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Ghosts make for some great characters in moves because they can be scary and funny, depending on the story. Think how they were used for both in Ghostbusters (1984). Filmmakers have found lots of interesting ways to represent ghosts in movies, from wholly invisible to full-on monsters. Here are ghost moments in two movies we’d like to scare up for you.
Film Summary: Grace (Nicole Kidman) and her two children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley), are trying to get along as best they can as they wait for their husband and father to return from World War II. When their staff inexplicably disappear and three new people show up to take their place, strange things start happening in the huge Victorian mansion that they call home. Anne insists that there are Others in the house that she has been communicating with them. Although Grace dismisses these claims at first, it becomes more and more apparent that they aren’t alone and someone or something is in the mansion with them.
The Moment: Grace is on the edge of despair. Every day there are more bizarre occurrences in the house that are increasingly difficult to brush off. When Grace goes out to get a priest to come bless the house, she finds her husband walking in the mist and brings him home. Initially, Grace and the children are elated that he has come back to them from the war as they had assumed that he had died but he’s not the same man that left. He’s distant and barely communicative. Grace doesn’t know what to do or who to turn to for support. She’s done her best to stay strong but the stress is taking it’s toll on her. One day she lets Anne dress up in her old wedding gown and takes a seat outside the darkened room while she plays. Anne and Nicholas have extreme photosensitivity and as such cannot ever be in direct sunlight; they spend their time in darkened rooms and have to abide by strict rules when it comes to moving around the house. After taking a moment to compose herself, Grace enters the darkened room that Anne is playing in. At first she is frustrated that Anne is sitting on the floor while wearing the dress when Grace expressly told her not to. As she’s asking Anne, “Why can’t you ever do as you’re told?” she stops and fear spreads across her face. She’s seen something that isn’t quite right. Anne is covered head to toe in a long flowing veil but her hand is visible as she plays with a marionette by the candlelight. As the camera pans from the marionette to Anne’s hand, we see that it isn’t a little girl’s hand at all, the hand is old and wrinkled. Grace slowly walks towards Anne, trying to see her face. When she gets in front of Anne and looks at her through the veil, what she sees instead is an old woman looking back at her who asks in Anne’s voice, “What’s the matter?” Grace asks the old woman, “Where is my daughter? What have you done with my daughter?” The old woman giggles and again in Anne’s voice says, “Are you mad? I am your daughter.” Enraged and terrified, Grace lunges at the old woman, yelling, “You’re not my daughter!” She shakes her and throws her to the ground, ripping off the veil. When the woman turns around we see that it is indeed Anne who is now crying and cringing away.
Why it Matters: Without giving too much away, this movie really turns our idea of a ghost story on it’s head. The real key to this movie’s success is in the suspense and the tension. Originally marketed as a Mystery/Thriller, this movie is as much of a horror movie as any movie with blatant, obvious scares. There’s so much to be said about subtlety and atmosphere and director Alejandro Amenábar delivers this in spades with this film. Also, Nicole Kidman delivers an incredible performance here. Too often, the female characters in horror movies are strictly there to show cleavage and scream at the top of their lungs as they are chased by the psychotic killer. Here, we see an incredible woman under a tremendous amount of pressure. She is strong, sophisticated, composed and doing everything she can to protect her family from the unseen forces at work, even having to go so far to abandon all her beliefs and fears as she tries to come to terms with what exactly is happening to them.
Film Summary: A nasty take on the haunted house motif, this Japanese horror/thriller sees an angry husband (Takashi Matsuyama) murder his wife Kayako (Takako Fuji) and son (and their cat), turning her into a ghost that goes on a rampage, cursing any all who reside in her Tokyo home forever after. This film is part of the Ju-on series, a Japanese horror series with (so far) eleven films in the franchise, including three American made remakes and sequels. The films are all based on the aforementioned murder and tell various stories around the curse and deaths caused by its reach. The Grudge is the third in the series and is perhaps the best known.
The Moment: Rika Nishina (Megumi Okina) is a social worker called upon to look in on an elderly ill woman but instead finds a house of horrors as she witnesses the ghost of Kayako kill the old woman. Other bodies are discovered in the home and the incident terrorizes Rika. She researches the history of the home and learns about the tragic past, but can’t escape the curse and the terrible visions it brings upon her. Years later, she has tried to move on, but a friend of hers, a school teacher who has a student who hasn’t shown up for class goes looking for her. The student lives in Kayako’s house and after learning of this, Rika races to stop her friend from entering and save the student. She’s too late. When she gets there, she is visited by Kayako again, who forces Rika to flee from the upstairs where she passes a mirror and sees the ghost in her reflection. She covers her face and it conjures another terrible vision of Kayako emerging from her torso. And then, the Moment. From above, the door opens and unseen, we hear the scurry of something approaching. The camera pans left to the base of the stairs and Kayako’s ghastly and disheveled head peaks from around the corner before her twisted and contorted body begins to descend the narrow stairwell, steadily gaining on the shocked and terrified Rika.
Why it Matters: Most ghosts in film are semi-transparent floaty figures that can pass through walls and such. This lack of a corporeal form creates a distance to this type of ghost that keeps them firmly in fantasy for me, and while Kayako is certainly a fantasy, her solid form and oddly realistic look make her far more terrifying. When she crawls, there is a strange jitteriness to her movements that is disturbing to watch, and the tilt of her head and those wide horrifying eyes behind stringy strands of oily black hair make her frightening (and nightmare inducing) to look at. Unlike a zombie, she is able to occupy her victim’s mind and torture them with frightening visions, which she does with shocking effect here as she slithers out of Rika’s blouse. Her descending the stairs is one of the scariest moments in cinema and makes her a great movie ghost.