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12 Favorite Paranormal Movies

Your guide's personal choices

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The paranormal is a rich and varied topic for movie scenarios, and Hollywood has delved into it deeply, even from the beginning of the art form. From monsters to UFOs to ghosts to ESP, I've chosen a dozen of my favorite films that have paranormal themes.

The Others

The Others
~ Buena Vista Home Entertainment
In the category of ghosts, The Others is one of the best. Director Alejandro Amenábar expertly creates an atmospheric, spooky tale that resists today's over-reliance on special effects. The chills are psychological, made all the more effective by good acting, especially Nicole Kidman as the mother of two children who insist they are seeing ghosts. What happens is unexpected and holds up even after repeated viewings.

Poltergeist

Poltergeist
~ Warner Home Video
This Steven Spielberg produced movie is one of the first big budget, modern effects ghost movies. It works well because it focuses on an everyday American family caught up in frightening circumstances. Humor gradually gives way to terror. The spooky activity starts out slowly and rather benign, but escalates quickly when little Carol Ann disappears from sight, yet can still be heard. Paranormal investigators are called in, and things really start to go crazy. There are real chills as well as some genuinely touching moments. This movie stands up over time as well, and its main catch-phrase, "They're here!" is still often repeated.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Close Encounters of the Third Kind
~ Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Dozens of flying saucer movies were made during the 1950s, but leave it to Steven Spielberg (again) to bring UFOs into the realm of eye-popping effects blockbusters. I've seen this movie dozens of times and never tire of watching those cool UFOs flying down the highway and filling the sky around Devil's Tower. I like it far better than Spielberg's other UFO classic, E.T., I think perhaps it's directed at a more adult audience. I also love it because it fulfills that fantasy that many geeks like myself have of having a close encounter and actually going into space with them!

Frankenstein

Frankenstein
~ Universal Studios Home Video
There have been numerous movie versions and adaptations of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's gothic novel about a man-made monster, but I still return to James Whale's 1931 version as my favorite in the weird science category. After all, the great Boris Karloff defined the monster in this version and stands as the most recognizable image of the monster. From the expressionist sets in the graveyard to the sparks and lightning of the science lab to Colin Clive's manic Victor Frankenstein, this is still the best interpretation of the story.

Stargate

Stargate
~ Artisan Entertainment
There are many things that I liked about the ideas and themes in this movie: the digging up of a mysterious ancient artifact that was obviously created by a higher civilization; that it turned out to be a portal to other worlds and dimensions; and I especially liked that the ancient but advanced civilization was the inspiration for the gods, symbols and culture of pyramid-era Egypt -- and that the aliens still retain the look and feel of that culture. Pretty cool. Combine all that with a good story line and effects, and the result is a fun movie!

King Kong

King Kong
~ Warner Home Video
I think we have to count King Kong in the category of crypids and weird creatures. The story also features living dinosaurs. Which version? The original 1933 version, of course, was ground breaking for its animation techniques and also the ambition of its story. It's still highly enjoyable. But I also very much like the 2005 Peter Jackson version. It's a bit long and maybe he overdid it a bit with the dinosaurs, but the cgi Kong is astonishingly real. Naomi Watts isn't so bad to look at either.

The Exorcist

The Exorcist
~ Warner Home Video
This movie tops my list of the scariest movies ever made and it's also one of my favorites in the religious / demonic possession category. The book was a huge bestseller, and it's hard to imagine that a better, more effective film version could have been made. The startling special effects made people in the theaters jump and squirm, but it was the psychological power of the film that they took home with them -- and feared in the dark for years to come. Because I was raised as a Catholic, what affected me most about the film was the idea that demonic possession was not only possible, but that it had actually happened to people. Yikes! That means it could happen to someone I know... or even me!

The Sixth Sense

The Sixth Sense
~ Buena Vista Home Entertainment
This is the film that brought director M. Night Shyamalan into the spotlight. It's a well-paced, well-acted ghost story about a young boy (Haley Joel Osment) who sees dead people. A child psychologist (Bruce Willis), who is trying to help him cope with this unusual ability, is skeptical at first, but gradually comes to realize that the boy might be telling the truth. This film was a big hit primarily because of its surprise ending, which no one sees coming. And the mark of a good movie is that it's still enjoyable even when you're aware of the ending.

The Haunting

The Haunting
~ Warner Home Video
The 1963 film is by far the better version of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. Several people are gathered to a huge old mansion by a paranormal investigator to examine their reactions to the house's alleged haunting. As it turns out, of course, the haunting isn't so alleged. Although the film uses virtually no special effects that would today be considered spectacular, there are scenes that stand up as still terrifying. The pounding on the doors and walls. And that remark by Julie Harris that "someone" was squeezing her hand in bed. For years afterward I had to fall asleep holding on to a sheet for fear that "someone" would try to hold my hand.

The Devil's Advocate

The Devil's Advocate
~ Warner Home Video
The Devil has been a character in many, many movies, but this one might be my favorite. This time, no less than Al Pacino plays Satan as the head of a New York law firm that seems to have its dirty hands involved in lots of nefarious activities. They recruit a young hot-shot lawyer (Keanu Reeves) who, as it turns out, they have had their eye on for a long time. Why? Well, let's just say that Satan wanted to keep tabs on his only begotten son for the purposes of Antichrist time. The best thing about the movie is Pacino's sly, fun performance -- especially his tirade against God toward the end of the film.

Signs

Signs
~ Buena Vista Home Entertainment
I long wondered how some filmmaker would make a movie about crop circles. M. Night Shyamalan did it with this one. It's not exclusively about those mysterious crop formations, but they are what the title is referring to: they are signs -- not for us, as it turns out, but for an invading force of aliens. The film provides enjoyable doses of humor (those tin foil helmets) and good performances by Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix and Rory Culkin. What I liked most about the film, when I first viewed it, was that I knew going in that it had something to do with crop circles, but was rather surprised at where it took the viewer with the idea.

The Mothman Prophecies

The Mothman Prophecies
~ Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Of all the paranormal-themed movies listed here, this one might be my favorite. I had read John Keel's book (which I highly recommend to any fan of the strange and paranormal) and could not imagine how a movie could be made out of it. The book does not have a plot or storyline, but is more like a journal of the strangeness that Keel encountered as he investigated the strange events taking place in Point Pleasant, West Virginia in the 1960s. But screenwriter Richard Hatem and director Mark Pellington took many of the bizarre elements of the book and formed them into a compelling story that effectively captured the disjointed, baffling things that happened: weird prophecies, strange phone calls, and sightings of the Mothman creature itself.

What's your favorite?

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