What is a ghost?
A tragedy doomed to repeat itself time and time again?
An instant of pain, perhaps.
Something dead which still seems to be alive.
An emotion, suspended in time.
Like a blurred photograph.
Like an insect trapped in amber.
— Narrator, The Devil’s Backbone
Whether as writer, director, or producer, Guillermo del Toro is known for films which mesh fairy tales and horror, among them Pan’s Labyrinth, The Orphanage, and Julia’s Eyes. Many of his films are classified as “dark Spanish fantasy” or “gothic horror,” and his films are, indeed, full of horror. Del Toro has called The Devil’s Backbone (2001) his “most personal film.” Like many of his others, this film features ghosts, orphans, and abandoned children, all tangled together, trying desperately to survive and to figure out what has happened to their previously happy lives. Ghosts and murder, betrayal and tragedy, pain and destiny and loneliness: these are the themes of The Devil’s Backbone, where evil is not so much supernatural as it is a daily human reality. In The Devil’s Backbone, the most terrifying evil is not external but, instead, within the humans themselves.
At an isolated orphanage in 1939, during the Spanish Civil War, Headmistress Carmen (Marisa Paredes), who is an amputee, secretly supports partisans, and has a stash of gold intended to aid their cause.
A young boy, Carlos (Fernando Tielve), is left at the Home by his tutor, who neglects to tell the boy that his father is dead, killed in the War. Before Carlos even realizes that he will be permanently staying at the orphanage, he sees the ghost of a boy his own age.
Though the other orphans speak in whispers in the dark of night of “the one who sighs,” the adults do not even discuss the War with the children, though it has affected all the boys’ lives, let alone talk about a ghost or anything else supernatural with them. The orphans make up their own stories about the ghost and why it may be haunting the orphanage. The orphans do not know the ghost’s “secret,” so they make up reasons for its haunting the Home.
The adults don’t seem to know about the ghost, but all the adults at the Home have secrets, none more so than the violent and angry caretaker Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega). He was once an orphan at the Home himself and has returned only to get at the hidden stash of partisan-gold.
Jacinto terrorizes and abuses the orphan boys. He steals keys at night to secretly search for the hidden gold. He ruthlessly manipulates the women at the school by having sexual relations with several of them, pretending to be emotionally attached to each of them, including Headmistress Carmen and young Conchita (Irene Visedo, below L), who is herself in love with Jacinto.
And this is the place where young Carlos is now trapped, like the ghost that he keeps seeing. Unfortunately for Carlos, Jacinto is not the only person at the Home who bullies the boys. One of the orphans, Jaime (Íñigo Garcés, below L), is just as ferocious and tyrannical as Jacinto.
Jaime, who is in love with the pretty Conchita, takes out his frustrated, unrequited love on the younger boys, especially on the ten-year-old, fellow orphan Carlos.
To deal with his own emotional pain, abandonment, and loss, Carlos decides to overcome his terror of the ghost. He begins to investigate the boy-ghost, hoping to discover the ghost’s secret. How did a mere boy, after all, become a ghost trapped for eternity at the Home? Did the boy die in the War, or did he die in the orphanage itself? If the boy did, in fact, die at the Home — which would explain why the ghost is still there, haunting the other orphans — how did the young boy die? Was he a victim of illness, accident, or murder?
Carlos is desperate to discover the ghost’s secret before he himself is killed — by Jacinto, by Jaime, or by another wayward bomb like the unexploded one in the Home’s courtyard — and becomes a ghost forever trapped in the place Carlos hates most in all the world.
In Spanish with subtitles, The Devil’s Backbone is as much about the perils of war as about ghosts, and as much about man’s cruelty to each other as it is about the things that haunt us, whether they be the pain of abandonment, ghosts that roam the corridors at night, or our own secret pasts.
October is #ScaryMovieMonth and Halloween is one of the best nights to gather and watch scary movies with friends. Whether you like classic horror films or spine-tingling suspense films, here are some of the best films for Halloween. From horror films that have become classics and suspense films that are scary in horrific ways without being horror, to Noir films that are so bad they’re scary bad, you’re sure to find something to enjoy on Halloween.
If you want horror films that have become classics in the genre, my 7 Wonders of the Horror Movie World will delight you. From Jack Nicholson’s performance in The Shining to Gary Oldman’s in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, from Nicole Kidman’s frightened widow-with-children in The Others to the super-scary children of Let Me In and The Orphan, these top films are sure to have someone hiding under the covers. Shriek away, my Lovelies.
