Part 1

Supernatural Films
Part 1 | Examples

Supernatural Films: These are films that have themes including gods or goddesses, ghosts, apparitions, spirits, miracles, and other similar ideas or depictions of extraordinary phenomena. They may be combined with other genres, including comedy, sci-fi, fantasy or horror. Interestingly however, until recently, supernatural films were usually presented in a comical, whimsical, or a romantic fashion, and were not designed to frighten the audience. There are also many hybrids that have combinations of fear, fantasy, horror, romance and comedy.

Films with Benevolent Ghosts:

Ghosts as the subject of films date back to World War II era and post-war romantic comedies. A lengthy list of films with angels in them can be found in the genre section on fantasy films. Originally, supernatural apparitions were not intended to frighten audiences, but to entertain as they assisted earth-bound characters out of crazy predicaments, or interacted with them. For example:

  • Topper Returns - 1941the late 30s Topper (1937), with Cary Grant and Constance Bennett as George and Marion Kerby, a mischievous ghostly couple who, after a car accident, bedevil stuffy banker Cosmo Topper (Roland Young) (with a nagging wife (Billie Burke)) into having a new zest for life; the ghosts are invisible to everyone but Topper; followed by two sequels to complete the Hal Roach Studios trilogy (Topper Takes a Trip (1939) and Topper Returns (1941)), a TV series starring Leo G. Carroll, and a television movie in 1979
  • the classic fantasy romantic comedy Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), a Best Picture Oscar nominee with Robert Montgomery as soprano saxophone-playing, champion boxer Joe Pendleton who is killed in a fighter plane crash, but in Heaven is told there's been a mix-up and he has shown up 50 years before his time, due to an error by an inexperienced and scatterbrained heavenly messenger (Edward Everett Horton); celestial bookkeeper Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains) sends him back to Earth, where his body has already been cremated, so he must inhabit the body of a soon-to-be murdered millionaire crook; the film was remade twice - as a semi-sequel musical Down to Earth (1947) with Rita Hayworth, and most recently inspiring Warren Beatty's updated Heaven Can Wait (1978) with the sport changed to pro football (Joe Pendleton's position was quarterback for the LA Rams) - this was the third teaming of Beatty with Julie Christie (following their appearances in McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and Shampoo (1975))
  • I Married a Witch - 1942Abbott and Costello's haunted/abandoned house comedy Hold That Ghost (1941), the second (released third) of their feature films
  • French director Rene Clair's best Hollywood picture I Married a Witch (1942) with Veronica Lake as a sexy Salem witch (previously burned at the stake) who, with her sorcerer father, returns to haunt the descendant (Fredric March) of her condemning Puritan accusers, but then romance develops; the film may be the basis for the popular TV series Bewitched
  • Ernst Lubitsch's witty, Technicolor fantasy/comedy Heaven Can Wait (1943), the director's first film in color; about a recently-deceased former lothario (Don Ameche) who recounts his sexual philandering life history in Hell to the Devil - His Excellency (Laird Creger)
  • Noel Coward's and David Lean's British fantasy/supernatural comedy farce Blithe Spirit (1945) with an innovative use of color cinematography to accentuate the ghosts; about the eccentric, mischievous ghost (Kay Hammond) of a novelist's (Rex Harrison) 1st wife who attempts to break up his 2nd marriage to a strait-laced woman (Constance Cummings), and the efforts of a medium (Margaret Rutherford) to exorcise the offending spirit
  • in the Technicolor, Goldwyn-produced Wonder Man (1945), Danny Kaye starred as identical twins with strikingly-different personalities: a timid bespectacled librarian and a nightclub emcee (who became a ghostly spirit and then entered his brother's body)
  • The Ghost and Mrs. Muir - 1947the much-loved, all-time Christmas classic It's A Wonderful Life (1946), with guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers) who convinces a despairing, small-town good man/bank manager (James Stewart) to refrain from suicide by showing him how wretched the town would have been without him
  • the sentimental angel tale The Bishop's Wife (1947) with an overworked and harrassed bishop (David Niven), his neglected wife (Loretta Young), and an angelic suave stranger (Cary Grant) who helps the bishop raise money for a new church; remade in director Penny Marshall's The Preacher's Wife (1996)
  • Joseph Mankiewicz' turn of the century romantic fantasy The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), about a young and independent, but lonely widow Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) who discovers a salty, hot-tempered naval captain (Rex Harrison) as a ghostly presence in her English seaside Gull Cottage

Suspenseful Ghost Tales:

