I participated this month in the DVD Talk Forum’s annual October Horror Challenge and I’ve managed to see a number of movies with ghostly themes and am struck by the wide range of treatments ghosts get in the movies. In the actual literature on reported ghost encounters in real life, ghosts usually manifest themselves by making noises and moving objects at haunted sites, but also making brief appearances to those individuals with the sensitivity to see such apparitions. Reported encounters in isolated places have included brief conversations between humans and ghosts, and even occasional sensations of physical contact by ghosts. In the movies, however, human characters routinely have long, intricate conversations with ghosts, take long, leisurely walks with them in both daytime and nighttime settings, have swordfights with them, and even make love to them. Ghosts in movies sometimes conform to the old spooky stereotype and bring their hands up in threatening gestures (“ooga booga”) and terrorize living humans, sometimes to the point of death. While ghost movies are generally as far-fetched as vampire, werewolf and zombie movies, they do offer a greater latitude of genre choices. Ghosts pop up in romances, comedies, musicals, horror, adventure, revenge thrillers, monster movies, and the occasional historical epic. Films as diverse as THE INNOCENTS, BLITHE SPIRIT, TOPPER, BEETLEJUICE, GHOSTBUSTERS, THE SIXTH SENSE, THE EYE, THE SHINING, SPIRITED AWAY, POLTERGEIST, CARNIVAL OF SOULS, UGETSU, GHOST, FIELD OF DREAMS and the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies have all featured ghosts.
The first ghost movie I saw in a theater as a child was 13 GHOSTS (1960), when it was reissued in 1964 on a double bill with VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960). Theatergoers were supplied with special cardboard-and-cellophane glasses that you were supposed to put on when the ghosts appeared in the film so you could see them. (If you didn’t have the glasses on, the images were just blurry.) You were told to take the glasses home with you and put them on at midnight to see ghosts. I tried looking out the window with them one night and saw nothing out of the ordinary other than some dramatic clouds (which were already there, but just seemed more heightened with the glasses). A classmate of mine with an active imagination claimed she looked at the mirror at midnight and saw ghosts from the movie. I thought about trying that myself, but decided not to.
If I had to pick the best ghost movies ever made, I’d have to go back and re-watch such classics as THE UNINVITED (1944), DEAD OF NIGHT (1945), THE INNOCENTS (1961) and THE HAUNTING (1963) in order to make a proper assessment, so I’ll just talk about the best of the ones I’ve watched this month. Aside from a couple of Hollywood classics, I tended to watch mostly ghost movies from Hong Kong and Japan. I tend to like Hong Kong ghost movies the best because they take place in a culture with a healthy respect for the supernatural and a few centuries’ worth of ghost-related occult practices and superstitions. And they often have more action, charm and humor than ghost movies from the U.S. and Japan. As for Japanese ghost movies, I tend to prefer those set in the country’s storied past because they’re aesthetically more beautiful than contemporary J-horror and make it easier for me to suspend disbelief than I can with modern ghost/horror stories from Japan like those done in the last two decades, some of which I saw this month for the first time, although I prefer not to cover them here. I should add that I rarely find ghost movies or, for that matter, most horror movies, scary. (Real life, on the other hand, is a different matter, but that’s another story.)
THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR (1947)
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, this is one of the most fanciful ghost movies I’ve ever seen, given that much of it centers on long conversations, often during the daytime when ghosts are not supposed to come out, between a dead sea captain who died an accidental death in the house he built by the sea for his retirement and a young widow with child who has left her husband’s family for a life of her own and moved into the house despite unmistakable evidence of its being haunted. The widow, Mrs. Muir (Gene Tierney), refuses to be driven out by the indignant ghost of Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison) and the two develop a high degree of mutual respect (significantly more than is usually noted in reported human encounters with ghosts). In fact, Captain Gregg prevails on Mrs. Muir to write down his memoirs (under the unlikely title of “Blood and Swash”) and get them published. Eventually, when it looks like Mrs. Muir is about to let another man into her life, an actual flesh-and-blood specimen (played by George Sanders), Captain Gregg gracefully bows out of her life, seemingly at sufficient peace to exit the world of the living once and for all. Things don’t get tidied up so easily, however, and the film takes a bittersweet turn before reaching a profoundly beautiful romantic conclusion, all underscored by a grand, emotionally sweeping score by Bernard Herrmann, one of the very best of his long career.
The only Hollywood film with a similar theme that I’d put above GHOST AND MRS. MUIR is PORTRAIT OF JENNIE (1948), although I’m leaving it out of this discussion because I’m not entirely sure that the character of Jennie is a ghost. I wrote about PORTRAIT OF JENNIE here earlier this year on May 16.
THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944)
In this sequel to CAT PEOPLE (1942), two of the characters from the original (neither one of them actual cat people) have gotten married and had a child, a little girl named Amy (Ann Carter). A very lonely child, Amy has difficulty attracting playmates because of her serious demeanor and active fantasy life and is befriended by the spirit of her father’s first wife, Irena (Simone Simon, the cat woman of the original film, whose propensity to turn into a lethal panther when sexually aroused doomed her marriage to Oliver Reed, played Kent Smith in both films). Is she a ghost or an imaginary friend? I tend to think the former since Amy has, up to this point, seen no pictures of Irena nor been told about her in any significant way. One can see the attraction Amy holds for Irena, since Irena never had the chance to give birth to a child of her own and live the kind of domestic suburban bliss now enjoyed by Oliver and Alice (Jane Randolph) and Amy’s soul is crying out for a parent figure who can better understand her. Eventually, Amy matures enough to accept her own parents’ love and learn to get along with others and grow past the need for Irena’s visits in the family’s sprawling back yard. This film was produced by Val Lewton and co-directed by Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise.
A gentle tale of a child’s sensitivity, the ads for it played it up as a horror film, which might have misled many an audience member back in 1944. However, James Agee, writing in The Nation on April 1, 1944, nicely summed up the Times Square audience’s reaction to the film when it played the Rialto on Seventh Avenue and 42nd Street:
The people with whom I saw the film–a regular Times Square horror audience–were sharply on to its faults and virtues….And when the picture ended and it was clear beyond further suspense that anyone who had come to see a picture about curses and were-cats should have stayed away, they clearly did not feel sold-out; for an hour they had been captivated by the poetry and danger of childhood, and they showed it in their thorough applause.
I should point out, though, that when I first saw this movie on television as a child, I was quite disappointed that there were no cat people in it.
Directed by Stanley Kwan, ROUGE is a Hong Kong film that straddles two eras in the island colony’s history, starting out in 1934 and then jumping to 1987, with a narrative that cuts back and forth between the two periods. It tells a sad, poignant tale of a courtesan engaged to the scion of a prominent family that threatens to disown him if he goes ahead with his plan to marry her. The two undertake a suicide pact and we then see Fleur, the courtesan (Anita Mui), appear in 1987 Hong Kong looking for the lover, Chen-Pang (Leslie Cheung), who had failed to show up in the afterlife. Attracting stares for her dress and courtly manner, Fleur seeks the help of a newspaper office and manages with some effort to recruit a married pair of employees there, Yuan (Alex Man) and Chu (Emily Chu), to help her find out what happened to Chen-Pang. There is a palpable sense of the passage of time and the erosion of history as Fleur visits the sites she once knew (the brothel, a theater) only to find them long gone and replaced by bland commercial structures, all under the shadow of drab gray concrete highway overpasses. It’s interesting to see a ghost interact with human beings, usually at night but sometimes during the day, without any supernatural cinematic glosses applied. She even touches them physically at different points. She can be seen by everyone in her path, not just her chosen helpers. Eventually, thanks to old-fashioned shoe leather and detective work and a fortuitous discovery of a cache of old newspapers at an antique shop, they get a lead into the whereabouts of poor old Chen-Pang and make a startling discovery at a movie studio where a crew is shooting a “wire-fu” swordplay epic.
Some synopses of this film make it seem like Fleur waited 53 years in hell (her word, not mine) before coming to the surface. My reading of it indicates that she came up as soon as she realized Chen-Pang wouldn’t be joining her but that the short amount of time that passed in hell was the equivalent of 53 years on Earth. In any event, it’s one of the beautiful ghost movies I’ve ever seen and easily one of my favorites of the genre.
Directed by Kaneto Shindo, KURONEKO is set in the Warring States Period (roughly the 16th century) and focuses on a pair of female ghosts, a mother and her daughter-in-law who had been raped and murdered by a band of scruffy samurai fleeing a battlefield and who then set about luring samurai from a nearby outpost to their deaths in a ghostly realm occupying a mystical plane on the site of the burnt-out ruins of the farmhouse they lived in. Eventually, Hachi (Kichiemon Nakamura), who was forced into conscription and had to leave his farm to go to war, returns in glory as the sole survivor of a major battle and is given a high position and the assignment of rooting out and killing the monster who’s been preying on samurai in the area. It turns out that the ghosts are none other than his own mother and wife. He reunites with his wife (Kiwako Taichi) and even spends a pleasant seven days of conjugal bliss with her before she disappears into the netherworld, an afterlife condition given her choice to abandon the mission to kill samurai, and he then must confront his mother (Nobuko Otowa) over her refusal to stop the killing.
