Year of the Ghost: Four Films from 1999

Ghosts have always been a staple of the horror genre.  Over the decades, there have been hundreds of films that have explored the afterlife and spirits who need to be laid to rest.  This column will explore certain years and the various films that were released that focused on spirits.  1999 was perhaps one of the most important years with respect to films about specters from the beyond.  While Ghostbusters endeared the globe with its horror/comedy hybrid, films like The Sixth Sense brought horror sensibilities into the mainstream, showing that with the right amount of tension, even horror, a genre popularized by a glut of slasher films in the 80's could be appreciated by everyone, even viewers who weren't typically drawn to horror.  What follows is a list of four films from 1999 that explore these themes. 

House on Haunted Hill

William Malone's remake of the 1959 classic was critically divisive upon its release.  While the script is easily the weakest element, Malone's visual camp works well, creating an ambiance that contains pitch black hysterics and unsettling imagery.  Legendary character actor Jeffrey Combs steals the spotlight as the Surgeon, a devious spirit that haunts the sanitarium at the center of the mystery, while Geoffrey Rush and Famke Janssen chew the scenery as a vicious husband and wife who may be trying to kill one another.  Overall, this is a film that doesn't entirely work, but is just visually intriguing. The set design and cinematography evoke a place out of time where the past and present collide through a ghastly conduit in which the sins of both eras come home to roost. 


The Sixth Sense 

Arguably one of the most influential ghost films ever made. M. Night Shamalyan's classic instantly jettisoned him into the upper echelons of Hollywood, a place that he would soon plummet from with repeated failures and endlessly trying to replicate the infamous twist of this film.  One of the best aspects is in how the ghosts are presented.  They appear almost alive, just off enough to create unease and panic and the juxtaposition with Haley Joel Osmond's innocence is the perfect recipe for terror.  Perhaps one of Willis' last great efforts before the regrettable "phoning it in" phase began, The Sixth Sense is a carousel of delights in a circus of shadows.  Memorable, scary, and surprisingly heartwarming, this is the standard for the genre.  

The Haunting 

Arguably the worst film in this list, Jan De Bont's doomed excursion into the underworld is not without its merits.  The set design for the house in particular is what gives The Haunting enough merit to be included. Borrowing from the baroque origins of the original film and melding them with elements of The 7th Guest video game, De Bont is able to bring his patented kinetic energies to an unusual genre pairing.  While everything else, the script, the actors, THE CHILDREN! is a travesty, the world of The Haunting is a visual stunner.  Beyond that, even the atmosphere itself is upended whenever logic or reason is attempted. 

Stir of Echoes 

David Koepp's masterwork is a revelation that is woefully undervalued, largely due to living in the shadow of The Sixth Sense.  Aside from featuring what is one of Kevin Bacon's most powerful performances, Stir of Echoes creates a unique world full of danger, mysteries, and dark secrets.  The dialogue is organic and absolutely hysterical at times, reinforcing the viewer's connection with the principals.   In between are moments of genuine horror as a mundane, blue collar worker is confronted with things from beyond human understanding and Bacon encapsulates the struggle of two entrenched worlds colliding masterfully.  Combined with a skin crawling introductory voice modulation scene and a tragic finale, the final product is a benchmark for the genre, despite it being somewhat forgotten in the tide of films it would go on to influence over the years that followed it.  

--Kyle Jonathan