Like monsters, vampires, and zombies, ghosts can be scary as hell. But there is something about the stories of lingering dead spirits that can be both awe-inspiring and spooky at once. The often invisible presence of ghosts allows filmmakers to explore the unsettling aspects of character psychology through the use sound and space. Some of the best ghost stories aren’t scary at all; instead, they liberate directors from the restrictions of space and time to mine spiritual and existential depths. It’s a genre that has attracted some of the medium’s greatest artists to create some of their finest work.
Kate Erbland, Eric Kohn, Ryan Lattanzio, Tambay Obenson, Chris O’Falt, Zack Sharf, and Anne Thompson also contributed to this piece.
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35. “I Was a Simple Man” (Christopher Makoto Yogi, 2021)
A lush and spellbinding ghost story that’s haunted by the spirit(s) of an entire island, Christopher Makoto Yogi’s “I Was a Simple Man” layers the spectral hush of “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” over the elegiac domesticity of “An Autumn Afternoon” as it mourns the fading O’ahu that Masao Matsuoshi (Steve Iwamoto) knew in the 20th century. The phantoms casually start popping up soon after Masao is diagnosed with terminal cancer, beginning with his late wife (Constance Wu) who hasn’t aged a day since she died on the same 1959 night that Hawaii was claimed by the United States. They’ve come to prepare him for his own journey, and also — perhaps even more importantly — to insist that they’ve never really left.
“I Was a Simple Man” only grows more intimately entwined with Masao’s remembrances of things past as it reaches back into the post-war period, and its lucid commentary on the commercialization of Hawaii’s beauty is borne out through a personal story of otherness and outsiders that’s reflected by Masao’s estrangement from his own family’s unyielding Japaneseness. But his imminent death won’t necessarily strain those bonds to the breaking point. “This is not the end,” Masao’s late wife insists. “Now we become everything.” —DE
34. “Poltergeist” (Tobe Hooper, 1982)
Northwestern University film studies professor Jeffrey Sconce wrote a book in 2000 called “Haunted Media,” about the phenomenon of people thinking their TVs or radios or phones are haunted. Think about the times you’ve heard of people who’ve lost a loved one suddenly reporting their TV turning on at random — was it a message from the beyond? Certainly there’s a classic episode of “The Twilight Zone,” in which Gladys Cooper keeps getting phone calls from a dead man on the other end. “Pulse” reimagines the concept for the digital age. But the best-known blockbuster formulation of ghosts haunting our media is Tobe Hooper’s relentlessly eerie, and eventually just relentless, “Poltergeist.” How much did producer Steven Spielberg actually direct of this movie? Probably a lot. It sure feels more in line with his work than Hooper’s scuzzy “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” In a gated community in the suburbs the Freeling family is going about their lives until five-year-old daughter Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) starts hearing and seeing things through the family TV. And not just episodes of “Benson.” Messages from ghosts, who eventually suck her in to their world. Over-the-top jump scares eventually replace the more subtle chills of the earlier part of the movie, but “Poltergeist” does veer into as critical a take on suburbia and the cluelessness of the gated-community mentality as Spielberg’s ever given. Turns out that an entire cemetery was uprooted, the bodies buried there disinterred and disrespected, in order to build this neighborhood. When patriarch Steven (Craig T. Nelson) asks the callous developer why they built here the guy delivers a devastating reply: “They were just… people.” —CB
33. “His House” (Remi Weekes, 2020)
First-time filmmaker Remi Weekes went big for his debut, a truly chilling ghost story on its face that also tucks some disturbing, incredibly real horrors within its impeccably written screenplay (also from Weekes, as adapted from Felicity Evans and Toby Venables’ clever original story). To say too much more is to chance spoiling this Sundance 2020 standout (Netflix, quite wisely, snapped it up out of the festival, ensuring a wide audience), but we can certainly try.
Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (a heartbreaking Wunmi Mosaku) are Sudanese refugees searching for a new home (and a new start) in the middle of nowhere, UK. The chintzy, dirty row house they are finally given doesn’t exactly feel cozy, cold comfort against their blazing memories of escape, which included the death of their young daughter. Adjustment is hard, both in a town that doesn’t seem to want them in a world that doesn’t seem to understand them, and within their own horrific memories. Soon, these worlds and worries start to blend, as spirits (maybe?) begin to haunt their already foreboding house, beckoning them to face memories they’d rather forget.
