Archive for Ghost Story

Forbidden Tomes: THE WOMAN IN BLACK by SUSAN HILL

Posted in Forbidden Tomes with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 10, 2016 by smuckyproductions

 

Around this time of year, everyone loves a good ghost story. Most of them are suitable for some momentary shivers, perhaps a glance over the shoulder, and a hearty (albeit nervous) laughter at the supernatural. But there are some ghost stories that leave a lingering chill. Their fears extend past the fun of fiction into something darker, more clinging. One such ghost story is Susan Hill’s classic, THE WOMAN IN BLACK.

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Many people have seen this story done on screen, either in 1989 or recently in 2012. The lucky ones have witnessed it on stage. For those who haven’t, the tale goes forward as such: an ambitious young solicitor travels to the distant, foggy climes of Eel Marsh House in order to sort the affairs of the recently deceased Alice Drablow. But something else lingers in Eel Marsh, and the neighboring town. When the young man sees a mysterious woman dressed in black standing in the local graveyard, and meets undue paranoia from the townspeople, he begins to unearth a horrible secret.

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Susan Hill sets herself up with delightful Gothic elements from the get-go. Recounted by the young man several decades later, the story feels like one told by a campfire, but his reluctance to tell it gives a feeling of unknown dread. The landscapes are wonderfully mist-shrouded and dreary, the house itself is gloomy as one could want, and the mystery surrounding it all has an air of danger: you don’t really want to know the truth. The image of the titular woman, wrapped in black and almost skeletal, is chilling. Then the real horror begins.

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Even in the films (preferring the 1989 version over the recent adaptation, though that one is decent too), the story conveys several layers of fear. There is the spooky apparition, the somber house; but then there is the terror of the townspeople, who refuse to discuss the woman in black. We get the sense that something awful lingers beneath the creepy trappings. Hill delivers on this, too. The revelation of the woman in black is the stuff of nightmares. It goes beyond a simple chilly encounter, branching into almost existential horror, because there is no escaping it.

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It’s difficult to discuss this darkness without ruining the surprise, so I’ll leave it at this: for those who like their horror with a dose of gravity, “The Woman in Black” is ideal. It will have you looking in the distance a bit too hard, searching for the form of a specter with a terrible prophecy.

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Forbidden Tomes: BELOVED by TONI MORRISON

Posted in Forbidden Tomes, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2015 by smuckyproductions

 

America’s past is full of horrors. Red stains that we have tried to expunge. But while scrubbing away the colors may dull them, it only embeds them deeper into the fibers, where they fester. It is rare to find a book or a film that honestly and completely explores these stains; and it’s no surprise that one of the greatest examples comes from Toni Morrison, in her powerhouse novel BELOVED.

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Set in the years just after the Civil War, this novel acts as two things: a historical thriller and a ghost story. It occupies two times, weaving the narrative of a woman who escaped slavery, and the aftermath of her family some years later. They live in a house haunted by the ghost of the woman’s baby. When a man whom the woman knew before she escaped comes to visit her, along with a mysterious young girl who may not be human, the woman is forced to confront the horrific past that she may not be able to reconcile.

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Morrison is an undersung genius in the art of the metaphorical Gothic. Her novels are populated by strange, but deeply human, characters – people like Milkman and Pilate in “Song of Solomon,” Sethe and her haunted family in this story. These slightly surreal elements are intriguing from an entertainment perspective, but by the time the reader has become interested, Morrison has already unleashed the full blow of her disguise. Her fantastical elements always stand for something else. She never undercuts them by retracting from their reality, though – in the world of the story, they exist, but they also represent something in our physical world.

The ghosts in this novel, amongst things both literal and nebulous, stand for past trauma. Sethe and her living daughter, along with the supporting characters, are haunted by the horror that their mind cannot escape: the nightmares of slavery. Morrison doesn’t spoon-feed these metaphors to the reader, though. She embeds them in the terror, making the reader feel every wrong done until they can’t deny it. Her vivid details serve a more horrifying purpose because, to many people, they were reality.

