Sick of Halloween films about axe-wielding maniacs and razorblade candy? Weary of vampires, werewolves and the odd zombie apocalypse? Sometimes we just need to get back to basics: A dark and stormy evening, a creaky old house, and things that go bump in the night.
It’s said that the veil between the worlds of the dead and the living is at its thinnest around Halloween, so how better to celebrate than to turn the lights off, ignore the trick or treaters and enjoy one of these awesomely spooky movies?
25. The Awakening (2011)
This BBC film is set in the 1920s and is an amalgam of several ghost stories (lifting certain scenes almost verbatim from Haunted). However, what it lacks in originality it makes up for in elegance; it’s worth a mention for its stunning cinematography alone. It also features a high quality cast, with Imelda Staunton as a school housekeeper, Dominic West as a teacher with guilty secrets, and Rebecca Hall as Florence, a cynical “ghost hunter” out to debunk all this supernatural nonsense. They are investigating the odd circumstances surrounding the death of a schoolboy, and Florence is certain there will be a rational explanation. Guess who’s going to get her faith in science shattered? Extra points for a cheekily ambiguous ending.
24. The Gift (2000)
Directed by Sam Raimi, this film is unusual in that it boasts an all-star ensemble cast, including Keanu Reeves as a (convincing!) bad guy, Hilary Swank as trailer trash, and a pre-Cruise Katie Holmes as Jessica, the good time girl whose future involves the bottom of a lake. That’s what local psychic Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett) sees when she looks at her, but how can you tell someone that they certainly will not live “happily ever after”? And how do you stop ghosts from dripping pond weed all over your carpet?
Written partly by Billy Bob Thornton as a fictionalised version of his own mother’s “gift,” this Southern Gothic movie revels in the atmosphere of a slightly claustrophobic small town and the actors use their best hillbilly accents (kind of like a prequel to True Blood).
23. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Would you believe me if I told you that this was a bit like an Enid Blyton story? (If Enid Blyton wrote about ghosts, and the Spanish civil war, and murder…) Well, there is a secret stash of gold. And there are certainly high jinks in the boys’ dormitory. And the children do have to band together to outsmart the bad guys. See? It’s practically a Famous five book.
Of course, being directed by Guillermo del Toro, there is more to this story than midnight jaunts and keeping secrets from the grownups. Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is the new arrival at the orphanage; he soon learns that the building is haunted by something the boys call the “one who sighs.” Despite the sunny daytime scenes which could fool channel hoppers into thinking they’ve stumbled upon Chocolat, this is full of tense moments and some imaginative special effects.
22. Haunted (1995)
Haunted begins like the cheesiest story ever, but bear with me – it gets better once the childhood flashbacks are over. Aidan Quinn stars as Professor David Ash, who is (of course) sceptical when he’s contacted by “Nanny” – an elderly lady who needs some poltergeist elimination work done. David’s visit is enlivened by the three adult children of the house, who are stripping off for naked frolics in the lake before you can say “So that’s how it is in their family.”
David is enchanted with Christina (Kate Beckinsale, who has enough charisma here to carry several movies) but finds her brothers somewhat odd. When they’re not painting nude studies of their sister, they are playing silly practical jokes which could certainly explain the “supernatural” happenings in the house. David uncovers some creepy family secrets in this slow burner of a Brit flick, and Sir John Gielgud makes an appearance as a seemingly helpful doctor.
21. The Uninvited (1944)
Horror film production was banned in Britain during WWII (maybe it wasn’t considered sufficiently mood-enhancing?) but evidently chillers slipped through the net; this was also one of the first movies to portray supernatural events as genuine.
Roderick Fitzgerald (Ray Milland) and his sister Pamela (Ruth Hussey) fall in love with a mansion overlooking the sea (after a somewhat unorthodox viewing, climbing in through a window and having a good nose around) and buy it despite the protests of the owner’s granddaughter Stella (Gail Russell). Pamela clearly hasn’t seen any episodes of Phil and Kirstie’s finest, as she proclaims the room with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the sea as “the only ugly room in the house.” Funny how flowers wilt so fast in there and the dog won’t go anywhere near it….