However, a few films in the mid-1940s established ghosts and the power of the supernatural as serious horror themes:

  • The Uninvited - 1944Paramount's suspenseful, Gothic-style haunted house tale, a great ghost film, The Uninvited (1944) about a music critic (Ray Milland) and his sister (Ruth Hussey) who purchase a spooky Welsh/Cornish coast seaside home with vengeful spirits and eerie occurrences (the smell of mimosas, unexplanably chilled rooms, flickering candles, opening and closing creaking doors, supernatural apparitions, the sound of sobbing and moaning in the night, wilting flowers)
  • Britain's classic, all-time suspenseful, episodic masterpiece Dead of Night (1945), an anthology composed of three chilling tales; especially remembered for the sequence of a ventriloquist terrorized by his demonic and sinister dummy
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), adapted from Oscar's Wilde's tale and an updating of the Faustian legend; about a vain and handsome Dorian Gray (Hurd Hatfield) in Victorian London who sells his soul for eternal youth in an unholy pact with the Devil, but turns morally ugly nonetheless; in the climax, his true age is revealed in a life-sized, Technicolored attic portrait

Val Lewton also produced a series of atmospheric supernatural horror films in the 1940s, including the cult horror classic Cat People (1942) and its fantasy follow-up Curse of the Cat People (1944).

A Guy Named Joe - 1944Supernatural/Religious Films:

A few other films during the 1940s also told stories that mixed religion and the supernatural. The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) was the classic Stephen Vincent Benet folkloric tale of an 1840s New Hampshire farmer selling his soul to the devil, and has the deal argued by famed lawyer Webster. Another excellent guardian angel fantasy film was the sentimental WWII era film A Guy Named Joe (1944), about an angelic flier who navigates a younger pilot through battle - and romance [remade in Steven Spielberg's Always (1989)].

Other films mixing religion and the spiritual world into their plots included:

  • director John Cromwell's melodramatic tear-jerker fantasy, The Enchanted Cottage (1944) with magical spirituality in a story about two lonely and misfit souls; a disfigured and embittered war veteran named Oliver (Robert Young) and a homely and shy spinster named Laura (Dorothy McGuire) who retreat to a secluded, seaside cottage to hide from the cruel world, and there find restorative love, beauty, and youth
  • Angel On My Shoulder (1946) the amusing fantasy of a murdered gangster (Paul Muni) who makes a deal with the devil (Claude Rains), is sent back to Earth, and takes possession of the body of a lenient judge, in order to send more souls to Hades; remade in 1980
  • director William Dieterle's hauntingly romantic fantasy Portrait of Jennie (1948), about a struggling, penniless artist (Joseph Cotten) inspired by and in love with the vision of a strangely beautiful, elfin girl (Jennifer Jones), suspected of being a spirit

Recent Ghostly-Supernatural Tales:

Other notable, low-budget supernatural/horror films in the late 1950s through the 1970s included:

  • Bell, Book, and Candle (1958), a romantic fantasy adapted from the Broadway stage comedy of the same name, with pre-Vertigo James Stewart (as a stodgy book publisher) and Kim Novak as his bewitching Greenwich Village neighbor
  • The Innocents - 1961William Castle's ghost-infested B-movie House on Haunted Hill (1959), starring Vincent Price as a wealthy and eccentric man who offers $10,000 to his wife and others to survive one entire night in a ghostly manse; with decapitated heads, vats of lye, crashing chandeliers; inspired the parody Saturday the 14th (1981), and was remade in 1999
  • 13 Ghosts (1960), another haunted house thriller from William Castle, memorable for its "Illusion-O" process (viewers were given the option of using ghost-viewing glasses)
  • director Jack Clayton's effective and definitive The Innocents (1961), the British adaptation of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, with a repressed minister's daughter (Deborah Kerr) hired as governess to a family with two orphaned children in a country estate, who soon experiences spectral figures
  • the spooky, cult zombie classic Carnival of Souls (1962), about a dazed but unscathed woman (Candace Hilligoss) who survives a car accident, but has visions of a ghoulish man and a 'carnival' of dead people
  • The Haunting - 1963Robert Wise's suspenseful, subtle haunted house film The Haunting (1963), based on Shirley Jackson's classic ghost story about a group of folks brought together, by a parapsychologist and two mediums, to spend a night in a spooky haunted Hill House - a family estate in New England
  • The Legend of Hell House (1973), a tale of the occult involving four researchers (scientists and mediums) who spend one week in a newly-acquired house known to be inhabited by malignant spirits; from scriptwriter Richard Matheson's own novel Hell House
  • John Carpenter's The Fog (1980) told about an evil fog that envelopes a sleepy coastal town, shrouding the area's vengeful, undead pirates; it was remade by director Rupert Wainwright (and Carpenter as co-producer) as the PG-13 rated The Fog (2006) in a similar story about inhabitants of a small California coastal town being terrorized by an evil fog that covered a group of vengeful zombiefied sailors, with Selma Blair taking the original Adrienne Barbeau role