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This is a deeply important novel. Morrison’s ghosts are those of our own history – and they are not at rest. ‘Beloved’ is far from a traditional scary story, but it embodies the truth of horror so completely, and digs up terrifying graves that were never really buried. The aura of doom that pervades the characters’ lives is a doom that exists. For that reason, it is impossible to look away, or to forget. This book’s truths are more haunting than any phantom.

Forbidden Tomes: THE LITTLE STRANGER by SARAH WATERS

Posted in Forbidden Tomes with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 16, 2015 by smuckyproductions

The haunted house plot has been done to death (no pun intended), in a variety of different mediums. And yet, we are drawn to it consistently, always trying to find a new way to spin the tropes. Many failed examples show how difficult a task this really is – but every once in a while, a rare work comes along and uses these tropes to their fullest potential. This is embodied to near-perfection in Sarah Water’s THE LITTLE STRANGER.

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Our cursed domicile comes in the guise of Hundreds Hall, a once-grand mansion that has fallen into decay following the strife of World War II. Waters chooses an idealistic doctor as her protagonist, entering the crumbling shadows of Hundreds at first on business, and soon becoming a friend to the surviving members of the Ayres family. But the Ayres are haunted by more than just dwindling inheritance. As madness and paranoia overtake the already-besieged family, the doctor attempts to keep intact what’s left of Hundred Halls, fighting against a force that wants nothing more than to see it fall.

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“The Little Stranger” sounds like a straight horror novel. It isn’t. Most of the story focuses on the historical drama of the Ayres family, tinged with classic Gothicism (a genre to which Waters pays terrific homage). But, when the ghostly events come up, they’re all the more powerful for the quiet drama that came before. Waters orchestrates the most intricate manifestations, with steadily increasing patterns and ingenious connections to the characters’ minds. Her beautiful Gothic setting of corpse-like Hundreds Hall cements the creepiness with a heavy sepulchral atmosphere. The mounting occurrences are made even scarier by the question of reality versus hallucination – we never truly know if Hundreds is full of ghosts or mere human insanity.

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Waters infuses her ghost story with a sense of decay and loss, which helps to bring it above the typical haunted-house standard – there is a real-world core to the uncanny events flitting on the surface. Hundreds Hall is haunted by ghosts as much as by the long death of a far-off era. Like the best of the genre, echoing especially Henry James, Waters evokes the psychological within the supernatural. It makes the apparitions all the more chilling when they have long-term mental effects on the characters. The psychology of the book gives it a tragic aspect as we watch the destruction of a family who, like the rest of us, is just trying to survive.

Like many Gothic stories, Waters’ tale is a bit bloated with detail and light on action – the reason why a good portion of horror fans have shunned it – but its story and psychological terror are so impactful that the padded scenes are worth sitting through. The novel drips mouldering atmosphere and chilly breath. It’s perfect for nights when the winter wind howls outside, whispering dark prophecies; and a reminder that even decay can come to life.

Films That Haunt Me: LISA AND THE DEVIL

Posted in Films That Haunt Me with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2015 by smuckyproductions

I’ve talked about Mario Bava a few times on this blog, but it’s time I gave special attention to one of his lesser-known and more poetic creations. Colorful, chaotic, and the epitome of liminal, this is the story of LISA AND THE DEVIL.

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One thing to know about Bava films: disregard the title, the American distributors don’t know what they’re doing. This film has little to do with the devil. (Though the film was re-shot and re-edited to contain some half-assed exorcism scenes after the success of “The Exorcist.” DO NOT watch that version.) It feels more like a ghostly fairy tale, about a woman on vacation who stumbles on a mysterious villa… where the inhabitants begin experiencing bizarre, hallucinatory deaths. She’s caught in the middle of a nightmare, one that becomes supernatural, watched over by the butler (played by a pre-Kojak Telly Savalas) who may be more than he seems.

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Confusing? Yeah. In great Italian horror tradition, Bava does not pay particular attention to a plot. Regardless, the events unfold eerily and intoxicatingly, filmed in gorgeous Gothic Technicolor. Their lack of clarity adds to the spectral atmosphere of the film, in which everything seems like a hallucination. It’s a ghost story with notes of reincarnation – a tragedy acting itself out during a night of horror – but the story itself is not what gives the film its weight.

