Universal amassed an impressive array of talent both in front of and behind the camera in a valiant bid to bring one of most daring novels of the previous decade to life: the result – Ghost Story (1981); a movie that in no way even scratched the surface of author, John Straub’s meticulously plotted vignettes, loosely strung together around the premise of a restless spirit quietly terrorizing a secluded town. In print, Ghost Story was a truly remarkable work of fiction. Indeed, no less an authority than Stephen King called it “one of the finest horror novels of the late 20th century.” Too bad, reduced to its most bare-bone essentials by screenwriter, Lawrence D. Cohen, Ghost Story on celluloid quickly devolved into a rather clumsy tale of supernatural revenge; the picture only marginally achieving its' purpose – to scare the living daylights out of an audience, though never entirely satisfying the age-old cliché about ‘one picture being worth a thousand words’. In hindsight, Ghost Story’s greatest achievement is in getting four celebrated crocs from Hollywood’s golden age to appear together as its heavy-hitting ensemble.
The major hurdle to overcome resides in the material itself; Straub’s sumptuously descriptive and unsettling prose, incapable of full materialization in visual terms; the lumbering screenplay, a grotesque oversimplification of the various lives exquisitely detailed in the novel, with most regrettably, never even touched upon in the film. “It should have been a three or maybe even four hour picture,” Cohen later concluded, “Or a made-for-TV miniseries…that way there would have been enough time to tell the tale.” As it evolved, Cohen made the heartrending decision to cut, and cut, and cut some more – removing all of the back stories to conform to 110 minutes of clichéd horror dreck; tertiary characters excised wholesale; the entire premise for the unsettling goings on in present-day Milburn, a tiny New York hamlet, now predicated on one youthful indiscretion and the misguided drunken folly that led to an ‘accidental’ murder so very long ago.
Ghost Story ought to have turned out better; the combined talents of John Houseman, Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (all of them making their last filmed appearances) alone, adding cache and credibility to this ghoulish outing. Universal also wasn’t taking any chances in John Irvin to direct the picture – his first feature, The Dogs of War (1980) a potent thriller already in the can, though yet to be released. Pooling their in-house resources and employing resident matte artist/genius, Albert Whitlock to create the spookily lit process shots, adding both scope and dimension to these starkly foreboding wintery vistas, Universal sincerely thought it had a hit. In truth, they did. Ghost Story made money, as practically all horror movies do, feeding upon the unerring and insidious public fascination with the supernatural; as much a part of our DNA as it serves as a cathartic release for our suppressed desire to be scared – at least, safely – within the darkened recesses of a theater. Tragically, the movie is an extremely far cry from Straub’s novel; wallowing in some truly horrific travelling mattes, suffering fits of unnecessary gore, and, bogged down by two overly long ‘flashback’ sequences (one set in the tea dance 1920’s milieu) that bring the thrills to a grinding halt; ditto for the leaden performances by Ken Olin, Kurt Johnson, Tim Choate and Mark Chamberlin; respectively cast as younger versions of the leads.
Throughout this past imperfect and ghostly present, is Alice Krige; the perpetually nude seductress, terrorizing the men folk. Krige has since gone on record as saying she only consented to the nudity as it was necessary for the plot. I wholeheartedly disagree. The nudity herein is deliberate, gratuitous and frankly, not altogether flattering of Krige’s anemic and limited assets as a figure study. Ah well, at least there is equal opportunity sexism at play: a brief flash of co-star, Craig Wasson’s protracted twig and berries as he plummets from a high rise through an atrium to his rather ironically bloodless demise on a cold concrete floor. Wasson’s turn as twin brothers Don and David Wanderley may be an unwieldly mess of goony masculinity. But Krige’s is the most disheartening performance in the movie; clearly out of her depth; her lugubrious and cryptic utterances tinged with a faint whiff of embalming fluid emanating from her lips. Krige’s turn as the flesh and blood Eva Galli, riffing off a late seventies cliché as the fallen women, is reconstituted as the erotically charged and frequently naked twenty-cent tart. Her reincarnation as the ghostly Alma Mobley, who efficiently morphs into variations of a wormy and rotting corpse (a la Rick Baker’s gross-out effects), a Freudian to the end, her transformations achieved at the height of her sexual arousal, appear as nothing greater than a dulcet and intoxicating vapor of insidious spite.