Prefer suspense films for your scary Halloween fare? There are seven top-notch suspense films that are thought-provoking and spine-tingling. They may not have ghosts, but then again, they may, as in Guillermo del Toro’s critically acclaimed The Orphanage and The Devil’s Backbone. Want something meatier for Halloween? Try Open Grave. Don’t want anything but psychological thrills? Check out The Bad Seed or The Innocents or Identity. Shivers and shudders galore, my Lovelies.
Perhaps you’re having a party this Halloween and need some films to entertain your guests without distracting them from socializing. These 5 Noir films are just what you need playing in the background. They’re Noir, but they’re bad Noir, as in really bad Noir, as in so bad in every way imaginable that, despite their attempts at menace and horror, the films become funny. From DeForest Kelly’s film debut as the hypnotized victim who thinks he committed a murder in Fear in the Night to Anne Baxter’s scenery-chomping role as an Insane-Asylum-Inmate-Saved-By-Her-Doctor-And-Terrified-Of-Birds in Guest in the House, from the multiple marriages in The Bigamist to the identity-stealing-husband in The Man with My Face, you’ll laugh till you cry with these five unintentionally comedic Noirs.
When I was younger, October was the magical month for horror films. All month long, on any channel, you could revel in spooky stories, filled with ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and other creepy monsters. I miss those days. Even with all the wonders of cable and premium movie channels, it is incredibly difficult to find really spooky movies now. If the film isn’t populated by silly teens running barefoot (guys) or in high-heels (gals) through the woods, away from any populated areas, screaming their heads off, then there’s usually so many special effects that any real sense of foreboding or terror is lost beneath the computer graphics. This month, I went on a quest to find some really scary movies for Halloween. I came up with seven of the best suspense & mystery films I could find. Some have a supernatural element, but many do not. They were worth every penny of the $2.99 (average) I paid to rent them. They’re not in any particular order, because they’re all excellent but in completely different ways.
The Bad Seed (1956)
When the film based on the stage play of the same name hit theaters, The Bad Seed was deemed pretty scary. So scary, in fact, that the actors all “take a bow” at the end of the film, to remind the viewers that it’s a piece of fiction. Don’t let that keep you from watching this classic “horror” film. Psychologically realistic and terrifying in the extreme, The Bad Seed contains not a single paranormal character or hint, but that doesn’t mean it’s not scary.
The film stars Nancy Kelly (above R) as Christine Penmark, who begins to feel uneasy around her 8-year-old daughter Rhoda (Patty McCormack, above, center) after a little boy who’s her school rival dies in an accident. As Christine begins to re-evaluate things about Rhoda’s character that make her uneasy, she is faced with opposition from neighbors and family, all of whom insist Christine herself is imagining things about her angelic little girl.
Though the film is a little heavy-handed on the heredity vs. environment discussions, it’s worth watching. The supporting cast, including Eileen Heckart as the mother of the dead boy, Paul Fix as the doting crime-writer Grand-dad, and Henry Jones as LeRoy the suspicious handyman, are all superb. McCormack and Kelly received Oscar nominations for their performances. 60 years later, the film and its exploration of evil remain pertinent.
The film’s content is so scary — and so very possible — that even the original trailer had to “remind” viewers that they were watching an advertisement for a film based on a play based on a novel, just so, you know, people didn’t get too creeped out. If you’re like me, however, you want to be creeped out and spooked at this time of year. The Bad Seedis available to rent for a couple bucks on Amazon, on YouTube, and on Vudu.
The Innocents (1956, 1961)
It was a little confusing to find the correct date for The Innocents, a British film based on Henry James’ classic ghost story, The Turn of the Screw. Whatever version you find, make sure you have the black & white film, not the colorized one: the stark cinematography helps create the scares in this completely non-CGI horror classic. With a screenplay by William Archibald and Truman Capote, the acting is fantastic and the performances are plenty scary without any special effects.
Deborah Kerr stars as the Governess, Miss Giddens, who comes to an isolated estate to care for two orphans, Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens), who are just too beautiful and too-too perfect to be believed.
Still, Miss Giddens is happy enough with her lovely charges and with the gorgeous house, despite all its creaks and closed-off rooms, and with the beautiful gardens and the lake and… oh, all of it. She’s happy with the children most of all. Until she begins to be unhappy with them. Why? Maybe they’re too perfect. Maybe they’re too mature. Maybe…
Well, it’s bad enough that Miss Giddens thinks the two siblings are keeping secrets and going off on the grounds by themselves without her permission or knowledge. When Miss Giddens begins to see ghosts, she thinks the children know all about the ghosts and may, in fact, be possessed by the ghosts’ evil spirits.
