Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Chinese Ghost Story (1987)

I don't know much about the Chinese ghost story tradition, but I do know that there are not a lot of straight-up Chinese horror movies. Ghost movies from China & Hong Kong tend to blend elements of fantasy, kung-fu, romance and comedy.

Of these movies, my favourite is A Chinese Ghost Story, produced by Tsui Hark and directed by Ching Siu-tung. It tells the story of a hapless tax collector (Leslie Cheung) who takes shelter in a deserted temple, where he falls in love with a woman who turns out to be a ghost.

The movie involves an evil Tree Demon, a vengeful Taoist priest, Sam Raimi-style camerawork from the point of view of an extremely long tongue, the most comically unthreatening zombies of all time, a song & dance interlude about the power of the Tao, plenty of slapstick comedy, and a surprisingly moving ending. Small children might find parts of it frightening, but the emphasis is on slapstick comedy and romance.

This tradition of combining kung-fu with horror movies seems to date specifically to the 1974 movie Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, which attempts to marry the British Hammer Dracula movies with the Hong Kong Shaw Brothers kung-fu movies; it was co-directed by Hammer veteran Roy Ward Baker and Shaw veteran Chang Cheh, and co-starred Peter Cushing with many kung-fu stars. This movie featured both vampires from the Western tradition and hopping vampires from Chinese folklore. But the cycle properly begins with director/star Sammo Hung's 1980 movie Encounters of the Spooky Kind, which places a far greater emphasis on action and comedy.

A Chinese Ghost Story strikes me as being superior to these earlier movies simply because it integrates the disparate elements with more confidence. The movie slips from being potentially spooky to laugh-out-loud funny with apparent ease, and even manages to get serious in its final act without a jarring shift in tone. The performances of Leslie Cheung as the tax inspector, Joey Wang as the ghost and the great Wu Ma as the priest certaily help here.

I really need to learn more about Chinese mythology before I can speak about movies like this with any authority. All I can say for the moment is that this is a tremendously fun movie that I've watched many times.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Ghostly music

I'm a big fan of songs that tell stories, so obviously I've been trying to find songs which tell ghost stories.

Here are two.

First up, (Ghost) Riders In the Sky. I always loved this is a kid - I think it was the Vaughan Munroe version. This one is by Johnny Cash & Willie Nelson.

Next up is Warren Zevon's immortal ballad, Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner. I've always loved Zevon's dark humour.

Neither of these songs is particularly chilling. I wanted to use something by Alice Cooper, but I couldn't actually think of any ghost stories he's told.

Can anyone recommend a really good ghost song?

A ghostly guitar

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What is a ghost story anyway? - part 2

When I posted about The Willows by Algernon Blackwood, Sonia asked on Facebook:

So what was the rationale for including this (and by extension Lovecraft, right? Maybe?) in a ghost discussion? It seems like this kind of story works in such a different way, on such different sources of fear, from "ghost as spirit of specific dead person" stories. Although The Shining walks a funny line between these two modes.

That's a damned good question.

Part of the point of this series is an attempt to find the boundaries of what is and what is not a ghost story. I'm interested in the divisions of genre, especially when they are blurred. The ghost story seems to me to be a good place to explore this.

I think that most people would regard a ghost as being the spirit of a dead person (or sometimes other animal) that is still able to interact with the living. Even here it's possible to blur the boundaries. For example how do you seperate a ghost from other undead such as zombie or a vampire? Post-Night of the Living Dead we usually think of zombies as being kind of the opposite of a ghost: a body that still moves around without a spirit. However, there are plenty of examples of zombies that retain their original memories and seek vengeance and/or to be put to rest, in much the same manner as a ghost.

So is it their physical nature that separates them? But what about those cases where a ghost still has a physical form, such as in the Ju-on movies, where ghosts can stab people or break their necks?

I think that a ghost has to be seperate from the physical body, though it can still have a physical form of sorts. If it is a reanimated corpse, rather than a ghost it is something else.

Except, of course, that ghosts in fiction have been known to possess the bodies of the living and/or of the dead. So if a ghost were to possess its own physical body and keep walking around, would it still be a ghost or would it now be a zombie or a ghoul?

