I love a good ghost story. They are without doubt my favourite strain of horror movie. Vampires are fine, werewolves are fine, psychotic killers with masks are just fine, but for me there’s nothing quite as terrifying as a ghost. As a kid I would scare myself witless with tales of the supernatural, both fictional and otherwise, aided in no small part by my father, an anthologist of Victorian ghost stories.

Cinema struggles a little with ghost stories. In literature the best of the genre are usually short stories, and some of the finest on-screen examples were a series of British TV shorts based on the stories of M.R. James (Whistle and I’ll Come to You, Lost Hearts, A Warning to the Curious). Often, in trying to fill a 90-minute running time, feature-length ghost stories can lose much in terms of atmosphere and momentum. Also, a good ghost story requires subtlety and suggestion in addition to shocks, qualities which most modern horror movies seem unable to cultivate.

Here is my list of the 10 best feature-length ghost stories. I’ve strictly limited it to scary movies, so there’s no place for the likes of Ghostbusters or Always, even though I adore those movies. After all, ghosts are meant to be scary.

I also have a question. You’ll notice that the majority of the ghosts featured here are female. Personally, I believe that women make scarier ghosts than men. I have no idea why, though. Do you agree? And if so, why do you imagine this is? I look forward to hearing your theories.

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10. Carnival of Souls

Herk Harvey – 1962

Made for a paltry $33,000 dollars, and shot in just three weeks, this was director Herk Harvey’s only feature-length movie. The story follows organist Mary Henry, who begins seeing strange apparitions after surviving a traumatic car accident. As she tries to rebuild her life, Mary finds the haunting becoming increasingly worse. Harvey builds an unnerving mood, using some excellent locations. Candace Hilligoss, in the role of Mary, was the only professional actor involved in the movie and projects an iciness and detachment vital to the part, as it builds toward its final revelation. One which M. Night Shyamalan clearly remembered.

Meet the ghost: Harvey himself appears throughout as ‘The Man’, a pasty-faced, raccoon-eyed spirit with a message for Mary. And he’s not the only one after her.

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9. What Lies Beneath

Robert Zemeckis – 2000

Back when Zemeckis was still making live action pictures, he used the six-month break in filming Cast Away (so Tom Hanks could do some serious dieting) to put together this Hitchcock tribute. Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer star as the couple whose lives are interrupted when Pfeiffer becomes convinced there is a ghost in their house. As she digs deeper, she begins to uncover some very dark secrets. Although it is a little heavy-handed at times, What Lies Beneath has a great atmosphere. Zemeckis fills the silence of the big, old house and its garden with unsettling sounds, making the ghostly presence felt even if it is rarely seen.

Meet the ghost: It would be giving away too much to give you the full details of this wrathful spirit. Suffice it to say she’s young, angry and nowhere near as dead as her killer would have liked.

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8. Ghost Story

John Irvin – 1981

Based on the novel by Peter Straub, the simply titled Ghost Story does just what it says on the tin. The tale is spun around four old men, who get together every week to tell each other ghost stories. When one of their number loses a son in bizarre accident, and his brother comes to them with a story of his own, they realise that the very old secret they all share has come back to haunt them. Set within a snowbound New England town, Ghost Story takes all the classic ingredients of the genre and serves them cold.

Meet the ghost: Alice Krige gives an intense and chilling turn as the vengeful Alma, probably one of the most brazen spirits in movie history. She doesn’t just go after you, but your entire family. This is one girl you don’t want to piss off. Or kill.


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7. The Eye (Gin Gwai)

Danny and Oxide Pang – 2002

Blind violinist Wong Kar Mun has a successful cornea transplant and begins seeing ghosts wherever she goes, some friendly and some otherwise. Together with her doctor, she determines to find out the identity of her eye donor. The Eye starts off as an effectively spooky ghost story, but deepens into something more heartbreaking as the mystery behind Wong Kar Mun’s new eyes is uncovered. The ghostly encounters make the hair stand up on the back of the neck, and just when you think the story is resolved, The Eye throws in a surprise ending.

Meet the ghost: Actually, make that ghosts. There’s a whole buffet of grisly spirits on offer here. Highlights are a great scene in an elevator and a very angry schoolgirl. Oh, and you’ll never look at the hanging food in Chinatown the same way again.

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6. The Devil’s Backbone

Guillermo del Toro – 2001

Something of a companion piece to del Toro’s more famous Pan’s Labyrinth, since it is also set during the Spanish civil war, The Devil’s Backbone is a rich and complex tale of a boy, Carlos, who arrives at an orphanage while his father fights in the war. Carlos finds himself involved in the nefarious plans of one of the orphanage’s staff and attracts the attention of a resident ghost, who warns Carlos of impending disaster. A great ghost story and much more besides.

Meet the ghost: Wandering the orphanage and watching events from a distance, Santi is just one of the mysteries waiting to be solved in The Devil’s Backbone. With the help of minimal special effects, Santi carries the haunting signs of his murder with him, in the form of an ever-bleeding wound.

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5. The Fog

John Carpenter – 1980

Carpenter, a huge fan of ghost stories, gave the genre his all with this tale of drowned mariners returning to the coastal town of Antonio Bay, 100 years after they were betrayed. Originally intended as a straight ghost story, Carpenter was unsatisfied with the finished result and re-shot large parts, upping the violence somewhat but still retaining the brooding atmosphere and sense of foreboding that mark out the best of the genre. It even starts with a ghost story from John Houseman, a prelude to his role in…Ghost Story.

