The start of November in Australia attracts three annual seasonal gripes: Why do Christmas decorations appear in the shops so early? Why are we forced to celebrate the ‘American’ festival of Halloween? Why does the AFL trade period go for so long?
Taking on the Catholic Church and the Australian Football League never ends well for anyone, so let’s restrict our discussion to the night of ghosts, ghouls and hobgoblins.
I confess to liking Halloween. Yes, like Christmas, the corporate world has its claws in it, and yes it’s depressing to see costumes such as ‘sexy Ebola nurse’ and ‘Kim Kardashian Paris kidnapping’ for sale online.
But kids love it and at the very least it’s an excuse to sit back with a scary movie or two to honour the season. So, between asking ‘aren’t you too old for this?’ to 18-year-old trick-or-treaters, here’s a quartet of spooky movies outside the mainstream of The Conjuring and Ring that should scare the bejesus out of you during this most unholy of times.
The Innocents (1961)
This chilling psychological horror based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw benefitted from eerily claustrophobic cinematography, a script, reworked by Truman Capote, that builds a sense of dreadful inevitability and a superb performance by Deborah Kerr.
Kerr plays a governess assigned to care for two children in a sprawling country estate who begins to suspect that her charges are possessed by the ghosts of the former governess, Miss Jessel, and the rakish, corrupting valet Quint, both of whom died suddenly after an illicit affair.
The children’s disturbing behavior and creepy sightings of the ghosts – including an eerie encounter with Miss Jessel at the edge of a lake – build a sense of heart-throbbing tension that eventually ignites into an horrifically tragic climax.
The Innocents is a high watermark for cinematic gothic horror and its influence can be felt in subsequent old dark house horrors like The Others (2001) and Crimson Peak (2015).
The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
An early gem from Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, before his career entered the stratosphere with 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Like Labyrinth, Devil’s Backbone is set during the Spanish Civil War, where 12-year-old Carlos arrives at a remote orphanage and soon witnesses weird goings-on.
Carlos begins to see ghostly apparitions linked to stories about the mysterious disappearance of a boy named Santi, who went missing the same day an unexploded bomb was dropped in the orphanage courtyard. The Oscar-winning del Toro’s filmography reads like an honour roll, but he has never made a thriller better than this.
The Woman in Black (1989)
Not the 2012 Daniel Radcliffe vehicle, but a UK TV movie from 1989, based on the same book by Susan Hill, that is still one of the most terrifying ghost stories committed to film.
When a solitary old widow dies in a seaside town a young lawyer is assigned by his firm to settle the estate. On arrival, he keeps sighting a menacing female figure in black, but finds the townsfolk reluctant to talk about her.
At the woman’s isolated home, connected to the mainland by a causeway frequently cut off be the sea, he discovers the horrible secret connected to the spectral figure, and realises too late the extent to which he is caught up in it.
People who caught this ITV production when it was screened in Australia now constitute a kind of survivors’ group, having absorbed one of the most terrifying jump scares in TV history.
Sadly, apart from an out of print DVD floating around it’s almost impossible to catch The Woman in Black on screen. But if you’re passing through London, the adapted stage play captures much of the terror of the ITV production and is second only to The Mousetrap for the length of its West End run.
My family and I had our bones chilled by it last Christmas eve, and faced the additional startling discovery that we were sitting next to another spectral presence, Sir Rod Stewart.
Don’t Look Now (1973)
A couple (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) grieve the loss of their daughter in wintry Venice, where a little figure resembling her darts throughout the bridges and canals. Prepare yourself for a mind shattering reveal.