What about the concept of a "residual haunting" - the idea that a ghost, rather than being a sentient being, is in some way a recording of past events? This idea was exploited in Nigel Kneale's teleplay The Stone Tape (to be discussed here in mroe detail soon), where a team of experimenters happen across just such a recording and want to know if they can wipe it and record something new. Could a ghost just be a paranormal video recording?

In the case of The Willows, we never actually discover what the mysterious force surrounding the willows actually is. The characters hypothosise that it could be a different form of life that has evolved completely seperately from the life that we know about, which only intersects with our reality at certain points. Could this be an explanation for a ghost? It seems to be the spirit of a living person, but in fact it is something else. (In this case, the story comes from a book called Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood and the author describes his mysterious entities as "ghosts" even though they are seldom actually spirits of the dead.)

In another story I've looked at, Ghostwatch, what at first seems to be the spirit of a living person turns out to be merely the latest layer of "skin" covering some kind of demonic presence that has haunted the area since at least the stone age. Could a ghost be something that merely assumes human form for its own purposes, stealing the identity of someone who is dead?

In the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, there is no mention of the ghosts being any specific people. It is the house itself that is the problem.

Perhaps the meaning of "ghost story" has changed over the years. It might have used to mean any kind of spooky supernatural story, with this term being supplanted by "horror story" in recent times.

I don't have any answers, just a lot of questions. If anyone else has any theories, I'd love to hear them.

Ghosts ride bikes too

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Whip and the Body (1963)

Here's an example of two kinds of ghost story that I like a lot: the returning lover, and the "ambiguous ghost". It's also an Italian movie, and I'm all about Italian horror movies. It's co-written and directed by Mario Bava, probably the greatest of all Italian horror movie directors, and it features top horror star Christopher Lee. To top it all off, it was a very controversial movie in its day and was cut to shreds in most countries when it was first released, to the point where it was apparently incomprehensible.

If released now, it would probably be rated PG.

The Whip and The Body is Gothic horror in all senses. It's a period movie (though as with many of these things, the period it is set in is ambiguous) and it features a crumbling old castle, secret passages, doomed love, unsympathetic characters, delirium, suicide, murder, and unmotivated coloured lighting.

The story involves the return of Kurt (Christopher Lee) to the family home and the disruption this causes. Kurt's former lover Nevenka (played by stunning Israeli actress Daliah Lavi) is now married to his brother, who is in love with another woman, Katia. The housekeeper, Giorgia (Bava regular Harriet White Medin), is still grieving the loss of her daughter, who had committed suicide after being seduced then abandoned by Kurt. Of course, Kurt's return awakens old passions in Nevenka, and the thoroughly hissable Kurt revels in the chaos he is causing.

So far, so whatever. But what made this movie so controversial (and still makes is quite unusual) is that Kurt and Nevenka's relationship is openly sadomasochistic. A good four years before Luis Buñuel's brilliant Belle de Jour, The Whip and the Body features a woman with vivid masochistic fantasies as its protagonist and puts the viewer within her viewpoint.

As a movie of its time, it is not terribly sympathetic to its sadomasochistic couple even as it mines them for prurient interest. Kurt is portrayed as a vile and utterly self-absorbed villain, and Nevenka is shown to be mentally ill. Tony Kendall as Nevenka's husband and Ida Galli as his unrequited love interest are probably supposed to be the audience identification figures, but Dahlia Lavi and Christopher Lee dominate the movie, with performances far more memorable than any of the supporting cast, so that despite their obvious defects we are far more interested in them.

But then again Heathcliffe and Cathy were not terribly sympathetic either, and people just love Wuthering Heights (which was definitely an influence on this movie), so audience sympathy is obviously a tricky thing.

Before long, Kurt is murdered and the movie becomes a combination of whodunnit (far too easily guessed) and romantic ghost story, as the shade of Kurt seems to visit Nevenka in the night, filling her with a combination of terror and desire. Is that the sound of his horse-whip, or is it just the trees lashing against the castle walls?