Meet the ghost: More a crew of ghosts and a ghost ship. For the most part Blake and his men are shadowy figures, masked by the fog, and they’re all the creepier for it. Something the creators of the dismal remake failed to grasp.


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4. Ju-on: The Grudge

Takashi Shimizu – 2003

The third in Shimizu’s Ju-on series, but the first to get an international theatrical release, The Grudge centres on a cursed house and the characters who come into contact with it over varying timelines, usually to their extreme detriment. Complex, layered and often disturbing, The Grudge is also very, very creepy. This one will definitely make you feel less safe under your covers, which is traditionally where you are supposed to feel safe. Neat trick. The movie spawned an American remake and further sequels but this remains the finest.

Meet the ghost: Another movie boasting more than one spectral star, including another little boy. However, it is the crawling, bloodied woman, Kayako, who sticks most in the mind as the final credits roll.

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3. The Haunting

Robert Wise – 1963

Based on the 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, Robert Wise’s movie sees paranormal investigator Dr. Markway invite a carefully selected, eclectic group of people to spend several nights with him at the supposedly haunted Hill House. Almost immediately the group are besieged by a series of terrifying things that go bump in the night, all of which seem to focus on the shy, reclusive Eleanor. Wise makes sure that it is what you don’t see that scares you. Never has thumping on a door or voices heard through a wall been so utterly spine-tingling. Just make sure you stick with the original rather than Jan de Bont’s laughable 1999 remake.

Meet the ghost: Or not. The Haunting leaves the finer details to your imagination, and it works beautifully.

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2. Ringu

Hideo Nakata – 1998

Journalist Reiko Asakawa’s niece dies, one week after viewing a mysterious video tape. Reiko views the tape herself and is warned, by way of a phone call, that she now has only one week to live. After catching her son watching the tape, Reiko and her ex-husband, Ryuji, race against the clock to discover the secret behind the cursed video. A hugely influential movie, Ringu is heavy on atmosphere from the outset. Rather than subject the viewer to a series of shocks (although there are one or two) Ringu slowly builds itself up to a single, extremely scary, moment.

Meet the ghost: Sadako is one of the scariest ghosts ever committed to film. Although she is very rarely seen until the end, her reputation is cleverly crafted beforehand, priming you for her grand entrance. And what an entrance it is.

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1. The Woman in Black

Herbet Wise – 1989

The Woman in Black is a little known (and hard to find) English TV movie, based on the novel by Susan Hill. A lawyer is sent to a coastal town to settle the estate of a recently deceased widow. Once there, he finds the locals reluctant to discuss both her and the mysterious woman who sometimes appears around the town. Deciding to go alone to the widow’s house and unravel the truth, he attracts the attention of something utterly malevolent. If you enjoy an old fashioned spine-chiller you won’t find anything better than this on film. It is the perfect ghost story. This year’s Hammer produced remake has a lot to live up to.

Meet the ghost: She’s glimpsed only a few times and yet remains a constant presence. And when she does appear, particularly in a scene toward the end, The Woman in Black is terrifying.

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New post on Celluloid Zombie! Come and read!

Top Ten: Alien Invasion Movies

 

I got tagged by Peter at Magic Lantern Film Blog for this Meme. The mission? Come up with 15 filmmakers that helped shape the way I look at motion pictures. These are the filmakers whose movies not only inspired (or fanned the flames of) my passion for cinema, but taught me the rich language of the genre. The education never ends, of course, which is why I love it so much.

I’m running late, due to a two week holiday, but here I am and here it is. Enjoy, discuss, mock or admire.

1. Steven Spielberg

If you were to perform some crazy chemistry experiment and dilute cinema down to its purest form you would probably end up with a Steven Spielberg movie in a test tube. You can write him off as a bubblegum filmmaker if you like, but few directors can boast such a distinctive style and absolute grasp of the visual medium as this guy can. Able to inject his work with simple human warmth or terrifying human cruelty with equal ease, Spielberg understands his audience and how to entertain them. His influence is everywhere, in a generation of talent, and his adoration for the moving image is tightly woven into every frame he shoots. Absolutely peerless.

Signature movie: Raiders of the Lost Ark

2. David Fincher

One of the most striking and unique filmmakers to emerge in the last twenty years, Fincher’s lens peers into the darkness and brings it to life. He survived the studio and star nightmare of Alien 3, picked himself up and moved from strength to strength. Unlike many of his imitators, Fincher combines style and content, making intelligent and brooding films. Innovative title sequences, dizzying camera work and stark imagery that burns itself into the mind are the hallmarks of a Fincher movie. That, and his often surprising project choices. Frankly, he’s the only director who could make me interested in seeing a movie about Facebook.

Signature movie: Fight Club

3. John Carpenter

Carpenter has waned considerably over the last twenty years, and yet I still look forward to his upcoming The Ward simply because this could be the movie where he gets his mojo back. And Carpenter with his mojo is a force to be reckoned with. With Halloween, Carpenter demonstrated a mastery of suspense that few have matched. Of all the carbon copies that followed, not one ever measured up. And they’re still trying 32 years later.

Signature movie: Halloween

4. Alfred Hitchcock

Obvious choice, of course, but how can you avoid this one? Hitchcock may or may not have been the greatest filmmaker of all time , but he was certainly one of the most inventive. Without Hitchcock there might never have been the Dolly Zoom, director cameos, the slasher movie or Brian DePalma. Hitchcock constantly came to blows with the censors and pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable, plausible and possible in filmmaking, paving the way for modern cinema.

