Among the genre pictures, horror movies have the least consensus when it comes to what the good ones are and even what qualities a good one should have. They nearly all have low budgets and often all the difficulties that implies: cheesy sets and costumes, poor lighting and camera work, amateurish acting, writing, and directing. To partisans, those limitations test the creators' innovation and the strength of their ideas. To detractors, they make the films infinitely risible. Furthermore, horror movies are personal in a way that film noir or musicals, etc. are not, and the particular set of neuroses a horror movie exploits must match those the viewer already has or else it will not be effective. Thus, while western fans agree that John Ford is an exemplary director of westerns, if you praise John Carpenter to a David Cronenberg fan you could be asking for a fight. (I'm one of those Cronenberg fans, by the way, so don't even talk to me about how much you liked Halloween or any other movie made by that ridiculous hippie.)

Deborah Kerr & Pamela Franklin in
The Innocents
Further than that, horror movies can be divided into numerous sub-genres (zombie, vampire, werewolf, anti-Catholic propaganda, and so on) which appeal to different segments for different reasons. One of the trickiest to pull off is the ghost movie. The special effects in ghost movies are frequently limited to lame-o double exposures and stuff attached to monofilaments yanked around a set, interactions between the living and the dead tend to be trite and easily resolved, and too many filmmakers succumb to the temptation to use ghosts as a metaphor for something or other rather than dealing with them in their own right. And while ghost movies literally deal with conflicts between life and death, they too often turn into therapeutic exercises which not only diminish the differences between the two states of being, they become positively death affirming. But don't be fooled--ghosts are trouble and don't you forget it.

A recent offender against sense and the living is 1999's The Sixth Sense, which betrayed its initial spookiness with a ludicrous plot point that trivialized the murder of a child, and ended by suggested that the tortured spirits of those who had murdered or been murdered, or executed, or committed suicide could be assuaged by a chat with a little boy. In fact, counseling the dead becomes the boy's calling. For a corrective, Stir of Echoes, which came out the same year and had a similar plot, but honored the plights of the children-both living and dead.

Also released in 1999 was the remake of The Haunting. Like The Sixth Sense, it proposes a living character should spend her life succoring the dead. In this case, a lonely spinster who spent her life nursing an ungrateful parent sacrifices it to become nanny to hundreds of dead children. This is a far cry from 1963 version and Shirley Jackson's source novella in which she is flattered by the attention the conniving ghosts of Hill House give her, then cruelly betrayed by them moments before her painful death.

From Stir of Echoes

"Remember, you're still my girl." Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter, Brad Johnson in Always
Perhaps most troubling of the pro-ghost, and therefore, pro-death, movies are "romances" like The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Ghost. In these, widows pledge their eternal love to ghosts and await their own demises with patient celibacy. These are Poe-like compacts that condemn the living and inhibit life, directly by frustrating procreation, and indirectly by transforming death from an event to an ever present component of life. The heroines may live in nice houses, but they are sepulchers all the same. To take ghosts seriously in a narrative they must be granted motives and agendas not shared by the living, and that should be equally true of

the scary looking ones and those that look like they got a really super skin peel at Burke-Williams. "Remember, you're still my girl," says the departed lover in Always (a remake of 1943's A Guy Named Joe, which can be glimpsed on TV in Poltergeist), which would be a sweet thought except as the movie progresses it becomes increasingly obvious that that possessiveness (she is in a real way possessed by him) is damaging to her mind, health, and future. He is hurt, too. "Anything you do for yourself now is a waste of spirit," his guide tells him. They must be rid of one another for either to thrive. (Truly, Madly, Deeply shares many of these qualities, but is more a parable of divorce--in death, the husband becomes an infertile lay about with dubious friends-than a genuine ghost movie.)

Even well meaning ghosts do not necessarily act in the best interests of living humans. In The Frighteners, a conman has ghosts as partners in an exorcism scam he runs. The problem, as in most of Peter Jackson's movies, is that over involvement with un-reality (zombies in Dead Alive, "the fourth world" in Heavenly Creatures) leads to a badly neglected and unstable private life. The king of Halloween tries to annex Christmas in Tim Burton's the Nightmare Before Christmas and ends up giving toddlers severed heads as gifts. In the Tim Burton directed Beetlejuice, the living and the departed only learn to co-exist after the ghosts take over most of the house they share, dictate the décor, and raise the human daughter whom they nearly inadvertently affianced to an otherworldly pervert. Speaking of otherworldly perverts, the ghost in The Legend of Hell House was allowed to do something

Jim Fyfe & Chi McBride in The Frighteners
unspeakable because it persuaded a young woman it was sweet and nice. For more in that vein, you could rent the sleazy The Entity, but it's quite graphic and has a silly ending.
Nicole Kidman, Alakina Mann, and James Bentley in The Others

While Ghost is certainly horrible, if you are looking for ghost films that are also top notch horror movies I've got a short list for you to consider. Still in theaters is writer-director Alejandro Amenabar's The Others. While it might be too early to call it a classic, it's got the right bones and an outstanding performance from Nicole Kidman (because it's so new I don't want to ruin anybody's fun by writing about it here, just check it out). Second is Poltergeist. Poltergeist is nearly twenty years old, so I checked it out on dvd last weekend to see how the special effects were holding up. Some better than others, as it turns out, but whether you are convinced by the guy scratching the flesh off his face (and you won't be) is secondary to its strength of writer-producer Steven Spielberg's thesis: unregulated material, whether violence on television or drugs in the bedroom, is dangerous to the family ("Don't watch that, honey, it's bad for you," the mother says and carelessly turns the channel from static to a war movie) but the family is strong and resilient and can be reborn in the face of adversity (the whole graveyard thing is just a ruse). Plus, it was the first ghost movie I ever saw that gave a convincing explanation as to why the family didn't just leave.

The all time champion of ghost movies is the 1962 film The Innocents, produced and directed by Jack Clayton, starring Deborah Kerr, and adapted by William Archibald and Truman Capote from The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. Frankly, when you get a group of such notables working on a horror movie you end up with a mess like 1963 The Haunting (I said it was better than the remake, but it's still pretty boring overall), The Exorcist, Wolf, or more recently, From Hell (they got that title right).

Heather O'Rourke in Poltergeist
But The Innocents contains all of the best elements of a ghost movie and none of the idiocies. It tells the story of a sheltered woman who is put in sole charge of two orphans because their only living relative is too selfish to care for them, or even to see them. She finds that in their pampered neglect, the children have become strange--attractive and charming to be sure, but also afflicted early with aristocratic decadence. They are unnaturally attached to one another, and also to something in the house which the woman comes to believe are meddling spirits. She believes this not because she hears a spooky noise or detects some unexplained movement, but because she sees them-and though they seem to be as concrete as any living human they are much more disturbing than anything in Poltergeist's arsenal of spooks not because of how they look, but

Deborah Kerr & Martin Stephens in The Innocents

because of the corruption they represent in the woman and her charges. The little boy's goodnight kiss is a little too…affectionate, for example, and the woman lets it go on a bit too long. And though the case for an actual infestation of ghosts is largely circumstantial, they are part of a force field of perversion that encompasses the house and lays waste to the best intentions, and their effect upon the residents are irreducible, and haunting in every sense.

Written by Sharon C. McGovern

From Vol. 33
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