Total Recall

Total Recall: Ghosts of Movies Past

RT takes a sample of some of our favorite cinematic ghost stories.

by | September 17, 2008 | Comments

This week,
Ghost Town
hits theaters, spinning the
tale of some moody apparitions (including Greg Kinnear) that haunt a regular guy
(Ricky Gervais). Thus it’s high time we pick out some memorable big-screen
specters for your ghoulish pleasure.




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Candyman

(1992)





Tomatometer: 74%

Based on a short story by celebrated horror icon Clive Barker, Candyman
played on familiar archetypes to introduce a chilling new figure to
scare-cinema. Tony Todd, who RT had the pleasure of meeting at this year’s
Comic-Con, plays the hook-fisted apparition who appears in mirrors when his
name is spoken five times, and Virginia Madsen is the skeptical grad student
researching the history of his legend in the housing projects of Chicago.
Whether it was the unsettling gracefulness of his gravelly voice, the imposing
stature of his presence, or the fat, bloody hook where his right hand should
have been, Candyman effectively scared the bejeezus out of millions of
moviegoers in 1992. He was so effective, in fact, that the movie spawned two
sequels (one of them DTV) and reignited a centuries-old fear of mirrors. It’s
“very clever, well-made and unpredictable,” wrote Andreas Samuelson of Slasherpool.






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Ghost
(1990)





Tomatometer: 78%

In a quiet way, Ghost proclaims the death of the 1980s. Fresh from The
Color Purple
, Dirty Dancing, and St. Elmo’s Fire, the film’s
stars (Whoopi Goldberg, Patrick Swayze, and Demi Moore, respectively) hit
career peaks shortly before Jerry Zucker (yes, the man responsible for
Airplane!) brought this film to theaters and pop culture consciousness. Sure,
it’s schmaltzy and often indifferent to things like logic, but its regret-free
tone and “love will stay with you” message struck a deep chord with the
country and its performances were hard to forget: Demi Moore in the throes of
passion with a glow-in-the-dark Patrick Swayze; sexy pottery throwing;
“Ditto.” Before you start singing “I am Henry the Eighth, I am,” consider for
a moment how something so sappy could seep into the collective consciousness
as deeply as Ghost did. For as much as it purports to be a mystery, it’s no
mystery: the 1980s are dead, God save the 1990s. “Call me corny, but I really
dig it,” wrote efilmcritic’s Scott Weinberg. “Not without its flaws, Ghost
still boasts drama, comedy, romance and a bit of the spooky stuff to boot.”





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Beetlejuice
(1988)



Tomatometer: 82%

Tim Burton’s “look” — which resembles German Expressionism, addled with dry
British wit, channeled through late-50’s magazine camp — was never so easy to
identify as in Beetlejuice. It was all there: the tongue-in-cheek comedy
of shrunken heads, the irksome brightness of Dia de los Muertos candy, the
light-heartedness of suicide victims — and the absurdity of high art. Nothing
was sacred, and that was right funny. From the “Handbook of the Recently
Deceased” (available on Amazon) to the cloying agendas of thrill-pedaling,
upscale, ghost hunters, this story of two newlyweds who find themselves, shall
we say, indisposed to the living, takes liberties with many virtues, and
depicted the afterlife as a den of bureaucratic meanderings, peppered with the
occasional silver screen starlet (Sylvia Sydney as the head paper pusher!).
Michael Keaton stole the show as the title character and an uncharacteristically
subdued Alec Baldwin played the ideal straight man with Geena Davis and Winona
Ryder, both in their heyday. Catherine O’Hara and Jeffrey Jones rounded out a
cast of players Burton would use again, most confusingly in Batman. I
suppose if you think the afterlife looks like a freaky DMV, Beetlejuice as
Batman is not so big a leap. “Beetlejuice means something good: that imaginative
artists can bring a fading genre back from the dead,” wrote Richard Corliss of Time.






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Poltergeist
(1982)



Tomatometer: 84%

Considered by many to be among the best horror films of the decade, Poltergeist
was one of the first truly scary movies that succeeded while remaining below the
R-rating threshold — but with Tobe Hooper at the helm and Steven Spielberg on
writing and producing duties, this certainly isn’t surprising. The story
revolves around an all-American family whose home suddenly becomes infested with
poltergeists, mischievous spirits known for moving inanimate objects around. It
soon becomes apparent that their visitors are up to no good, and the family
enlists the help of experts, resulting in some terrifying experiences. While
several spirits are responsible for the earlier, more playful scenes, the film
becomes significantly darker when one of them, referred to only as “The Beast,”
begins wreaking havoc on the family. Though the Beast and the poltergeists
themselves don’t make very many appearances in the film, they are both haunting
and ferocious when they do, as with the ghastly image of a woman at the top of
the stairs. If you have yet to see this movie, treat yourself to a classic;
you’ll never look at fried chicken the same way again. “Poltergeist works
— and works extraordinarily well — because it shows us the horrors of beyond
coming to haunt us not in a moldering house on a hill or a grimy dungeon but
rather in a gleaming, modern, comfortable suburban housing development,” wrote
James Rocchi of Netflix.