Incidentally, Lee apparently has a clause written into his contracts that he will not be required to perform scenes of a sexual nature or even to kiss on the lips. (Which hasn't stopped directors like Jess Franco from some creative editing to put him into outrageous scenes.) Either this clause was not present in his Whip and the Body contract or he chose to ignore it, as his scenes with Lavi are about as steamy as you could get at the time.

As usual, Bava's mastery of the camera turns the movie into a visual feast. As well as co-writing (with Ernesto Gastaldi, master of kinky Italian horror) and directing he is the uncredited cinematographer and the camera operator, and he also executed the matte paintings and other special effects.

This almost makes up for the slightly cheesy score by Carlo Rustichelli, which sounds like something out of a soap opera. Others (such as Bava's biographer Tim Lucas) praise Rustichelli to the skies, but compared to other Italian genre composers like Ennio Morricone, Bruno Nicolai and Riz Ortolani, he doesn't sound interesting to me.

There are several notable plot holes in the movie, and I didn't find the ending terrinly satisfying. The biggest problem, however, is that Christopher Lee did not dub his own voice on the English-language track. (Everyone except for Lee voiced their own role on the Italian-langue track.) Lee has a particularly commanding voice, so this is a real pity.

It's also not really the best introduction to Italian horror or to the films of Mario Bava. There are actually two other Bava ghost stories that I like more (the mind-bending, if dreadfully titled, Kill Baby Kill! and the utterly terrfying "Drop of Water" segment of the anthology film Black Sabbath), both of which I intend to get to later in this series, but when Kate visited me recently, she saw the dvd cover of this movie and wondered what the hell I had been watching (and it does indeed look lurid, as demonstated below) so I thought I would do this now.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Willows by Algernon Blackwood

Algernon Blackwood was a peculiar writer who believed very strongly in psychic forces and was obsessed with the relationship between human civilisation and the natural world. "The Willows" is one of his best-known works, as well as one of his first. First published in 1907, it was acclaimed by H.P. Lovecraft as his favourite "weird tale".

It is the first story in the collection Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood, and yet it is not what most people think of as a ghost story. It is precisely because of this that I have chosen to discuss it here. There are no unquiet dead spirits in "The Willows"; instead it involves a confrontation between two ordinary people and an otherworldly force that they do not comprehend. The "ghosts" are unexplained, being portrayed as something that is so alien to our ordinary reality that we could not possibly comprehend it. This was clearly an influence on Lovecraft, whose own fiction often revolved around similar themes.

"The Willows" is about two men (both unnamed - the narrator and his travelling companion who is only referred to as "the Swede") who are on the most recent of many travels together, this time canoeing down the Danube while it floods. When night falls they take shelter on a river bank which they have been told has never been visited by people before because of superstitious dread.

Throughout the story, Blackwood characterises the natural elements as being sinister, threatening and even personified. The river, the wind, and especially the willows on the banks seem hostile to them as intruders. But it is when the narrator awakes in the middle of the night and leaves the tent that things really start to happen, and he sees something he can't quite believe:
I stared, trying to force every atom of vision from my eyes. For a long time I thought they must every moment disappear and resolve themselves into the movements of the branches and prove to be an optical illusion. I searched everywhere for a proof of reality, when all the while I understood quite well that the standard of reality had changed.
(You'll have to read the story to find out what he actually sees. That's how I roll.)

Blackwood does a far better job than Lovecraft of showing a rational person's mind bend from seeing something that should not be possible. Lovecraft's narrators tended to just say that they could not describe what they saw lest they go mad; Blackwood's attempts to describe it, plainly fails, tries to deny it, mocks his companion for believing the evidence of his own senses and insisting that something incomprehensible is in fact happening, and generally loses control in quite a believable fashion. His companion (described as "the accurate Swede" in the story's clumsiest piece of writing) has a far stronger grip on things, but he also cannot keep his composure in the long run.

This is not a story that will satisfy anyone who wants everything neatly explained and tied up at the end, but I thought it was a terrific ghost story, and despite some dated stylistic elements, in terms of content it could quite easily be taken as a contemporary story. Given that it was published a mere ten years after Bram Stoker's Dracula, a horror story that could only have been written in an earlier era, this is quite an accomplishment.