Purely as a horror film and more essentially a ghost story – never fear, plenty of spirits emerge from the walls at regular intervals – “His House” easily gets under its audience’s skin. But as Weekes’ and his talented cast begin to pull at the threads that bind it, it takes on even more ghostly cast, bending itself into a different kind of story about what haunts us, long after the dead shuffle off this mortal coil. There are plenty of spirits in “His House,” familiar and not quite, but all of them leave their mark, unable to move on to whatever comes next. –KE
32. “Casper” (Brad Silberling, 1995)
Go digging into the tragic backstory of Casper the Friendly Ghost, and you’re bound to be traumatized – he is, after all, a child ghost, so just chew on that for awhile – but first-time feature filmmaker Brad Silberling pulled off one heck of magic trick with his 1995 supernatural comedy: stuck to Casper’s classic background and made it palatable to the entire family. While some critics balked at the film’s darker aspects – again, a child ghost – the film was a smash hit, making nearly $290 million at the box office and ensuring that even the most staid of classic comics could be translated to new mediums with style. And we’re really talking new mediums here, as the eponymous ghost is the first fully CGI character to appear in a film’s lead role, a wild step forward at the time that seems totally natural now. (And, yes, yes, late in the film, Casper comes briefly back to life in the form of tween heartbreaker Devon Sawa, a cute capper that doesn’t detract from the tech at all.)
Bolstered by another winning performance by young Christina Ricci, absolutely the kind of canny kid a sweet ghost would want to become best pals with, Silberling’s film blends humor and scares and fear-based titters with some darker ruminations about life, death, loss, and everything in between. Both wonderfully entertaining and unexpectedly instructive, it’s the kind of film that works just for fun and to inevitably help explain away some big questions. Fans of the classic comic have much to enjoy, too, from the Ghostly Trio’s high jinks to plenty of silly twists on ghostly tropes. Even ghosts can be cute, after all. —KE
31. “Rebecca” (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)
For a filmmaker whose characters were as haunted as any the movies have ever know, Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t much interested in ghosts; the Master of Suspense enjoyed writing about the supernatural, but was loath to explore it onscreen beyond the occasional flirtation with crude psychiatry (which “Spellbound” renders closer to magic than science) and whatever rationale one might bring to “The Birds.” And yet “Rebecca,” which Hitchcock adapted from Daphne du Maurier’s novel of the same name, so ornately lavishes its flesh-and-blood psychodrama in the language of gothic horror stories that it ultimately has less in common with “Vertigo” than it does the likes of Jack Clayton’s “The Innocents.” Maxim de Winter and his second wife may have very different takes on what’s happening at Manderley, but each of them can feel the spirit of the late Rebecca de Winter clinging to the mansion she once dreamed of making her own. Phantom or not her spirit possesses that house with the inextinguishable flame of a painful memory, as Hitchcock lays into a fiendishly grounded tale about being haunted from beyond the grave. Even the camera is convinced: As Maxim recounts his final conversation with Rebecca, Hitchcock cuts to a POV shot that pans across the empty boathouse as if it can actually see her standing there, and everywhere else as well. —DE
30. “The Living Skeleton” (Hiroshi Matsuno, 1968)
The pleasure of watching Hiroshi Matsuno’s 1968 low-budget “The Living Skeleton” is in how it inelegantly shapeshifts from high-seas pirate heist movie to psychosexual religious parable to doppelganger thriller and, finally, to something akin to a less schlocky “Ghost Ship.” Human remains haunt the ocean floor surrounding a Catholic church, where a seemingly benevolent priest (Masumi Okada) offers shelter to Saeko (Kikko Matsuoka), who’s rattled by visions of her missing twin sister.
Wild out-of-the-void twists careen this film from one genre to the next, as the pirate ghosts rise from the dead, the ghastly true identity of the priest is revealed, and Saeko’s apparitions take on a harrowing corporeal form. Cinematographer Masayuki Katō knows how to stage a moody, spectral set piece, as the lost souls of the past rise from the water’s surface to wreak hell on those above it. —RL
29. “La Llorona” (Jayro Bustamante, 2020)
This film festival hit, an allegorical folk horror tale, marks the first Guatemalan entry to make the Oscar shortlist. The genre elements of this well-mounted family drama are used to good effect to reveal dark secrets and horrors enacted by the country’s entitled elite. Thus Bustamante uses the familiar Latin American folk tale about a wailing woman with supernatural powers to explore Guatemala’s genocidal past. It’s atmospheric, scary, and sobering. —RL
28. “Heart of a Dog” (Laurie Anderson, 2015)
