Tag Archives: ghost stories


Martyrs Lane

by Hope Madden

Six years ago, filmmaker Ruth Platt released the thriller The Lesson. While essentially no one else saw the film, I was impressed enough by it to look forward to whatever else Platt wanted to make.

So here’s her follow up, the grief-driven horror Martyrs Lane.

Platt’s story of a haunting walks in familiar circles, as confused and lonesome 10-year-old Leah (a heart-bruisingly melancholy Kiera Thompson) makes a spooky new friend (Sienna Sayer, wonderful). By day Leah rattles about the vicarage where her father (Steven Cree) is minister, her older sister (Hannah Rae) kills time before fleeing for university, and her mom (Denise Gough) mourns something secretly.

At night, the creaks and whistles combine with Leah’s fears, imagination and loneliness to conjure a visitor who leaves Leah with clues to follow.

There is a lot about Martyrs Lane that feels familiar, but Platt grounds her spectral tale in messy, lived-in family drama. Set design, costuming, framing, moments of silence, pointed cruelties followed by protective love—all of it combines to create an atmosphere both familial and haunted. No austere staircases, empty nurseries, or any of the other chilly and spare environs where you might expect to set a mournful ghost story. Instead, Leah’s home bears the weary chaos and forced cheer of family and absence.

Thompson’s performance is driven by the recognizable, shapeless guilt that looms in a child’s imagination, making every perceived transgression somehow unforgivable and therefore impossible to share, even with a caring adult. Cree’s bright presence offsets the gloom nicely, while Sayer’s ghostly cherubic image is wonderfully, tenderly haunting.

Gough’s understated frailty is the unease that haunts the film from its opening, a feeling that blossoms into dread as the tale wears on.

Platt and her talented group do not fail to deliver on the promise of their ghost story. The issue is only that, while the execution is impeccable, the story itself is a bit tired. Wisely, Platt capitalizes on character over story, leaving you so invested in this little girl and her family that you’ll likely forgive the sense of having been here before.

And, like me, you’ll probably keep an eye out for wherever it is Platt wants to take you next.

School Daze


by Hope Madden

Off in the dusty old Edelvine boarding school, the girls are restless. They need something to pass the time, something to entertain them. They need a Séance.

Essentially, the mean girls gather in a dorm lav and Candyman the school’s ghost—saying her name 3 times at 3:13 am, the moment she died, in the very bathroom where it all happened.

Oooo, spooky!

Well, it’s all just a harmless prank until one of the girls winds up dead. Was it the ghost?

Fast forward a bit and Camille (Suki Waterhouse) arrives to fill the vacant room. More girls go missing or turn up dead in a film that cannot find a way to say anything new. Simon Barrett has written some good stuff: Blair Witch (2016), The Guest (2014), You’re Next (2011), Dead Birds (2004). He had not directed any features prior to Séance, but it’s hard to blame this film’s doldrums on its direction. The story just isn’t there.

Everything feels borrowed, not from any film in particular, but from the collective unconscious of dorm room horror that involves whispering ghosts, nubile schoolgirls, glinting blades and mystery. Barrett’s writing has tended to utilize tropes from the 80s and 90s to lull audiences into a sense of familiarity that allows him to deliver unexpected thrills.

His latest pulls most clearly from 90s staples like the Urban Legend franchise. But when he zigs instead of zags, the lull has turned stupor and Séance’s surprises just aren’t enough to snap us out of it.

Performances are fine, production values solid. There’s nothing embarrassing here, just nothing to get excited about. Some of the film’s sleights of hand are clever enough, but the storytelling is so anemic that it’s hard to applaud them. Barrett generates no dread and no sense of connection to any of the characters.

Unlike Guest’s Maika Monroe or You’re Next’s Sharni Vinson, who command the screen and drive the film, Waterhouse delivers a mainly listless performance. She’s neither scared nor curious, and though her bursts of ferocity feel cagey, it’s not enough to inject the film with any fire.

This Old House

The Banishing

by Hope Madden

Filmmaker Christopher Smith has repeatedly proven a knack for horror.

Whether he locks us up in the tunnels beneath London with Franka Potente (2004’s Creep), transports us to the Dark Ages with Sean Bean and Eddie Redmayne (2010’s Black Death), or forces us on a weekend corporate team building of death (the sublime 2006 horror comedy Severance), Smith takes an audience somewhere we probably shouldn’t go.

The Banishing drops us in rural England, just days before WWII. Marianne (Jessica Brown Findlay, Downton Abbey) and her young daughter arrive at a beautiful-if-creepy estate where Marianne’s husband Linus (John Heffernan) has just been appointed Vicar.

Naturally, the house is haunted. The Church says one thing, but this odd redhead from town (Sean Harris, the picture of subdued weirdness) whispers another.

