Where would the world be without the paranormal investigators of cinema? Overrun with evil spirits, demons and other unpleasant creatures, that’s for sure. It’s a messy, dangerous job to do battle with the undead, but, hey, someone’s gotta do it.
Coincidentally enough, two movies about paranormal investigators open this weekend. In the first, The Conjuring, directed by James Wan (Insidious) and based on real-life events, a married pair of paranormal investigators (played by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) are confronted with their most terrifying case yet when they come to the aid of a Rhode Island family terrorized by a supernatural presence in their farmhouse. The second to hit theaters is the far more lighthearted R.I.P.D., adapted from Peter M. Lenkov’s popular comic book series, Rest in Peace Department. The movie stars Ryan Reynolds as detective Nick Walker, who, after being killed, joins the undead police division. Assigned to be his partner (and to help Walker find his murderer) is contemporary cowboy Roy Pulsipher (Jeff Bridges), a veteran officer of the Rest in Peace Department—which is dedicated to protecting the living from malevolent spirits who refuse to enter the afterlife. With both movies opening on July 19, we got to thinking about our favorite cinematic paranormal investigators.
- The Night Stalker (1972) | directed by Dan Curtis
Okay, so this one’s technically a TV movie and not a feature, but we’d be remiss to leave out irascible, deadpan investigative reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin, A Christmas Story) on our list. Here, Kolchak comes to suspect a Las Vegas serial killer is a vampire. With its mix of scares and quirky humor, The Night Stalker was a huge success—garnering the highest ratings of any TV movie at the time. McGavin returned as the character in a follow-up telefeature, The Night Strangler, as well as the 1974 to 1975 TV series, “Kolchak: The Night Stalker,” in which Kolchak hunted a different fantastical creature (werewolves, mummies, zombies, etc.) every week. Despite lasting only one season, the series garnered a large cult following and proved to be highly influential for later genre shows like “The X-Files.” ABC attempted a remake of the series (titled Night Stalker) in 2005, but, sorely lacking McGavin’s idiosyncratic personality, it was quickly canceled.
- Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974) | directed by Brian Clemens
Captain Kronos was one of the last movies made during the heyday of legendary production company, Hammer Films—and still stands as one of its oddest, most original endeavors. The movie mixes the age-old vampire mythos with swashbuckling action, including references to both John Ford Westerns and samurai flicks. Surprisingly enough, the offbeat genre fusion works quite well in telling the story of Kronos (Horst Janson), a master swordsman and former soldier who, with his hunchbacked assistant, hunts vampires in the English countryside. Writer-director Clemens (whose TV credits include “The Avengers”) initially envisioned Kronos as a pilot to a proposed television series, but due to the film’s less-than-stellar box office performance, those plans never came to fruition. Yet, as with Kolchak, Kronos has proven to be surprisingly influential, leading the way for such successful franchises as Blade and Underworld, both of which utilize a similar blend of action and horror.
- Ghostbusters (1984) | directed by Ivan Reitman
There’s probably little to be said about this classic blockbuster that hasn’t already been written. In terms of “paranormal investigators,” the Ghostbusters—three New York City parapsychologists who set up shop as ghost capturers—could probably be considered top-of-the-line. Almost 30 years after its initial release, Ghostbusters still stands as a uniquely original comedy, laced with both groundbreaking special effects and quirky comic gem performances from Bill Murray and co-screenwriter Harold Ramis. The movie’s enormous popularity led to an array of toys, video games, an animated TV series and a somewhat disappointing sequel. For years, a potential third film has been in development, but perhaps it’s best to leave Ghostbusters with its legacy still intact.
- The Frighteners (1996) | directed by Peter Jackson
Before he took a prolonged trip to the land of Middle Earth, Jackson helmed this fast-paced, wacky horror comedy. Michael J. Fox stars as Frank Bannister, a sardonic psychic who can see, hear and communicate with ghosts. He uses his abilities to scam unsuspecting customers in his ghost hunting business. But when a mass murderer (Jake Busey) comes back from hell, Frank realizes he must put his powers to good use in order to stop the evil presence. With its kinetic camerawork, macabre humor and memorable performances (in particular, a whacked-out Jeffrey Combs as a crazed FBI agent), The Frighteners provides a devilishly entertaining ride. Perhaps after The Hobbit is released, Jackson can return to the horror-comedy genre, since, judging by his previous work (see also: Dead Alive), he clearly has a knack for it.
- Van Helsing (2004) | directed by Stephen Sommers
This tribute to the classic Universal Studios monster movies from the 1930s and 1940s stars Hugh Jackman as the titular monster hunter, a character inspired by Professor Abraham Van Helsing from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In writer-director Sommers’ (The Mummy) reimagining, Van Helsing isn’t an elderly doctor, but an ass-kicking vigilante, who must battle not only Count Dracula, but also Frankenstein’s monster, a werewolf and assorted other creatures. Though the film did well at the box office, it was slammed by critics who found the movie derivative, with abysmal dialogue and special effects. It’s a shame, since the general premise is so promising. In a perfect world, Van Helsing would have led to a series of old-fashioned films, with less of an action bent and more of a return to the fun, frightful quality of the original Universal monster movies that still hold up today.
- Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer (2008) | directed by Jon Knautz
This quirky Canadian horror-comedy revolves around a plumber (Trevor Matthews), who vows to avenge the murder of his family by hunting down and destroying the demons that slaughtered them. Despite the movie’s meager budget, Jack Brooks features surprisingly inventive monster make-up effects and prosthetics (no CGI was used in the film), and a wacky supporting performance from Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger himself) as the nefarious Professor Crowley. With its offbeat, madcap tone reminiscent of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy, Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer provides a ghoulishly fun time for when you’re in that B-movie kind of mood. Have a favorite that’s not on the list? Let us know below!