At a critical juncture in Laurie Anderson’s profound cinematic essay “Heart of a Dog,” she quotes David Foster Wallace: “Every love story is a ghost story.” That’s certainly true of this lush, haunting meditation on life and death, in which the artist meditates on the loss of people who meant the world to her, from her husband Lou Reed and close friend Gordon Matta-Clark to her rate terrier Lolabelle. With the latter figure, however, Anderson explores the possibility that Lolabelle’s existence lives on in the Bardo, and turns to the Tibetan Book of the Dead to grapple with that journey. In the process, she realizes that her mourning process is a fundamentally selfish act, and in this case has less to do with the loss of her canine that the emotional impact on its owner. As Anderson careens through her life and considers a chaotic world indifferent to her needs, the specter of 9/11 and its impact on her New York community hits hard, but “Heart of a Dog” ultimately is a filmic seance for the dead designed to resurrect and celebrate them by using the medium at hand to immortalize their memory. It’s at once eerie and filled with hope. —EK
27. “Even the Wind Is Afraid” (Carlos Enrique Taboada, 1967)
An early hit from Mexican horror master Carlos Enrique Taboada, whose giallo-inflected stories of things going bump in the night have been a major influence on modern auteurs like Guillermo del Toro, “Even the Wind Is Afraid” (or “Hasta el Viento Tiene Miedo”) bends the director’s Eurocentric style towards an atmospheric chiller about some very repressed boarding school girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown — imagine a happy medium between Almodóvar and Dario Argento and you’ll be on the right track. Aside from the catty and excitable cast of characters who gossip and shriek and say things like “I wouldn’t even go outside for a Tony Curtis picture” when they get scared, the most enjoyable thing about this very low-key film is its insistence that ghosts are seldom as scary as the reason why they’re still around. Claudia (Alicia Bonet) is plenty creeped out by her dreams of a girl hanging from the college belltower, and even more so once she and her friends start seeing a nightgowned apparition floating around campus, but nothing in their lives is more sinister than ultra-strict principal Bernarda (Marga López), who keeps her students on such a tight leash that she won’t even allow them to have photographs of men in their dorms. “Even the Wind Is Afraid” isn’t the least bit scary by modern standards, and Taboada couldn’t be gentler with its small handful of jolts. Nevertheless, there’s something timelessly eerie to the shrill howl that convinces the movie’s characters to be terrified of the very thing that’s trying to set them free. —DE
26. “Crimson Peak” (Guillermo del Toro, 2015)
Guillermo del Toro returned to his horror roots with this twisty, exhilarating, swirling amalgam of fantasy, hard-R horror, and gothic romance, inspired by Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” and Visconti’s “The Leopard.” For the first time, Del Toro was able to merge the creative artistry of his low-budget Mexican films “Devil’s Backbone” and Oscar-winning “Pan’s Labyrinth” with a $55-million studio production made without the commercial genre restrictions. (Reviews were mixed.) The filmmaker provided the drama’s wickedly entwined brother and sister (Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain) and innocent bride (Mia Wasikowska) with dense character biographies, which they shared with set decorators but not other cast members. The film is about the secrets we carry, none more than the lofty, deconstructing gothic mansion, with its destroyed roof open to the elements, that bore witness to decades of horrors. (Don’t go in the basement!) The movie is scary, gorgeous, and beautiful, and capped by a 45-minute thrill ride with an action set-piece shot in glistening white snow, splotched with clay, red as blood.—AT
25. “Beetlejuice” (Tim Burton, 1988)
Long before the be-striped one shows up (why would anyone attempt to conjure Beetlejuice besides, of course, anyone with a wicked sense of humor and a delight for the macabre?), Tim Burton’s 1988 classic is unnerving enough. Something of a reverse ghost story – what if you died and then the people who took over your home made it just horrible for you? – Burton’s comedic creeper is enough to haunt anyone who really relishes the ability to control their surroundings and then, fast as a truly just awful car accident, it’s all gone.
Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara (Geena Davis) are living an idyllic Vermont life, complete with a lovingly restored Victorian-era mansion, when everything goes down the toilet (or, more precisely, straight into their local river). Discovering that they’re now spirits doomed to haunt their own home is bad enough (hell, even a handy guidebook can’t ease that pain), but things get only worse when the gauche Deetz family (not including, of course, their charming Goth daughter Lydia, played to perfection by a young Winona Ryder) arrive on the scene and promptly turn the house into a faux-arty yuppie hellscape. Adam and Barbara, still adorably human at their core, aren’t really the spooky type, and their amusing attempts to put on a good, old-fashioned scarefest fall hilariously flat.
