Ghost Stories On Film

Reading & Writing, The Arts

I recently watched ‘The Woman In Black’. I’d read Susan Hill’s book many years ago and the play, a cheap two-hander popped into the Fortune Theatre to fill a programming gap, has now been running half as long as ‘The Mousetrap’, thereby closing off that lovely little theatre forever.

I can see why it’s a success. Every possible Victorian ghost story trope is laid on with a trowel; a secluded mansion, a bereaved husband, dead children, dimly lit rooms, creaking doors, creepy old toys, rolling mists, a veiled woman, rhubarbing locals who warn the hero away; it’s a sort of greatest hits package, an elegant throwback which was beyond parody even in the 1950s, and a very efficient one which appealed to newbies in such numbers that it became a huge US hit for Hammer, which is music to my heart.

But what the film does lack is any real resonance, anything oblique, off-kilter or unresolved. It’s solid, safe and neat, not helped by a script as flat as the film’s landscape from the proficient, ubiquitous Jane Goldman, Hollywood’s favourite adaptor of brands. However, Goldman (or perhaps the director) did allow for something special – a long centre section of wordless creeping about that reminded me of Freddie Francis’s ‘The Skull’. The film’s other saving grace is a superb performance from Daniel Radcliffe, who appears genuinely bereft and haunted throughout.

This set me thinking about successful ghost stories on film, which are few. If I had to pick five, they would be:

1. The Innocents
2. The Others
3. The Orphanage
4. The Haunting
In fifth place it’s hard to choose between Dark Water, The Skeleton Key, Burnt Offerings or The Ring.

For years my agent tried to sell a script (which I still have, if anyone’s interested) about a viral ghost moving from one blood-relative to another. Perhaps now is the time to dig it out again.

And here’s a book that should be filmed: ‘The Victorian Chaise-Longue’ by Marghanita Laski haunted my nights. Melanie, a young mother recovering from tuberculosis, is moved from her bed to a Victorian chaise-longue she bought in a junk shop.

Falling asleep, she awakes in another sickened body in an earlier time, surrounded by solicitous strangers. The sights and smells of the Victorian era are seen through Melanie’s modern senses as she tries to understand her plight. The connecting bridge between the two eras of 1953 and the mid-1800s seems to be the chaise-longue itself, but Melanie cannot return because her earlier failing body keeps her trapped in the chair, and she is equally held in place by the repression of the times. Eerie and disturbingly open to interpretation, the novel is a forgotten gem.

11 comments on “Ghost Stories On Film”

  1. Jez Winship says:

    Kwaidan is a great Japanese quartet of stories, a blend of ghost and folk tales. Its vivid colour cinematography bucks the general monochrome look of cinematic ghost stories too. Last year’s The Awakening was a good and deliberately self-conscious blend of classic British ghost story elements. Guillermo Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone set the ghost story within a specific historical context to great effect. I dimly recall the 1940s film The Uninvited having some effective moments, particularly when a spectre drifts slowly down the stairs. I don’t know whether The Ghost and Mrs Muir would count – it’s as much a romance as a ghost story – but it’s marvellous, anyway.
    Ghost stories seem to fare better on the television, perhaps because they work better at shorter length, or because the small screen used to allow for slower pacing and more subtly suggestive atmospherics. I’ve not seen the new Woman in Black yet, but Nigel Kneale’s 80s adaptation was fine, as was his 70s play The Stone Tape, which blended science fiction and the supernatural in his characteristic style. Happily, the bfi are just about to start re-issuing the BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas adaptations too, although the first volume twins Jonathan Miller’s unsettling version of O Whistle and I’ll Come To You (featuring a magnificent performance by Michael Hordern) with the recent, redundant ‘re-imagining’. There were lots of good ghost stories on children’s TV in the 70s and early 80s too. I’ve just watched the old ITV series Shadows and its follow up Dramarama Spooky, which contains some excellent ghost stories by the likes of Susan Cooper, Leon Garfield, Jane Hollowood (the disturbingly self-reflexive In A Dark, Dark Box…), and Alan Garner (the superb story The Keeper). They don’t make them like this any more (as far as I know, anyway).
    The Victorian Chaise-Longue sounds a little like Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes, or Pamela Sykes’ Come Back, Lucy (also made into a children’s TV series in the 70s). I love both of those, so I’ll keep an eye out for Marghanita Lasky’s book.