20. Dark Water (2002)
Here’s a story we can all relate to: a crappy apartment which has a leaky ceiling, but you’re stuck there because it’s all you can afford. That’s what Yoshimi (Hitomi Kuroki) faces while divorcing the father of her young daughter Ikuko (Rio Kanno). Then there’s the little bag which her daughter keeps finding no matter how many times it gets thrown away… The suspense builds with the ephemeral appearances of the (now classic) creepy little girl ghost.
Despite the presence of the fantastic Pete Postlethwaite and John C. Reilly in the 2005 Jennifer Connelly remake, I’d recommend the original. The Hollywood version ruins the climax of the story with a piece of household decor which would never exist in any house anywhere, for the very reasons shown in the film…
19. The Sixth Sense (1999)
Writer and director M. Night Shyamalan had his big break with this movie, causing quite an uproar with the now infamous twist. The question now is, does the wisdom of hindsight suck all the fun out of it? Actually, it stands up to repeat viewings pretty well. There are strong performances from Haley Joel Osment as the little boy who wishes that he didn’t see dead people, Bruce Willis as his psychiatrist, and Toni Colette as his long suffering mother.
A young Mischa Barton pukes in the most extravagant way I can recall seeing on screen, and there are plenty of great shocks. In retrospect, the twist seems so obvious, but when this was new, it fooled a lot of people. It didn’t fool me, though, because I‘d already had the film ruined for me before I saw it. Thanks, Jack Dee.
18. The Changeling (1980)
George C. Scott stars as Dr. John Russell in this classic ghost story, which is a favorite of The Others director Alejandro Amenabár. Following the tragic demise of his wife and son, Dr. Russell moves into a rambling Victorian mansion to compose music and pick up the pieces of his life. He’s soon being woken by relentless booming sounds coming from the heating system, precisely at 6 a.m. every day… Then there’s the old “apparition in the self-filling bath” trick (actually, this may be the first time this happened onscreen, but it sure won’t be the last).
This is one of those movies which hits up all the clichés: people go into the dark, gloomy attic to search for clues, and to the library to look up old news archives on the microfiche; they visit the graveyard, and finally, hold a séance (which is overwhelmingly creepy). The eerie soundtrack and skilful storytelling result in a film which peels back its mysterious layers slowly for a satisfying finish.
17. Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Remember the good old days, when every newly released Tim Burton film wasn’t a bitter disappointment? This is one of his finest, and possibly the best match of subject matter and his gothic style. If you’re looking for a movie which perfectly evokes the atmosphere of a chilly October night, you won’t do much better than the misty, shadowy world of Sleepy Hollow. Indeed, those working on the production noted that “The feeling one had walking around Sleepy Hollow‘s sets was almost as if you were walking around the inside of Burton’s head.” The jack ‘o lanterns look alive, the buildings look like the traditional crooked haunted houses of fairytales and even the trees seem extra twisty.
If anyone else had taken the lead role, the film would have been good. With Johnny Depp, it’s brilliant. He appears to have done some research into fictional genealogy and found that Ichabod is directly related to Niles Crane, playing his role with a prissy self consciousness that David Hyde Pierce would be proud of. Christina Ricci is a goth girl’s dream of Katrina Van Tassel, and Miranda Richardson and Christopher Walken just look like they’re having a damn good time.
16. Tale Of Two Sisters (2003)
Don’t you just love films that start out in a mental hospital, with doctors asking the main character “Can you remember what happened?” Su-mi (Im Soo-jung) is soon recalling the odd home life she and her sister Su-yeon (Moon Geun Young) had, adjusting to life after their mother had died and they had gained an unfriendly stepmother.
The plot is based on traditional Korean fairy tale “Janghwa Hongryeon jeon” (although it bears about as much resemblance to it as Sleepy Hollow does to Washington Irving’s short story). Along with beautiful photography, director Jee-woon Kim uses stillness and silence (rather than the usual scary music track) to make the jumps all the more frightening. There is also a healthy dose of good old-fashioned weirdness; some scenes only make sense in the context of later revelations. Along with some truly terrifying moments, the film fools you from the start and you may need a second viewing to really understand what the hell happened. And isn’t that the very best kind of movie?