That’s when they bring in the big guns: the absolutely bonkers and mostly gross Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton in a role only he could play), who resorts to the usual tricks, treats, scares, and shocks to drive away the Deetz clan. It’s all very funny and very weird, and it basically ruined the Harry Belafonte jam “Day-O” for an entire generation of impressionable young audience members, but it also doesn’t totally detract from the wonky little ghost story at its heart. Adam and Barbara are nice people, thrust into a splintered reality they cannot possibly fathom, and the only way to save them (to save the ghosts! What a twist!) is through the affection of a curiously disaffected (but goodhearted) teenager, the only person who can still see them. Betelgeuse might get all the showy stuff, but “Beetlejuice” finds its heart – and still very real soul – in a pair of spectral beings who really just want to go home. –KE
24. “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1947)
The great thing about having a ghost for a friend — other than Casper, who I guess is tragically a dead child — is that presumably they’d have a whole lifetime of experiences to share with you, without vanity or ego. You can learn a lot! And Gene Tierney’s turn-of-the-last century heroine Lucy Muir certainly does from the ghostly Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison). Widowed, Lucy and her young daughter (Natalie Wood) move into a stormswept seaside cottage in Dorset, vacated due to its previous occupant’s suicide. That poor soul was of course the captain. Even in spectral form, he’s not leaving his beloved Gull Cottage. But wanting to chase out Lucy soon gives way to him falling for her. As Daphne Moon on “Frasier” once said, “There’s no greater love than that between a woman and a ghost.” Well, Lucy isn’t quite as eager as that. And the captain isn’t quite capable of expressing what he really does feel for her. So instead, he becomes a kind of life coach for the still very sheltered Lucy. He tells her his rousing life story, which she then turns into a book — a briney tale of adventure so thrilling it becomes a bestseller. Which unfortunately places her in the path of a successful children’s book author named Uncle Neddy (George Sanders), and Lucy finds she still has some lessons to learn about men and life. Romantic but unsentimental, “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” is unique in Mankiewicz’s body of work for its sincerity and emotional commitment. It’s one of the few times in his career that the “All About Eve” filmmaker cared about more than one-liners, and Charles Lang’s sumptuous photography creates a relentlessly romantic atmosphere. Here’s a ghost story that’s about finding connection and fulfillment in death that its characters can’t find in life. —CB
23. “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)
Ghost monkeys. Reincarnation. Catfish cunnilingus. The inspired weirdness is so off the charts with “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” it almost sounds like a lark. Instead, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s mesmerizing Palme d’Or winner redefines the notion of “movie magic,” by conjuring images and experiences that transcend the boundaries of the screen. More than 10 years later, it remains a haunting, wondrous incantation — a movie that gives new meaning to fantasy filmmaking by refusing to escape the world, and instead attempting to see it in a whole new way.
But about those ghost monkeys: They’re not the only ones hovering in some fragile, surreal boundary between life and death. The centerpiece of “Uncle Boonmee” is the title character (Thanapat Saisaymar) struggling with his role in torturing Communist sympathizers during a notorious 1965 military event. At the end of his life, he’s haunted by memories that have been spruced up by legend and myth. Both spooky and enigmatic, the most baffling moments in “Uncle Boonmee” are the core of its appeal. It’s easy to imagine a more traditional drama about deathbed regret, but Apichatpong couldn’t make one if he tried. “Uncle Boonmee” gets inside the conflicting emotions and dislocation of a dwindling mind, finding beauty and wonder in its confines. The ghosts are specters of a past that won’t go dormant, no matter how much its participants — and their country — would prefer to keep it buried for good. —EK
22. “Kuroneko” (Kaneto Shindo, 1968)
Kaneto Shindo’s supernatural folktale “Kuroneko” is not unlike the master Japanese filmmaker’s “Onibaba” from four years earlier. This one again centers on two women luring soldiers to their doom, but here they’re a mother and daughter-in-law pair who, after being brutally pillaged, raped, and killed by a legion of savage samurais, return undead to seduce the soldiers and then literally suck their souls to avenge the god of the evil underworld.
Their vow to kill every samurai in their path gets a complicated kink when one of their prey turns out to be their long-lost son and son-in-law, conscripted three years earlier to the army. This Toho-distributed chiller, rife with throats being ripped out and plenty of sex happening in plain view, unfolds in spellbinding black-and-white courtesy of DP Kiyomi Kuroda. The ghosts’ nimble cat-like choreography (as there very much is a real black cat machinating their bidding), in pin-drop-silent slow motion through undulating bamboo forests, brings to mind the martial arts epics of today, even as much of the movie unfolds on a chiaroscuro-drenched, Noh-like soundstage. —RL
21. “Pulse” (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001)
