Ghosts are a hard sell in the movies. Unlike city-stomping Cloverfield monstrosities or ennui-dripping vampires, ghosts establish horror primarily through deftly built atmosphere and sudden, immaterial shocks. Anyone can direct a flick about a rampaging Italian octopus-shark, but it takes some talent to pull off the mood and subtlety needed for a good, harrowing ghost movie.
For example, none of the following films could do it. In one way or another, they and their ghosts failed to properly scare us. And that’s an unforgivable offense when it comes to any movie about ghost, poltergeists, or angry will-o’-the-wisp things. Most alleged comedies like Ghost Dad are off the hook, of course. We’re after the movies that were supposed to scare us.
8) Karl Hochman, Ghost in the Machine
You could throw Ghost in the Machine under the same embarrassing “techno-thriller” label that includes Hackers and The Lawnmower Man, but it’s still something of a ghost story. That ghost is the restless spirit of serial killer Karl Hochman, who’s transmuted into a hospital computer during a power spike. Roaming through dishwashers and pool cleaners, he takes aim at his next victim (Karen Allen, who was nearly halfway between Raiders of the Lost Ark and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) and her family. It’s a film that taps into our primal fear of finding an electric murderer in the microwave.
Perhaps Ghost in the Machine was a cautionary tale about ever-present technology, because it really doesn’t work as a horror movie. Karl’s lines are too cliché to make him a memorable lunatic, and his habit of stalking people through traffic lights and dated virtual reality games makes the movie seem more low-budget than it probably was. For a cogent example of just how scary Ghost in the Machine is, head over to its IMDB message boards, where the most intense discussion about the movie focuses on the babysitter’s boobs double.
7) No-Pupils Boy, The Grudge
Much like the 1999 Godzilla film, The Grudge proved that what works in a Japanese movie might not work in an American remake. Granted, the original The Grudge (or Ju-On) was, like Godzilla, nearly an unintentional comedy, but director Takashi Shimizu seemed to get even goofier when he put together an Americanized version of his first Ju-On film. Part of the problem lies with Sarah Michelle Gellar, who bravely refuses to act despite the ghosts hounding her during a trip to Japan.
Another problem? That little ghost boy with the all-black eyes seems less a frightening specter and more like a kid who just wants to show Gellar his Pokémon cards. When he’s watching an elevator-riding Gellar from each floor of a building, it’s pretty easy to imagine him squeaking “Hi!” with each level. And when he meows like a cat, it pretty much seals the comedy deal.
6) The Presences, White Noise
As paranormal weirdness goes, the world of electronic voice phenomena ranks down there with ball lightning and crop circles that spell dirty words. Sure, it’s creepy to think that the voices of the dead can be heard through static, but just about everything allegedly said by these spirits needs to be subtitled for us, lest we think that the microphone picked up a stray line from Law & Order. So when Brightlight Pictures approved a movie based on EVP, that movie required something scarier than low-pitched feedback that might be some deceased old lady asking about her cats.
White Noise didn’t get that. It got some half-glimpsed apparitions and three phantoms that, like some M. Night Shyamalan version of Casper’s ghostly trio, bring about the deaths of people surrounding Michael Keaton, who scares us mostly because of the idiotic way his character confronts the situation. Like a lot of ghosts, the three spirits can’t really do anything but hound people to the point of accidental suicide, and the movie needs a crazed human killer to do its really dirty work. No wonder they’re not in the trailer.
5) Vigo the Carpathian, Ghostbusters II
The original Ghostbusters wasn’t a horror movie, and yet there’s no denying that the library ghost and Gozer’s hideous demon dogs scared more kids than either Critters film or the talky parts of Rosemary’s Baby. Ghostbusters II fell short of the first in many ways, and its biggest problem lay in the lack of an imposing villain. Instead of an ancient Hittite god and his/her slavering death-hounds, the Ghostbusters faced down…an evil painting.
Okay, so he’s really a medieval tyrant called Vigo the Carpathian, and his canvas-bound spirit had a mountain of evil slime on his side. But when it came to terrifying younger viewers well into their nightmares, Vigo just sorta sucked. Throughout most of the film’s climax, he simply skulks around and doesn’t even get monstrous until his final moments. He’s even lame in the Ghostbusters II game for the NES.