15. The Haunting (1963)
Not to be confused with the remake of 1999, this retro gem not only features some classic sequences of spooky happenings, but a philosophical take on the paranormal. As John Markway says, “The preternatural is something we don’t have any natural explanation for right now but probably will have someday – the preternatural of one generation becomes the natural of the next. Scientists once laughed at the idea of magnetic attraction; they couldn’t explain it, so they refused to admit it exists.”
Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson) is investigating the mysterious Hill House, whose inhabitants often die in odd circumstances. With him he has Luke (Russ Tamblyn), the cynical heir to the home, the psychic Theo (Claire Bloom, way too cool for school) and Julie Harris as Eleanor, who has some ghosts of her own, but figures a free stay in a mansion is as close to a holiday as she’s going to get. Markway is pleased the ladies haven’t done any research into the bad reputation of the house “So much the better. You should be innocent and receptive.” (The old dog.) This is a great, character-driven story with a dry sense of humour, and a mysterious heroine who feels oddly at home with the supernatural.
14. The Uninvited (2009)
It’s generally considered a social faux pas to admit to liking a remake more than an original, especially if the original was from South Korea and the remake was one of those dreadful Hollywood productions. All the same, I will confess… I thought The Uninvited was better than A Tale Of Two Sisters. While the former was a beautiful, poetic twisted dream of a film, this follows more conventional methods of storytelling and is all the stronger for it (and it will get your heart rate pumping).
There are some hair-raising moments for Anna after her return from the psychiatric hospital: She has good reason to suspect that her mother’s death was no accident, her dad’s new wife is acting suspiciously and who the hell is that crawling across her bedroom floor? Emily Browning makes a suitably angelic lead, Arielle Kebbel is effective as her smart mouth sister and Elizabeth Banks works well as the potentially wicked stepmother. The nightmarish plot is just different enough to make the film independent from its roots, and the additions create a more intricate and involving storyline. Turns out, not all remakes are bad!
13. Ju-On (2002)
Written and directed by Takashi Shimizu, Ju-On: The Grudge teeters precariously on a tightrope above a big pool of ridiculousness, and just about makes it to the other side.
Apparently, getting murdered leaves you feeling a tad irritable, specifically with people who are still alive and live in your former home. Or people who visit that home. Or, dammit, random people who work in the same building with someone who visited the home. Ghosts don’t need valid motivations, ok? Kayako and her son Toshio were killed by her husband Saeki Takeo and since then, the grudge curse has been spreading like a virus.
The story is told in a disjointed way, with interlinking stories told separately and with no apparent regard for time and space. Some of the acting (particularly in the first half) is distinctly dodgy.
As a coherent movie plot which makes sense, it fails somewhat. However, as a series of extremely frightening moments, it works a treat: it features some of the most sudden and imaginative scares I’ve seen on film. Toshio (Yuya Ozeki) is is just a touch too cute to be truly terrifying, although he does pop up in some breathtakingly surprising places. And Takako Fuji makes the scariest descent of a staircase since the famous “spiderwalking” scene cut from The Exorcist. Sometimes the simplest things (a weird rattling or an unnaturally bendy body) are the most disturbing.
12. The Innocents (1961)
You’ll have shivers down your spine from the first minute of this film, as children softly sing over the blank screen (why are children in films always so frightening?) Deborah Kerr stars in the classic British horror which employs creaks and darkness to much scarier ends than any amount of gore. She is a governess in Victorian England, sent to take care of two apparently sweet little children in a big sprawling house in the middle of nowhere.
It’s one of those houses with lots of weird statues casting eerie shadows, billowing curtains and candles that go out at the oddest times, and it’s not long before she’s seeing faces in the window and hearing the same odd little music box tune wherever she goes. But is there really anything wrong, or is it all in her head? She’s been told by their father “whatever happens, you must handle it alone. Never, never, bother me,” (what a helpful boss) so she has no choice but to keep quiet about the peculiar events that only she seems to take seriously. Director Jack Clayton creates an incredibly chilling atmosphere and a story which is ambiguous enough to have several interpretations.