So why is it that we find the idea of ghosts so compelling? Is it just the possibility of life after death? Or is it the inherent sadness in the idea of lingering as a spirit in some eternal limbo, unable to participate in life but witnessing it all? The really sad thing is that a lot of us among the living probably feel like the latter anyway. We can relate to ghosts. And the digital revolutions of the past 30 years have undoubtedly contributed to that feeling of deathly loneliness. No movie has captured the alienation of the internet era better than Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Pulse,” which is too enigmatic to have all its mysteries explained away, but goes something like this: in the realm wherever souls come from, there are now simply too many souls. So these ghosts are basically trying to prevent any more human lives from crossing over by instead trapping them inside the computers and modems that have become such a huge part of our lives (even by the time this film was released 20 years ago). At least that seems like what’s happening? An arthouse J-Horror triumph, Kurosawa’s film spawned two sequels and an American remake, and it’s easy to see why: shot in a monochromatic techno pallor that makes it a cousin of “The Matrix,” it’s as full of heady ideas and cryptic visuals as anything the Wachowskis ever dreamed up, down to its incessant use of glitches as the new jump cuts. Two separate storylines — one about an employee at a greenhouse (Kumiko Aso) whose colleagues keep disappearing, the other about an economics student (Haruhiko Kato) whose computer keeps getting taken over by grim videos of people who seem like the walking dead — eventually converge, as Kurosawa subtly asks questions even more relevant in 2021: why has technology, more capable of connecting us than any before in history, left us so isolated? Why, with more knowledge at our finger tips than ever, are we more confused and uncertain? Maybe we’re all ghosts already. —CB
20. “Hausu” (1977)
The story goes that Japanese movie studio Toho was tired of losing money on movies that made sense, and so they green-lit Obayashi Nobuhiko’s “Hausu” — a potentially career-ending script that no in-house director would touch — thinking that it was time to lose money on a movie that didn’t. They only got half of what they bargained for: An utterly delirious (and strangely cheerful) ghost story about a teen girl named Gorgeous (Ikegami Kimiko) who takes a group of friends to her aunt’s haunted house, Obayashi’s magnum opus is a demented funeral parade of phantasmagoric delights. A killer mattress, a carnivorous piano, and a demonic cat are just the tip of the iceberg of a wild, super fun, and disarmingly playful movie in which even the smallest moments are touched with madness. A forgotten gem until the Criterion Collection rescued the film from obscurity and turned it into a cult phenomenon, “Hausu” may not make a lick of sense, but it was a hit in its own time, and an even bigger one in ours. —DE
19. “House on Haunted Hill” (1959)
Genial schlockmeister Castle had toiled in a smorgasbord of genres throughout the 1950s, until his proclivity for campy frights snapped into focus with this ghost story. Well, a ghost story that really turns out to be the tale of a homicidal married couple. In one of the roles that established him as a horror icon, Vincent Price invites a handful of strangers to participate in a dare: spend a night in bizarre, brutalist California manor house. If you can keep your wits and emerge the next morning despite the ghosts that haunt the place, you’ll win $10,000.
Of course, it turns out things are not what they seem, and there may be a very rational explanation for all the seemingly supernatural happenings that abound. Or is there? Regardless of Castle’s desire to show the man behind the curtain here, there are a number of frights that seem to have no logical grounding in reality.
This is not a movie meant to tax your brain cells. It’s meant for a few jump scares followed by nervous laughter about how silly the whole proceedings were. Like so much of the Castle horror oeuvre, “House on Haunted Hill” played up “the theatrical experience” to maximalist extremes: The director instructed theater owners that a prop skeleton should actually emerge at one point into the space of the theater itself, a low-tech gag he called “Emergo.” It didn’t have the desired effect — audiences were reported to have thrown their popcorn at the skeleton — but it’s a special footnote in the history of horror movies all the same. —CB
18. “ParaNorman” (2012)
No animated movie says Halloween quite like “ParaNorman,” the ghostly modern stop-motion classic that confirmed studio Laika as a major force in American animation. Sam Fell and Chris Butler’s stop-motion fantasy horror film centers around a young boy who can communicate with ghosts as he tries to save his Massachusetts town from being destroyed by a 300-year-old witch. For all the wacky supernatural hijinks that unfold over the film’s runtime, “ParaNorman” is most concerned with a reconciliation between the past and present. That an animated family movie even attempts to make sense of America’s lingering guilt for the murder of those charged with witchcraft makes “ParaNorman” a rare gift. “ParaNorman” rightfully earned an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature and proved that Laika could rival Pixar in terms of narrative and emotional originality. —ZS
17. “The Sixth Sense” (1999)
“Dead people only see what they want to see.” In other words, ghosts: They’re just like us!
A breakthrough film big enough to rattle pop culture and the rest of this mortal coil along with it (only “The Phantom Menace” grossed more in 1999), “The Sixth Sense” not only made M. Night Shyamalan a household name, it minted him into a sub-genre all his own. Inevitably, this monolithic chiller is now seen through the lens of the — shall we say — uneven body of work that followed, but it still holds up and then some. If Shyamalan’s later films were soured by their gimmicky sleight of hand, “The Sixth Sense” endures as a quiet, mysterious drama that entrances on the strength of those merits alone before arriving at the explosive final reveal that elevated it into the firmaments of film history — a moment that, like all good twists, is shocking and logical in equal measure, as the carefully laid pieces fall right into place. —CO
16. “Kwaidan” (1964)
The title of Kobayashi Masaki’s four-part anthology translates to “ghost story,” but don’t go in expecting typical genre thrills. More Stanley Kubrick than Stephen King, this formative mid-century masterpiece is “existentially frightening” (to borrow the verbiage the Criterion Collection used while canonizing it) in a way that excuses it from relying on more conventional scares.
