Not all ghost stories are scary, says James Oliver. As these films show, there’s more than one way to be "haunted"...

Whether or not you actually believe in them, ghosts have proved themselves excellent subjects for stories over the centuries, from camp fire tales to hair-raising novels and, most recently, in movies.

Most such offerings are thoroughly creepy affairs but there’s a small group of films that are more emotional, where supernatural elements are used not to chill the blood but to explore feelings.

With unconventional spook show A Ghost Story materialising in cinemas now, we thought we’d look at some other notable examples of the form.

 

Ghost

We begin with Ghost, and not just because it’s the best-known title on our list (Patrick Swayze? Demi Moore? Pottery? Yeah, that one). It’s also an excellent summary of many of the themes and ideas found across this list, of love, loss and grief, all packaged in high Hollywood style.

That means it’s shamelessly manipulative, of course, but that should not be taken as criticism. This is manipulation of the very highest order—Marks and Spencer manipulation, if you will. Even more cynical viewers might find themselves in danger of blubbering as the spirit of a murdered man (Swayze) reaches out across the great divide to his grieving girlfriend (la Moore) only... stop! I’ve got something in my eye! Boo-hoo!

Ahem. Anyway, it’s a proper three hankie weepie and then some.

 

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir 

Portrait of Jennie


The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
(1947)

More Hollywood tearjerking here—times two, in fact. Both are improbable romances: The Ghost and Mrs. Muir has Gene Tierney being wooed by deceased sea captain Rex Harrison, while in Portrait of Jennie, struggling artist Joseph Cotten discovers his muse (Jennifer Jones) comes from another time.

Each is lovely in its own right but it’s worth double billing them for what they can tell us together. Look at the dates when they were made—Mrs. Muir met her ghost in 1947 while Jennie had her portrait painted in 1948. In other words, they were released at a time when folks were still mourning those they lost in the most brutal war in history.

So not only do they depict the sadness of loss, they were also—in some minuscule way—a part of the mass grieving process. And seen like that, they become yet more moving still.

 

Always

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Portrait of Jennie are but the tip of the iceberg vis a vis supernatural films of the 1940s. Seriously, there are loads—A Matter of Life and Death; Blithe Spirit; Heaven Can Wait; Here Comes Mr. Jordan...

A Guy Named Joe is another. Not quite as good as those listed above, but Steven Spielberg liked it well enough to remake it as Always. Transposed from wartime to peace time, it’s about a pilot doing his best to look after his gal, slowly learning to accept that he’s dead—and that she must move on.

Spielberg is a director often said to be awkward with love stories but this is the most unashamedly romantic thing he’s ever done. Oh, and it’s got Audrey Hepburn as an angel too, which might be typecasting but is another reason to see it.

 

Truly Madly Deeply 

Kiss of Life 


Truly, Madly, Deeply
(1990)

The ghost story is a staple of British film—hardly surprising, given that Britain has more ghosts per square centimetre than anywhere else on Earth (well, probably). Sometimes they’re spooky (Dead of Night, The Innocents), sometimes they’re funny (The Ghost Goes West, The Ghosts of Berkeley Square) and sometimes, they’re a bit more sympathetic to our phantom friends.

Most obviously there’s Truly, Madly, Deeply; released around the same time as Ghost, it deals with much the same sort of themes, albeit without the Hollywood sheen. Here it’s Juliet Stevenson who’s struggling to deal with the death of her partner (Alan Rickman), something complicated by the fact he’s still around in spectral form. 

Less well known is Kiss of Life. Directed by Emily Young, it concerns the spirit of a woman trying to reunite with her husband (Peter Mullen) after dying in a car accident. (Tragically, the film suffered its own bereavement—Katrin Cartlidge was due to play the lead but passed away days before shooting began. Ingeborga Dapkunaite’s performance is even more remarkable given how little time she had to prepare.)

 

Rouge 

Ugetsu Monogatari


Anita Mui in Rouge (1988) 

Ghosts are found in every culture but the traditions can be very different, as can be seen in these two films from Asia.

Rouge comes from Hong Kong. The ghost here is that of a young courtesan who undertook a suicide pact with her lover in the 1930s. Unlike westerners, it seems they have the luxury of arranging to meet up again; when he doesn’t show, she sets out to find what happened.

Ugetsu Monogatari, meanwhile, is Japanese: the ghosts here are lonely and are not above deceiving living souls to supply companionship. But in this film deception is everywhere—some men are duped by ghosts, others by glory. Both are ultimately revealed to be illusory.


Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) 

Neither depends too much on local mythologies and both speak of universal subjects: it would seem that unhappy spirits are the same the world over.

 

Midnight in Paris 

Mind you, not every ghost is a miserable old thing. Those in Midnight in Paris look to be having a high old time. And why wouldn’t they, when they are the shades of the gilded generation who flocked to France in the 1920s—yer actual Hemingway, yer actual Scott Fitzgerald, yer actual Salvador Dali.

Of course, they might not be ghosts in the strictest sense of the word. Maybe they’re just the product of a restless imagination, that of the young screenwriter played by Owen Wilson who lionises their achievements and who relishes the chance to pal about with them.

But let’s not start splitting hairs about dictionary definitions of "ghosts" and accept it belongs here. Otherwise we’ll end up in a right old metaphysical tangle, and no one wants that, do they?

 

A Ghost Story 

And in conclusion we come to the films whose recent release inspired this entire list. It earns its place not because of that, though, but because of the twist it places on the format.

All ghost stories depend upon the living being able to interact, however imperfectly, with the dead. Here, though, death is an unbreachable wall, with Casey Affleck on one side, watching his widow Rooney Mara on the other. And when she goes—moves on, as it were—he’s stuck in their house to stare at what follows. It is, if you’ll excuse the pun, thoroughly haunting.

 

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