I need to dig out the collection of ghost stories by the real master of the genre, M.R. James, that's somewhere in my boxes of books. But tomorrow it's back to the movies and off to Italy for one of the most perverse ghost movies of the 1960s.

Willows on the Danube

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Changeling (1980)

I was recommended to see this by a friend who claimed that it was so scary, when watching it by himself he actually had to turn it off.

I did not watch it by myself.

The Changeling is one of those ghost stories where someone has a terrible family tragedy, then finds themselves living in a haunted house. The haunting is unrelated to the tragedy, but the fact of it seems to have drawn the ghost to the bereaved person.

This is a good movie, highlighted by a strong performance from George C. Scott in the central role. He plays a character whose reaction to a haunting is not to run screaming into the night, but to try to do something about it. When he hears the strange noises and witnesses the strange phenomena, he does not write it off as impossible, but rather he assumes there is a ghost and goes out of his way to find out what it wants to try to lay it to rest.

As I'm sure everybody knows, a changeling is a creature that is left in the place of a real child which has been spirited away by beasties. It's sometimes used to describe non-supernatural child swapping as well, and it's the latter definition that's appropriate here. (This is a supernatural ghost story, but there are no other kinds of beasties except in a metaphorical sense.)

I did not find this movie as gibberingly terrifying as my friend, who will remain nameless. Part of this might have been simply because I was watching it in good company, but I also think that it was quite clear from early on that the ghost was not actually a threat. Compared to a vengeful ghosts in movies like Ring and Candyman, this one is gentle.

The movie followed genre lines to the point of being somewhat predictable, but I didn't mind. It was well shot and spooky, featured an effective score, and was nicely acted by a very capable cast. I didn't think it was as exemplary as its reputation suggested (it had been talked up in reliable horror movie tomes such as Stephen King's Danse Macabre and Kim Newman's Nightmare Movies) but it was solid and entertaining.

Out of the handful of stories I've looked at so far, this was probably the most traditional ghost story. The ghost is of a specific person; the protagonist is trying to put right something that was terribly wrong; there are guilty family secrets and an unpunished murder; sinister characters start to tell the protagonist something, but stop after letting something slip that they shouldn't have; there are plenty of knockings, objects moving by themselves, and mysteriously shattering pieces of glass, etc.

According to wikipedia the story was based on true events. Aren't they always?

Tomorrow, The Willows.

Friday, May 14, 2010

What is a ghost story, anyway?

I thought I would be getting to the bottom of this question by now.

Does a ghost story have to involve the spirit of a dead person (or other animal) returning to haunt the living? That would seem to rule out The Haunting of Hill House as a ghost story.

Is a ghost story always a horror story? That would seem to rule out Ghostbusters as a ghost story.

I have just acquired a book called Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood. In his introduction, Blackwood says:

To be known as the "ghost man" is almost a derogatory classification, and here at last I may perhaps refute it. My interest in psychic matters has always beenthe interest in questions of extended or expanded consciousness. If a ghost is seen, what is it interests me less than what sees it?

If you're enjoying this series of posts on ghost stories, why not join me in reading a ghost story over the weekend? I'm choosing one which stretches the definition.

"The Willows" by Algernon Blackwood was the favourite horror story of H.P. Lovecraft. It is also the first story in the aforementioned collection.

Here is a link to download the story - it's in the public domain so this is completely legal. This link allows you to download it in several different formats to read, or on mp3 to listen to it read aloud - in my opinion a terrific way to experience ghost stories.

I'll discuss the story on Monday. It would be really fabulous if someone read or listened and joined in the discussion.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Poltergeist (1982)

"So I'll watch Poltergeist," I thought. "It's rated PG, it's written & produced by Steven Spielberg, it's kiddie horror. There's no violence, nobody dies, it's a ghost story. Should be good for a laugh."

Holy shit. This movie seems specifically designed to cause nightmares. Did I forget that Spielberg previously directed Duel and Jaws? Did I disregard that director Tobe Hooper was best known for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? I'd seen it before, but obviously I forgot about the clown, the tree, the scene where the guy looks into the mirror and sees...