It’s a stylized black-and-white production dominated by the ghosts’ point-of-view, with little sympathy for any of the humans except for poor Hachi who is torn between his happiness at seeing his wife and mother again and his revulsion at their deeds and the need to vanquish them from this world. The stark studio sets showing the ghostly house the women occupy and the surrounding bamboo forests are quite beautiful and give the whole production the air of a kabuki play at times. The ghosts can fly and move about with supernatural ease, with one shot of the wife floating through the bamboo forest looking forward to the kinds of high-flying ghost activity we’d get in abundance in Hong Kong ghost movies a decade later. This was seen on a Criterion DVD.
A GHOST STORY (aka KAIDAN, 1986)
“Ghost Story” is an episode from the “Animated Classics of Japanese Literature” TV series (1986) and was adapted from a Lafcadio Hearn story (credited to his Japanese name, Yakumo Koizumi). It tells of Hoichi, a blind biwa player residing in a temple, who sings songs about the war between the Heike and Genji clans and the defeat of the Heike in “The Battle of Dannoura” in 1185, in which the Heike clan’s ships were driven to shore where a counterforce of former allies betrayed them and the clan was wiped out. When a samurai comes to the temple bidding Hoichi to go with him to perform at a mansion where his lord and his courtiers await, Hoichi innocently goes and spends the whole night singing and playing, eliciting tears from his audience. He is summoned every night until the priest at the temple sends the temple caretaker to follow Hoichi to find out where he goes at nights. When the caretaker finds Hoichi singing and strumming alone in a cemetery, the priest becomes alarmed and worries that the ghosts will kill Hoichi on the seventh night. He covers Hoichi’s body in sutras written in ink to protect him from the ghosts, but he makes a fateful mistake…
The artwork is breathtaking, the story is told in a concise 30 minutes, and the biwa playing is beautiful.
KWAIDAN, directed by Masaki Kobayashi, adapts four ghost stories by Lafcadio Hearn for this anthology. One of them is the same story that was made into the animated version described above, about Hoichi, the blind biwa player. It’s a long movie (161 minutes on my Criterion DVD edition) and done in a slow, deliberate style. It’s beautifully filmed and designed, but didn’t need to be that long. The pace could have been picked up considerably. The story of Hoichi takes 63 minutes as opposed to the animated version’s 30 minutes, and is nearly twice as long as each of the other three segments. To be fair, the Hoichi segment here also includes lengthy reenactments, in a very theatrical style, of the Battle of Donnaura and its aftermath, with cast members in full armor and costume on ships and boats in a large studio tank, all accompanied by Hoichi singing his song about the battle and strumming his biwa.
There are also lengthy scenes showing the servants at the temple engaged in harmless banter and joking about Hoichi (Katsuo Nakamura) finding a girl as a way to explain his nights away from the temple, as well as questioning by the head priest (Takashi Shimura) as to Hoichi’s nighttime whereabouts.
The production is quite impressive and one remains engrossed in it, but you have to watch the film when your patience level is at its highest.
The story I liked the best in KWAIDAN was the first and simplest one, “Black Hair,” which is about 35 minutes long and focuses on a samurai (Rentaro Mikuni) who abandons his wife to marry the daughter of a nobleman who offers him a prestigious position in a distant province. The samurai soon comes to regret his decision. In what is arguably the best sequence in the film, the samurai returns to his old house after many years to find it seemingly abandoned only to find his wife (Michiyo Aratama) spinning cloth in a candle-lit corner of a back room patiently waiting for his return. He spends the night with her, apologizing profusely for his selfishness only to wake up to a stark truth in the morning.
The second story, “The Woman of the Snow,” focuses on a woodcutter who is saved by a female spirit from freezing to death in a shack in the woods during a blizzard and is warned by her never to tell anyone about the encounter. He later meets a woman traveling through his village who looks a lot like the spirit and he winds up marrying her and raising three children. When he finally remembers the incident in the shack, ten years after the fact, he tells her about it, with dire results. This confused me no end since it becomes quite obvious that he isn’t telling anyone who didn’t already know! Spirits can be real sticklers, can’t they? Still, it’s beautifully filmed and wonderfully acted by Tatsuya Nakadai and Keiko Kishi.
The fourth story, “In a Cup of Tea,” was about a samurai who keeps seeing the image of another samurai reflected in a cup of tea. I never understood it and no explanation was given.
I should add that in checking Criterion’s site for additional info on KWAIDAN, I learned that they’ve just released a new version that’s even longer–183 minutes! (Maybe it has the explanation for the samurai in the teacup.)