The Banishing is really the first Smith film to walk such familiar ground. His screenplay, co-written with David Beton and Ray Bogdanovich, takes inspiration from England’s infamous Borley Rectory—allegedly the nation’s most haunted house.

The direction that inspiration leads is rarely in question. Smith trots out a lot of familiar ideas, though he does package them well. Some incredibly creepy images accompany Marianne’s deepest fears, and Smith puts horror’s beloved old mirror prop to exceedingly spooky use.

Performances are solid as well. Findlay, in particular, finds depth and genuineness in the frequently portrayed role of the woman to be deemed insane in lieu of dealing with the supernatural.

Smith sometimes crosses over effectively into the inner working of the mind, and these scenes feel freshest and most engaging. They are overwhelmed, unfortunately, with stale plot devices.

The result feels very un-Christopher Smith-like (if there is such a thing). He’s been a tough filmmaker to pinpoint because each of his movies varies so wildly from the last. The Banishing looks and feels unlike anything else he’s done. Too bad it feels so much like what everyone else has.

I Don’t Want to Go Out—Week of September 3

A bunch of new stuff in home entertainment this week, not one of them a dud. We have two of the year’s absolute best, followed by a slew of really solid flicks you may have missed during their brief stints in theaters. Now is the day to rectify! We’ll help you sequence your week’s viewing.

Click the film title for the full review.


Won’t You Be My Neighbor?


Ghost Stories

*new on DVD


Screening Room: Everybody Back in the Pool!

Welcome back to The Screening Room Podcast, where H&G disagree a bit on Deadpool 2 but are more in line with their thoughts on Book Club, Disobedience, Ghost Stories and what’s new in home entertainment.

Listen in HERE.

A Ghost at My Sister’s House

The story of Miss Hanes begins when my sister Julie Anne and her young family moved from a small apartment above a Toledo wicker shop to a charming old house in the suburb of Point Place.

It was a very pretty first home for Julie Anne, her husband Brett, their toddler Brenna, and their sweet but excitable Dalmatian, Gonzo. It offered a homey neighborhood and plenty of room for the family to grow. But there was always something off about the place.

Immediately upon moving in, my sweet baby niece Brenna began to take on odd qualities.

Odd, even for my family.

Brenna’d always had an almost eerie calm about her, even as a toddler, quietly observing with the hint of judgment. But somehow, in the new house, she seemed almost otherworldly.

Need an example? One of Brenna’s more unsettling games during this particular period was called Magic Fingers. It was a game of her own creation, where she’d cast a spell by wiggling her fingers above her head, chanting. After calling on the power of the magic fingers, Brenna would utter a command.

“Magic Fingers, make Hope be dead,” for instance.

At that time, I didn’t know whether to fear that some demon intended to steal my beloved niece or take comfort in the more realistic notion that Brenna would be the child who could summon and command the spirit world.

It wasn’t just Brenna’s unusual playtime antics, though. Things moved around the house. Not before your eyes, but objects just didn’t remain in the spot you remembered putting them or seeing them last.

This was particularly problematic for Brett.

Not long after they’d taken residence, Brett’s wedding ring came up missing. After an exhaustive search and a little drama, they replaced it.

He lost that one, too.

It was an ugly time until Julie Anne – doing laundry down the basement – found both rings on the floor under a pile of clothes. She handed one to her husband, who promptly lost it again. Julie Anne returned to the basement to check and found the ring right where she had spied it the last time – in the center of the basement floor under a pile of dirty laundry.

Had it been only the ring, well that would have been weird enough, but it wasn’t.

Items moved around Brenna’s room as well, winding up on surfaces too high for her to reach. The front and back door would be standing open, even if you were certain you’d closed and locked them. And worst of all, the dog refused to go into the nursery.

That is never a good sign.

Fascinated, Julie Anne talked to neighbors, who spun a yarn about a tragedy in the Hanes family, who’d lived in Julie Anne’s house a few years before.

A story emerged. The teenage daughter babysat all around the neighborhood one summer. She was well-liked by the area kids and their parents. She had a nice enough family, herself, although maybe a little strict, overprotective.

That might be why she decided to sneak out her bedroom window, across the porch roof and down the tree one night to meet a boy at the little wooded patch beyond the cul de sac.

Neighbors couldn’t remember whether her father claimed to suspect an intruder, or if he thought he was catching that boyfriend sneaking into his daughter’s room.

Or if Mr. Hanes was just a psycho.

Whatever he was thinking, Mr. Hanes shot his daughter. She never left the house again.

Now the troubled, lovesick teen wandered Julie Anne’s halls, stealing wedding rings and hiding them where Brett would never find them – under a pile of work needing to be done.















Little evidences of Miss Hanes’s presence filled Julie Anne’s house, from the bedazzled basement floor to the little knickknacks that moved around Brenna’s room – all harmless enough reminders that we were not alone in Point Place.