Signature movie: Vertigo

5. Francis Ford Coppola

If you need a lesson in the pitfalls and insanity of filmmaking, look no further than the CV of Francis Ford Coppola. From the daily battles with studio execs which haunted the production of The Godfather (where Coppola was often shadowed by a replacement director in case he was fired) through the Hurculean task of getting Apocalypse Now made (a production so troubled it got its own documentary), to the single-minded madness of One From the Heart (the cost of which eventually bankrupted him), Coppola is the guy who gets what he wants on film, at any cost.

Signature movie: Apocalypse Now

6. Martin Scorsese

The little guy with the big talent, Scorsese is the director you would want as a mentor. A walking encyclopaedia of cinema, he talks with the same frenetic pace that his movies use to tell their stories. With incredibly long tracking shots, slow motion zooms, fast zooms and quick cuts, Scorsese’s camera is an extension of the man’s boundless energy and is rarely still. He is also one of the industry’s best arrangers of soundtrack music, always choosing the perfect song to complement his scene.

Signature Movie: Goodfellas

7. Ridley Scott

His style has mellowed a little of late, his movies becoming grander in scale, but early on in his career Scott was one of the most visually unique directors around, producing two of cinema’s most influential Science Fiction films. Taking a B-movie script called Star Beast, Scott added his inherent eye for design, a desire to elevate the movie beyond the B, and gave us the outstanding Alien. He followed this with Blade Runner, which set the standard for visions of the future for years to come. Design has always played an important part in Scott’s work, and it is an area in which he excels.

Signature movie: Blade Runner

8. John Hughes

As a kid developing a passion for movies in the 80s, it would have been impossible for me not to include the late John Hughes in this list. Hughes was a capable talent behind the camera, but his true strengths lay in his screenwriting, his ability to coax career-best performances from his teenage casts and the warmth he instilled into his movies. Few filmmakers before or since have possessed Hughes’ skill for representing teenage angst without falling into the more patronising traps of lesser efforts. Hughes was a man of his time, who struggled when that time was over, but he was the best at what he did.

Signature movie: The Breakfast Club

9. The Coen Brothers

From the release of Blood Simple onwards, the Coens have continually marked themselves out as true originals with a remarkable record of hits. Save for only one or two exceptions, every Coen movie has been both singular and excellent. The next Coen project is always worth looking forward to. As accomplished as screenwriters as they are as directors, you are guaranteed cracking dialogue, inspired visuals and characters that are just a little larger than life. You will also most likely get screaming fat people, repetition of a single line for comic effect and at least one speedy tracking zoom. There’s no movie quite like a Coen movie.

Signature movie: The Big Lebowski

10. Sam Raimi

Joel Coen began his career helping out on the editing of a friend’s debut movie. That movie was The Evil Dead, and the director was Sam Raimi. Made on a shoestring budget, The Evil Dead showcased the arrival of an inspired, and rather crazed, talent. Raimi delivered the kind of camerawork usually reserved for those with far more expensive equipment at their disposal, and a few of his techniques can be seen in subsequent Coen movies. However, Raimi’s anarchic style seemed a little lost in mainstream cinema until the arrival of Spider-man.

Signature movie: Evil Dead II

11. Terry Gilliam

The least seen member of the Monty Python team, Gilliam makes movies brimming with the singular and surreal imagination which was present in his Python animations. Usually working with the most meagre of budgets, allowing him to retain creative control over all his work, Gilliam has sometimes struggled to get his projects completed. However, when they are completed they have a magical style and a sensibility all their own. They usually feature characters whose imagination is too large for the world they live in, crushed by the mechanics of a clockwork society. The irony is clearly not lost on Gilliam.

Signature movie: Brazil

12. Sergio Leone

The man who made Clint Eastwood famous with his trilogy of ‘Spaghetti Westerns’, Italian director Leone took the western genre and made it look ugly. Rejecting the good guy/bad guy set-up of classic American westerns, Leone’s contributions were simply filled with varying shades of bad guy. Even Eastwood’s ‘Man with No Name’ is merely the best of a corrupt bunch. The characters are unwashed, morally vacant and greedy, the landscapes unforgiving and barren. Leone’s frontier is a harsh place to be. Often utilising both extreme close-ups and haunting long-shots, Leone has long been held by Eastwood as a major influence on his own directorial style.

Signature movie: Once Upon a Time in the West

13.  John Landis

During the 80s, Landis was responsible for some of the best comedies of the decade, including The Blues Brothers and Trading Places, but it was when he introduced horror into the mix with An American Werewolf in London that he really reached his peak. Landis made comedies that looked as good as any of the more high-brow movies, each littered with his unmistakeable trademarks (static shots of watching statues or paintings, and references to ‘see you next Wednesday’). His career tailed off toward the end of the decade, but perhaps the forthcoming Burke & Hare will be a return to form.

Signature movie: An American Werewolf in London

14. George Lucas

As a director, George Lucas is included in this list on the basis of one film, and one alone. But what a film. Star Wars changed everything. It’s impossible to gauge exactly what impact that movie had on the 7-year-old kid I was, but I know it was profound, as it was with almost every kid around my age. Star Wars was like saying hello to the wonder of cinema for the first time. We’d never seen anything like it. There were a few flashes of that directorial skill in the three prequels, but for the most part those films were engineered rather than directed and Lucas would not have made this list based on those. But for changing the way we viewed cinema, his one contribution cannot be underestimated.