Ghost Stories also abounded during the 80s and after:

  • Peter Medak's tense haunted house entry The Changeling (1980), with George C. Scott as a mourning widower who moved into a haunted Seattle historical mansion, which ultimately manifested a murder committed many years earlier in its attic
  • Stanley Kubrick's stylish and overlong The Shining (1980), a loose adaptation of Stephen King's novel, with Jack Nicholson as an ex-alcoholic, failed writer who becomes the caretaker of a huge, wintry Colorado resort and turns psychotic toward his family as he resorts to the same behavior as the former caretaker who axe-murdered his family in the past
  • Poltergeist - 1982John Irvin's Ghost Story (1981), based on the best-selling novel by Peter Straub; about four elderly men (Fred Astaire, John Houseman, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) in the Chowder Society social club, who share a haunting, past secret
  • Tobe Hooper's and co-producer Steven Spielberg's Poltergeist (1982), about the Freeling suburban family who unknowingly lived atop a Indian burial site with menacing spirits; followed by two sequels (Poltergeist 2: The Other (1986), and Poltergeist 3 (1988))
  • the comedy hit Ghostbusters (1984) and its sequel Ghostbusters II (1989)
  • The Witches of Eastwick (1987), an anarchic, supernatural comedy-horror film with supernatural elements, starring Jack Nicholson as a womanizing, leering, and hedonistic devil, accompanied by three sultry witches (Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfeiffer) in the New England town of Eastwick
  • The Lady in White (1988), a modern-day ghost story set in a small town, about a young boy (Lukas Haas) haunted by the ghost of a little girl
  • Jerry Zucker's popular, romantic ghost story Ghost (1990), about a brutally murdered, ghostly stock investment consultant (Patrick Swayze), his endangered lover (Demi Moore), and a fake psychic medium (Whoopi Goldberg in an Oscar-winning performance) who discovers she has real psychic powers
  • Ghost - 1990Hocus Pocus (1993), with Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker as three resurrected witches from Colonial-days Salem brought back to life
  • the animated and live-action Casper (1995)
  • The Craft (1996), starring a teenaged foursome (Robin Tunney, Neve Campbell, Rachel True, and Fairuza Balk) of schoolgirls at St. Benedict's Academy, who turn to witchcraft for revenge
  • New Zealander director Peter Jackson's American film debut, The Frighteners (1996), a comedy-horror about a con man (Michael J. Fox) in cahoots with a group of ghosts
  • director Griffin Dunne's Practical Magic (1998) based on Alice Hoffman's novel, a drama-comedy about a family of spell-casting witches (Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock as sisters), and two delightfully magical aunts (Dianne Wiest and Stockard Channing)
  • Jan de Bont's haunted house film The Haunting (1999) based on Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting Of Hill House (also used for Robert Wise's The Haunting (1963))
  • M. Night Shyamalan's intriguing The Sixth Sense (1999), with Haley Joel Osment as a young boy who can communicate with ghosts ("I see dead people"), and Bruce Willis as his child psychiatrist
  • Tim Burton's gothic ghost story Sleepy Hollow (1999) based upon Washington Irving's tale of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman
  • director Robert Zemeckis' slick and suspenseful thrill-fest What Lies Beneath (2000), with Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfieffer as a seemingly happily-married couple; with ghost-possession, a menacing bathtub, and a twisting plot
  • The Others (2001), director Alejandro Amenabar's first American film, a creepy and classic ghost story with Nicole Kidman as an overprotective mother with two children in a musty and darkened mansion
  • Gore Verbinski's The Ring (2002) - a remake of Hideo Nakata's Japanese film Ringu (1998) - with a plot that recalled both Poltergeist (1982) and Videodrome (1982) in which television served as a medium for an evil force
  • Steve Beck's Ghost Ship (2002) and David Twohy's horror-war film Below (2002), released about the same time, were both supernatural ghost tales set on sunken ships
  • M. Night Shyamalan's 19th century suspense tale, The Village (2004), about a village in rural Pennsylvania next to woods where mythical creatures reside

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