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Like all Bava films, the environment – production design, lighting, camera movement – is the real star. The villa in this film is stunning, full of secret rooms and vaulted ceilings, mist-covered grounds that resemble a graveyard. The uncanny images contained within echo the best of Lynch and Bunuel; along with Lisa, we run through corridors filled with lifelike mannequins, premature burials, and skeleton brides, haunted by the sense that all of this has happened before. Bava evokes the nature of a recurring dream in a deeply impactful way. It is nothing short of atmospheric genius.

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The attention to image and tone is elevated in this film by the presence of an underlying theme, something that usually goes missing in Bava’s films. The ghostly villa and its inhabitants, even the main character, pervade a sense of loneliness and desperation – something all the best ghost stories manifest. It’s a lyrical but disturbing hymn to crushing fate and the death of the soul.

The sensory beauty of the film may vanish from memory after the credits roll, but because of this melancholy undercurrent, one will remember the images for a long time – even if they can’t recall where they came from.

Film Review: CRIMSON PEAK

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 18, 2015 by smuckyproductions

One of the most anticipated genre releases of the year, CRIMSON PEAK is a gorgeous and impassioned return to form for Guillermo del Toro. This was at the top of my list ever since rumors and stills began leaking through the Internet catacombs. And I was not disappointed.

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The story is nothing terribly original – a young woman marries a mysterious man and follows him home to a decaying mansion, which is filled with ghosts and deadly ulterior motives – but del Toro plays it out sincerely and powerfully, making sure each emotional moment hits at the right time. He’s a terrific storyteller. And with such an amazing cast – Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, and Tom Hiddleston, to name a few – the story becomes vivid. But that’s not the best part. (What also might be said is, contrary to most Gothic stories, this one does not punish or weaken its women. The female characters are the strongest ones, which is refreshing and necessary.)

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What comes as no great surprise, but is still an absolute joy, is the production and costume design. Every image of the film explodes with color and detail. It’s a deliriously beautiful homage to the master of Grand Guignol lighting Mario Bava – sickly greens, vibrant reds, and cloying blues are all used boldly and to great effect. The success of these visuals is a testament to how ingenious Bava was as a filmmaker, and to see him referenced is joyous. Roger Corman also comes to mind, of course, but del Toro’s haunted house is more surreal than that.

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I don’t want to spoil too much, but the design of the ghosts was also profoundly original – it continues on del Toro’s concept from “The Devil’s Backbone,” but as if that film dropped acid. They’re polarizing, I’m sure, but I found them both fascinating and strangely terrifying. It’s rare that showing the monster can in itself be scary – usually the golden rule is to keep them in the dark – but in this case, every time they came on screen, I was frightened.

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It’s important to address, however, that del Toro did not make a horror film. This is not meant to be scary or shocking. There is violence and terror, but the main emphasis is placed on the theme of love, and the romance between the characters. So, don’t expect a traditional horror film. Del Toro himself said: this is a Gothic Romance. And that genre has been neglected of late. I am thrilled to see storylines that echo Sheridan Le Fanu and Nathaniel Hawthorne play out on screen. Del Toro is a huge nerd, just like me, and it comes through that he’s done his research.

While “Crimson Peak” certainly isn’t for everyone, it is a dream come true for people who love a classic ghost story and appreciate the beauty of cinema. Del Toro crafted this film with immense love and passion, and that shows on every frame. He loves his monsters and in turn, so does the audience. Beautiful, chilling and exhilarating, “Crimson Peak” is a macabre delight.

Forbidden Tomes (Halloween Edition): UNCLE MONTAGUE’S TALES OF TERROR

Posted in Forbidden Tomes, Halloween with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2015 by smuckyproductions

Children’s genre literature is often dismissed, and for good reason – most publishers don’t seem to recognise that kids can handle scary stuff. But, there are some serious exceptions to this rule. Some children’s horror is even scarier than what they give adults. My favorite example of this is Chris Priestley’s UNCLE MONTAGUE’S TALES OF TERROR.

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The book is structured terrifically – a young boy listens to his spooky old uncle telling ghost stories, each of which increase in macabre nature. But as the house fills with noises and the uncle becomes distressed, the boy begins to wonder, what is Uncle Montague hiding?