I'll backtrack. I didn't forget about any of these things at all, but Poltergeist is certainly more relentless than I remember it being. The story involves a bland '80s American family living in a boring house in a cookie-cutter suburb, whose lives are invaded by ghosts that first create a little fun, then maliciously target their children, especially their five-year-old daughter.

Spielberg touches abound throughout the movie (there was considerable controversy about how much of the movie was really directed by Hooper) from the lovable family dog to the huge amounts of then-impressive special effects to the general "sitcom-America" setting. There's also a heavy dose of the sadism that was particularly prevalent in his movies of the '80s, including his propensity to do horrible (though non-lethal) things to kids, and of course his usual complete lack of sexuality.

It seems to be a 'message' movie to a certain extent: the parents voted for Reagan (or at least read books about him) and smoke dope around their kids, the dad is a real estate agent, and they are perfect examples of '80s consumers. There is a definite sense that they are being punished for all of this. I'm all in favour of ghosts that torment Right-voting capitalists, though your mileage may vary. It also seems relevant that the kid-snatching ghosts come out of the television.

It's a contemporary ghost story in more ways than one. One interesting thing about it is that the haunted house is actually very new. According to the back-story, the house was built five years earlier and this is the first family that have lived there. There is an explanation for where the ghosts are coming from, but it's very unusual to set a ghost story in a house without some kind of Terrible Past. Even Hill House, a mere 80 years old, has plenty of nastiness in its relatively short history.

Speaking of that Shirley Jackson story, Poltergeist is yet another descendant, as it features a team of supernatural detectives getting out of their depth. But those characters are here played mostly for laughs.

All of this is secondary to the fact that this is the movie where that scary-looking tree outside your window, and that incredibly creepy clown doll that you really wish your aunt hadn't given to you, really are trying to kill you. The movie seems to be saying "Hey kids, you know how your parents said that all those things you're scared of are really harmless? Well, they were lying. Good luck sleeping tonight!"

So we get a scene where the father insists that the horrible gnarled tree right outside the children's window is actually wise and benevolent and looking after them - immediately followed by a scene where this same tree crashes in through the window and tries to eat a ten-year-old boy. This kid (played by Oliver Robins) does the best job of looking terrified that I think I've ever seen in a kid actor, and he does it a lot throughout the movie. Heather O'Rourke, who plays the 5-year daughter Carol Anne, is much more relaxed; even when things get really extreme, she seems more anxious than afraid.

There's a lot of black comedy throughout, from the death of the budgie right at the start to the EC comics gruesomeness towards the end. For a PG movie, this sure has a lot of disgusting images.

I should probably hate Poltergeist in a lot of ways, not least because the trend of big-budget thrill-ride effects-driven jokey-gruesome Boo!-horror movies can be traced directly to it. But I don't. It's a lot of fun. It's the fun of a rollercoaster, and none of the scares cut very deep. It won't stay with you for long. Unless, of course, you have a big scary tree outside of your bedroom window, in which case you're on your own.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Candyman (1992)

The opening credits show aerial footage of Chicago accompanied by a hypnotic score by Philip Glass; once they are finished, the first thing we see in Candyman is bees. Lots of bees, in close up. Then we hear the Voice. Deep, dark and resonant, it whispers seductively.

"They say that I will shed innocent blood. What is blood for, if not for shedding? With my hook for a hand, I will split you from your groin to your gullet. I have come for you..."

Not exactly love poetry, but in the voice of Tony Todd that's exactly what it sounds like. Todd plays the title character in Candyman, and though he has very little screen time he dominates the entire movie. His physical presence is majestic, but it is that voice that you remember.

The story centres on Virginia Madsen as Helen, a graduate student studying urban legends. She hears about a particularly gruesome one centered in Cabrini Green, a notorious real-life housing project, involving a spirit who appears when you say his name into a mirror five times. She sets out to find the truth behind the legend, which leads to her running foul of a particularly brutal local gang. But an urban legend needs people to believe to give it power, and soon Helen finds that there are scarier things than tough kids wielding meathooks.