And then one night I would have more of a one-on-one run in.

My twin sister Joy and I were sleeping over, sharing Julie Anne’s bed upstairs. Julie Anne was sleeping with Brenna, and Brett was working the night shift.

It was late and Joy and I were both long asleep when I was roused by a stomping sound.

It didn’t wake Joy up. I lay there a while in the dark. The house was quiet.

Then I heard it again – it sounded like footsteps from above, which was odd because I hadn’t even realized that Julie Anne had an attic. Certainly, no one was walking around in the attic at this hour, but by now I was absolutely awake and a clear footfall could be heard coming from beyond the ceiling above me.

What could it be? I considered.


Nope, squirrels scurry.


Now that’s just idiotic.

How would a deer get into Julie Anne’s attic? 

Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. Stomp.

Ooooooh. I did not care for this. I shook Joy.


“Joy! Joy!”

Nothing. A sound sleeper, that one.

Stomp. Stomp. Stomp.

I decided to ignore it. Maybe block it out. I landed on the age-old, truly courageous plan to roll over and pull the covers over my head.

I rolled to my side, facing Joy, covers in hand.

I tugged.

The covers would not move.

I really yanked them toward my head, but they wouldn’t reach. They were held firmly in place.

I tugged and tugged, but it was as if someone was sitting on the bed with me, sitting on top of the blankets.

I imagined her there, right behind me. Her bloody nightgown, her mournful face…

I looked at the peacefully sleeping Joy, the sister I was about to abandon to a ghost.

Then, without a thought to her safety or so much as a peek over my shoulder at whatever was back there sitting on the bed with us, I hopped up, stood on the bed, stepped over Joy and toward the bedroom door, and fled to the TV room downstairs.

And, like big, dumb Gonzo, I never went back upstairs.

Wedding Bell Blues


by Hope Madden

Like the mournful soul that clings to poor bridegroom Piotr (Itay Tiran), Demon sticks to you.

Director/co-writer Marcin Wrona’s final feature (he ended his life at a recent festival where the film was playing) offers a spooky, atmospheric rumination on cultural loss.

The tale unravels in a single day. The British Piotr travels to his Polish fiance’s old family vacation home for a proper Catholic wedding. There he attempts to maneuver a new language, impress reluctant in-laws, and grasp wife-to-be Zaneta’s (Agnieszka Zulewska) heritage. Though Zaneta’s family is reluctant to embrace him, a wandering spirit is happy to.

Wrona sets the Hebrew folktale of the dybbuk – a ghost that possesses the living – inside a Catholic wedding, accomplishing two things in the process. On the surface, he tells an affecting ghost story. More deeply, though, he laments cultural amnesia and reminds us that our collective past continues to haunt us.

Performances are uniformly excellent, whether Tiran’s vulnerable groom, Andrzej Grabowski’s blowhard father-in-law, Zulewska’s tormented bride or any of the dozens of judgmental, drunk or ridiculous wedding guests. With their help, the story rides on an undercurrent of absurdist humor that consistently surprises as it injects an otherwise slowly building dread with energy.

Together with cinematographer and frequent collaborator Pawel Flis, whose sepia tones offer the look of a well-worn wedding photo, the filmmaker creates an atmosphere without a clear timestamp. It affords the film a dreamy quality that straddles generations and suggests that anything could happen.

With just a hint of Kubrick – never a bad place to go for ghost story inspiration – Wrona combines the familiar with the surprising. His film echoes with a deeply felt pain -a sense of anguish, often depicted as scenes of celebration clash with unexplained images of abject grief.

Demon aches with loss, surprises with humor, and marks an artistic voice too soon lost.

Day 26: The Orphanage

The Orphanage (2007)

Some of the world’s best horror output comes from distant lands – like this gem from Spain.

Laura (Belén Rueda) and her husband reopen the orphanage where she grew up, with the goal of running a house for children with special needs – children like her adopted son Simón, who is HIV positive. But Simón’s new imaginary friends worry Laura, and when he disappears, it looks like she may be imagining things herself.

This may seem like a well worn tale at first glance: Is the distraught mother losing her mind, as those around her assume, or is something supernatural afoot? But it’s director Juan Antonio Bayona’s understated approach, along with Rueda’s measured performance and Óscar Faura’s superb cinematography, that buoy the film above the ordinary ghost story.

A scary movie can be elevated beyond measure by a masterful score and an artful camera. Because Bayona keeps the score and all ambient noise to a minimum, allowing the quiet to fill the scenes, he develops a truly haunting atmosphere. Faura captures the eerie beauty of the stately orphanage, but does it in a way that always suggests someone is watching. The effect is never heavy handed, but effortlessly eerie.