11. Paranormal Activity (2007)
Found footage has always been a popular gimmick in low-budget filmmaking (not least because you can pretend the shaky camerawork was deliberate). The problem with most of these setups is that the intrepid characters carry on studiously documenting the horror long after any sane person would have chucked the camera and run for the hills. (Really? Gigantic monsters are chasing you and you’re still looking at them through a viewfinder?) Writer and director Oren Peli cleverly sidesteps this by having the characters decide to set up a camera as 24-hour surveillance to document the spooky and possibly demon-based happenings that seems to follow Katie (Katie Featherston) from house to house.
While most horror films involve scenarios that seem a million miles from your everyday life (unless you have recently murdered a classmate who is now coming to get you) this film actually makes snuggling up in your safe, cosy little bed seem terrifying. Genius.
10. Shutter (2004)
Jane (Natthaweeranuch Thongmee) is driving back from a wedding with her boyfriend Tun (Ananda Everingham) when she hits a girl – in a panic, they leave the body lying in the road and try to get on with their lives. They start feeling rattled when Tun’s photography is blighted by misty shadows and they both suffer from the odd hallucination which seems to show that their hit and run victim (Achita Sikamana) isn’t resting in peace.
Where would horror films be without photographic dark rooms? Even in the digital age, the dim red light and slowly emerging pictures remain classic tools of terror. Not to mention the room with rows of jars containing pickled animals, and the surprise homage to Psycho. This story has it all. There are also touches of dark humor throughout (the praying mantis is a recurring motif) and one of the most bone-chilling scenes has a hilarious payoff.
Directors Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom skilfully create real characters and have the ability to communicate some of the most powerful and eloquent moments without dialogue. The mystery deepens as more sinister evidence comes to light and the climax is truly chilling. This is one which will stay with you long after Halloween.
9. What Lies Beneath (2000)
Robert Zemeckis directs Michelle Pfieffer and Harrison Ford in this glossy supernatural thriller, with predictably high quality results. Clare and Norman Spencer live the perfect life – especially now their daughter has left for college and they’re enjoying empty nest syndrome. But the neighbors are causing some concern – especially when the wife disappears and Claire believes she is trying to communicate with her from “the other side.”
Zemeckis has admitted that this is his homage to Hitchcock, and true to form, the suspense builds deliciously slowly. When Claire starts seeing faces in the bathtub (where else?) she goes to talk it over with a psychiatrist. A session with a Ouija board proves that somebody is trying to contact Claire, and it’s not long before she’s stealing keepsakes from grieving parents and reading books with chapters helpfully entitled Conjuring the Dead.
The result is a strong movie whether you’re enjoying the ghost story or the “Yuppies in peril in a beautiful house” aspect of it (and it doesn’t hurt that Michelle looks luminously beautiful).
8. Ringu (1998)
I didn’t really want to include this entry, as Ringu is ostensibly not about ghosts, but about the horror of a cursed videotape (so retro!) which somehow causes the death of anyone who watches it. But by now most people know that is not the end of the story; plus I know I’ll get complaints from all the whiny crybabies if I don’t list it, so here it is. Sadako (Rie Ino’o) is a very scary ghost. You can tell she’s scary because she has really long hair which pretty much covers her whole head, kind of like Cousin It. She’s the one behind the video which seems to scare the life out of everyone, but what’s her story? Journalist Reiko (Nanako Matsushima) has no choice but to investigate, as she’s already watched the tape and now has a mere seven days to live.
Unfortunately, by the time I got round to watching the infamous TV scene in Ringu, I had already seen the clip numerous times on all of those “Scariest movie moments” compilations, which somewhat ruined the surprise for me. If, however, you were watching the horror unfold for the very first time, I imagine you would have needed a fresh pair of underpants afterwards. But let’s not be precious about this; there isn’t a massive difference between Ringu and its American remake, and Naomi Watts is always good value.