Signature movie: Star Wars

15. John Lasseter and Pixar

Before Toy Story, the feature length animated movie industry was sputtering along at an uninspired pace. Disney’s output had suffered a gradual slump in both quality and popularity, boosted only by the success of The Lion King. Pixar, a computer company which was originally part of Lucasfilm, had been experimenting with computer animation for years and entered into a deal with Disney to produce three computer animated movies. Toy Story was the first, directed by John Lasseter, and the rest is history. Not only did Pixar revolutionise how movies were animated, but they also completely modernised the storytelling. Suddenly, animated movies were not just for kids, but were written with a sophistication which could appeal to all ages. Pixar kick-started animation, with other studios quick to follow suit, and they are yet to produce a bad film.

Signature movie: Toy Story

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Okay, my turn to tag. Apologies in advance if you’ve already done it and I missed it.

Cantankerous Panda at Back in the Day

Rory Dean at Above the Line

John at John of the Dead

Dan at Top 10 Films

This blog was written as part of the John Carpenter Week at Radiator Heaven.

The Movie

The Fog (1980) is often overlooked when discussion turns to the best of John Carpenter, yet it is something of an underrated gem, snuggled between the more successful Halloween and Escape from New York.  As a great lover of traditional ghost stories, however, I have always ranked The Fog as my favourite Carpenter movie. It was the very first horror movie that I bluffed my way into a cinema to see, and it scared the hell out of me. I ended up sitting next to the closed door, in the dark, at the bottom of the auditorium. Bad placing in this movie, trust me. Ghost stories are always best kept simple, with simple scares, and The Fog obeys this rule eloquently.

Antonio Bay, a small coastal town in California, is about to celebrate its centennial.  However, on the eve of celebration the town priest discovers a dark secret about the founding of Antonio Bay and the curse that has been put upon it. Then the fog rolls in and brings something else with it, looking for revenge for a 100-year-old crime.

Big on atmosphere and complemented by one of Carpenter’s finest soundtracks, The Fog is a glorious exercise in plain, old-fashioned spooky.  Made on a shoestring budget, not unusual for a Carpenter movie, it wasn’t the easiest of productions. Carpenter has admitted that the first cut of The Fog was hugely disappointing, even going so far as to state, ‘This was the lowest point I had come to in my professional career’. Together with his editor Tommy Lee Wallace, he set about shooting additional material, including a new opening scene.

The Scene

Antonio Bay, 11:55pm on the 20th April. Old sea dog Mr. Madchen is entertaining (or scaring the hell out of) a group of children with ghost stories around the campfire. They are five minutes away from the Bay’s cenntenial, and Mr. Madchen has one more story to tell. This one is close to home…

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Why I Love It

Storytelling

The great pleasure of the ghost story is the simple act of telling, or being told, one. Storytelling, around a glowing fire at night, is one of man’s oldest activities. Few movies convey that simple pleasure, and no movie has done a better job than The Fog. Dear old John Houseman, who would tell more ghost stories the following year in the aptly titled Ghost Story, has the kind of tranquil, seasoned voice that could make any story come alive. He certainly does this one justice, even going so far as to make us jump with his fob watch. It certainly got me the first time around, in that darkened cinema, and just look at those wide-eyed kids! Bastard!

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Wide-eyed Kids

There’s a moment, as the kids sit there rapt and attentive, that always makes me smile. Mr. Madchen tells them that the drowned crew of the Elizabeth Dane will come back and look for the campfire that drew them to their deaths. At that moment, they all cast nervous glances to the fire they are sitting beside. A little moment of Spielberg-worthy magic.

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Music

John Carpenter has always been a curious rarity as a filmmaker. Not only does he direct and, more often than not, write his movies but he also composes and performs the soundtracks. I consider The Fog to be Carpenter’s finest work in this area. He uses his synth piano keys sparingly in this opening scene, subtly enhancing the atmosphere. As a backing to Houseman’s fireside tale, it is perfectly eerie.

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The Title Shot

As Mr. Madchen finishes his story, we pan up to see a view of Antonio Bay. Carpenter uses the lonely sounds of a deserted beach, with the wind and the town clock chimes, to chilling effect. And just look at that place. Dark and foreboding, would you want to be there? Not exactly cosy, is it? There is something intrinsically unsettling about a deserted, isolated beach at night. At least there is to me. It is the perfect setting for a ghost story, and Carpenter uses it masterfully in this opening scene.

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Mr. Madchen’s Story

‘Eleven fifty-five. Almost midnight. Enough time for one more story. One more story before twelve, just to keep us warm. In five minutes it will be the 21st of April.

One hundred years ago on the 21st of April, out in the waters around Spivey Point, a small clipper ship drew toward land. Suddenly, out of the night, the fog rolled in. For a moment, they could see nothing, not a foot ahead of them. And then, they saw a light. My God, it was a fire burning on the shore. Strong enough to penetrate the swirling mist. They steered a course toward the light. But it was a campfire, like this one. The ship crashed against the rocks. The hull sheared in two. The mast snapped like a twig. And the wreckage sank with all the men aboard.

At the bottom of the sea lay the Elizabeth Dane with her crew, their lungs filled with salt water, their eyes open and staring into the darkness. And above, as suddenly as it had come, the fog lifted, receded back across the ocean and never came again. But it is told by the fishermen and their fathers and grandfathers that when the fog returns to Antonio Bay, the men at the bottom of the sea, out in the water by Spivey Point, will rise up and search for the campfire that led them to their dark, icy death.

Twelve o’clock. The 21st of April.’

They say the best movie soundtracks are the ones that you don’t notice are there. They feature music that enhances a film but never tries to compete for your attention. That’s all well and good, but personally I like the soundtracks that do both; the music that you find yourself humming later on and then buy because it is good enough to survive on its own.