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The Sixth
Sense
(1999)



Tomatometer: 84%

It’s said that film is little more than a ghost itself: just light and shadow
on a wall. So for a director to debut with a ghost story he’s conceivably
broadcasting his smarts to those “in the know.” Still, this hardly matters if
the final film isn’t affecting — and whether you were privy to the
implications or the theory, you were likely still irked by the scene in the
dumbwaiter, or haunted by the little girl throwing up under the bed. Sure, the
performances were stellar — Bruce Willis and Toni Collette were amazing and
Haley Joel Osment clearly made a name for himself — but this film’s greatest
asset is its dynamic, deliberate direction. M. Night Shyamalan demonstrated
influences from Hitchcock and Spielberg to Kurosawa and Murnau, and dropped a
final plot twist that kept people talking for months. To boot, he made a big
point — yes, movies might be made of the same stuff as ghosts, but even among
those ghosts, it’s hard to distinguish the substance from the specters. “The
screenplay, with its terrific scares and its amazing double-whammy at the end,
is a grand achievement,” wrote Jeffrey M. Anderson of Combustible
Celluloid
.





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Field of
Dreams
(1989)



Tomatometer: 91%

It’s got Kevin Costner, some eminently quotable dialogue, and a storyline that
made it okay for grown men to cry with their dads. Looking back, is it any
wonder that Field of Dreams went on to become one of the biggest hits
of the ’80s? In case you’ve been living on Pluto for the last 20 years, here’s
the basic gist of the plot: Costner plays a farmer who obeys a disembodied
voice telling him to raze one of his cornfields and turn it into a baseball
diamond. He obeys — he’s a dreamer, people! — and is rewarded with
appearances from some of the sport’s deceased outcasts. Yes, it oozes
sentimentality, but who can help responding to a movie that tells you it’s
never too late for redemption — that it’s never too late to heal? As Emmanuel
Levy put it, “here’s no denying the film evokes the vastness and grandeur of
Middle-America,” and — oh, we’re getting choked up already.




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Ghostbusters
(1984)



Tomatometer: 93%

This wasn’t just a movie in 1984, it was a phenomenon. Between Ray Parker,
Jr. on the airwaves and Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Ernie
Hudson on the big screen, you couldn’t throw a rock without having it bounce
off a hand-drawn ripoff of the logo — or the head of someone making an “I
ain’t afraid of no _____” joke. And okay, so maybe America got a little
carried away with Ghostbusters mania, demanding a spinoff cartoon, a
line of toys, and an inferior sequel that inspired Bobby Brown to rhyme “Vigo”
with “legal” — but who could blame us? Not only does Ghostbusters
feature a heaping helping of then-cutting-edge special effects (Slimer! The
Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man!), it also boasts one of Murray’s most brilliantly
deadpan performances, not to mention a terrific script by Aykroyd and Ramis.
Whether or not those persistent Ghostbusters III rumors ever come to
fruition, the original remains, in Roger Ebert’s words, “an exception to the
general rule that big special effects can wreck a comedy.”






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The
Innocents
(1961)



Tomatometer: 95%

Injecting an air of sophistication into horror movies at a time when
William Castle’s schlockfests inundated theaters, The Innocents
portrays a descent into madness that still has the power to unsettle. Deborah
Kerr plays Miss Giddens, who arrives at a country manor to serve as a
governess for two orphaned children. But as she learns more about the house’s
dark history, and becomes overly protective of her charges, Miss Giddens
starts to see dead people — the deceased former employees, perhaps? Featuring
a bleak air of gothic ambiance and some of the creepiest kids to be found
outside a Stephen King novel, The Innocents may not shock like
contemporary frightfests, but it’s got an air of psychological dread that puts
most horror flicks to shame. “Is it the finest, smartest, most visually savvy
horror film ever made by a big studio?” asked The Village Voice‘s
Michael Atkinson.




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Topper
(1937)



Tomatometer: 100%

Modern special effects have numbed audiences to even the niftiest spectral
hijinks, but in 1937, moviegoers were far less blasé about the
behind-the-scenes magic that helped George and Marion Kerby (Cary Grant and
Constance Bennett) torment their good friend Cosmo Topper (Roland Young) from
beyond the grave. Like the Thorne Smith novel from which it draws its
inspiration, Topper plays its haunting for laughs — and Grant, who
negotiated a percentage deal for his participation, chuckled all the way to
the bank. He opted out for the sequels (and the ’50s TV series), but they all
retain a measure of what the Chicago Reader’s Dave Kehr called “arch screwball
style.”






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Ugetsu
(1952)



Tomatometer: 100%

Ominous but yearning, Lady Wakasa is not your typical apparition. And
Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu is certainly not your typical haunted tale;
this masterwork, which helped bring Japanese cinema to worldwide prominence,
is a moving story of the ravages of war, the complex bonds of family, and the
loneliness of the grave. As conflict envelops his village, Genjuro (Masayuki
Mori) decides to sell his pottery in a more prosperous town. It is there that
the noblewoman Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo) takes a shine to his work — and
Genjuro as well. She invites him to her palace, and demands that he marry her,
so she can feel the love she missed out on in her first lifetime. Genjuro is
enraptured, but also conflicted, still duty-bound to his earth-bound wife and
son. Ugetsu is “a masterpiece from Mizoguchi — for its historical
drama, its moving social and family themes and its marvellously moody ghost
story,” wrote Daniel Etherington of Channel 4 Film. (And if you can’t get
enough of lyrical, disquieting Japanese ghost stories, the monumental Kwaidan,
from 1964, has four of ’em.

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