7. Ghostbusters (1984)
If you’re looking for some light relief… who you gonna call? Well, duh. As a stupendous comedy, it’s easy to forget that Ghostbusters actually gets pretty creepy at times (no wonder I was never allowed to watch it as a kid).
Not only does it feature slime, a possessed Sigourney Weaver and an unnervingly large marshmallow man, it’s one of those classic ’80s films which made everyone fall in love with New York. (Plus, as we all know, it has the best theme tune ever.)
Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd and Harold Ramis are the supernatural pest control of the city, becoming heroes for the way they fearlessly capture the green ghouls that seem to be popping up everywhere. Could this be a sign of worse things to come? Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria? It’s time for the boys to step up to the plate and save us all from the end of the world… all together now, “Let’s show this prehistoric bitch how we do things downtown…”
6. Poltergeist (1982)
The Steve and Diane Freeling (Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams) have a picture perfect house, cute kids, and a golden retriever, so I don’t know why they’re so surprised when their furniture starts moving around; they’re prime poltergeist fodder. Interestingly, at the first signs of supernatural activity, Diane is elated and is soon sliding the kids along a magical pathway on the kitchen floor. (Well, wouldn’t you think it was kind of cool if there was ‘something’ benign in your house?) Things aren’t so fun when their kids get sucked into a tree and the TV, respectively.
Robbie is pried from the er, jaws, of the tree but Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) has been lost into the netherworlds, although they can still speak to her through the TV (“This is probably going to seem a little strange. We hear better on this channel….”) In desperation, they bring in some parapsychologists – can anyone get their little girl back?
Tobe Hooper was the official director, but Steven Spielberg wrote and produced (and features heavily in every “behind the scenes” anecdote) so it’s safe to say that he was a strong influence in creating the genuinely frightening and moving film. Poltergeist has inspired many imitations (notably James Wan’s Insidious) and remains legendary, not least for its apparent “curse.” (I bet they’re ruing the day they got genuine skeletons to cut costs. What was that about respecting the dead?)
5. The Woman In Black (1989)
Try saying to a movie buff “So, what did you think of that scene in The Woman In Black?” and just watch them start trembling. Pauline Moran as the lady of the title led a generation of British teens to wet their pants in unison as she paid Adrian Rawlins a surprise bedtime visit in the BBC movie.
Rookie solicitor Arthur Kidd (Rawlins) is sent to tie up some loose ends on behalf of a recently deceased old lady, and soon finds that the townsfolk look at you oddly when you say you’re going to the Drablow place, but seem strangely reluctant to take you there.
To watch this film is to experience an overwhelming sense of dread on behalf of our protagonist Mr Kidd. He is determined to investigate the past of the mysterious woman whose lost child is still heard crying every night. Even if it means staying in the weird house longer than any sane person would, while the audience screams at him to get out while he can.
For once, the story doesn’t suffer from being updated; James Watkins’ 2012 remake starring Daniel Radcliffe is possibly even more frightening, along with a superior soundtrack and exquisite sets.
4. The Others (2001)
Every ghost story introduces an element of uncertainty: are these things really happening, or are they in your head? Like The Innocents, The Others is partly inspired by Henry James’ novella The Turn Of The Screw. Grace (Nicole Kidman) has turned being neurotic into a fulltime job; her children apparently suffer from a sensitivity to light, which means the gothic mansion they inhabit must be swathed in thick curtains at all times. This makes things difficult for the new servants, who have turned up in a most mysterious manner… (Incidentally, one of the great pleasures in this movie is the sight of Eric Sykes and Nicole Kidman on the same screen. It’s just delightfully surreal.)
Grace’s daughter has an imaginary playmate called Victor; her insistence that there are “other people” in the house vexes Grace until she begins to hear them, too. A piano playing by itself, shaking chandeliers and some truly traumatic hallucinations add to the panic as Grace questions exactly who she is sharing her home with. The tension builds to almost unbearable heights before a truly haunting ending. An intelligent script with a superb twist, quality acting and an atmospheric set (complete with graveyards, mist and autumn leaves) – what more could you want in a Halloween movie?