I’ve been listening to soundtracks for as long as I’ve been watching movies, and that’s a long time. Sometimes I’ll listen because the music is excellent in its own right, sometimes because it’s just great music to daydream to, and sometimes because a particular score is the perfect inspiration for the writing of a screenplay. I once wrote an entire script around the music to a single scene in Aliens. Thanks for that, Mr James Horner.

Selecting a paltry five soundtracks from the plethora I admire was no easy task but eventually, after much hand-wringing and begging for forgiveness from the aforementioned James Horner, I settled on my Top Five. These are the soundtracks which I believe best represent the art in all its forms; as beautiful music in its own right, as the perfect enhancement to the story and visuals, and as examples of craftsmen at the top of their game.

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Alien – Jerry Goldsmith

1979

Long considered one of the most successful and enduring movie composers of all time, Jerry Goldsmith has been around since the Fifties and continues to work sporadically today. The story of his music for Ridley Scott’s Alien is one of disagreements and disappointments, but there is no denying the beauty of his work for the classic Sci-Fi/Horror movie. Hired by Scott at the ‘suggestion’ of 20th Century Fox, Goldsmith and the director clearly had differing ideas about how the movie should be scored. As a result, much of the music Goldsmith wrote was omitted from the final cut of Alien. The romantic, sweeping and eerie theme originally written was rejected by Scott and replaced by the composer’s second effort; a simple series of unnerving sounds which, it must be said, are extremely effective. Scott also chose to use a pre-existing piece of classical music for the end credits, further alienating Goldsmith. The original score is available in its entirety, but what remains within the film is deeply unsettling, beautiful and dark. Elements of his original opening theme survive in scenes where the Nostromo lands and takes off, making the process of landing a spaceship seem like an adventure in itself. And, taking the title of the movie to heart, Goldsmith creates ugly, unnatural sounds whenever the creature appears. Don’t ask me what they are, I prefer not knowing.

See also: Chinatown, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Omen.

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Edward Scissorhands – Danny Elfman

1990

The fourth collaboration between composer Elfman and director Tim Burton, Edward Scissorhands remains one of the most influential scores of the last twenty years. Elfman began his career in film by scoring his older brother Richard’s movie, Forbidden Zone, and soon after began his creative relationship with Burton working on Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Utilising a 79 piece orchestra and a choir, the music for Edward Scissorhands is rich, dreamlike and perfectly encapsulates the bittersweet themes of Burton’s most personal film to date. In addition, Elfman creates a hilarious tick-tock theme for the bland suburbia into which Edward appears, and a signature bombastic march which touches on the near insanity of the inventor (Vincent Price) and his bizarre machines. Elfman and Burton represent a perfect understanding between director and composer, and even if Burton’s work isn’t always accomplished, Elfman’s usually is. They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery, and it is a measure of this soundtrack’s success that its music-box chimes and soulful choral voices have become the signature sound for fairy tales and Chanel advertisements ever since. It has even been adapted into a ballet.

See also: Midnight Run, Batman Returns and Big Fish.

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The Fog – John Carpenter

1980

John Carpenter has always been a curious rarity as a filmmaker. Not only does he direct and, more often than not, write his movies but he also composes and performs the soundtracks. Not even Spielberg can do that (all praise His name). So, as sole creator of every component, Carpenter’s synth-based scores have always been the perfect accompaniments to the action on the screen. Often using a heartbeat thump as the base, Carpenter’s soundtracks heighten the tension considerably. His most famous is probably Halloween, but my personal favourite has always been The Fog. Carpenter uses very little in enhancing the eerie atmosphere of his coastal ghost story, but every fog horn sound and every light stoke of piano key burrows deep under the skin, priming the viewer for the experience. The thumping sound as the fog rolls into Antonio Bay mimics the pounding on doors, the noise which announces the spectres before they strike. It is one of the greatest horror movie scores of all time, by a composer who fully understands the genre. Carpenter’s band, The Coup De Villes, also provided the somewhat cheesy tunes which play on the radio, or serve as jingles for the KAB Radio station.

See also: Halloween, Escape From New York and Big Trouble in Little China.

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Jaws – John Williams

1975

If you mention Jaws in conversation, one of the first things that will come to mind is the theme tune. Dum dum dum dum, etc and so forth. Effective and iconic as that theme is, it sometimes results in the rest of the soundtrack being overlooked. This is a shame because, beyond the ominous strings which more than compensate for the killer shark’s rather rubbery presence, Jaws enjoys one of the most accomplished scores in cinema history. John Williams has been working in the industry for half a century, and is responsible for some of cinema’s most recognisable theme tunes, including Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Jaws marked Williams’ first collaboration with Spielberg, a collaboration that has now spanned 35 years and 19 movies. By turns haunting, joyous, foreboding and terrifying, Jaws is a master class in writing music to accentuate the moving image. Williams’ strings make the ocean seem filled with dread, he quietly adds atmosphere to Quint’s tale of the USS Indianapolis, and the cheerful sea shanty which accompanies the Orca’s doomed pursuit of the Great White strikes a gloriously upbeat note in the midst of the peril. It was the perfect start to such a successful collaboration.

See also: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars and Schindler’s List.

