The Poltergeist reboot has us talking about the great haunted house movies over the years and how much they’ve changed. From the creaky old mansions to suburban horror to the curse that will stay with you even after you leave, ghosts have always been able to scare moviegoers and us. Here are our 5 favorite ghost stories:
5. Poltergeist (1982)
This aggressive take on the haunted house tale wraps director Tobe Hooper’s potent horrors inside producer Steven Spielberg’s brightly lit suburbia.
Part of the original’s success emerged from pairing universal childhood fears – clowns, thunderstorms, that creepy tree – with the adult terror of helplessness in the face of your own child’s peril. JoBeth Williams’s performance of vulnerable optimism gives the film a heartbeat, and the unreasonably adorable Heather O’Rourke creeps us out while tugging our heartstrings.
Splashy effects, excellent casting, Spielberg’s heart and Hooper’s gut combine to create a flick that holds up. Solid performances and the pacing of a blockbuster provide the film a respectable thrill, but Hooper’s disturbing imagination guarantees some lingering jitters.
4. The Conjuring (2013)
James Wan built an old fashioned ghost story from the ground up to push buttons of childhood terror. But don’t expect a long, slow burn. Wan expertly balances suspense with quick, satisfying bursts of visual terror.
Ghost stories are hard to pull off, though, especially in the age of instant gratification. Few modern moviegoers have the patience for atmospheric dread, so filmmakers now turn to CGI to ramp up thrills. But Wan understands the power of a flesh and blood villain in a way that other directors don’t seem to.
Claustrophobic when it needs to be and full of fun house moments, The Conjuring will scare you while you’re in the theater and stick with you after. At the very least, you’ll keep your feet tucked safely under the covers.
3. The Orphanage (2007)
Laura (Belén Rueda) and her husband reopen the orphanage where she grew up, with the goal of running a house for children with special needs – children like her adopted son Simón, who is HIV positive. But Simón’s new imaginary friends worry Laura, and when he disappears it looks like she may be imagining things herself.
A scary movie can be elevated beyond measure by a masterful score and an artful camera. Because director Antonio Bayona keeps the score and all ambient noise to a minimum, allowing the quiet to fill the scenes, he develops a truly haunting atmosphere. His camera captures the eerie beauty of the stately orphanage, but does it in a way that always suggests someone is watching. The effect is never heavy handed, but effortlessly eerie.
One of the film’s great successes is its ability to take seriously both the logical, real world story line, and the supernatural one. Rueda carries the film with a restrained urgency – hysterical only when necessary, focused at all times, and absolutely committed to this character, who may or may not be seeing ghosts.
2. The Innocents (1961)
Quietly desperate and delicately high strung, Deborah Kerr’s performance is the perfect central image in The Innocents, the best of many screen adaptations of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. Is Kerr’s hypersensitive governess turning delusional as she spirals toward spinsterhood, or are her angelic charges in danger of becoming possessed by the spectral lovers who seem to haunt the property?
Thanks to Kerr, the wickedly cherubic turn by Martin Stephens as young Miles, and Freddie Francis’s gorgeous black and white photography, this eerie ghost story is a glorious study in the shadowy line between reality and imagination. Countless films – good ones, like The Orphanage and The Others – have walked similar, spooky hallways, but The Innocents will always be the standard bearer.
1. The Shining (1980)
A study in atmospheric tension, Kubrick’s vision of the Torrance family collapse at the Overlook Hotel is both visually and aurally meticulous. It opens with that stunning helicopter shot, following Jack Torrence’s little yellow Beetle up the mountainside, the ominous score announcing a foreboding that the film never shakes.
Let’s not forget Jack. Nicholson outdoes himself. His veiled contempt early on blossoms into homicidal mania, and there’s something so wonderful about watching Nicholson slowly lose his mind. Between writer’s block, isolation, ghosts, alcohol withdrawal, midlife crisis, and “a momentary loss of muscular coordination,” the playfully sadistic creature lurking inside this husband and father emerges.
What image stays with you most? The two creepy little girls? The blood pouring out of the elevator? The impressive afro in the velvet painting above Scatman Crothers’s bed? That guy in the bear suit – what was going on there? Whatever the answer, thanks be to Kubrick’s deviant yet tidy imagination.