Films about ghosts fall into a subgenre all of its own. The "ghost movie" can be anything from a Japanese scare fest to a Patrick Swayze vehicle, from an '80s blockbuster comedy starring Bill Murray to a subtle '60s adaptation of a Henry James classic. Some of these films are pure genius, elevating the art form to new levels, clearing the stage for a billion knock-offs to follow, while other are... uh... well, knock-offs. What's important is that all of the ghost movies fulfil one function - they act as mirrors, reflecting our troubled pasts and most hidden fears - and the really good ghost movies explode their function into a supernova, often leaving the viewer into a fuzzy state of shock long after the movie is over. This "definition" of the ghost movie is not made with the purpose of knocking down comedies and Patrick Swayze - in fact, I think Ghost Busters and Ghost are really good films. However, the list of best ghost movies I have seen so far looks something like this:
1. The Shining (1980)
It's a Stanley Kubrick film based on a Stephen King novel and it is as disturbing as its conclusion is unclear. Apart from Delbert Grady and his twin daughters, where do all these other ghosts come from? What's up with that slo-mo elevator scene? The Bath Lady? The Shining has some stomach-churning and gory images but it doesn't rely on them; instead, it is pedal to the metal with scary music based on Bela Bartok's works and brilliant Steadicam cinematography. The terrifying mood and atmosphere of the film is only supplemented by Jack Nicholson's performance as the aggressive Jack Torrance and Shelley Duvall's as the seemingly weak Wendy Torrance. If you don't know what "Heeere's Johnny!" means, you don't know cinema.
2. The Innocents (1961)
A ghost film or a psychological study? Based on Henry James' classic novel The Turn of the Screw, directed by Jack Clayton and starring Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens, absolutely everything in this black-and-white film is based on speculation and nothing is really shown. That Miss Giddens sees shadows and premonitions everywhere around her might be more about her repressed sexuality than it is about the strange behavior of the children Miles and Flora she is supposed to be looking after. As the prequel The Nightcomers released in 1971 and starring one Marlon Brando shows, the things you don't know are almost always scarier than the things you do know, no matter how disgusting or revolting they might be. Oh, and that all too brief Quint apparition: what a scene!
3. Dark Water (2002)
The original Japanese Dark Water, directed by the same Hideo Nakata that stands behind the original Ring, is by far the best film of the yurei bunch (Ring, The Grudge, One Missed Call etc.), mostly because it really is a heartfelt human drama with ghosts in it. The everyday problems that recently divorced Yoshimi Matsubara and her daughter Ikuko Matsubara go through are easy to relate to, and the pressure that starts mounting as soon as Yoshimi realizes she might not be the best parent for her daughter is what makes the film. The ghost of the missing girl is there just to move things a little faster, a kind of catalyst and a constant reminder of what could happen to Ikuko if she doesn't move immediately with her father. If you watch the film this way, paying attention to all the nuances Nakata has brought to this bleak story, there is no way that the ending will leave you cold.
4. The Changeling (1980)
This is not Clint Eastwood's Angelina Jolie vehicle but Peter Medak's atmospheric take on the haunted house story with George C. Scott as the main protagonist. The story here is about John Rusell, a composer still shaken from the death of his wife and daughter, who moves to a house still possessed by the ghost of a child murdered a long, long time ago. The Changeling is the kind of film that has "spooky" and "supernatural thriller" written all over it, but what makes it particularly good is that it fully delivers on its promise, piling one mystery on top of another until it reaches a conclusion that is as emotionally satisfactory as it is logically predictable. Watch for the scene with the bouncing ball - so many directors have aped it since but nobody has ever come close to Peter Medak's work here.
5. The Orphanage (2007)
Produced by Guillermo del Toro, The Orphanage is an amazing piece of work not so much because of what it presents you with (great characterization, beautiful cinematography) but because of the emotional state it leaves you in after its running time. It is a wretched story and it is particularly wretched towards its characters - there is no happy ending for anyone attached to the titular orphanage, and least of all, for the children living in it. In many ways, this film is a cross between The Innocents and Dark Water, playing hard and strong on the issue of parental inadequacy found both in the main character and her predecessor(s), subtly questioning the viewer's parental skills in the process. That Belen Rueda as Laura feels so real in her heartbreak doesn't help the viewer, either: by the time she finally resolves the mystery of the orphanage and her son's disappearance, there is simply no way for one to hold tears, no way in the world.
Honorable mention: Kaidan (1964), The Sixth Sense (1999), The Others (2001).
Bottom line: if you want to make an effective ghost movie, your best bet is on having a female lead and plot that revolves around endangered children! :) No, I'm just kidding... or am I?