If done right, it will make me cry in the corner with the brightest lights in the house on.
I won't sleep for weeks.
Even though I don't truly believe in them, ghosts are my kryptonite.
Even when done badly (Insidious, anyone?) they're at least a little bit creepy.
Here are the ones that make me fall over the most.
Directed by Tobe Hooper
Written by Steven Spielberg
L;AKHFG;LAKHDSFLK;D!!!!! That's what I typically say at the end of this movie. Even pronouncing the semicolons. Or, at least, it's what I WOULD say if I watched it very often.
I've seen the movie exactly twice in my life and it left me unable to sleep for at least a couple of nights both times. (Ok, the first time, when I was 8, it was more like two weeks.) The Exorcist has NOTHIN' on Poltergeist.
What makes it so frightening?
It's so real. These people are me and my family. As I get older, I identify with a different person and a different scene scares me the most. When I was a kid I identified with Carol Anne and her adventure into hell scared me. I couldn't watch white noise on tv for years.
Hell, I didn't want to be near a tv for a while. I'm also still a little bit wary of mirrors because of the face-picking scene. When I grew up and had become a brother, I identified with Robbie (???). Sure, he's still a little kid, but the scene where he's the only one who seems to know where his sister went and he can't form words anymore because he's so freaked out is the scene that had me pulling the arm rests off of my chair. I'm sure that if I ever become a parent, I'll be in the shoes of the parents.
Hopefully, though, I won't be in my bedroom smoking weed while reading the Ronald Reagan biography. (That's about the only thing that really ties the movie to the 80s, but it makes it that much more real to folks of my generation.)
I may not be able to watch the whole thing without running, screaming into the night, but I acknowledge that it's a great film. I'm glad that Spielberg talked Hooper into making it a PG-rated film. If it was the bloody movie that Hooper wanted, it wouldn't have the power that it does. The special effects are a little dated (especially that weird monster thing at the end), but it doesn't matter.
Poltergeist is a ghost story for the whole family…if you want your family to hate you forever.
THE HAUNTING (1963)
Directed by Robert Wise
Written by Nelson Gidding
Based on novel by Shirley Jackson
The oldest movie to ever truly scare me, The Haunting is one of those movies that doesn't need any fancy tricks to make you squirm.
I saw this movie for the first time at night in an old classic theatre here in Austin and it worked better than I ever thought it would. I was looking over my shoulder the whole way home.
A group of people are brought to a haunted house to stay the night and prove whether or not ghosts exist. Of course they do and, in fact, the ghosts try to take young Eleanor (Julie Harris), the psychic of the group, with them into Crazy Land. She's half-way there already, so it's a short trip. Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, Russ Tamblyn and Lois Maxwell (Moneypenny!) are along for the ride.
What's amazing about this movie isn't the story, but the fact that it manages to scare the pants off of its audience with only one special effect (a door that seems to breath), sound and (gasp!) acting.
Spielberg, who did such a great job on Poltergeist, decided to produce a remake of this film in 1999, blasting the screen with all kinds of digital effects. It took the power away from the whole thing and was just a mess. Stick to the original.
THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE (2001)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Written by Guillermo del Toro/Antonio Trashorras/Davis Munoz
When I saw The Devil's Backbone back in 2001, I had NO idea what I was getting into. I didn't realize that I was falling into a fandom with one of the most creative minds in genre films in many years.
This is the first in a perceived trilogy of films about young children during the Spanish Civil War, the even better Pan's Labyrinth being the second part. (Not so sure what's going on with the third part, but hopefully it's coming.)
A bunch of boys in a Spanish orphanage during the Civil War take the time to welcome a new kid…if by "welcome," you mean "bully."
He's taken the place of another boy who died, so he must be punished for it, right? It turns out that the dead boy hasn't left the orphanage after all. He's still around to haunt the new kid. Or is he telling him about something dark and sinister going on at the orphanage? Can the boys survive the war? Or the seemingly evil caretaker?
Children in peril is always tough for a lot of us, but this movie handles it with grace and sheer terror. With amazing practical and digital effects, we get creepy visuals and some of the best under-the-skin scares of the aughts.
If you loved Pan's Labyrinth, check out The Devil's Backbone. It'll show you that, while del Toro is a great director in English, he's much better in Spanish.
THE RING (2002)
Directed by Gore Verbinski
Written by Ehren Kruger
Based on a novel by Koji Suzuki and a screenplay by Hiroshi Takahashi
In one of the few instances of a remake being better than the original, The Ring is one of the more surreal studio horror films ever made.
It centers on a video that, once someone watches it, they have seven days to live. Then they're mysteriously killed, apparently by fright. Where did the tape come from? What does it mean? How and why are these people dying?
Naomi Watts plays a single mom named Rachel who sees the tape. She has all the reason in the world to figure out the mystery before she gets killed. She also happens to be a reporter who has the means to figure it all out.
What makes this better than the original?
Honestly, it's mainly the fact that the American filmmakers jettisoned all of the psychic abilities of Rachel's cohort/boyfriend. In the original, for some reason he's able to read minds or move stuff around or something. It's so distracting, silly and useless that I've forgotten what his abilities were. In the American version, he's just a videographer. Nothing special. And it works SO much better.
Of course none of that makes this one of the best ghost stories ever made. P
art of that would be Samara (Daveigh Chase), the ghost that eventually comes out of the television. She's got my vote as creepiest little girl ghost ever. But she pales in comparison to that video. With shots of flies that literally come off the screen, weird paintings that move and a herd of horses that run off a cliff, the video is what makes this film rival Dali's small filmography.
If the entire nearly two hour run of The Ring had just been this video, I think the movie would have been just as effective…possibly more so.
THE SHINING (1980)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Stanley Kubrick/Diane Johnson
Based on a novel by Stephen King
Always considered a better Kubrick movie than a King adaptation, The Shining also happens to be one of the most unsettling films ever made.
The story itself is fairly simple. Jack Torrence (Jack Nicholson) is a writer who takes his family to a hotel in Colorado that is about to be shut down for the winter. He's going to be paid just to take care of the place…but he and his family will be basically locked in all winter long. Unfortunately for his family, Jack is a little unstable going in. Unfortunately for Jack, the hotel has its own demons that might just push him over the edge.
With its images of blood pouring out of elevators and dead little girls in hallways, there's no end of things to haunt your nightmares throughout the film.
But what The Shining does is really get under your skin with things that you don't even really notice. Things like the fact that the Overlook Hotel could never exist. It's architecture is all wrong with windows in the wrong place and doors opening a different way from one shot to the next. Add to that all of the conspiracy theories that have popped up around the film and you have a movie that can creep into anyone's psyche, making you see ghosts around every turn.
These "backdoor scares" are so interesting that they've inspired their own movie. Check out the documentary Room 237. It played at Fantastic Fest in Austin this year and is definitely worth a look.