The film stays close to the source material in never revealing whether or not the children can also see the ghosts, leading us to question the Governess’ sanity as she attempts to free her charges of the evil that she believes possesses them. Are the ghosts merely a figment of her imagination? Are the children possessed? Is Miss Giddens dangerously crazy? You’ll have to decide those things for yourself in this scary classic.
If you’ve read the Henry James novella, you’ll really appreciate the film’s subtlety. If you’ve seen the later remake of the same work, The Others, there’s no comparison: both films are great. In fact, The Others is one of my top 7 Wonders of the Horror World. The Innocents is available for rent or purchase from Amazon.
After a jumper plunges to his death from an office building, Detective Bowden (Chris Messina) comes to investigate, only to be plunged into another mystery when an elevator stops, trapping 5 people inside. When the occupants begin to die, police and others begin to suspect a murderer is trapped in the elevator, targeting the other passengers.
While one of the buildings security guards is filling Detective Bowden’s ear with ghost stories that his family told him, based on the guard’s belief that he saw something in the elevator on the surveillance video,
Bowden (with microphone, below) is desperately trying to determine why someone might want to kill the others in the elevator.
Though the film does have some ostensible elements of the supernatural, they aren’t as important or scary as the psychological aspects of guilt, good, and evil, which involve everyone in the story, even the detectives who are there to save the trapped elevator occupants.
The film is better than its supernatural elements, which are so sparse, it’s almost like they were put in by accident. Devil is available for rent or purchase on Amazon, on YouTube, on iTunes, and more.
Identity is one of the best suspense movies I’ve ever seen, and I regularly watch it. Though one of the characters tries to explain the events at an isolated motel with a story of displaced Native Americans, there is nothing other-worldly about this film and its scares. The story begins with a chauffeur, Ed (John Cusack, below, center), getting trapped by washed-out roads at a lonely motel with his movie-star passenger, where Ed attempts to aid a traveller who was injured in an accident.
Because of the relentless thunderstorm, other travellers are soon also stranded at the motel, including a cop (Ray Liotta, below, center) escorting a convict.
When people begin disappearing at Larry’s (John Hawkes, above, L) motel, everybody gets more than a little anxious and paranoid. It doesn’t help when some of the stranded motorists feel they’re being targeted, or that way too many of the stranded people are proficient in the use of firearms.
Now, just for fun, throw in a convicted serial killer (Pruitt Taylor Vince, above) who’s getting a last-minute, pre-execution hearing from the judge because the killer’s psychiatrist (Alfred Molina, below) insists that the killer isn’t mentally competent, though the good Dr admits that the killer’s “body” committed all the murders he’s been convicted of.
What does the serial killer have to do with those stranded people at the isolated motel? Are the people at the motel part of the memories of the serial killer? Are they his victims? Is the killer truly and verily mentally incompetent? And what does that killer have to do with the people at the motel in the pouring rain? You won’t miss the absent supernatural elements in this scary thriller. By the time you get to the big Reveal, you’ll be as spooked as the people stranded at the motel.
The film has a great storyline and powerful acting by everyone involved. Identity is a psychological horror great. It’s available for rent for a few bucks, or purchase for a few dollars more, from Amazon, from YouTube, from iTunes, and more.
Open Grave (2013)
Don’t even say the word “zombies” because this film never does. Not even once. Instead, an amnesiac guy, who later discovers his name is probably John (Sharlto Copley), awakes in an open grave. Surrounded by countless dead bodies. Yeah, how’s that for a gripping start?
Our amnesiac manages to get out of the grave with help from a mysterious woman who doesn’t speak. He follows her to a house, where he meets other victims, all of whom have amnesia, and most of whom are really good at using the weapons stored at the place.
Though some of the amnesiacs have this feeling that they know some of the others, they’re not sure, so nobody feels safe. When they begin to explore, they find creepy “scarecrows” tied to or hanging from trees, and, as you can imagine, that makes them more stressed.
When they find a guy trapped in a barbed-wire fence, calling for help, things go bad quickly, and the members of the group turn on each other.