One of the most expensive Japanese films ever made at the time, “Kwaidan” is a visually stunning movie, and painter-turned-filmmaker Kobayashi’s jaw-dropping imagery — in concert with Takemitsu Toru’s haunting sound and music design — elicit an atmosphere that feels ancient, exotic, cosmic, and empty all at once. The film’s form gives the simple, often tragic stories (a samurai marries for money, a blind musician performs for ghosts, a snow maiden saves a woodcutter from a blizzard), an emotional dreamlike resonance. Like all anthologies, some segments are stronger than others, but the collective power of what Kobayashi delivers here is enough to keep you tense for the entirety of the film’s three-hour runtime. Just be sure to seek out the aforementioned restoration that Criterion helped bring to these shores, as one of the four stories was chopped off the original U.S. release. —CO
15. “Candyman” (1992)
A boogieman terrorizing a public housing project? The film’s setting alone separates it from many of its slasher movie brethren. Based on Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden,” director Bernard Rose relocates the story from Barker’s native Liverpool to the dilapidated, “scary” buildings of the Cabrini-Green projects in Chicago. It was an inspired decision that amended the original story’s classist undertones into explicitly racial ones, turning this into more of a subversive meditation on race. The unsettling legend about the hook-handed terror focuses on a skeptical white doctoral candidate working on a thesis on urban legends, who learns of the Cabrini-Green Candyman legend and goes to investigate.
Starring Virginia Madsen as an atypical slasher movie heroine, the film boasts one of the more intriguing horror-movie villains, with a complexity rooted in a tragic backstory that makes him sympathetic: a famous black artist and son of slaves who pays a steep price, amputation and a grisly death, for falling in love with a white man’s daughter who hires him to paint her portrait. Digging a little deeper than your average horror film, the film stars the physically imposing Tony Todd as Candyman, whose sonorous, chilly voice haunts long after the movie ends. —TO
14. “A Tale of Two Sisters” (2003)
Generally speaking, it’s less than ideal to bring your sister home from a stint at a mental institution to find your stepmom engaged in an unusual relationship with the ghosts haunting your house. Kim Jee-woon’s “A Tale of Two Sisters” is a psychological horror-thriller that mines the buried secrets of a family’s past to leave the viewer as unsettled as the two sisters who try to piece together the mystery of what happened in the secluded estate where they were raised. It‘s a smartly assembled non-linear film which might require a second viewing to fully comprehend, but it’s disturbing as hell right from the start. The level of its craft and the intricacies of its storytelling are remarkable as Kim brings a meticulousness to his images that also mirrors his careful plotting of how to completely screw with your head. “Sisters” became the highest-grossing Korean horror film and the first to screen in the U.S., where it was remade in 2009 as “The Uninvited” starring Emily Browning and Elizabeth Banks. —CO
13. “The Shining” (1980)
The fault lies not in the ghosts that haunt us but in ourselves. Wouldn’t Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) have ended up going down his psychotic path in “The Shining” no matter what? When we first meet him, he’s already been involved in an incident of domestic abuse with his son. Nicholson certainly plays Jack like he’s demented from almost the very beginning — cue chills: “You see? It’s alright. He saw it on the television.” “The Shining” has a certain dream logic to it, much like that of Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” nineteen years later — it suggests everything you fear, but dismiss, may actually be true. That dread in the pit of your stomach isn’t lying. If your instinct is telling you that your husband may try to kill you and your son, there’s probably a very good reason for that; in horror movies, as in life, it’s often the denial that kills you in the end. Wendy and Danny are able to wake up before it’s too late, but a lot of us aren’t so lucky. A lot of us, Kubrick recognized, are marching blindly through life so rigidly we might as well be frozen in the snow, doomed to keep repeating our mistakes over and over, like we really have always been the caretaker after all. —CB
12. “Spirited Away” (2001)
Arguably Miyazaki Hayao’s greatest film, the story of a change-averse 10-year-old girl moving into a new neighborhood is the stuff of vintage Studio Ghibli. But nothing will prepare you for the delirious journey that Chihiro embarks upon after a quick rest stop at an abandoned village results in her parents being turned into pigs and taken hostage by the spirit world. In order to rescue them and restore her family, our anxious heroine will have to venture into a realm beyond her reality and conquer the demons she brought with her, in addition to some of the new ones she meets along the way.
The surrealism of “Spirited Away” is dialed way up from Miyazaki’s other works, but there’s something remarkable about how the film never even remotely approaches artifice. Here is the rare film that recognizes the beauty and terror of getting exactly what you wish for — a film that never loses its focus on the raw humanity of what young people sometimes wish for before they learn enough about themselves to know what they really want. The stunning jewel in Hayao Miyazaki’s pocketful of masterpieces follows young Chihiro on a fantastical sojourn through a land of cursed animals, malicious witches, and amorphous blobs that devour humans with minimal effort. It’s the textbook Miyazaki blend of wonder and danger that makes this a modern fairy tale on par with the time-tested stories of Grimm and Aesop and the countless oral traditions that spin yarns of all that the wide world has in store, and it’s absolutely bursting at the seams with some of the most imaginative spirits ever projected onto a movie screen. —CO
11. “The Fog” (1980)
“A celebration of our past!” That’s the slogan on a banner hanging over the town square in Antonio Bay, California, which is about to celebrate its centennial. If America has taught us anything, though, it’s that knee-jerk nostalgia always demands critical examination. Turns out that this coastal hamlet was founded by settlers who murdered the survivors of a shipwreck and stole their gold; the victims were lepers and the settlers justified their hate crime under the guise of “protecting their community.” As the fog rolls in leading up to that 100th anniversary, the ghostly victims of that injustice are coming back to collect what’s theirs.