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The Mission – Ennio Morricone

1986

The chances are there is at least one Ennio Morricone score that you love, and probably more. Morricone has been producing music for film for over 50 years, across a diverse range of genre and language. He gained wide acclaim for his work with Sergio Leone on the Spaghetti Westerns of the Sixties and managed to write a score for John Carpenter’s The Thing which sounded like a Carpenter score. However, when I hear the name Morricone I immediately think of one movie: The Mission. Roland Joffé’s story of Spanish Jesuit missionaries in 18th century South America, and their struggles with the Spanish and Portuguese colonial governments, was graced with some of the most beautiful music ever composed for film. Morricone mixes classical Baroque orchestra, South American Guaraní instruments, Spanish guitars and haunting choirs to magnificent and often heartbreaking effect. The emotional punch of Morricone’s work even filters down to the simple tune which Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) plays on his oboe, a tune later reprised with full orchestra for the track On Earth As It Is In Heaven, which is breathtaking.

See also: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The Untouchables and Once Upon a Time in America.

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The Also Rans:  Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – James Horner, The Bourne Identity – John Powell, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – Warren Ellis and Nick Cave, Psycho – Bernard Herrmann, Solaris – Cliff Martinez.

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There’s an old saying: if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. It’s a self-evident adage that the good folk in Hollywood clearly haven’t embraced, as they continue to churn out an endless series of movie remakes. This year has seen the release of Clash of the Titans, The Wolfman, The Crazies, Edge of Darkness and Nightmare on Elm Street, and these will soon be joined by True Grit, Red Dawn, The Karate Kid, The Mechanic and Red Sonja. Then there is Let Me In, the US remake of the Swedish Let the Right One In. Together with the numerous sequels that are a regular fixture during a year’s movie output (and I’ve complained about those already), this signifies a remarkable amount of money being funnelled into yet more unoriginal ideas.

The funny thing about remakes is this; more often than not, either the original was so good that there’s nothing you can improve upon, or so bad that it really should have been left alone in the first place. But sometimes, just sometimes, a movie had such potential and was so screwed up in its execution, that a remake seems a valid and worthwhile endeavour. And, yes, sometimes even a movie that was good to begin with is improved on the second attempt. However, these are the exceptions, rather than the rule, and more often than not great movies receive the unnecessary makeovers. The popular brand is squeezed for every last penny.

For me, there are two kinds of the more unforgivable remake. Firstly, there’s the simple cash-in remake, where a classic movie is regurgitated for the sole purpose of pulling money from a new generation of cinemagoers who fear movies made before they were born, perhaps because the clothes look silly and the music is embarrassing.  Secondly, there are the translation remakes, where a popular foreign movie is regurgitated for cinemagoers that fear having to read subtitles and can’t deal with a cast that all have black hair. Or something. Both categories are infuriating for their own reasons, but mostly because they very, very rarely do the original any justice.

Then there are those remakes that take the basic outline of the original and change everything else around it, such as the setting and the characters. At least the bulk of these demonstrate a little creativity. Good examples are The Magnificent Seven (The Seven Samurai as a Western), or Outland (High Noon in space).

Of course, a special mention has to go to the recent trend for announcing remakes by alternative labels. ‘Reboot’ is a popular one. Tim Burton coined the phrase ‘re-imagining’ for his appalling Planet of the Apes, perhaps offended by the suggestion that he was remaking anything. He has subsequently ‘re-imagined’ Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland.

What follows is my list of the five best and the five worst remakes over the years, in my oh-so-humble opinion. You should know, I was planning to avoid using movies that were based on books. To my mind, these aren’t really remakes so much as re-adaptations (Listen to me. I sound like Tim Burton). However, a good friend told me I was being ridiculously anal, so I ditched that restriction. Thanks, Maggie.

Please feel free to comment with your own suggestions.

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The Good Remakes

Always (1989)

Original 1943

Steven Spielberg’s remake of World War II romantic drama A Guy Named Joe shifts the story to modern day North America, replacing bomber pilots with aerial forest-fire fighters. Richard Dreyfuss replaces Spencer Tracey as the pilot who must become guardian angel to his girlfriend (Holly Hunter) and her new prospective man, after he is killed in an accident. This is one of Spielberg’s lesser known movies, released just after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and possibly lost in the wake of Ghost. Always is a reminder that the most successful director of all time can deliver a quietly touching romance just as well as a rollercoaster blockbuster or heavy drama. Dreyfuss and Hunter are quite possibly one of cinema’s cutest couples, and Brad Johnson is entirely likeable as the hapless beefcake trying to heal Hunter’s grief and win her over. Always also features Audrey Hepburn’s final screen appearance, as Dreyfuss’s angelic guide.

The Blob (1988)

Original 1958

Director Chuck Russell, having cut his teeth on Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, made a surprisingly entertaining addition to his CV with this remake of the classic B movie. This version is a lot more fun. With a script co-written by Frank Darabont (who would go on to make The Shawshank Redemption), The Blob retains its popcorn-munching, monster movie credentials, but always manages to stay just the right side of ridiculous. It keeps its tongue firmly in its cheek, while delivering a series of entertainingly grisly deaths at the hands, well, pseudopods of the acidic, carnivorous mass which terrorises a small American town. The Blob is just a pure piece of bubble-gum cinema, but also ruthless and a little unpredictable with the characters it disposes of, treating you to some sly misdirection as it dispatches people you could have sworn would be safe. Fun, right?

Dawn of the Dead (2004)

Original 1978

It takes some kind of self-confidence to decide that your debut movie will be a remake of one of horror’s most revered classics. Clearly not lacking in self-belief, Zack Snyder did just that, and the result was one of the best horror movie remakes to date. George Romero’s original, as with all of his zombie instalments, mixes horror movie thrills with social commentary, and Snyder is smart enough to realise that the critique on consumerism doesn’t need to be reinforced the second time around. Instead, the pettiness and pedantry of the human race in the face of extinction is explored in the interactions between the band of survivors, holed up in a shopping mall as the growing number of zombies look for a way in. The script is witty and intelligent, and throws in just the right mix of original material and knowing nods to its progenitor (look out for the appearance of Ken Foree and the Gaylen Ross store).

