By Ed Sum
(The Vintage Tempest)
In a 2017 article on Smithsonianmag.com, the plea was made to bring back the ghost story for the Christmas season. Colin Dickey wrote, “Telling ghost stories during winter is a hallowed tradition, a folk custom stretches back centuries, when families would wile away the winter nights with tales of spooks and monsters.”
Another character said, “A sad tale’s best for winter,” Mamilius proclaims in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. He added, “I have one. Of sprites and goblins.”
And the titular Jew of Malta in Christopher Marlowe’s play at one point mused, “Now I remember those old women’s words, Who in my wealth would tell me winter’s tales, And speak of spirits and ghosts by night.”
It’s a tradition I’m honouring cinematically. It’s too easy to always include Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and instead of this titular classic, I’m choosing which of the many adaptations I consider worth revisiting. This list is divided into two parts. One which mentions the holiday in the film and perhaps takes place during. The other is broader, using Winter as a metaphor. The movie has to be good. No rotten tomatoes are going to be mentioned here. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is mentioned far too many times and I’m going for the lesser known works.
Thanks go to Bloody Disgusting for the original list, to which I pruned. I tightened the criteria because a ghost has to be crucial to the tale:
The Curse of the Cat People (1944)
This tale set during the holidays is a sequel to the original, and it’s described by Bleeding Cool as a feel-good tale rather than of pure horror. It’s a sweet coming of age tale which stars Anne Carter as Amy Reed, who befriends the ghost of her father’s first wife whom she’s never been told about.
This work is more fantasy than anything else, but it still contains the essential elements that define a ghost story.
Dead of Night (1945)
This horror anthology offers one tale which relates to the season and the rest has set a standard for many future works to come. From Twilight Zone or even other collections using the classic tropes of ventriloquist dummies to cursed mirrors, I’m definitely fast forwarding “The Christmas Party” to see how well this classic English ghost story stands the test of time. The premise is simple. Sally recounts to the crowd about how she once went to an estate holiday party and, during a game of hide and seek, she meets a quiet but lonely boy. He tells her another tale about his murderous sister and from there, the chills just crawls up your spine!
A Child’s Christmas in Wales (1987)
Although this poem adapted to film is a stretch, there’s no denying the original has a soft haunting quality to make this piece an original. It was adapted for television in 1987, and serves the literary definition very well. Ghosts are often a reflection of history, of memories, and that’s how this entry best fits in. Here, we see a young boy hearing tales from his grandfather on Christmas Eve.
This modern update to Dickens tale gets crazy and had Bill Murray wanted to channel his Ghostbusters character, Peter Venkman, I’m sure he’d be busting them instead of running away. It’s a wonderful and weird remake that delivers in a few genuine chills, especially with the Ghost of Christmas Future delivering some effective Dementor-like frights to Frank (Murray). Plus, to see Bobcat Goldthwait and Murray in a film together is enough to deliver tonnes of comedy gold!
Casper’s Haunted Christmas (2000)
This family friendly flick is perfect for those not wanting to be scared for the season. Here, the titular character must scare someone before Christmas Day or he’ll be banished forever! The ghost realm has never been kind to the world of mortals, and it’s up to Spooky and Poil to do the job that the title character cannot.
Dead End (2003)
Before Lin Shaye became Elise Rainier for the Insidious Film series, she was Frank Harrington (Ray Wise)’s wife. This effective thriller plays with two tropes–how some families don’t necessarily enjoy going to clan gatherings and why the ghost on a forgotten road makes for the best tale of terror. Here, the Harrington’s are on the way to the in-laws via a shortcut through the woods and a near-accident almost hampers the plans on Xmas Eve. They see the same figures as though they are caught in a time loop, but there’s a lot more going on. This French made film is worth checking out and the only shame is that Laura (Shaye’s character) doesn’t have the gift, otherwise all that she’s witnessed may have been avoided.
Who would’ve thought filmmaker Dick Maas can make St. Nicholas into a killer. This Christmas ghost is joined by his side-kick Black Peter to deliver the goods on all who’s naughty and even the nice. In this tale’s case, he was the leader of a gang of thugs and after they were all punished in the past, they have returned to play vengeance on those ancestors. It’s a different ghostly tale, and is more comical (bordering on satire) than anything else. As I wrote before, “This film is a simple cheap thrill. The production quality of the intro is of a high caliber. As an action flick, to see an undead horse racing over rooftops is far better than any ghost riding a flaming motorcycle.”