By Kim Morgan
Special to MSN Movies
Read more: Best Scary Movies
We may disagree on what scares us and we may argue over what makes a good scary movie, but if there's one thing most movie watchers can agree on it's this: We all like to be frightened. And we really like to be scared by what we don't understand, especially the supernatural.
Checking the closets for monsters (admit it, some of you still do this) or leaving the hallway light on before going to bed are worthwhile duties if we've just watched a great ghostly movie. But just how many great ghost movies are there? Sadly, not as many as we'd like. Still, there's room for hope with the upcoming haunted "Silent Hill," a film we're hoping and praying will chill our bones. Until then, we've compiled a list of 10 creepy ghost stories that, for pals of the poltergeist, are required viewing. Read on, dispute our choices, but most importantly, don't go into the light!
10. "The Blair Witch Project"
Why does this film now seem forgotten? Tantamount to "Jaws" in making people afraid of the outdoors (in this case, camping), "Blair Witch" the movie, coupled with its "documentary" "The Curse of the Blair Witch," scared the pants off theatergoers everywhere. The clever setup positioned the film as a real documentary about three student filmmakers who venture into the woods in search of the legendary Blair Witch. But they get lost (which, to some, is the most alarming part of the film), they have some major sleeping bag freak-outs (you, uh, remember the whole dripping snot flashlight scene) and then there's that witch -- an insidious force. The last scene is, literally, a killer.
9. "The Uninvited"
Many horror aficionados consider "The Uninvited" to be the first great movie ghost story. Directed by Lewis Allen on an A-budget (most horror films of the time, even great ones, were relegated to B status), the picture finds brother and sister Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey buying a country house that's haunted by two female apparitions -- one murderous, the other friendly and sad. The house also poses problems with its odd sounds, smells and temperature shifts, which understandably worry the new tenants. Worse, the evil ghost is attempting to murder the next-door neighbor, a pretty girl with whom Milland is smitten. Wonderfully paced with a beautifully ghostly atmosphere, "The Uninvited" deserves its status as a nerve-wracking icon.
8. "The Ring" (2002)
Remade from the Japanese film "Ringu" (and great J-horror ghost stories could make up an entirely separate top 10 list, so ease up on your e-mails; I love the genre), Gore Verbinski's "The Ring" used the doubly frightening concept of young, unexplainable, unstoppable evil and death via voyeurism. Naomi Watts plays a young, divorced journalist who investigates a disturbing videotape that could potentially have something to do with the death of her niece, and her three teenage friends, as well. What does she discover? Well, when you watch the tape, you'll die in seven days and some creepy little girl/angry ghost named Samara Morgan will come get you. Crossing into real life through the TV (the reverse of getting sucked into the TV as in "Poltergeist"), she'll crawl out of your set and simply scare you to death. Movie fans, couch potatoes and anyone who still hasn't gotten around to buying a DVD player -- beware!
7. "The Innocents"
Who doesn't love a creepy-kid movie? In "The Innocents," a re-working of Henry James' novel "The Turn of the Screw," Deborah Kerr stars as a governess hired by Michael Redgrave to care for two of the freakiest kids this side of "The Brood." Are these children (played by Pamela Franklin and Martin Stephens) just precocious little buggers? Or, are they under the control of the deceased evil former servants? A suitably terrified Kerr sticks around to find out, which, as it turns out, probably isn't such a good idea. There's an Eddie Murphy haunted-house joke in there, but we'll leave that alone.
6. "The Others"
This unsettling and terribly underrated ghost story, directed by Alejandro Amenábar, combines atmospheric chills with a heartbreaking premise. The always impressive Nicole Kidman plays the mother of two light-sensitive kids living in an old house as she waits for her husband to return from World War II. Creepy occurrences abound, including talking ghosts, peculiar servants and intermittent possession of the young daughter ("Are you mad? I am your daughter!"). Old fashioned and effectively gothic, "The Others" recalls classic ghost stories of the past while keeping the audience guessing -- is Kidman nuts? Just what are the servants up to? And what is wrong with her kids? Intelligent and mournful, "The Others" also scores for its twist ending, which really packs a punch. This is truly a modern classic.
