List of must-see films for the Ghost section of my taxonomy of horror sub-genres.
Content Warning and Spoiler Alert: A few of these entries contain references to interpersonal and military violence and rape. They all also include spoilers, in some cases small things from the beginning of the films and in others the films’ twist endings.
The Devil’s Backbone (2001). Dir. Guillermo del Toro. Spain, Mexico.
Guillermo del Toro’s horror, specifically those horror films he’s involved with that are set in Spain, focus on distinctive transitional on either side of Francisco Franco’s military dictatorship. The Devil’s Backbone is set at the very end of the Spanish Civil War in and around a small orphanage in the crossfire of the war. The orphanage’s directors, Casares (Federico Luppi) and Carmen (Marisa Paredes), house a sizable chunk of gold for the Republicans (democratic, left-leaning, in support of the Second Spanish Republic). Much like in Under the Shadow, there’s a large, diffused bomb sitting in the courtyard that seems to be the focus for supernatural happenings. A young boy, Santi (Junio Valverde) disappeared the night that the bomb landed and his ghost haunts the orphanage. Santi’s death isn’t necessarily linked to the war, and is largely de-politicized. If ghosts are primarily symbolic of the resurgence of past trauma, then this de-politicization is…curious. On the one hand, the de-politicization of Santi’s ghost promotes the argument that people are people, good or bad; people with the “correct” politics can still be awful, and vice-versa. At the same time, the choice to set the film during this Civil War is intentional, so that the political placement isn’t nearly as coincidental as the previous statement might suggest. In order to avoid spoilers, I’ll leave it up to y’all to parse out how these two ideas coexist in the same film. I will say, though, that the level of nuance del Toro achieves is pretty spectacular, and it’s why this remains my favorite of his films.
The Others (2001). Alejandro Amenábar. Spain, US, France, Italy.
The Others is a period piece set in World War II. It takes place almost entirely in Grace Stewart’s (Nicole Kidman) home, where she lives with her children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley), both of whom are highly photosensitive. She keeps the house locked down like a submarine with sunlight acting like the ocean (her analogy, not mine), so that only one door can be open/unlocked at a time. Between this blatant reference to a military vessel and her strict, drill sergeant-like rules, the film combines domestic and militarized spaces, blurring the lines between civilian and military target during war. The Others is also an interesting example to consider in terms of what we mean when we talk about transnational cinema because it’s a Spanish-American film that doesn’t “look” particularly Spanish (in part because there’s no such thing as a unifying national style, but that’s a topic for a much longer post). The Others was shot primarily in Spain and written, directed, and scored by prominent Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar. The film is a co-production with funding coming from France (Canal+), the US (Cruise/Wagner), and Spain (José Luis Cuerda’s Las Producciones del Escorpion). Much like the US in the early 2000s, Spain was largely politically conservative, with José María López (of the conservative Partido Popular) just beginning his second term as Prime Minister. The confluence between conservative national politics and corporate funding spanning three countries perhaps accounts for the film’s championing of militarism. It is through Grace’s strict adherence to rules and regulations, her absolute control over her life and the lives around her, that she is able to forestall her realization that she and her children are dead. In effect, she puts off her family’s death, keeps them alive and immortal, through sheer force of will.
Shutter (2004). Dirs. Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom. Thailand.
Thailand in 2004 was far from harmonious. Thailand has oscillated between parliamentary democracy and military junta for decades, and is currently a constitutional monarchy. Its political history is largely characterized by military coups d’état, martial law, and conflicts resulting from the acquisition, division, and redistribution of surrounding land during both World Wars. Roughly a year before Shutter’s release, there were also a slew of school shootings (in the Nakhon Si Thammarat, Bueng Kum, Sa Kaew provinces), and the ever-escalating drug war launched by then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2003 that killed 2,500 people. None of these socio-political contexts are expressly addressed in the film. It feels a-historical, stripped of the specificity that might help us place it in time or draw any direct political analyses out of it. Until you consider that it’s still a horror film. I have yet to come across anything in horror that is truly devoid of political commentary. Instead of explicitly addressing the above conditions in Thailand in the early 2000s, Shutter focuses on a group of friends who collectively raped a young woman—Natre (Achita Sikamana)—in college while taking pictures of the assault. Shortly after the film begins, the film’s protagonist and photographer, Tun (Ananda Everingham), begins to notice defects in his photos; these defects are caused by Natre, who is haunting her attackers. The film is consistent with the conventions of ghost horror in that the spirit is a warning about, and retribution for, the past. Natre’s goal is to enact revenge, putting Shutter in a sort of cross-over genre with rape-revenge horror. Aside from its genre-crossing, Shutter is also notable for Natre’s connection to the corporeal world. Her spirit is tied to the photos of her assault, not to her body. The evidence of her trauma, then, is essential to facilitate her enacting vengeance in response to that trauma.
The Orphanage (2007). Dir. J. A. Bayona. Spain.
The Orphanage, directed by J. A. Bayona, was executive produced by Guillermo del Toro, making this his second appearance just in this sub-genre list. I swear this wasn’t intentional. The Orphanage grapples with disability and HIV (couched in terms of innocence and in-utero transmission, but it’s there nonetheless) while emulating 1970s New Spanish Cinema. The film is set in 1975, the same year that Francisco Franco died, beginning Spain’s transition from military dictatorship to parliamentary monarchy. The choice to replicate 1970s Spanish horror is particularly interesting because this period is sort of difficult to pin down. It’s an amalgam of other movements, periods, and genres in horror, calling to mind Hammer Horror, Georges Méliès’ trick photography, and occult gialli. Two significant examples of 1975 New Spanish Cinema are Amando de Ossorio’s Night of the Sea Gulls and Miguel Iglesias’ La Maldicion de La Bestia. Sea Gulls blends the themes and techniques of giallo films like Black Sunday and The Bloodstained Shadow with Vincent Price’s films, particularly House on Haunted Hill. On the other end of the spectrum, La Bestia is a master class in mimicking early cinema style in more recent cinema. It’s a werewolf movie that uses trick photography techniques to show man/wolf transitions. The character design calls to mind Hammer’s 1961 The Curse of the Werewolf. And the pièce de résistance? The use of color in the film looks like a reproduction of Les Vampyres (1915-16) or Nosferatu (1922):
The blue tint shown above is particularly iconic for reasons having to do with film processing and chemistry and the technical side of things, so bear with me for a minute. The blue tint here was popular with both Edison and Biograph (among others) because it took best to orthochromatic processing. So, what’s orthochromatic processing and why does it matter? Orthochromatic processing has to do with how sensitive the emulsion is to different color wavelengths; the emulsion is most sensitive to the blue end of the spectrum with very, very little reception for reds and oranges. Film stock until the 1920s (if not later) wasn’t really sensitive enough to shoot in low light, like at night, so night scenes (including the examples above) had to be shot during the day and then somehow made to look like they took place at night. This was accomplished by tinting them blue, which was incorporated into the language of film as signifying night.
Getting back to the point, The Orphanage was modeled after New Spanish Cinema, which itself incorporated themes and aesthetics from lots of different movements. This is to say that New Spanish Cinema is little bit of everything. It’s really rather impressive that Bayona managed to replicate the feeling of the movement without sacrificing the glossy, high production values we’ve gotten used to in the last 10-15 years.
Author: Geneveive Newman
Image Credit: 2001 © Warner Sogefilms A.I.E.