Unwanted supernatural guests (as opposed to the wanted kind) on film tend to come in two varieties, (1) a ghost or spirit haunting a particular place or abode, usually, but not always isolated, due to unfinished business with the living or a refusal to move on to the afterlife, whatever it may bring, and (2) a demon or devil sent to cause mischief, torment the living, or otherwise cause havoc, usually, but not always, through bodily possession. Together, these sub-genres exploit our fears and anxieties, of mortality, of bodily decay, of losing our selves, of the past injustices or crimes, of repressed and suppressed desires, returning to disrupt normal, everyday lives. That and we, meaning almost everyone, likes (even loves) to be scared.
So without further delay, "Cinematical Seven: Unwanted Supernatural Guests' (in alpha order, not order of preference):
1. 'Dark Water'
Returning to the well (so to speak) for a second time, Hideo Nakata's 2002 adaptation of 'Ringu' author Koji Suzuki's novella, set inside a dilapidated, semi-abandoned, water-logged apartment building, builds slowly toward a devastating, wrenching climax for its single-mother protagonist and her young daughter. 'Dark Water's' ghost, a yellow-raincoat wearing girl, may not be as malevolent as its 'Ringu' counterpart, but it's driven by an insatiable need for maternal comfort. Post-'Dark Water,' no ceiling stain looked the same.
2. The Exorcist'
Supernatural horror went mainstream in 1973 with the adaptation of William Peter Blatty's 1971 bestselling novel of demonic possession and an exorcism that goes awry, 'The Exorcist.' Academy Award-winning William Friedkin ('The French Connection') had an A-level budget at his disposal, A-level actors, e.g., Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn, Oscar-nominated Linda Blair, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, and Lee. J. Cobb, and source material that resonated powerfully with audiences, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, almost four decades ago. Even if you weren't a true believer, Friedkin's expertly paced direction, well-timed shocks and scares, and thematic exploration of religious faith through flawed, questioning characters, 'The Exorcist' would have moved you viscerally and emotionally. That 'The Exorcist' remains just as effective in scaring and shocking home video viewers 37 years later is a testament to the Blatty's strengths as a novelist and screenwriter and Friedkin's talents as a filmmaker.
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3. 'The Innocents'
This 1961 supernatural ghost story remains the definitive adaptation of Henry James' profoundly unsettling 1898 novella, 'The Turn of the Screw.' Featuring a career or near-career performance by Deborah Kerr ('From Here to Eternity,' 'Black Narcissus') as Miss Giddens, a governess to Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens), preteens who may or may not be possessed by the ghosts the deceased caretaker and former governess. Shot in stunning black-and-white by master cinematographer Freddie Francis, who used minimal lighting for the interiors to heighten mood and menace, 'The Innocents' works as a straightforward horror story and as a psychological portrait of a deeply troubled, deeply repressed woman.
4. 'The Others'
Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar's ('The Sea Inside,' 'Abre los ojos') masterful take on the venerable haunted house story, 'The Others,' came with a not-quite-devastating, we-saw-it-coming twist, but that did little to diminish the entertainment value for classic horror fans. Thick on mood and atmosphere, heightened by a World War II, English countryside setting and a carefully modulated performance by Nicole Kidman, 'The Others' offered a steady mix of existential dread and scares over its 104-minute running time. 'The Others' was (and is) proof positive that you don't need an R-rating to deliver a dramatically and emotionally satisfying horror film.
Tobe Hooper ('The Texas Chainsaw Massacre') received credit as the director of 'Poltergeist,' a modern (for 1982) retelling of the haunted house story, but 'Poltergeist' was always Steven Spielberg's film. Spielberg came up with the idea of setting a ghost story in suburban California, storyboarded the film, and acted as all-around-mentor (if not more) for Hooper's first studio film. Memorable performances, including Zelda Rubenstein as a diminutive psychic, Craig T. Nelson as a suburban father and homeowner, Jobeth Williams as a suburban mother, and Heather O'Rourke as their youngest daughter, anchored a ghost story that remains, almost 30 years later, a standard for PG-rated horror (the MPAA created the PG-13 rating two years later).
Supernatural horror in Japanese film has a long, venerable history, but it was Hideo Nakata's 1998 adaptation of Koji Suzuki's novel that ushered a new wave of horror (dubbed "J-Horror" at the time). The oft-parodied shot of a young, pale woman, her face obscured by her black hair, emerging from a well in the videotape-inside-the-movie, remains effective more than a decade later. A murder-mystery with a twist that M. Night Shyamalan, circa 1999, would have envied, 'Ringu' spawned a franchise, including direct sequels and a prequel, each less effective than the last, and an American remake directed by Gore Vebinski (the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' trilogy).
7. 'The Shining'
Stanley Kubrick's one-and-only foray into supernatural horror, 'The Shining" took Stephen King's bestselling 1977 novel, removed superfluous subplots, swapped ambulatory hedge animals for a maze, and kept the Overlook Hotel as a menacing, malevolent character. The film also added riveting performances by Jack Nicholson as the borderline deranged Jack Torrance, a frustrated author with serious anger management issues, Shelley Duvall as Torrance's borderline hysterical wife, Wendy (no Peter Pan-like figure to whisk her away into a fantasy dreamland), and Danny Lloyd as their paranormally gifted son, ultimately delivering a supernatural horror film that remains among the best of the genre.
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Since this is a Cinematical Seven and not a Cinematical Eight, Nine, or Ten, we'll have to stop there, but before we do, honorable mentions to 'The Uninvited,' 'The Haunting,' 'The Legend of Hell House,' 'The Entity,' 'The Changeling,' 'The Orphanage,' and, of course, 'Paranormal Activity.'
Feel free to add any films we might have missed in the comments below.