Freaky Friday (2003)

Original 1976

Before Lindsay Lohan imploded in bratty fashion, she was showing all the signs of a talent on the horizon. Shame. Taking the Jodi Foster role of a girl who swaps bodies with her mother, Lohan was both convincing and funny. Jamie Lee Curtis, who stepped into the mother’s shoes when Annette Bening stepped out, turned out to be the ideal choice to portray a teenage girl in a woman’s body, and matches Lohan for comedy value at every turn. Freaky Friday is a guilty pleasure, to be sure, and not the kind of movie you’re supposed to admit liking during talk of great cinema, but who cares? It’s funny, well-observed and most importantly to this topic, it’s better than the original. Hey, my tastes are eclectic. Deal with it.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Original 1956

Don Siegel’s original adaptation of Jack Finney’s novel was by no means a bad film needing a remake. The story of a man who discovers that people are being replaced by emotionless duplicates, grown from alien pods, was an effective exercise in post-war paranoia. However, when writer and director Philip Kaufman made his own version, he took the paranoia and tension to much greater levels. Donald Sutherland takes the role of Matthew, who along with a group of growing (and then dwindling) survivors, tries to defeat the threat from the alien pods. Kaufman creates an almost unbearable atmosphere of threat and doom from the simplest of scenes, and the score is often a pared down series of noises and hums, which just adds to the unsettling mood. The sense of mistrust between the characters, and the tension as they attempt to move among the pod replicas, unable to display even the slightest emotion for fear of being discovered, is palpable. Invasion of the Body Snatchers has moments that are genuinely horrific, and the final scene will live in your mind for a very long time.

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See also: The Thing, Ocean’s Eleven, The Departed, Scarface and The Fly.

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The Bad Remakes

Halloween (2007)

Original 1978

Rob Zombie claims to be a huge fan of John Carpenter’s original, so what he thought he could achieve by remaking it is a mystery. Zombie’s Halloween fails on just about every level, but his biggest mistake is in giving the faceless, implacable killer Michael Myers a complete back story. Zombie spends half the movie doing what Carpenter managed with a five minute opening scene and a few choice Donald Pleasance lines. Do we really care about Myers’ childhood? Does his oedipal fixation make him any more interesting or scary? And does Zombie’s wife have to be in every movie he makes? Zombie’s fascination with redneck family life takes what was an effective, very scary movie icon, and reduces him to just another by-the-numbers moron with a mask and a knife. Also, in leaving himself with much less running time for the actual Halloween story itself, there is none of the build-up and tension which permeated Carpenter’s masterpiece. Zombie’s follow-up, Halloween II, is even worse. Stick with the original.

The Haunting (1999)

Original 1963

Cinematographer Jan de Bont had hit the jackpot with his directorial debut, Speed. With the keys to the kingdom, de Bont went from one turkey to the next, but never sank quite as low as he did with this misguided and badly executed remake of Robert Wise’s supernatural classic. It could have been okay, it might have worked. The sets are gorgeous, the actors do fine, even with a rather flimsy script. The big problem is that The Haunting isn’t scary. At all. In fact, it’s ridiculous. De Bont is too reliant on CGI effects and, quite frankly, animated wooden cherubs, moving beds and rooms that turn into giant faces are about as scary as a character from Toy Story. The tone is clumsy from the outset, lacking any real atmosphere or subtlety. Add to this a final act that is way, way, way over the top and what we have is an anti-horror movie.

King Kong (1976)

Original 1933

When legendary producer and master of hyperbole Dino De Laurentiis announced he would be remaking one of cinema’s most influential monster movies, he promised to deliver ‘the most exciting motion picture event of all time’. This version was to feature a forty-foot, fur covered, robot Kong, which would replace the original’s stop-motion animation and herald a new dawn in celluloid spectacle. However, the movie failed spectacularly to live up to any of its producer’s rash boasts. With a pedestrian script, camp performances and plodding direction, King Kong wasn’t even the most exciting motion picture event of the year, let alone all time. And the forty-foot robot ape, while actually built as promised, was such a dismal failure that it only appeared for about twenty seconds, standing still and lifting an arm slightly. Not much hope of getting that thing to climb the World Trade Center, then. The rest of the time Kong is portrayed by special effects guru Rick Baker in a gorilla suit, smashing around miniature sets like Godzilla. Dreadful.

The Ladykillers (2004)

Original 1955

I’m a big fan of the Coen brothers, so it pains me to take one of their movies and brand it a travesty. However, with The Ladykillers they leave little choice. Once again professing to be huge fans of the original, the Coens took Ealing Studio’s timeless comedy about a group of inept bank robbers lodging with a sweet old lady who turns out to be more than a match for them and moved it from 50s London to contemporary Mississippi. Tom Hanks is the sinister, but charming Professor, leading the band of oddball criminals to their eventual comeuppance. Despite his best efforts he never quite emerges from the shadow of the original’s excellent Alec Guiness. And that characterises the film as a whole. Woefully unfunny, especially from the makers of Fargo and The Big Lebowski, The Ladykillers is an unfortunate blemish on an otherwise remarkable body of work.