Candyman is often described as a slasher movie, and it certainly spills more blood than most Friday the 13th sequels, but to me it's a ghost story through and through. The Candyman is not out for revenge, although his backstory gives him plenty to be vengeful about. He is more of a romantic figure. "Be my victim," he says to Helen, but he says it seductively, hypnotically. (And in fact director Bernard Rose would hypnotise Virginia Madsen before playing each of these scenes, and she does appear to be in some kind of altered state in these moments.) Helen's investigation threatens his very existence, as it could take away his mystique, which is his very power. But he does not merely want to take her life - he wants her to surrender to him completely.

"Why do you want to live? If you would learn just a little from me, you would not beg to live. I am rumor. It is a blessed condition, believe me. To be whispered about at street corners. To live in other people's dreams, but not to have to be. Do you understand?"

This is an unusually intelligent and beautiful horror movie. The elegant cinematography by Anthony B Richmond and the score by Philip Glass blend perfectly with the combination of urban fairy tale and realistic horror put together by writer/director Bernard Rose. The movie is based on a short story by Clive Barker, called "The Forbidden", and in my opinion this is one of the rare examples of a film adaptation being superior to its literary source. Rose's decision to set the movie in Chicago (instead of Liverpool) and to add the socio-economic & racial/class elements was a master stroke, as was his interpolation of real urban legends. The method of summoning Candyman is borrowed from mythology put together by American street kids, in particular the legend of Bloody Mary; there's a brilliant account of these here.

There's also a strong element of ambiguity to the movie, and it's certainly possible to claim that the supernatural elements may all be in the main character's head. I counted exactly one instance where this interpretation does not quite work, and even that could be explained away without a lot of effort. Virginia Madsen has probably never been better than she is in this movie, which puts us in her head for almost the entire running time; she carries the movie, and as much as Tony Todd elevates things when he appears, the movie wouldn't work without her.

But all these elements of romance, social significance and aesthetic beauty do not stop Candyman from being a particularly savage and frightening horror movie. Many characters within the movie tell ghost stories of their own, some of which are dramatised, and most of them are extremely gruesome. The movie supposedly had to be heavily cut to avoid an NC-17 rating in the US; I don't know if we got the uncut version over here, because it's hard to imagine it being much bloodier. And of course for all that he is majestic, awe-inspiring and even sexy, Candyman himself is quite terrifying each time he appears.

I recommend Candyman without reservation to anyone who likes horror movies.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Ghostwatch (1992)

I've covered a book and a movie, so it's time to cover a tv show. Ghostwatch is a seldom-seen one-off show broadcast by the BBC in 1992. It was so controversial that they pledged to not repeat or release it for at least ten years, even though its viewing figures broke records, and to this day it has still never been repeated. A dvd was put out on the 10th anniversary in 2002 - by the British Film Institute rather than by the BBC - but this is now out of print and selling for outrageous prices on the internet. As far as I am aware, the show was never played outside of the UK.

Ghostwatch aired as part of a series of one-off plays. It is a fake documentary, presented by real British celebrities playing themselves, in which a television documentary team goes to a house where a particularly nasty haunting has been happening for years, in an attempt to prove once and for all that the supernatural really exists. Legendary presenter & interviewer Michael Parkinson hosts the show from the studio, trying to be earnest but clearly skeptical; former Blue Peter presented Sarah Green is in the house, with the family; Red Dwarf star Craig Charles is outside the house, unable to hide his sarcastic contempt for people who believe in ghosts; and Green's husband, bland presenter Mike Smith, looks after the viewer call-in phones.

The show is a slow burn, playing nicely between Parkinson's good-natured "I can't believe I'm doing this" cynicism and Green's cheerful but slightly worried enthusiasm. There is also a British parapsychologist in the studio, and a video link to an American skeptic. There are phone call-ins from audience members (some of them apparently genuine, some definitely staged) and Craig Charles gets some disquieting interview footage with residents.