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From the very start, Priestley’s word is full of the Gothic and the uncanny – a mist-shrouded path of gnarled trees, a dark house full of whispers, and a collection of tales all focused on children who meet horrific fates for their transgressions. He knows his horror, as evidenced simply by the uncle’s name, a reference to ghost story master M.R. James. It’s a deeply atmospheric book, liminal and chilly with a hefty dose of melancholy on top. This makes the overarching story just as compelling as the vignettes in between.

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Speaking of which, I was shocked the first time I read it by how dark they were willing to go. All of them center on child protagonists, who – usually because of mischief or disobedience – encounter the supernatural and suffer the consequences. From a demon bench-end that spouts murderous thoughts into the owner’s head, to an old woman who turns trespassers to trees, even a child-luring demon-cat, the tales are full of horrific protagonists. There is something gleefully classic about the stories, each set in the Victorian era and featuring a wicked twist. It’s a skilful throwback to the old masters like James and Poe. The illustrations, resembling the best of Edward Gorey, only make this homage more wonderful.

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As a young person’s introduction to horror, or just a seasoned fan’s autumn read, “Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror” impress and chill. It’s utterly perfect for reading aloud by the fire, to keep the shadows away.

Films That Haunt Me: “The Fog” (1980)

Posted in Films That Haunt Me with tags , , , , , , , on July 22, 2014 by smuckyproductions

Directed by John Carpenter
Starring Adrienne Barbeau, Janet Leigh, and Jamie Lee Curtis

This may be an unusual choice, especially from the endlessly terrific filmography of John Carpenter. But there’s something about this film that I’ve never forgotten, and will always love.

“The Fog” is Carpenter’s followup to his 1978 indie megabeast, “Halloween,” which everyone and their grandmother has seen. I love that film for not only its incredibly disturbing villain, but also for the thick-as-blood atmosphere that begins oozing into you in during the opening credits. So, I thought, what can it hurt to seek out his next film? 

In many ways, “The Fog” is a more complex film, and a more old-fashioned horror story. It follows the disconnected lives of several townsfolk preparing to celebrate the 100th birthday of their little seaside village… just as strange things begin to happen. In a gleefully spooky opener, we learn the dark history of the town – that it was built on the gold of murdered men – and that this history is doomed to repeat itself. It’s your usual campfire tale fare, a group of dead souls return from their watery grave to get revenge on those who wronged them. Add Carpenter’s genius for soundtrack and creeping atmosphere, and you’ve got this film.

There are plenty of opportunities for this film to become just another ghost-zombie-kill movie. And to a lot of people, I’m sure it is. But this film played ruthlessly on my childhood love for a good spook story, and even worse, on many of my primal fears. I’m a huge sucker for movies that have the aura of Halloween around them, and Carpenter seems to nail that atmosphere perfectly. Pile on to that the wonderful depiction of a quiet small town on the brink of supernatural horror, and you’ve got me hooked.

I can’t ignore the cast, either. Any film that has both Janet Leigh and Jamie Lee Curtis, plus a few veterans from Halloween, can’t lose. And that is yet another thing that elevates this film above the standard fare for me – its characters are simple but fully realized, and played well by the cast. That’s rare in horror, especially in the 80s. 

“The Fog,” like I said, also plays on so many basic terrors. The titular fog always conceals more than it reveals, rolling in slowly around houses and followed by slow knocking on doors and windows. The ghouls are also great – simply designed and never fully seen, but classic in their rotting-seaweed design. These elements all sizzle together, met with Carpenter’s score (rivaling his first in my opinion), and explode into a suspense-ridden nightmare that is as fun as it is terrifying. This is one of the only films to make me verbally express fear. I hold that in high regard.

All of these things – score, imagery, classic story, setting – add up to the perfect horror experience for me. There is no attempt to be flashy or wild in this film; Carpenter allows his story to speak its own language and express its quiet terror without interference. It’s a pure and simple horror, something nearly impossible to find now, and because of this it works beautifully. This is the perfect film for an October night, when you’re looking for something that touches on the otherworldly. 

So, is it Carpenter’s best? Not by any means. But this is the one that comes to my mind most often, when the air is just calm enough that you could imagine a fog rolling in.

For the previous installment of “Films That Haunt Me,” CLICK HERE.