Welcome back, Spook Series readers! If you’re just joining in, this is my third category for Spook Series 2013. I previously reviewed 13 Creepy Classics and 11 Family-friendly Frights, which you can review all together in the Spook Series Archives if you’d like to check them out. But now I move on to ghost stories! I love ghosts, but it can be hard to find well-done ghost films. For one reason or another, these 10 ghost stories have found a way into my spook-loving heart. Here’s Part One of my Ghostly and Ghoulish Greats.
#10: Thir13en Ghosts (2001)
Synopsis: “When Cyrus Kriticos, a very rich collector of unique things dies, he leaves it all to his nephew and his family—his house, his fortune, and his malicious collection of ghosts.” –www.imdb.com
Why It’s Ghoulishly Great: I have a weird, irrational soft spot for this film. I’ll be the first to admit that the plot is shaky at best, the characters are thin, and the dialogue is sometimes atrocious, but I still always look forward to watching it. Thir13en Ghosts—a remake of the 1960 film 13 Ghosts—is a strange film for a lot of reasons. It has a fair share of violence and language, but it’s also really cheesy and over the top. It’s like it couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be an R-rated gore fest or a feel-good family adventure, so it decided to be both. Then there’s all the weird, random pieces attached to it. I mean, we’ve got a glass house, a dark version of the zodiac, magic spells in Latin, a psychic, and a power-hunger old ghost collector. It’s bizarre. But somehow, I still like it. Widowed father Arthur (Tony Shalhoub) inherits the aforementioned, oddly designed glass house from his eccentric uncle (F. Murray Abraham) after the old man passes away. Kids and nanny in tow, Arthur moves into the peculiar house only to be warned by his uncle’s former colleague, Dennis (Matthew Lillard), that there are ghosts locked up in the basement. An unfortunate mishap traps everyone in the house, and one by one the lethal ghosts are unleashed from their cages for a specific, dark purpose that Arthur discovers along the way. It’s an interesting premise with pretty cool ghosts, but the execution is, for lack of a better word, goofy. Still, Thir13een Ghosts is fast-paced, spooky fun—a film so ridiculous that it’s kind of charming. Not at all perfect, but fun.
My Grade: B-
#9: The Grudge (2004)
Synopsis: “An American nurse living and working in Tokyo is exposed to a mysterious supernatural curse, one that locks a person in a powerful rage before claiming their life and spreading to another victim.” –www.imdb.com
Why It’s Ghoulishly Great: Like its (superior) predecessor, The Ring, The Grudge is an American remake of a Japanese film. With weird, eerie ghosts and lots of jumpy scares, it’s definitely an effective creep-out horror. However, its biggest problem is it basically feels like a series of scary scenes strung together with a scattered plot. After a brief, strange opening scene, The Grudge introduces us to American student Karen (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her boyfriend, Doug (Jason Behr), who are living in Japan. Karen, who works at a health center, gets recruited to go to the home of an elderly woman and take care of her whenever her primary caregiver doesn’t show up. But shortly after arriving at the woman’s home, Karen realizes there’s a very disturbing presence there—a malevolent force that seems to be out to get everyone who enters the house. Seriously, these ghosts rack up some victims. And there are lots of sudden, confusing flashbacks for some of these victims that get kind of annoying after a while. Still, the flashbacks each have their own, creepy touches that make them enjoyable enough. And the ghosts? Well, you won’t forget them any time soon. One of them is equal parts adorable and terrifying, and the other is completely otherworldly. Heavily reliant on quick scares and disturbing visuals rather than a solid plot, The Grudge may get fairly silly sometimes, but it has a fun atmosphere and enough spooks to make it worth a view. Especially if you dig Japanese stuff, I say go for it.