In John Carpenter’s hands, this story has particular impact. A ghoulish campfire-tale prologue sets the mood. Then he one-ups “Halloween” by not only having Jamie Lee Curtis star (as an Antonio Bay townsperson caught up unwittingly in these ghostly affairs), but her mother Janet Leigh too, as one of the organizers of the anniversary celebration. Carpenter’s ghosts here signify the invisible specters in our country that are often ignored, but still hold a powerful sway over our lives. It isn’t easy to confront how the present owes a blood debt to the injustices of the past, but the onus is on us to do it or die trying. —CB
10. “The Devil’s Backbone” (2001)
The magic of Guillermo Del Toro’s filmmaking is an ability to mix terror and wonder in a way that heightens both emotions without ever feeling trite. Set during the Spanish Civil War, this ghost story is told from the perspective of Carlos (Fernando Tielve), a 12-year-old boy who is a new arrival at an ominous orphanage after his father was killed in the war. Carlos, haunted by visions of a mysterious apparition, tries to piece together the mystery of what happened the night a bomb hit the orphanage’s courtyard (but strangely didn’t explode) and a young boy (who now haunts the house) was killed. The film is more unsettlingly creepy than edge-of-your-seat scary, revealing the true horror is being a child during wartime. Del Toro has called “Backbone” his most personal film. –CO
9. “Ghostbusters” (1984)
“Ghostbusters” went big in every sense. The film created the mold for Hollywood’s subsequent decades long obsession with comedy-genre crossovers, director Ivan Reitman combined big action, horror, and special effects with broad comedy that was originally written as a vehicle for “Blues Brothers” stars Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi. Ackroyd’s rewrite with co-star Harold Ramis works in part because it’s grounded in a very real New York and a genuine fascination with the paranormal. For all the goofy antics of the booted academics-turned-commercial exterminators, Bill Murray’s incredible one-liners, Rick Moranis’ physical comedy, Ray Parker Jr.’s punchy hit song and the giant Stay Puft Marshmallow man climax, this was a film that also delivered real action inspired gothic visuals — not to mention the frightening intensity of Sigourney Weaver as possessed by Zuul. A monumental hit that dominated pop culture and the summer box office. –CO
8. “The Haunting” (1963)
Losing one’s mental ground is always fertile ground for deep-seated dread. This Shirley Jackson adaptation follows a group actively trying to prove the existence of ghosts, but unprepared for the unrelenting terror of the experience. With director Robert Wise’s inventive sets — including some of the most effective production design in the history of horror – and his moving camera, the film has a constant feeling of impending doom and claustrophobia that perfectly mirrors the characters’ internal state. –CO
7. “Personal Shopper” (2016)
Reinventing the ghost story with radical directness and a modern sense of self, Olivier Assayas’ “Personal Shopper” survived a dicey Cannes premiere to assume its place as one of the most affecting depictions of the grieving process ever committed to the screen. And somehow, even though it includes a scene in which a phantom projectile scream-vomits hot white ectoplasm into the air above Kristen Stewart’s face, it’s also one of the most realistic.
Bracingly direct one moment and elliptical the next, “Personal Shopper” isn’t just a story about a young woman trying to connect with her brother across the great beyond; it’s also a knowing portrait of how technology shapes the way people remember the dead and process their absence. A numbed Stewart is brilliant as Maureen, a celebrity assistant who moonlights as a medium in the hopes of making contact with her dead twin. And since spiritualists have always been magnetized to spectacle, it’s only natural that Maureen is constantly staring at her iPhone, using it to google the paintings of Swedish mystic Hilma af Klint or watch an amusing clip from a (fake) old TV drama in which Victor Hugo conducts a hokey séance. These digital communions lend Assayas’ laconic thriller the feeling of a Russian nesting doll, with each layer hiding a new dead body, and the film’s infamous centerpiece sequence manages to infuse the simple (and decidedly un-cinematic) act of texting with oodles of Hitchockian suspense. —DE
6. “The Phantom Carriage” (1922)
Famous for its influence on Ingmar Bergman but increasingly appreciated for its own merits (in large part due to the film’s somewhat recent canonization into the Criterion Collection), Victor Sjöström’s “The Phantom Carriage” is a formative genre classic that still holds up for the rudimentary eeriness of its special effects, which are magnified by the inherent specter of death that now haunts all silent films of the 1920s. The story goes that the last person to die in a given year is consigned to carry the reins of Death’s carriage for the year to follow, and a philandering drunkard by the name of David Holm (played by the director) learns the myth is true when he encounters his late friend Georges (Tore Svennberg) one New Year’s Eve. So begins a spooky, flashback-heavy melodrama that has as much in common with “It’s a Wonderful Life” as it does any horror movie; there’s a consumptive wife and a primal revenge plot and of course a scene in which the hero bargains with the heavens for more time on this mortal coil. Whether watched without sound or accompanied by Swedish musician Matti Bye’s 1998 score, “The Phantom Carriage” has plenty of life in it yet. Its impact is obvious (though it’s fun to make the connections yourself), but Sjöström’s film is far too richly atmospheric and unnerving to be considered a mere curio. —DE