A CHINESE GHOST STORY (1987)
Directed by Ching Siu-Tung, this massive boxoffice hit in Hong Kong was part of the new wave of Hong Kong action films pioneered in the 1980s chiefly by co-producer Tsui Hark, who directed ZU: WARRIORS FROM THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN and PEKING OPERA BLUES and produced John Woo’s three early gunplay hits, A BETTER TOMORROW, A BETTER TOMORROW II and THE KILLER. It also spawned two sequels, various knock-offs, and a 2011 remake. CHINESE GHOST STORY is ostensibly the love story of a poor, humble scholar (Leslie Cheung) and a beautiful female ghost (Joey Wang) who is one of a family of ghosts haunting an abandoned temple where the scholar has chosen to spend his nights after failing to secure lodging elsewhere. However, the filmmakers have opted to insert a dyspeptic Taoist priest (Wu Ma) into the action, a ghost hunter who is quite the swordsman and adept at all sorts of anti-ghost spells, resulting in a steady stream of special effects-driven stunts with characters flying and leaping at high speeds through the surrounding forest, skeletons coming to creepy life in the temple’s basement, and a giant monster from hell with gaping jaws and a long lethal tongue routinely attacking visitors to the temple. There is even a harrowing battle in hell as the priest tries to save the scholar and his lover from eternal damnation. The priest even engages in a lively debate with offscreen ghosts who insist the humans they kill were all bad guys who deserved it and that the priest should be working with them not against them. Plus, there’s plenty of humor sprinkled throughout, even some slapstick gags involving the living skeletons.
Through it all, the youthful attraction of the two beautiful lovers provides an emotional core that is sustained through all the high-flying cinematic trickery. The score by Romeo Diaz and James Wong employs lots of traditional Chinese instruments and melodies and features lyrical songs on the soundtrack, including a theme song sung by Leslie Cheung himself. The ghost is even seen playing the guzheng, a Chinese zither and the ancestor of the Japanese koto, a stringed instrument placed on a table and played while sitting. It’s all quite captivating.
The film is based on the story, “Nie Xiaoqian,” from Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio compiled by Pu Songling (1640-1715), a prominent Qing Dynasty scholar. This story has been adapted many times into film, including a much earlier production, ENCHANTING SHADOW (1960), from the Shaw Bros. studio, starring Chao Lei as the scholar and Betty Loh Ti as the beautiful ghost.
The 1960 film is much more focused on the romance and is a much quieter, more gentle tale filled with beautifully appointed sets, dazzling costumes and softer music. Much is made in the film of a painting of mandarin ducks by the ghost and the addition of a poem inked directly on the painting by the scholar. The ghost also plays the guzheng in this film. It features a Taoist priest (Yang Chih-Ching) as well and was evidently the model for Wu Ma’s character in the later film. This character was invented for the film adaptation and does not appear in the original story, which included a large section on the scholar’s later married life with the ghost and the family they raised.
This story and a detailed comparison of its various film adaptations deserve a blog entry of its own. I have three volumes of Pu Songling’s compiled stories, translated into English, and I wonder how many other tales from it were adapted for film. I know that two other stories, “Yingning” and “Hua Gu,” were adapted for the film, FAIRY, GHOST, VIXEN (1965), which also includes a very different interpretation of “Nie Xiaoqian.” FAIRY, GHOST, VIXEN deserves larger discussion once I track down and read all three of the stories it’s based on. In addition, there’s a 2011 remake of CHINESE GHOST STORY that stars Liu Yifei as the ghost, but suffers from too many additional characters, a dumbed-down version of the scholar, and way too much CGI. I saw it this month also, but will save discussion of it for a future blog entry covering all the film versions of this story.
Here’s a link to my IMDB review of FAIRY, GHOST, VIXEN (1965). I’ve also reviewed two other Hong Kong ghost movies on IMDB: THE OCCUPANT (1984) and PICTURE OF A NYMPH (1988), one of the very first reviews I did for IMDB. I have several more Hong Kong ghost films that I picked up in Chinatown on a visit a few years ago and need to watch those, including: ESPRIT D’AMOUR (1983), THE HAPPY GHOST (1984) and MY COUSIN, THE GHOST (1987).
I did not re-watch WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE (2014) this month, although I would certainly include it in any list of favorite ghost movies. This Japanese animated tale of a girl who visits a village in rural Japan and encounters a mysterious girl in an old house at night who then becomes her playmate was reviewed here earlier this year on May 24.
What’s fascinating to me about so many of the ghost stories from China and Japan is the way ghosts and spirits are able to conjure up sparkling new settings with sumptuous furnishings and décor to bewitch human visitors. In THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR, the poor widow and her maid had to fix up the Captain’s old house by themselves!