Posted by Greg Ferrara on October 31, 2012
It’s Halloween and with that comes a certain degree of obligation. It’s one thing to post about horror throughout the month of October but on the day itself, a day that this year falls on my regular posting day, it’s absolutely required. And yet, I don’t feel like it. You see, this isn’t the only place I write and over the years I’ve covered about a million different takes on horror from every perspective I can think of and now, finally, it feels like I’m spent. Not because I have nothing more to say on the subject but because what I want to talk about the most simply doesn’t exist anymore. Maybe it never did: The Great Ghost Story.
Each October I get the same knot in my stomach that comes from the same self-imposed pressure: I want to write about horror, as I love the genre so much, but I feel that I talk about the same things with horror again and again. I tell myself I need something new, something different to break through the thick, apathy-drenched wall of malaise I build up around myself this time of year that never happens at any other time of the year (“Oh no, it’s December! If I can’t think of another Christmas movie post I’ll die!”).
A part of the problem is that I’ve said many times in the recent past that I don’t want to write about the classics anymore because I’ve written about them so many times already. And I’ve had many a suggestion from others to go in a different direction, such as Thai horror, suggested by writer Peter Nellhaus, as expert an expert as you’re going to find on the topic. Others tell me about the great horror movies made in Europe as well and how there’s a whole new store of classics just waiting for my discovery whenever I decide to take the first step. And I’ve watched some horror from Europe and Asia and, yes, I like a lot of it and certainly I can recognize the quality of a modern day classic like Let the Right One In but there’s still something missing. And when I examine what that something is I come to the inescapable conclusion that what appeals to me about horror is dead, literally. As in, ghosts. Not the walking dead or the undead, two things I certainly like, but the roaming dead, the drifting, wandering dead. The non-corporeal dead.
The problem with that is that Hollywood has always treated ghosts and hauntings with decidedly less aplomb than most other areas of horror. And I’m not talking about modern day horror chillers like Paranormal Activity (which I liked) about vengeful spirits but good, old-fashioned stories about ghosts and hauntings in which the footage isn’t found, it’s created and the bloodshed is minimal but the atmosphere is high. The thing is, Hollywood simply doesn’t have a very good track record of making that kind of story work.
For instance, a couple of years ago I got myself excited to watch Ghost Story again. I hadn’t seen it since 1981 and thought, “Ah, I remember that being a good, old-fashioned ghost story with spooky mood and atmosphere of exactly the kind you just don’t see anymore.” And then I watched it and realized I was wrong. It was decently done but felt curiously short on mood and atmosphere except for the scenes involving Alice Krige exacting revenge upon her assassins and those scenes were unfortunately as brief as they were few.
Another great memory was The Changeling, which I also watched again a couple of years back and, once again, found myself powerfully underwhelmed by the whole experience. The mood and atmosphere, even in the dusty, cobweb covered attic scenes, was practically non-existent as the whole movie has a kind of anti-style style to it, more akin to a television movie of the period than a theatrical release.
Or sometimes, I find that a ghost story from the past has unnecessary side stories that, at the time, may have made the filmmakers feel like they were making the story deeper but upon reflection, seem insincere. This happened when I revisited The Lady in White and found the story of the janitor accused of the crime and shot dead in front of his wife and children, not only unecessary to the story at hand but from a completely different movie altogether, perhaps one about prejudice in a small town. And since the story never bothers to take us into the lives of the affected wife and children, it feels like a calculated subplot, meant to be introduced and abandoned to add faux-depth to the story.
Going back a little further I find more success. Burnt Offerings has some good mixed in with a larger share of bad, The Legend of Hell House from 1973 still works for me and the British chiller of the early sixties, The Innocents, also still has power. Reaching back to the forties I can find a movie like The Uninvited that works superbly well for what I have in mind.
But that’s it and that’s not a lot. Considering how much haunted houses and ghosts play into our understanding of the supernatural, it’s odd how little effect it has on horror. Horror, for the most part, sticks with monsters (vampires, zombies, werewolves, etc) when it comes to supernatural and when it does deal with a haunting it prefers to go with a violent outcome over a gentle one. That is to say, Hollywood prefers the multiple killings of a Ghost Story or the explosion of effects of a Poltergeist over the careful and precise revelation of why a ghost remains at all. It’s one of the great joys of The Uninvited that the ghost is slowly but surely smoked out and her past revealed for all to see. And it was the great disappointment of The Changeling that this same method of story development fell so flat.
It’s not that Hollywood can’t make a good ghost story anymore, it’s that they don’t seem to want to. In and out of Hollywood, from overseas to independent, ghost stories do crop up on occasion (The Woman in Black, The Pact) but the big stuff with the big marketing from the big boys in Hollywood just doesn’t happen anymore (maybe I should count my blessings). Look, I love both Ringu and its American remake (The Ring) but what I really want is a ghost, vengeful or not, haunting a house, not killing anyone who doesn’t pass around a tape.
Maybe one day another great haunted house movie will come out of Hollywood but I’m not holding my breath. Most movie fans come down hard on remakes but, frankly, I find them especially useful for movies that had great stories but didn’t execute very well the first time around. And to my mind, movies like Burnt Offerings and The Changeling are absolutely ripe for remakes so let me be the first to suggest it to any filmmaker out there who has the ear of someone in Hollywood with the power to greenlight. It’s been so long since Hollywood’s given us a great ghost story that it feels like a myth that there ever were any. Bringing back a tradition so ingrained in our primal psyches (that something beyond our understanding is right there in the house with us), and doing it well, would be a spirited addition to the horror canon and, if successful, might haunt the box office for years to come.
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