Psycho (1998)

Original 1960

Possible victor when they hand out the Most Pointless Remake Ever award. For reasons that may never be properly explained or understood, Gus Van Sant, hot off the success of Good Will Hunting, decided to remake Hitchcock’s seminal horror movie shot-for-shot. With Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates and Anne Heche as the doomed Marion Crane, Van Sant’s Psycho is a carbon copy of the original and as such can only suffer from the fact that it isn’t the original. The only noticeable difference is the addition of Bates masturbating as he watches Crane through the hole in the wall. You’re left wondering if Van Sant spent 38 years yearning to see Norman Bates spank his monkey, finally deciding to make his own Special Edition where his fantasy could be realised. Anthony Perkins made Bates a tragic, almost sympathetic figure, but for all his talents Vaughn just cannot do the same. Van Sant’s Psycho replicates the camerawork and editing of Hitchcock’s, but utterly fails to replicate the emotional punch. A meaningless exercise.

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See also: Planet of the Apes, The Fog, Get Carter, The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Hitcher.

I love movies. I love them. I’ve always loved them and I always will. I love watching them, I love writing them and I love collecting them. To me, there is no other medium like it. I enjoy music, I enjoy books, but it is in cinema that I find the true spark of passion and joy that can only come from knowing you are where you belong, you are in a place where everyone speaks your language. It’s in the shiver that runs down my spine when the camera slowly moves toward Harrison Ford’s face, as he studies the golden idol he is about to steal in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s in the way my heart breaks when Al Pacino opens his mouth and lets a lifetime of regret emerge as an animal howl at the end of The Godfather III. It’s Morgan Freeman’s eyes in Seven, the Orca sailing out to sea through the teeth of a shark in Jaws, or John Hurt starting to cough during dinner in Alien. It’s two hours in another world. It’s magic.

It started with my father. And, no doubt, some genetic predisposition, since my brother did not develop the same passion. From an early age, dad passed to me this love of cinema. I would sit and watch countless movies with him, while he would explain to me why certain shots were set up a certain way. How, for example, Hitchcock would often frame his characters claustrophobically, using stair banisters to simulate bars and signify their entrapment. Through years of viewing, I began to understand the language of cinema, recognising the style of certain directors, the signatures that appeared in their work. I would smile when Spielberg used a shadow because I could name all the other times he had done it. I recognised the way John Carpenter took the basic premise of his favourite movie, Rio Bravo, and made a series of brilliant horror movies from it. I saw the symbolism of oranges in the Godfather movies. No, honestly. Oranges. Oranges signify death. Watch all three movies again and you’ll see.

I’ve accumulated a vast wealth of, let’s face it, potentially useless movie knowledge. I mean, who cares if Scorsese slowed the frame rate of a certain zoom on Robert De Niro in Goodfellas, just ever so slightly, because it made him appear more menacing? Who cares that Hitchcock made Psycho in black and white because he didn’t have enough of a budget to make it in colour? I care. Because this is my passion.

I’m old enough to remember a time when movies were almost a once only experience. It was either a trip to the cinema or catch them on television, three years later. So, I look back very fondly at the early eighties, and the advent of home video. The sense of wonder I felt at the fact that it was now possible to own a movie, in a box with a cover, was absolutely overwhelming. The local video rental store became a holy place for me; thirteen years old and staring, wide-eyed, at the store walls, lined with movies. In boxes, with covers! I could choose one of those movies, take it home and watch it whenever I felt like it. It was incredible. And what a choice! At the cinema it was a choice of three. Here, I had a choice of hundreds. My appetite increased in direct proportion to the nourishment available.

Of course, when I try to convey that sense of awe to my son, himself now thirteen, I’m met with the same kind of amused condescension I used to give my dad when he told me how cool his Davy Crockett hat was when he was thirteen. The wheels keep turning.

Movies have been the one constant in my life. While other loves have come and gone, my love for film has remained, concrete and undiminished. This, I’m afraid, is carried through to my love of movie memorabilia. I’m not an insane collector. I can’t afford to be, but I do have my own little movie shrine set above the fire in my lounge. And on the walls. And a few other places. They say that men never truly put away their toys, they just move up to more expensive ones. For some it’s cars or bikes, for some it’s sports, and for some it’s hi-tech gadgets. For me, it’s movie memorabilia. Posters, books, and yes, toys. You can call them that, if you must. I mean, I don’t run around playing with them. They just sit there, which to my mind puts them under the category of ‘ornaments’, right?

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

I always had aspirations towards working in the movie industry. As a child, I vacillated between all manner of the more whimsical ambitions. Actor, stuntman, special effects, storyboard artist. Each month I moved onto a new career path. In my early thirties, I took the more pragmatic step of running my own video rental store. I hoped I could recapture the magic of those places from my childhood, but by that time the rental industry had become commonplace, corporate and regimented. The magic had gone. I was just a faceless guy in a T-shirt, handing out video cases to an undemanding public.

So, finally, I sat down one night and decided to start writing a movie. I don’t know why it had never occurred to me before, and I couldn’t tell you why I decided, on that particular night, to start. Something in my head just clicked. A few months later, I had my first completed screenplay, Dark Road. I immediately started another, and shortly after that, Dark Road was optioned. The option was dropped a few years later, but my fourth screenplay, Debunking Dad, won the BAFTA/Rocliffe New Writers Forum in 2008. There have been successes and failures, and the ultimate success has not yet been reached, but I’m confident I will get there.

Who knows? Maybe one day, a scene from one of my movies will give someone a shiver down their spine. Maybe one day, something I wrote will inspire someone else to do the same. And maybe, just maybe, there’ll be magic. And toys.

Sorry, I mean ornaments.