Written by Staci Layne Wilson
Published by Running Free Press
For those of us who rank ghost stories among our favorite horror subgenres, there’s never been a better time to be a fan. Japanese directors like Takashi (Ju-on) Shimizu and Hideo (Ring) Nakata have reinvigorated the form to such a degree that both men were recently called upon to direct U.S. versions of their overseas hits, thereby exposing themselves and their original products to a vast international audience. But J-horror isn’t the only game in town. American and European filmmakers alike have re-entered the fray with a vengeance; just take a look at last year’s After Dark HorrorFest. The Abandoned, Unrest, and The Gravedancers were recognized by most as the best of the fest along with Shimizu’s Reincarnation. All revolve around restless spirits and put a fresh spin on a tired subject. And already only three months into 2007 we’ve seen The Messengers (not so fresh) and Dead Silence (a classic in the making if there ever was one) in theatres and a slew of direct-to-DVD offerings like Bloody Mary, Dead Mary, Mary Had a Bloody Dead Lamb . . . Okay, so I made that last one up, but you get my drift. Ghosts rule! But this is hardly a new craze. Spooky specters have been gracing the silver screen for longer than just about any other horror cliché, and now, thanks to Staci Layne Wilson, we have a definitive resource guide that lays them out for us in neat chronological order: 50 Years of Ghost Movies.
The 50 years covered are 1935 to 1985, “golden” times in cinema indeed. From first entry The Fantasy of the Monastary to a little-known Spanish version of The Turn of the Screw that closes out the book on Page 138, every film released from January 1935 to December 1985 that has anything to do with “the soul or spirit of a deceased person” is included here. They are further broken down alphabetically by year with some films summarized in just a few choice words and others given a more lengthy paragraph. A few — the cream of the crop like screwball favorite Topper, Boris Karloff’s beloved horror/sci-fi hybrid The Devil Commands, Gothic classics Rebecca and The Uninvited, the incomparable William Castle’s Thirteen Ghosts, the timelessly creepy and disturbing The Innocents, the dated but still effective The Amityville Horror, and Ms. Wilson’s personal pick for the best ghost movie of all time, The Shining — merit a full-page description. Just about every base is covered. My only quibble is that while the listings include the director, writer, source (if applicable), and tagline (if available), a number of them don’t make any mention of the lead actors. There were a few instances where I remembered the film but not the players, and having that information all in one place would be ideal.
The foreword explains just how Ms. Wilson went about deciding what to incorporate in 50 Years, not an easy task considering how far ranging the term “ghost” can be. Demons, angels, zombies, and the like were eliminated. But if the ghost was once a human or an animal, then you can be sure to find it here along with some slightly questionable propaganda-based entries from the 30’s and 40’s in which the big bads were revealed to be Nazis. But hey, if it looks like a ghost and sounds like a ghost and all the other elements are there, then why not? Anyone who was alive during that era can tell you Sadako ain’t got nothing on Hitler! If in doubt, be sure to read the synopsis of anything you’re not familiar with; Ms. Wilson’s candid remarks and critiques will certainly steer you in the right direction.
If 50 Years were just a breakdown of the ghost stories made during the time frame noted, it would be a worthy addition to any horror enthusiast ‘s library, but it’s a lot more than that. Yes, it’s a fascinating look at all facets of the subgenre including the sub-subgenres of ghostly comedies, mysteries, and flat-out horror thrill rides; but, much like a high quality DVD, it offers a plethora of supplemental materials that really up its replay value. Included are famous quotes from some of our most cherished characters; a quick rundown of pre-1935 ghost movies; cross-references for similarly themed films and books so that fans can expand their knowledge and ghost story collections; “The Glamorous Ghouls of Hollywood,” which describes some real-life haunts in and around Los Angeles for the ghost hunters in the crowd; and “Tinseltown Specters,” a few instances of celebrities reporting first-hand encounters with spirits from beyond. There are other tidbits as well that I’ll let you discover on your own, but by far the most interesting special feature is the insertion of various actors and directors picking their favorite phantom flicks. Folks as diverse as Sam Raimi, Tobe Hooper, Robert Englund, Drew Carey, Jim Carrey, KaDee Strickland, Annie Potts, Eli Roth, Rachel Griffiths, Ernie Hudson, Clea Du Vall, and many more chime in with their preferences. While some of the responses might be 180 degrees from yours, what’s no surprise is which film comes out on top. I’m not about to reveal it here though; buy the book and find out for yourself if you concur! (Two of my own favorites, The Others and The Ghost & Mrs. Muir, clock in at #3 and #6, respectively.)
Despite everything that it has to offer, there are a couple of additional items that I believe would enhance the value of 50 Years. An alphabetical index in the back would enable readers who are unsure of a film’s release year to find it more quickly; and while the graphics for each decade are creative and eye-catching, a few posters and screenshots scattered throughout would break up the monotony of the printed word and add some eye candy to the proceedings. And I’d like to see a bit more of Ms. Wilson’s lively and high-spirited personality shine through as a counterpoint to all those deadbeats she’s writing about. But these are minor flaws. Overall she has provided the ultimate go-to guidebook that every ghost loving (or fearing) apparition aficionado should own. It’s timely, engaging, and full of affection for one of the most adored and respected subgenres out there. Best of all, 50 Years of Ghost Movies ends with a promise from the author that coming soon is Modern Ghost Movies, a continuation of the theme up to the current day. Considering that we are now living in one of horror’s most glorious heydays and ghost stories are at the top of just about every studio’s “to do” list, she certainly shouldn’t be at a loss for words or lacking in material.
4 out of 5
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