Then all hell starts to break loose, and by all accounts people all over the UK believed that they were watching a real-life horror story unfolding right before their eyes. The parallels with Orson Welles's infamous radio adaptation of War of the Worlds are obvious: despite being presented in a drama slot, with a scriptwriter's credit right at the start, and a "starring" rather than "presented by" credit for Michael Parkinson, people were so sucked in by the story and by the professionalism of the actors that they thought it was all real. And when people started calling in claiming that the poltergeist activity was leaping off the screen and into their homes, no amount of amused mockery by Parkinson could persuade the audience that it wasn't real.

This is bravura stuff. The script by Stephen Volk (who did not impress me with his work on Gothic or The Kiss) strikes just the right balance between the skepticism and the gullibility of different characters. The introduction of an element of genuine fraud at one point is a master-stroke, faking out the audience brilliantly. Director Lesley Manning does a terrific job of making it all look like it's really happening live, though it was not actually all shot in one go. Parkinson's genial, reassuring presence in the studio actually makes the scary bits more effective, and Green's children's show demeanour make her the perfect person to be right in the thick of it; when she gets worried, so do we.

The backstory of the ghost contains the kind of button-pushing guaranteed to worry a British audience, especially elements of baby-killing, animal mutilation and paedophilia. The appearences of the ghost itself are superbly managed and almost always completely ambiguous.

The storyline, of an investigative team into the supernatural getting more than they bargained for, obviously harkens back to The Haunting of Hill House. Similar ground was also covered by the BBC in their production of Nigel Kneale's teleplay The Stone Tape, which I will be tackling soon. the Steven Spielberg/Tobe Hooper movie Poltergeist (also coming soon to this blog) is another obvious reference point.

Here is the blog of Dr. Lin Pascoe, the fictional parapsychologist featured in the show.

Next up in this series, a ghost story that is not usually regarded as such, containing a whole lot more gore and violence than everything so far combined, and its link to the urban legends of Miami street kids. In the meantime, stay away from mirrors...

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Fog (1980)

The Fog was writer/director John Carpenter & writer/producer Debra Hill's follow-up to their incredibly successful 1978 movie Halloween. For this movie they decided on a complete change of pace, going for a spooky and completely non-violent ghost story. However, during post-production they decided that this approach was not successful and went back to add more violent scenes (as Carpenter would also later do with Halloween II). The result is a patchy movie with lots of great atmospheric scenes punctuated by violent climaxes.

For all its problems - and it has many - The Fog is one of my favourite horror movies. It starts with John Houseman telling a ghost story to some children, sitting around a camp fire. It has an excellent cast including Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh, Nancy Loomis, Hal Hartley and Adrienne Barbeau. Most of the characters are named after people Carpenter had worked with on his earlier movies, like Dan O'Bannon and Tommy Lee Wallace.

Mostly because of those reshoots, the ghosts in The Fog are not content to loom menacingly and say "Boo!" They are armed with swords, hooks and other such weapons, and they clearly relish using them. They are also plenty gruesome to look at: they are supposed to be the spirits of drowned lepers, and they are decayed, green, maggot-ridden and generally disgusting. Makeup effects guru Rob Bottin (who later did his best work on another Carpenter movie, The Thing) does a great job here and also gets to play ghost leader Blake.

One of my all-time favourite horror movie setpieces comes early in the movie, when three drunken fishermen find themselves confronted with a ghostly galleon pulling up next to their boat. It's the scene where I think the atmospheric stuff and the violent stuff meshes best.

As with Halloween, the movie features female characters who were gutsier and more independent than was usual at the time, especially in genre movies. Together with Sigourney Weaver in Alien this helped to make American horror movies into a genre where a strong female lead was the rule rather than the exception, to the point where it was identified as a cliché known as the Final Girl (first named as such by Carol J. Clover in her fascinating book Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film). Strong female leads are still rare in Hollywood, and horror movies are still a common exception.

John Carpenter provides the score himself, as he usually does in his own movies, and it's one of his best, based around a haunting piano melody. The photography by Dean Cundey (also a long-time associate of Carpenter) is excellent; I'd say that these are the two elements that most strongly contribute to the movie's success, though committed performances by the strong cast (especially Barbeau & Hartley) certainly help.