The Orphanage treads familiar ground, employing such iconic genre images as the lighthouse, scary dolls, scarecrows, a misshapen child – not to mention the many and varied things that go bump in the night – but it does so with an unusual integrity. Creepy images from early in the film are effectively replayed in the third act to punctuate the very real sense of dread Bayona creates throughout the film. While most of the horror is built with slow, spectral dread, there are a couple of outright shocks to keep the audience guessing.

One of the film’s great successes is its ability to take seriously both the logical, real world story line, and the supernatural one.

Screenwriter Sergio Sánchez doesn’t shortchange his characters or the audience by dismissing Laura’s anguished state of mind, or by neglecting the shadowy side of his tale. The Orphanage is reminiscent of producer Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, as well as The Others, and even of the classic The Innocents.

The Orphanage has more than the unsettling spectral images of children in common with these films; it boasts a sustaining, powerful female performance. Rueda carries the film with a restrained urgency – hysterical only when necessary, focused at all times, and absolutely committed to this character, who may or may not be seeing ghosts.

A good ghost story is hard to find. Apparently you have to look in Spain.

Listen weekly to MaddWolf’s horror podcast FRIGHT CLUB. Do it!

Day 22: The Conjuring

The Conjuring (2013)

Welcome to 1971, the year the Perron family took one step inside their new home and screamed with horror, “My God, this wallpaper is hideous!”

Seriously, it often surprises me that civilization made it through the Seventies. Must every surface and ream of fabric be patterned? Still, the Perrons found survival tougher than most.

The farmhouse’s previous residents may be dead, but they haven’t left, and they are testy! So the Perrons have no choice but to look up paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren – the real life couple linked to many famous American hauntings, including one in Amityville, NY. The Conjuring is allegedly based on one of the couple’s cases.

Yes, this is an old fashioned ghost story, built from the ground up to push buttons of childhood terror. But don’t expect a long, slow burn. Director James Wan expertly balances suspense with quick, satisfying bursts of visual terror.

Wan cut his teeth – and Cary Elwes’s bones – with 2004’s corporeal horror Saw. He’s since turned his attention to something more spectral, and his skill with supernatural cinema only strengthens with each film.

Ghost stories are hard to pull off, though, especially in the age of instant gratification. Few modern moviegoers have the patience for atmospheric dread, so filmmakers now turn to CGI to ramp up thrills. The results range from the visceral fun of The Woman in Black to the needless disappointment of Mama.

But Wan understands the power of a flesh and blood villain in a way that other directors don’t seem to. He proved this with the creepy fun of Insidious, and surpasses those scares with this effort.

A game cast helps. Joining five believably terrified girls in solid performances are Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, and the surprisingly well-suited Ron Livingston as the helpless patriarch.

Claustrophobic when it needs to be and full of fun house moments, The Conjuring will scare you while you’re watching and stick with you after. At the very least, you’ll keep your feet tucked safely under the covers.

Listen weekly to MaddWolf’s horror podcast FRIGHT CLUB. Do it!


Missed Opportunity

Crimson Peak

by Hope Madden

A quick scan of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro’s work emphasizes his particular capacity for creepiness. His success likely lies partly in his visual flair and partly in his patient storytelling, but it’s his own mad genius that pulls these elements together in sometimes utterly brilliant efforts, like Pan’s Labyrinth.

That’s a high water mark he may never reach again, but his latest, Crimson Peak, can’t even see that high, let alone touch it.

Del Toro has pulled together the genuine talents of Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, and Mia Wasikowska – as well as the questionable competence of Charlie Hunnam – to populate this diabolical love story.

Edith Cushing (Wasikowska) is wooed away from home and childhood beau (Hunnam) by dreamy new suitor Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston), regardless of his sister’s unpleasantness or her own father’s disdain. But the siblings may have dastardly motives, not to mention some rather vocal skeletons in their closet.

All four actors struggle. Hunnam has little chance with his underwritten sweetheart role, while Hiddleston is wasted as a spineless yet dreamy baronet. There is no chemistry between Wasikowska and anyone, and while Chastain is often fun to watch as a malevolent force, the cast can’t congeal as a group, so much of her bubbling evil is wasted.

Characteristic of a del Toro effort, however, the film looks fantastic. Gorgeous period pieces drip with symbolism and menace, creating an environment ideal for the old fashioned ghost story unspooling.

But where certain monstrous images blended nicely into the drama of Labyrinth, here they look and feel a part of another film entirely. The garish colors of a Dario Argento horror bleed into the somber gothic mystery. Edith’s ghastly, yet utterly modern, visions not only break the bygone feel the film develops, they awkwardly punctuate Peak’s tensely deliberate pace.

Tonal shifts between lurid and subtle only compound a problem with weak writing, and del Toro struggles to develop the twisted love story required to make the murky depths of the villainy believable.

In the end, Crimson Peak is the sad story of great resources but wasted effort.