)
Because who doesn’t love this movie? And yes, I’ll probably go see the remake.
What goes on your list of favorite, re-watchable ghost flicks?