Still, they can’t shake the feeling that some of them know each other, that there’s some “big picture” they seem to have forgotten, and that something really super-monstrously big, like BIG, is going to happen in a couple of days, and not just because they found a calendar with the date circled, and with the other days of the calendar marked off. They need to regain their memories quick if they’re going to discover why the 18th is so important to their survival.
Are those dead bodies in the open grave the result of an attack? Of a plague? Of mass murder? Of vicious and unethical medical experimentation? I don’t know, and I’ve seen the film more than once. It’s one of the best post-apocalypse movies ever made. Open Grave is available for purchase or rent ($2.99-3.99) on Amazon, on YouTube, on iTunes, on Vudu, and more.
The Orphanage (2007)
Of all the films I have listed here, this is the only one that I would caution adults not to allow children to watch. If children watch it with you, by the time you discover why I think young children should not watch The Orphanage, it’ll be too late. They’ll probably be seriously upset by this film, so be warned. It’s R-rated for a reason, and there are no special effects, bad language, or graphic violence to warrant the rating: the mature rating comes purely in the content of the story itself.
Laura (Belén Rueda) spent many of her formative years in an orphanage, where she loved the other children and where she remembers being happy.
In an attempt to “pay back” to society, she purchases the old home in order to take in special needs children. With Laura are her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo), who’s an MD, and their son Simón (Roger Princep), who doesn’t know that he’s adopted nor that he’s ill.
Simón already has a couple of imaginary friends, but he makes a few new imaginary friends at the orphanage-now-home. This starts to disturb his parents, who aren’t sure that he’s not just trying to get more attention at a time when their focus is going to be divided among the new resident children.
When Mama Laura sees a strange, hooded figure, whom she thinks is Simón, on the day of the party to welcome the special needs children, and the strange figure then attacks her, Laura is frightened, not only for herself, but for Simón, who goes missing on the same day.
And Laura’s life deteriorates from there. Though others attempt to convince Laura that Simón is dead, rather than merely missing, she refuses to give up hope. When her husband wants to begin to “live again,” away from the orphanage, Laura feels betrayed. She insists on staying, if only because it was the last place where anyone saw her son. She will even ask for help from the “ghosts” if they can tell her where Simón is.
Some reviewers of the film complained that the ghosts were a minor part of the story, and I have to admit that they are, but I found that a strength in the film rather than a weakness. The story is about loss and grieving, about guilt and hope. It’s about parents and children, husbands and wives. It’s about how tragedy can forever change everything in our lives, and how some people simply cannot live with the pain of loss.
It is not a film for young children: you will just have to trust me on this.
In Spanish with English subtitles, The Orphanage is an intense and excrutiating psychological drama, masking itself as a ghost story. Yes, there are some ghosts, but that is not why this is a powerful and memorable film. Available for rent for $2.99 from Amazon, from iTunes, and from Vudu.
The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Another film by Mexican director Guillermo del Toro (along with The Orphanage) which is classified as “dark Spanish fantasy,”The Devil’s Backbone also features a ghost in its story of orphans. Set during the Spanish Civil War, the Headmistress (Marisa Paredes) of the orphan home secretly supports partisans and hides gold for the Resistance.
A young boy, Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is left at the Home by his tutor, who neglects to tell the boy that his father is dead, killed in the War. Before Carlos even realizes that he will be staying at the orphanage, he sees the ghost of a boy his own age.
Though the other orphans speak in whispers in the dark of night of “the one who sighs,” the adults do not even discuss the War with the children, though it has affected all the boys’ lives, let alone talk about anything supernatural with the boys. All the adults in the school have secrets, but none has more than the violent and angry caretaker Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), who was once an orphan there himself and who returned only to get at the hidden stash of gold.
Jacinto terrorizes the boys and manipulates all the women at the school. He steals keys to secretly search for the gold, and has sexual relations with more than one of the female teachers.
Ten-year-old Carlos is forced to come to terms with his own abandonment. While attempting to navigate the hierarchy of orphan boys, led by the tyrannical Jaime (Íñigo Garcés), Carlos determines to overcome his own terror of the ghost and discover its secret.
In Spanish with subtitles, The Devil’s Backbone is as much about the perils of war and about man’s cruelty to each other as it is about the things that haunt us, whether they be ghosts or our own pasts. Available for about $2.99 for rent from Amazon, from YouTube, and from iTunes.
Looking for scary, spooky, spectacular films this Halloween, my Lovelies?
I think you’ll like these.
And if you know of others that you’d think I’d like, please let me know. There are still 10 days left in October, and I need some more films to spook me or otherwise keep me awake at night.
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