  2. Ken M says:

    Could it be “beyond parody” because it is a story model that works?

  3. Sam Tomaino says:

    The original version of THE HAUNTING would be my #1, followed by THE UNINVITED & THE INNOCENTS. If it counts as a ghost story, I’d also list the original Japanes version, RINGU.

    As far as romantic ghost stories, nothing beats PORTRAIT OF JENNIE.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    I really enjoyed Susan Cooper’s writing, and the Laski one sounds extremely good. John Masefield’s children’s book The Magic Box (was that it’s title?) was made into a Christmas special which I found very entertaining and spooky so when I found a copy of the book I was particularly disappointed to find the writing dry, dusty, and boring. It was a case of the adaptation surpassing the original. Perhaps I also enjoyed it because I had flu at the time.

  5. John says:

    There was a dreadful production of THE WOMAN IN BLACK in Chicago several years ago. Utterly horrid from the amateurish set (burlap stapled to the stage in an attempt to give the look of a moor) to the atrocious attempts at accents by the less than dynamic actors. I had heard that it was “one of the most terrifying plays ever staged.” There was hardly a thrill in what I saw. As you mentioned nothing more than a bagful of cliche ridden motifs and hoary old tropes.

  6. Samantha says:

    Thanks for that review. I was going to watch it tomorrow (probably still will and kick myself for it!).
    I can’t remember the last time that I watched a good ghost film, but I agree with Sam Tomaino about the original Ring.

    I can’t buy your script from you, but I’d willingly read it or watch it!

  7. snowy says:

    If you are interested in the grizzly goings on during the building of London, you might like a book called “Hawksmoor”. It revolves around ungodly practises during the reconstruction of London’s churches after the Great Fire. This is intertwined with a detective story of sorts, (the latter didn’t quite work for me. I came to the novel after hearing a dramatisation, and it seemed the better for a decent edit.) Another book by the same author, “Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem”, was much better, more of a journey through the foggy, menacing streets of the East End of Victorian London.

    Ha Ha, while fact checking this I discovered DL&TLG is being developed with Jane Goldman who adapted “The Woman in Black”. I was going to put this under “The Suspension of Disbelief” to follow the talk of sacrifices to ensure the safety of bridges, but it also fits here.

  8. glasgow1975 says:

    I finally read The Woman In Black last year and was underwhelmed tbh, I don’t know if it was the fact it has been hyped up so much, or that I’m too used to reading about ninja demon slayers in tight leather . . .much preferred The Little Stranger. The Devil’s Backbone was excellent, surprised to see it skipped :)

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Last night I tried to persuade someone to read Joe Hill’s The Heart Shaped Box, which I had thoroughly enjoyed (if that’s the right word). She said she wasn’t going to read something that might give her nightmares. I scared myself when I was ten by reading a “scary” book when I was home alone, didn’t like the experience, and avoided scary literature thereafter. I was told by a family member that I should try a few and suggested Joe Hill. I’m either tougher now or there wasn’t as much there as I thought. Still, I didn’t push her because I don’t know what it would take to give her nightmares.

  10. Alan Morgan says:

    I liked the Devil’s Backbone too. It’s one of several reasons I started to learn Spanish last year. I read somewhere that that a couple of the orphanage boys are cast in Pan’s Labyrinthe amongst the maqui, giving a suggestion of what happened to them next. I like that sort of thing.

  11. glasgow1975 says:

    Oh yes Joe Hill is good :)

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