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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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.