Summer of Horror, Part 5: Ghost Stories

Ahh, the good old stalwart ghost story – one of the oldest archetypes of horror, and my personal favorite sub-genre. Having said that, I’ve seen a great number of horror movies about ghosts and haunted houses, so presented here are a few more recent ones that I missed in theaters. These three are by no means the definitive examples of the genre, nor are they the only “essential” ghost movies out there that I haven’t seen (two of them are too recent to be labeled “essential” in the first place).

I’d have loved to do a meatier foray into famous ghost stories on film, but the Halloween season is now in full swing for me, and I’m finding less and less free time to put aside for “structured” horror movie watching. As such, Summer of Horror will be put on hiatus until, well, next Summer, at which point I’ll dive into the categories and movies I didn’t get to this year, as well as add some new ones.

So, with a mere 10 days left in the Summer of Horror, here are some movies about ghosts. 

Sinister (2012)

Last year, Sinister started building some really positive buzz in the horror festival circuit before gaining a wide release and with that, a more lukewarm reception. Such is the fate of so many good horror movies; they are not, strictly speaking, the most critically successful of movies. But I know potential when I see it, and the trailer for Sinister thoroughly creeped me out. I think when it was released theatrically in October of last year I was already too busy with Halloween to, ironically, go see a horror movie.

Sinister

“Creepy” is really the perfect word to describe Sinister. It doesn’t do much in the way of building atmosphere or much suspense, but it is loaded with plenty of scenes that are just flat-out creepy. Creepy in the way an old, brittle porcelain doll is creepy.

To wit, the film revolves around a true crime author who discovers a box of Super 8 home movie reels in the attic of the new house he’s moved into with his family.

Tangent time: When have you or anyone you know ever moved into a home that still contains possessions of the previous occupant? This happens in so many horror movies, yet it’s such an aberrant concept in the real world. I think. I’ve never moved into an old creaky mansion in the sticks. Maybe they all come with dusty forgotten personal effects.

These home movies all have benign titles like “BBQ ’68”, “Pool party ’74”, and so on. But as they play out, you discover they are in fact snuff films portraying an entire family being murdered by an unseen entity who is filming the video, and the titles are black comic references to the method of killing. Por exemple, the BBQ video shows the family being burned alive inside their car.

There are about 5 or 6 of these Super 8 videos shown in the film, and they are far and away the creepiest part about it. They even kick off the movie with one of them. The flickering of the projector, the lack of sound and the old period details just get deep under your skin so easily. And that’s before you see the demon.

Sinister was originally supposed to be a modern interpretation of the Boogie Man myth, and throughout pre-production evolved into a haunted house story with a demon called Bhuguul (get it?). The story suffers slightly from the common disease of over-explanation, which I won’t repeat here. It’s best to enjoy Sinister as a hybrid of haunted house story and murder mystery. That’s the mode in which it works best. I was able to go along for the ride and found myself quite on edge the following night.

Insidious (2011)

This is yet another horror film that started out with strong early word-of-mouth, but eventually had that tempered somewhat by the general audience, eventually settling on “above average” reviews, which is probably why I was fine waiting to see it at home.

Insidious

Here’s the story: A typical middle-class suburban family starts experiencing mild paranormal activity in their new home. Shortly thereafter their youngest child is taken away by a malevolent being, so with nowhere else to turn they hire a group of professional paranormal investigators consisting of a couple of bumbling younger men assisting a quirky older woman, who helps one of the parents venture to “the other side” to bring the child back. In the process, something sinister is brought back into our world.

Why does that sound so familiar?

poltergeist

OK, so it’s basically a Poltergeist remake. But I’m cutting it some slack because A) several ghost movies have taken clear inspiration from Poltergeist, and B) the actual Poltergeist remake currently in production seems to have almost nothing to do with the story of the original, so Insidious gets a pass.

If you read any reviews for this movie, you’ll probably hear a lot of sentiments to the effect of “it starts strong but has a weak ending”. To put a finer point on it, Insidious does a great job in the first two acts of being a classic haunted house story, with all the teasing bumps in the night and gradually escalating paranormal activity that largely goes unexplained…. until they decide to explain it. Again, as mentioned in the previous review, there’s an oft-ignored rule in horror that the less explanation you can give, the better. It works exactly the same way as not showing much of the monster in the monster movie – when your mind is forced to fill in the blanks, the ideas take such deeper root.

Once you know exactly what these “ghosts” are and what to do about them, the movie loses a little steam, but just barely manages to stay afloat. There’s a light sprinkling of scenes that come off kind of unintentionally comedic, and it has a very predictable twist/cliffhanger ending, but for a fun, disposable horror flick, it gets the job done.

The sequel, Insidious: Chapter 2, releases tomorrow – Friday the 13th, 2013. Nice job landing that cherry release date, FilmDistrict Pictures.

Ringu

Please refer to my previous writings concerning the American The Ring before continuing.

Now that it’s established exactly how much The Ring scared the bleeding shit out of me a decade ago, let’s look at the original movie.

ringu

I’m kind of having difficulty thinking of things to say about this. I’m not sure why, but I’m guessing it’s because my initial reaction to Ringu was thus: A lot like the remake, but with less atmosphere and slightly less disturbing imagery. I know, I’m losing even MORE horror buff points here. You’re always supposed to prefer the foreign original, when such things exist. And while Ringu is definitely creepy, and let’s not forget that it inspired a style of horror American eyes had never seen, it fails to offer anything more than what the remake offers, save perhaps subtlety.

All the most horrifying scenes from The Ring were done here first – the dead girl in the closet, The Tape, the main character going down the well, Samara (Sadako in the native tongue) coming UP from the well and through the TV, the god damn dead girl in the god damn closet….

But these scenes were given so much added verve and terror in the remake. Perhaps you might find the over the top use of CGI and makeup effects in the remake to ruin the mood, but I thought they added something rather than detracting. The Japanese setting of the original – perpetual rain notwithstanding – seemed serene and beautiful, whereas the Pacific Northwest, with its own share of constant precipitation, seemed to just weigh on your heart the entire time in the American version. To me it felt like perpetual pre-dawn, like the sun was never really going to come up, as though it were Winter in Alaska.

One thing I will give credit for – the climactic “Sadako coming through the TV” scene holds up incredibly well. I might even give the edge to this over the American one, if only because the final reveal of Samara’s scowling face was kind of over the top compared to Sadako’s creepy eye. Just look at that image above. As I write this, I have the screen scrolled to obscure it – that’s how terrifying it is. And however they accomplished the look of her fingernail-less, contorted crawling hands, it worked.

 

So that’s it for Summer of Horror 2013! It’s been a super rewarding project and I feel like I’ve leveled up considerably in my horror knowledge. The mayhem will continue throughout the Halloween season in the form of individual movie reviews, along with the usual revelry.

Bring on the Fall!

One comment

  1. I haven’t seen any of these, for obvious reasons. However, I have found belongings of previous residents in nearly every place I’ve lived. Nothing scary, but things like a drawing of a dragon playing golf, socks, and a mystery box that turned out to have a 49ers Christmas ornament in it. The owners of the house we’re in now left all their curtains and a lawn mower. So it does happen!

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