3. The Orphanage (2007)
Laura (Belén Rueda) is returning to her childhood orphanage with her husband and son in order to open it as a care home for children with disabilities. She’s busy, but still has time to notice that seven year old Simón (Roger Príncep) has found an imaginary friend, Tomas. He might have a sack over his head, but what’s a little creepy mask between pals?
Simón is adopted, so it’s only a little odd when a social worker shows up without an appointment. It’s slightly more odd that she’s snooping around in the shed at night. During a daytime party, Laura has an encounter of her own with a masked child, and then experiences every parent’s nightmare: Simón is missing. What follows is the story of a mother who takes the search for her son to the limits of her sanity. Geraldine Chaplin makes an appearance as the medium who conducts possibly the most spine-tingling of all onscreen séances, and there are some truly terrifying shocks during Laura’s search for the truth.
Director JA Bayona makes every shot count; the movie is visually beautiful as well as fantastically sinister. By the way, this is a bona fide horror film but the ending might make you cry.
2. Don’t Look Now (1973)
Because every scary movie list should feature something written by Daphne Du Maurier. This film about grieving parents won infamy for a (possibly unsimulated) sex scene which in retrospect is a little embarrassing (armpit biting? Really?).
Donald Sutherland (who ups the creepiness factor of any film merely by being in it) tries in vain to rescue his daughter from drowning in the opening scenes. (These days, a tragedy before the opening credits is standard; back in the ’70s, it was shocking.) In the aftermath of their daughter’s death, John (Sutherland) and his wife Laura (Julie Christie) travel to Venice, where Laura befriends two elderly sisters. One of them is blind, but claims to “see” in other ways – she accurately describes their little girl, down to the “shiny little mac” she wore. John is sceptical, but soon finds himself haunted by that red raincoat, worn by an elusive figure always just out of reach…
There is something in the crispness of the film stock and the natural rhythm of the conversations which makes this film feel oddly documentary-like. Venice is shrouded in mist and shadows, the old ladies would frighten small children through no fault of their own, and the stars are fantastic in their respective roles. If you don’t already know how the movie ends, it’s a stunner.
1. The Shining (1980)
The Shining may well be the ultimate haunted house movie, packed full of memorable moments which will be parodied, imitated and analysed forever. And ever. And ever.
Anyone not familiar with the story? Jack (Jack Nicholson) and his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) are going to live in an isolated mountain hotel, so that Jack can work as winter caretaker while he writes his book.
His employers warn him that a previous caretaker suffered from “cabin fever” – to the extent that he chopped up his family and “stacked them neatly” like kindling. Hmm. That’s a little extreme. It doesn’t bother Jack, though – he’s happy in isolation, so he’s sure his family will just love it too. No adverse effects here. Did I mention the hotel was built on an Indian burial ground?
Writer Stephen King wasn’t too keen on Jack Nicholson in the lead role – he wanted a more ordinary looking guy, so that the descent into madness would come out of left field. The trouble with Nicholson is, he just looks like a bad guy, with his wicked eyebrows and wolfish grin. It’s not hard to imagine him telling Wendy “I’m not gonna hurt you… I’m just gonna bash your brains in,” even without the ghostly ex-caretaker advising him that his family needed “correcting.”
The whole family is quite the motley crew, with Shelly Duvall appearing like a big weepy china doll, and Danny in the running with the dead twins for the creepiest kid award, what with the croaky voice he employs for Tony, the “little boy who lives in my mouth.”
Visually and conceptually stunning, the story is full of iconic moments (Stanley Kubrick got the river of blood past the censors by convincing them it was “rusty water”). It’s hard to say what’s more nauseating – Nicholson snogging a decomposing old lady or the 1970s decor.
The whole film is wired with dread from the start; the nerve jangling soundtrack makes you believe something scary is just about to happen all the time, but you have no idea what. Before all the screaming starts, this is a slow release atmospheric time bomb. Perfect for Halloween…
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