5. "The Tenant"
Though "Rosemary's Baby" remains director Roman Polanski's classic horror film, for psychological horror, hysterical paranoia and a man in a dress (we'll get to that later), I'm partial to "The Tenant." Polanski cast himself as Trelkovsky, a beleaguered, nervous Polish file clerk who takes an apartment after the previous tenant commits suicide. His neighbors are all creepy (gotta love a thoroughly disagreeable Shelley Winters), he's seeing strange things in the bathroom across the courtyard and he's found a tooth in the wall. And then, for reasons we can only surmise as ghostly (or, he's totally crazy), he begins dressing in the prior tenant's clothes, including a dress, wig and a thick smear of lipstick. Darkly funny (watch Polanski smack a kid!), frightening and imaginatively directed (Polanski's head bouncing like a basketball), "The Tenant" is supremely creepy. Warning: Do not watch this movie if you recently moved into an old apartment by yourself -- especially if you're a man partial to women's clothes. Wait at least a month. Trust us.
4. "Don't Look Now"
"Don't Look Now" is just flat-out one of the scariest movies ever made. It's also one of the saddest and, by film's end, astoundingly shocking. Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland star as a couple staying in Venice after their young daughter dies. Commissioned to restore a church, Sutherland attempts to work while Christie befriends two strange middle-aged sisters, one of whom is psychic. The psychic tells Christie that their daughter has communicated she is happy but warns the skeptical Sutherland of danger. The story (adapted from a Daphne du Maurier tale) is fascinating enough, but director Nicolas Roeg ladles the film with stylistic flourishes (bizarre angles, nonlinear cuts, off conversations) that are anxiously bewildering. And Venice has never felt so chilling -- this is not a romantic lovers' getaway but a place of shadows and doom and a creepy creature in a red coat. A masterpiece.
3. "Carnival of Souls"
This low-budget ($30,000) cult film may well be one of the freakiest pictures you've never seen. Pre-"The Sixth Sense," the story finds Candace Hilligoss "surviving" a fatal car crash after it plunges into the river. She moves on to Salt Lake City and gets one of the creepiest jobs you can acquire in a movie like this: church organist. But life is not normal. She constantly sees "The Man," a corpse-like specter who seems to follow her every move. And she's oddly pulled by a deserted pavilion that, in the film's frightful climax, will prove exceedingly horrific. The picture is filled with wonderfully eerie touches, including a bus full of ghouls, our heroine's realization that people can neither see nor hear her and the carnival-esque dance of the dead. Once you watch "Carnival of Souls," you'll have a hard time shaking some of these images out of your head, or worse, falling asleep that night.
2. "The Shining"
We all saw "Cabin Fever," but here's some serious, serious cabin fever as directed by the master, Stanley Kubrick. Residing in an isolated Colorado hotel, the unsettling (and they are, right at first glance -- just remember that long car drive) Torrance family endures forces beyond daddy (Jack Nicholson, lest you forgot) getting a little mentally ill. Nicholson's caretaker/writer not only talks with the ghosts of hotel past, he also attempts to seduce one -- the beautiful naked woman in Room 237. When she shrivels into a bony old woman, even he's freaked out. And then there's poor Danny (Danny Lloyd), imbued with the ability to "shine"; he creates a friend out of his finger (named Tony) while spying some choice images, for example, two dead girls in the hallway and an elevator gushing tidal waves of blood. And we're pretty sure you know about that whole "Red Rum" business. From opening shot to closing, freezing finale, "The Shining" is stunningly directed and stupendously upsetting.
1. "The Haunting"
Remember when Jan de Bont thought it'd be a groovy idea to remake one of the greatest haunted-house movies ever made? No? Well, good -- maybe some unseen force cleansed the memory right out of your brain. Or maybe the original film, Robert Wise's classic "The Haunting" (adapted from Shirley Jackson's enduring novel "The Haunting of Hill House") worked some mojo, ensuring the redo would stink to holy high heaven. Whatever the reason, the original "Haunting" is powerful stuff. With its tale of three very different people staying in a haunted New England mansion under an observant parapsychologist, the film gives us the requisite bumps in the night (loud pounding noises, cold spots, dead people pulling dwellers into their thrall) but amps up the terror with intriguing, complex characters. Led by a wonderfully poignant Julie Harris (the house wants to keep her -- very scary), the film is not only tense and psychologically interesting but also gorgeously shot showing, once again, Wise's previous schooling under the great Val Lewton. "The Haunting" is still terrifying.
What is your favorite ghost story? Write us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Kim Morgan is a film writer for the LA Weekly, Fandango and Reel.com. She was a film critic for The Oregonian and has written about movies for various print and Web media. She served as DVD critic on Tech TV's "The Screen Savers" and has appeared as guest film critic on AMC's "The Movie Club with John Ridley" and on E! Entertainment. She writes for her blog Sunsetgun.com.