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I Ain't 'Fraid Of No Ghost
by Simon Smithson

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The modern axe murderer makes sure he stays in shape.

The modern axe murderer makes sure he stays in shape.
It's impossible to know what happens after death " if, once the soul is separated from the flesh, anything continues to wear chains and rattle chains. Some point to Lindsay Lohan's mother as proof that a body can exist without anything remotely resembling a soul, but the body isn't of any concern in this column. With Halloween approaching, this column is all about ghoulies, and ghosties, and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night, and how they get treated in the movies.

Before we begin, however, I would like to make it very clear that when doing my research for this column I flatly refused to hire GHOST DAD.

The classic of the genre is, of course, the haunted house story. Something bad goes down inside the house and before you know it you've got an infestation that your average exterminators are not going to be able to fix.

One of the more famous movies in the haunted house genre is THE AMITYVILLE HORROR. Based on supposedly real-life events, it's the story of the Lutzes, an average suburban family who move into a house and promptly start to notice that things are not as they should be. The original movie hasn't dated well, having been well and truly superceded by the 2005 remake starring Ryan Reynolds. Reynolds put a gigantic nail in the coffin of his VAN WILDER persona with his performance as George Lutz, the family member that the evil of the house chooses to target. The ghostly Reverend Ketcham, the destructive force that occupies the house, only truly shows himself towards the end of the film. Before that his presence is only hinted at through bizarre happenings and the gradual deterioration of George Lutz's hold on sanity. The ghost isn't humanised in any way " he isn't even around for most of the film.

Aidan Quinn came up against the same problem in HAUNTED, where he starred with Kate Beckinsale and John Gielgud in what was a very classic English ghost story. Quinn plays a psychic investigator, called in to prove or debunk claims of spooks in an old mansion out in the countryside. Like the Lutzes in THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, Quinn doesn't see any ghosts for most of the movie, but he sees plenty of hints of their existence. It's the lack of any definable proof that truly plays upon him " after all, the simplest explanation for the phenomena that Quinn experiences is that he is losing his mind. While not as overt as in THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, the spiritual movements in HAUNTED are malicious nonetheless " torturing the old servant who asked for Quinn's help in the first place, and tormenting Quinn as soon as he arrives on scene.

The friendliest ghost story this side of Casper came along in the form of THE SIXTH SENSE, the movie that put M. Night Shyamalan on the pop culture map and made him famous " a fame that he did his best to destroy with LADY IN THE WATER. Any menace that the film holds is only present in the first watching, when Haley Joel Osment is still struggling to understand his psychic abilities. The revelations about Bruce Willis being already
It was only then that Matthew Lillard met his blind date.

It was only then that Matthew Lillard met his blind date.
deceased were the Generation X equivalent of ‘I am your father' and are instantly recognisable in pop culture today. Shyamalan's ghosts weren't vengeful, bitter spirits, but rather confused and sad souls who were trapped on Earth long after they should have moved on. Willis, in the performance that re-ignited his career, personified the maudlin, regretful nature of the ghosts that Osment was continually exposed to.

The ghosts in THE SIXTH SENSE were bound to earth because of a need to find the justice in the afterlife that they never found in life. A similar theme was the motivation for WHAT LIES BENEATH, a film that had all the right elements but just couldn't make them stick together coherently. It was a great idea on paper " Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford teaming up, Robert Zemeckis directing, and a labyrinthe plot that moved through sanity to suspicion and back again.

Unfortunately the film moved too slowly at the start and became too unbelievable towards the end, collapsing under the weight of expectations and stale thriller staples. Zemeckis got one thing right, holding the presence of the ghost back for most of the movie and allowing only hints of it to seep through to Pfeiffer's troubled housewife, who spent as much time doubting her sanity as believing that ghosts could be real. The film strove too hard to be scary and to take itself seriously, and became all too dull as a result.

Fortunately along came Dark Castle, bringing the schlock element back into horror movies, having a field day with remakes of classic horror films, most especially films helmed by the legendary William Castle. Castle, creator of such gimmicks as taking out an insurance policy in case anyone was frightened to death by one of his films, and ‘The Tingler,' a tiny electric buzzer located in theatre seats, would have approved of the ‘You Select What Happens Next!' feature on the latest release of RETURN TO THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL.