Barbeau is Carpenter's best heroine ever, a solo mum running a radio station and a lighthouse on her own and capably fending off both unwelcome suitors and marauding ghosts. Holbrook lends weight to what would otherwise be dull exposition scenes, his hushed tones turning them into spooky moments in their own right.

If you're not too worried by awkward shifts in tone and uneven plotting, I'd highly recommend The Fog. Just don't make the mistake of picking up the 2005 remake, which I was unable to get through without wanting to use the dvd as a frisbee (I lasted about fifteen minutes). Horrible, horrible stuff. Also, don't confuse it with James Herbert's novel of the same title, a full-strength gore-fest that has nothing in common with this movie.

There is a book of The Fog, which I've spent quite some time looking for. It's written by Dennis Etchison, one of the best horror writers of the last 50 years, and is apparently based on the earlier, pre-reshoot version of the movie. Etchison apparently managed to make the story tie up more neatly than the movie does, and this novelisation has a very high reputation. He has a gift for atmosphere and dread that seems to be perfect for this story.

Here's the trailer. I wanted to post the opening scene, where Houseman tells the story, but it's been taken down.

Guess I also need to put in an image so that I have a thumbnail for Facebook. Tempted as I am to use a sexy photo of Ms. Barbeau, I'm going for this one instead.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

I can't think of a better way to kick off my tribute to ghost stories. This is quite possibly the best opening paragraph of any horror novel, and the book that follows is certainly in the running for the best ghost story ever written. It tells the story of a team of investigators who head to Hill House, the site of several notorious deaths, as they attempt to scientifically prove the existence of the supernatural. It may not surprise you to learn that things do not go well for them.

The story is centered around the character of Nell, a shy and lonely woman who seems to have some fairly serious psychiatric problems. The book is ambiguous as to which of the supernatural phenomena are real and which are in Nell's head or possibly even created by her, but this in no way detracts from the horror. The Haunting of Hill House is, quite simply, one of the most terrifying books I have ever read.

It's not a long story, but very few really first-rate horror stories are longer than a couple of hundred pages. Brevity is the soul of horror in many ways; Jackson never allows the reader to become comfortable in the surroundings she paints for us. And the surroundings are the thing here; as that opening paragraph implies we're not dealing with the ghost of someone in particular, but with a Bad Place.

The Haunting of Hill House has been very influential on books by other horror writers, probably most notably on Stephen King's early novel The Shining. In my opinion, none of these imitators has ever equalled it.

It has been filmed twice. The first film version, 1963's The Haunting, was directed by Robert Wise, who was very much paying tribute to one of his mentors, producer Val Lewton. Lewton's movies are known for taking penny-dreadful titles like Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie and crafting smart and elegant suspense stories from them. Wise's version of The Haunting is nastier than most of Lewton's work, largely thanks to its fidelity to Jackson's story, but it still falls within the subtle horror category that Lewton exemplified.

There was a second adaptation in 1999; I have not seen it and plan to continue avoiding it. I don't want to sully this tribute to Jackson's story by talking about it further.

If you're feeling brave, give this book a go. If you're feeling slightly less brave, the first film adaptation is an acceptable substitute, but you really should go for the full-strangth original.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Ghost stories

I don't know the reason for this, but I've always found ghost stories to be the scariest kind of horror stories, in film and in literature. Perhaps it's because (despite my essentially aetheistic nature) I suspect that there may be some truth to the idea of ghosts, or at least that they seem less unlikely than other horror story monsters like vampires, werewolves, and towering unspeakable monstrosities with squids for heads.

For the next few weeks, I want to turn this blog into a tribute to some of my favourite ghost stories. English ghost stories are traditional and Japanese ghost stories have been big in recent times, but there are great ghost stories from all over the world.

Just to kick things off, here is a link to an excellent adaptation of one of my favourite ever ghost stories, Oh Whistle and I'll Come To You My Lad by M.R. James, as adapted for the BBC by writer/director Jonathan Miller and starring Michael Hordern. It's old and low-budget, but I think it's still pretty damned good. For best results, turn off the lights.

This movie scared the hell out of me.