My Grade: B-
#8: The Awakening (2011)
Synopsis: “In 1921, England is overwhelmed by the loss and grief of World War I. Hoax exposer Florence Cathcart visits a boarding school to explain sightings of a child ghost. Everything she believes unravels as the ‘missing’ begin to show themselves.” –www.imdb.com
Why It’s Ghoulishly Great: A chilling, atmospheric film set in England shortly after World War I, The Awakening is both a ghost story and a psychological thriller with great performances and several jumpy moments. The heroine of the film, Florence (Rebecca Hall), has a unique occupation: she debunks the supernatural. As the author of a popular book proclaiming that ghosts are not real, Florence is quite the go-getter for a woman of her time. At the request of those involved in the supernatural, Florence makes appearances in alleged haunted houses and during spiritualists’ rituals, where she proceeds to expose them as false. When the film begins, she’s debunked every case. That is, until Robert (Dominic West) comes a-knocking. Robert is a teacher at an all-boys boarding school where a student was recently found dead. The students are under the assumption that the ghost of a young boy committed the crime. After some hesitation, Florence agrees to investigate. However, this case might just prove her wrong. There may be several clichés in this film (a ghost child, creepy photos of the ghost, lots of paranormal investigation gizmos, etc.), but the grim, post-WWI backdrop keeps everything eerie and adds a little something extra, too. As a war veteran still haunted by dark memories and by a leg wound, Robert is a constant reminder of the price of war and of the losses England suffered just a few years earlier. In fact, the opening quote comes right out and says it: “This is a time for ghosts.” Florence’s investigation causes her to think about some of the ghosts in her own life. Turns out, she has an interesting, though rushed, backstory. Still, the Awakening has enough twists and scares to make it a nice Halloween horror.
My Grade: B
#7: The Woman in Black (2012)
Synopsis: “A young lawyer travels to a remote village where he discovers the vengeful ghost of a scorned woman is terrorizing the locals.” –www.imdb.com
Why It’s Ghoulishly Great: In case you haven’t already noticed from my previous horror reviews, I love old-fashioned, bump-in-the-night ghost stories. It just so happens that The Woman in Black is exactly that. Set in the early 1900s, the film has a grim, Gothic atmosphere that makes everything in it deliciously creepy—particularly the dreaded Eel Marsh House, where our determined hero, Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe), must venture. Arthur is a lawyer still aching from the loss of his wife, who died shortly after giving birth to their son. Whenever the owner of Eel Marsh House passes away and leaves it abandoned, Arthur has to go sort out the paperwork. But the locals seem perturbed by his presence, and there’s a lot of superstition surrounding the creaky old place. Not long after he gets there, Arthur finds a mysterious, dark-clad figure lurking about, and that’s when terrible things begin to happen in town. Meanwhile, Arthur unravels a dark story about the previous owners. As Radcliffe’s first post Harry Potter film endeavor, The Woman in Black is pretty solid. It’s an adjustment from boy wizard to early 20th century lawyer with a son (seriously, seeing him as a dad is so strange to me), but he makes it work. With those big baby blues, he marvelously expresses Arthur’s deep-down sadness, and he makes him both a sympathetic and very likeable character. As for the movie itself, it’s pretty good—lots of scares, fantastic atmosphere, and a pretty interesting story. The ending disappoints me a bit, and some of the scares seem a little…cheap. Still, The Woman in Black is a spooky film that makes for a fun ghost story. Great for a chilly October night.
My Grade: B
#6: Insidious (2011)
Synopsis: “A family looks to prevent evil spirits from trapping their comatose child in a realm called The Further.” –www.imdb.com
Why It’s Ghoulishly Great: There are two things I especially appreciate about Insidious: 1) it has this really fantastic old school vibe complete with super dramatic music and a black and white opening, and 2) I actually care about this family. The latter is hard to find in a lot of recent horror films, but director James Wan seems determined to bring back likeable horror heroes. In fact, between this film and The Conjuring, it seems that Wan is really trying to revive the likeable family unit, and I’m totally cool with that because he makes it work. Usually, there’s a stupid, condescending nonbeliever in the bunch, and for a while you think that’s going to be the father of the family, Josh (Patrick Wilson). But he quickly accepts that his wife (Rose Byrne) has seen things that he doesn’t understand, and he’s willing to try anything to bring back his comatose son (Ty Simpkins). He’s a good husband and father, and you appreciate him for it. But let’s not get too ooey gooey—there are still plenty of scares to be had in this family-centered horror. There are creepy doll-faced people, a very weird version of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” the Lipstick-Face Demon (sounds stupid, but it’s super eerie), and lots of other things to make you jump. Overall, the film may not be especially unique, and the ending is a little silly, but to me Insidious sticks out as one of the better horror films of the last few years. P.S. See my review of this year’s sequel to Insidious here.
My Grade: B+
That’s the first batch of ghosties! What horrors are to come? Check back tomorrow for the fearsome top five 🙂