5. “A Ghost Story” (2017)
Jokingly pitched as a “‘Beetlejuice’ remake directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul,” David Lowery’s crafty and ingenious “A Ghost Story” elevates a simple haunting into a powerful meditation on love, time, and the inevitable dissolution of all things. The movie, which reunites the lead actors from Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” stars Casey Affleck as a homebody musician and Rooney Mara as his restless wife. When he dies in a car crash, his spirit ghost lifts right off of the gurney, the white hospital sheet draped over his body as he rejects an opportunity to step into the great beyond. Silent beneath the cloth, invisible to the living, and unsure of his cosmic purpose, he begins to wander around the house where he used to live, a benign presence huddling in its corners and watching as his wife mourns, massacres a pie, and eventually moves out. After she leaves, the ghost becomes unstuck in time. The days skip into months skip into years as his journey blurs into a domesticated riff on the final minutes of “2001: A Space Odyssey” — it soon grows hard to tell if the ghost is haunting the house, or if the house is haunting him. Guided by cosmic forces and set to the beautiful yearning of Daniel Hart’s score, “A Ghost Story” finds poignant new meaning in life after death. —DE
4. “Carnival of Souls” (1962)
A waking nightmare that’s every bit as ghoulish as its title suggests, Herk Harvey’s “Carnival of Souls” — a singular one-off as storied as “Night of the Hunter” and twice as eerie — is an indelible tour through a funhouse of our deepest fears. Shot for a measly $33,000, and imbued with the morbid unease of a rediscovered snuff film, this micro-budget classic stars Candace Hilligoss as Mary, the sole survivor of an ill-fated drag race. Dredging herself out of the water and re-entering a world that feels ominously shadowed by her near-death experience, Mary finds herself trapped in a stretch of American nowhere that’s as inescapable as the Twilight Zone, twice as dark, and where everyone around her has been reduced into wraiths. Once upon a time, this was the kind of nameless movie you might stumble upon at 2 A.M. on TCM; the kind of thing you felt you shouldn’t be watching. Today, even though you can watch it on a Criterion Collection Blu-ray or stream it on your laptop, Harvey’s unnerving masterpiece still retains every last drop of its delirious power. —DE
3. “The Others” (2001)
A breathlessly told and richly atmospheric riff on “The Innocents,” Alejandro Amenábar’s “The Others” marries the eeriness of a classic haunted house story with the more immediate scares of a modern horror film. Nicole Kidman delivers one of the most brittle and brilliant performances of her career as Grace Stewart, a severe woman who’s raising her two young kids in a mansion on the misty British island of Jersey while her husband is off fighting World War II. It’s a lonely place to be, and one made all the worse because both of Grace’s children are afflicted with a rare disease that makes them allergic to sunlight, so it isn’t much of a surprise when the butter slides off her knife and she begins to fear that the house is haunted. Full of beautifully orchestrated gothic thrills (“Are you mad? I am your daughter”) and patient enough to sink into the darkest corners of its settings “The Others” is one of the best movies of its kind even before it erupts into a plot twist so satisfying that it puts “The Sixth Sense” to shame. —DE
2. “The Innocents” (1961)
A governess (Deborah Kerr) becomes convinced the house where she cares for two orphaned children is haunted. The haunted threat is brought to life through an incredible use of sound design, including a pioneering use of synthesized electronic sound. Truman Capote’s screenplay adapts “The Turn of the Screw” with a fresh angle that gives the British film a southern gothic feel and the disturbing sense of repressed sexuality. Jack Clayton’s direction, aided by cinematographer Freddie Francis’ claustrophobic widescreen cinematography, takes the audience on Kerr’s downward descent that becomes increasingly psychologically unsettling. A true horror masterpiece, “The Innocents” most recently had a major influence on Ari Aster’s “Hereditary.” –CO
1. “Ugetsu” (1953)
One of the best films ever made, ghost content or otherwise. But there is a ghost — lifelike one involved in a relationship with a living person and whose presence takes on a particularly devastating significance: As it is with most of Kenji Mizoguchi’s films, the real horror involves a woman living a patriarchal society. The most remarkable thing about this late Mizoguchi masterpiece is that the ghost doesn’t really appear until the second half of the film, but his moving camera (mounted on a crane for nearly every shot) grounds the audience in a cinematic space that has an otherworldly spiritual resonance. The story itself, set in the 16th century and adapted from 18th century ghost tales by screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda, is a fatalistic tragedy about the delusional foolishness of two husbands during a civil war, and the wives they leave at home to fend for themselves. One of cinema’s purest creations, these fables about a world made unstable by the whims of men, is a ghostlike experience itself. —CO
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