A history of the supernatural in cinema -- Check out memorable movie spirits from ''The Haunting,'' ''Ghost Story,'' and ''Topper''

The Haunting (Movie - 1963)

A history of the supernatural in cinema

The ghost may be a staple of horror fiction, but in Hollywood, at least, the spectral dead are as often played for laughs or romance as for shudders. This year’s most surprising box-office success — Ghost, starring Patrick Swayze is a perfect example: It’s the most sweetly old-fashioned boy-girl film in ages. If your taste for spirits has been piqued by Ghost — or if you’re just in a supernatural frame of mind, since Halloween is right around the corner — there are numerous variations on the theme available on tape. Here are some of the most memorable cinematic spirits:

The Haunting (MGM/UA, 1963)
A group of psychic researchers — including the luminously sexy Claire Bloom and Twin Peaks shrink Russ Tamblyn — spend a few terrifying days and nights ghost- hunting in a haunted New England house. Based on a novel by supernatural specialist Shirley Jackson (The Lottery), and directed by Robert Wise, a veteran of the great Val Lewton-RKO horror film unit of the ’40s, The Haunting is still the most frightening psychological ghostfest ever made, even though the spirits are heard but never seen. In retrospect, it has been surprisingly influential: Its creepy black-and-white realism, weird camera angles, and rustic settings can now be seen as a huge if unacknowledged influence on George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Don’t watch it alone. A

The Canterville Ghost (MGM/UA, 1944)
A 17th-century twit (Charles Laughton, dressed suspiciously like he was when he played Henry VIII) is cursed to haunt his ancestral home, where e makes World War II uncomfortable for visiting GIs led by Robert Young. In typical MGM fashion, the sentimentality outweighs the comedy here. But it’s certainly watchable, and Laughton is great. Precocious child star Margaret O’Brien may strike today’s audiences as unduly adorable, however. In black and white. B

The Time of Their Lives (MCA, 1946)
Abbott and Costello in a thoroughly charming, almost sophisticated supernatural comedy? Believe it or not, yes. Lou (and sexy costar Marjorie Reynolds) a a Revolutionary War ghosts setting out to prove they weren’t really traitors; Bud is a nervous psychiatrist they wind up haunting while they search. There’s hardly any A&C shtick; the boys actually get to act for a change and they’re priceless. They’re also very well supported by a funny ensemble cast including Gale Sondergaard (”Didn’t I miss you in Rebecca?” somebody asks), slick special effects, and a surprisingly well-written script. A genuine pleasure, this is the Abbott and Costello movie for people who generally hate Abbott and Costello pictures. In black and white. A

Ghost Story (MCA/Universal, 1981)
Peter Straub’s best-seller, about a bunch of elderly New Englanders who have committed a terrible crime that comes back to haunt them, sounds like surefire movie material. And the old-timer casting of Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Fred Astaire, John Houseman, and Melvyn Douglas seems similarly promising. Unfortunately, director John Irvin can’t decide whether he’s making a psychological shocker à la The Haunting or an in-your-face gross-out like Halloween. The result is a muddled, suspenseless exercise that looks reasonably nice but raises few goosebumps. Despite its shortcomings, it’s worth renting for the cast. C+

Topper (Fox Hills, 1937)
Cary Grant (urbane as ever) and Constance Bennett are tipsy socialite ghosts who wreak havoc with the home life of milquetoast Roland Young. Topper is based on a book by Thorne Smith, an unjustly neglected pop novelist who specialized in racy supernatural fantasies about the very rich — amazingly sophisticated stuff for its day. A lot of his, er, spirit survives in this film adaptation. In fact, those familiar only with the G-rated ’50s TV Topper will be surprised by the adult carryings-on. Loads of fun, but avoid the colorized version, which has the sickly look of a faded postcard. A-

The Haunting (Movie - 1963)
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