Dark Castle originally specialised in updating the old horror movies to a present day setting. THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL retained the original movie's ideas, and Geoffrey Rush drew critical praise for his channeling of Vincent Price, but the remake came with new effects and new gore. The ghosts in THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL favoured visceral killing over just making some hinges creak in the middle of the night. The presence of evil spirits wasn't hinted at " it was there right from the beginning. The only question that remained was how many people were going to be killed through the night by the marauding spectres inside the house. There were some nice visual touches, particularly in the scene where a blonde celebrity wannabe can catch sight of the ghosts through her video camera but nowhere else.

Killer spooks and graphic trickery came up again in the Dark Castle feature 13 GHOSTS, again developed from a William Castle film. Right from the outset of the film, as a gibbering Matthew Lillard, a villainous F. Murray Abraham, and a troupe of ready-to-be-disposed-of goons
Alone and confused, the lost Smurf became angry and vengeful.

Alone and confused, the lost Smurf became angry and vengeful.
track a murderous phantom through a junkyard, the rules of play are set up. Using special glasses, you can see ghosts. Often as they're coming right at you, ready to kill.

13 GHOSTS used the nature of its bad guys as an action device, rather than in an attempt for scares. For the most part they're a bunch of chillers and killers, and the people trapped in the house with them (a common facet of Dark Castle films) have their work cut out for them to not be diced, decapitated and dismembered.

The problem with films being classics is that it generally goes hand in hand with desensitisation. The classic Western ghost movie, with all its elements and familiar plot turns, is as familiar to Western audiences as Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan getting together at the end of a film, despite everything that stands in their way. So it's not surprising that the introduction of culturally unfamiliar fears had such an impact when the remakes of Japanese horror films hit the big screen.

THE RING introduced the videotape that kills, the well that should stay shut, and the girl that came out of TV screens to frighten people to death. The idea was new to people who hadn't seen the original Japanese version and it certainly scared the hell out of me. It was dark, gritty, and left audiences worldwide terrified. The evil little girl Samara was a new type of ghost, one who was weird when she was alive and even weirder after she was dead.

THE RING struck a balance between hinting at what was going on and revealing it outright. Green-faced corpses, freaked-out horses, and bizarre video tapes were all a lead up to the final scenes when Samara emerged from the TV set to make sure that Naomi Watts could never, ever, have a boyfriend again.

THE GRUDGE was a similar experience, translocating the viewer from their normal ideas of how ghost movies are supposed to work and putting them in a new world of fear. Haunted houses have never been quite so threatening as Sarah Michelle Gellar's Japanese abode, where just setting foot in the door is enough to seal your doom. The croaking, throat-slashed spectre was a masterpiece of fright, announcing its presence with darkness and the hair-raising groans of air coming through a slit windpipe.

Similarly unsettling build-ups as in THE RING came up in THE GRUDGE " hints laid in place before the main event. The removal of lower jaws, the killing of Bill Pullman and Clea Duvall, hands erupting from water " just scares along the way before the true horror of the house unfolded.

The spirits of the dead can be utilised in many different ways in a movie setting. They can be wise-cracking sidekicks, like in THE FRIGHTENERS. They can be a backboard for people to play off " GHOSTBUSTERS is a prime example. They can be the fuel for an action film, albeit a confusing one, like in THE FOG.

The best use for a ghost in a movie is to scare the hell out of you. It's one of life's great pleasures, sitting on the couch, freaking out. With Halloween on the way, it's the best time of the year for it.

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Other Columns
Other columns by Simon Smithson:

And The Cat's In The Cradle...

Get Thee Behind Me, Satan

Soldier On

Psycho Killer- Qu'est-ce que c'est?

You Can't Spell Private Without I

All Columns

Simon Smithson
Simon was crushed when he found out that 'Ghostbuster' was not an actual vocation, and so went with the next best thing - writing columns for Internet movie sites. He's working on a proton pack of his own, but it's going to take some time.

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Simon Smithson by clicking here.

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