In a nutshell, Lawrence Cohen’s reconstituted plot went something like this: hell hath no fury like a woman scorned – particularly, a dead one: the lives of four (instead of 5) old men, held in high regard by their community, haunted by a far more unnerving secret they collectively share: Milburn’s mayor, Edward Charles Wanderley (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), resident physician, Dr. John Jaffrey (Melvyn Douglas), Ricky Hawthorne (Fred Astaire) and Sears James (John Houseman) – having long ago formed The Chowder Society - courtiers of spooky tales – are equally the conspirators covering up a murder they inadvertently committed in the 1920’s while still in their twenties. The victim, socialite, Eva Galli (Alice Krige) is reincarnated in the present as Alma Mobley, a mysteriously aloof British-born seductress who gets a job at Orlando College where one of Wanderley’s sons, Don (Craig Wasson), works as a professor. Don is the lesser of the Wanderley boys; his twin, David (also played by Wasson), a hard-nosed New York attorney who lacks an understanding heart. A few drinks and one rain-kissed jog back to her house and Don and Alma predictably wind up in bed.
The courtship, however, turns rancid; Alma suffering from curious, chronic and almost hypnotic trances. During these episodes, Alma suggests to Don she will take him to places he has never been, show him things he has never seen, and (here’s the deal breaker) see the life rung out of him. Not exactly a romantic prospect, Don puts the breaks on their grand amour – also, their engagement. In short order, his once promising academic career implodes; Alma disappearing overnight, but miraculously turning up in David’s life as a one-night stand. With David, she does not make the same mistake twice. The morning after, he awakens to find her lying naked, cold and oddly damp in his bed, rolling her listless body over to find it a freshly rotting corpse; the fright causing him to be supernaturally hurled through the window of his penthouse, plummeting head first and buck naked into an atrium far below; his remains landing just a few feet short of the pool.
Word of David’s demise reaches Edward in Milburn. He encourages Don to come home for the funeral. Father and son never having seen eye to eye, Don intuitively reveals his suspicions to Edward: that he and David were having an affair with the same woman – who possibly is not yet finished inflicting harm on their family. Edward will hear none of it. The next morning, while Don is still in bed, Edward stumbles out in a blizzard wearing only his pajamas and a bath robe; driven by some unearthly presence to the bridge overlooking the river where Eva’s body was dumped so many years ago. She suddenly appears to him on the trestle in her mourning clothes; face, half-eaten away from all those decades submerged. The sight of her horrific startle causes Edward to lose his footing. He falls to his death; the moment witnessed by one of the town’s snow removal drivers. News travels quickly and The Chowder Society convenes to discuss the matter.
Their tête-à-tête is momentarily interrupted by Don, who demands to know what secrets are being kept from him. Undaunted, the austere Sears decrees none of the remaining survivors shall speak about the cause of Edward’s death. Ricky is the only one to show any genuine remorse, later meeting Don in a restaurant, but still unable to confess the truth to him. Both Ricky and John have very sympathetic spouses; Stella (Patricia Neal) and Milly (Jacqueline Brookes); each, imploring their significant other to share this part of themselves kept hidden for far too long; now, systematically pecking away at their very sanity. While John stubbornly refuses to talk about anything, Ricky sympathetically vows to make a mends, promising Stella all will be revealed on a planned vacation to the south of France after this unpleasant business in Milburn has been resolved once and for all.
That night, the men are revisited by their nightmares; John falling victim to a surprise visit by Eva, masquerading as a patient come to call on his expertise as a doctor. Her inescapable presence causes John to suffer a fatal heart attack. Meanwhile, Don begins to piece together the history of The Chowder Society. In a magnificently staged, though insufferably scripted flashback, we regress to the youthful dalliances of these four friends; inseparable and lusting after Eva Galli – the new girl in town. Intuitively, she senses the foursome is smitten with her; the town agog with gossip about Eva’s inheritance and reasons for leaving the bright lights of New York to take up residence in this quiet and half-forgotten town when she might otherwise have her taste of every excitement in the real world. From the start, the blue-noses of Milburn shun Eva. Yet, she finds distractions aplenty, supplied with adoration by The Chowder Society. Sears, Ricky, John, Edward and Eva frolic in these pastoral grasses, picnicking together and playing rather childish games of courtship. Eva favors Edward whom she takes to bed. Unhappy chance, he cannot live up to her standards when called upon.
Eva is patient, but not so much after Sears, John and Ricky arrive at her home, thoroughly inebriated, to serenade the couple beneath Eva’s bedroom window. Ushered away by the group, Edward lies about his ‘experience’ with Eva – calling their moment together sublime and hinting the lady was no lady in the bedroom. Discovering Edward’s deception, and thoroughly disgusted by it, Eva decides to live down to the reputation he has given her. She dances with Ricky and engages John in a rather sadistic kiss; Sears calling Eva out as a slut. She slaps his face. Inadvertently, Edward pushes Eva away. She slips on the hardwood floor and strikes her head against a marble pillar. Without knowing for sure, John pronounces Eva dead. The boys panic and decide to hide the body to conceal their crime. They drive Eva in her automobile to the nearby lake, allowing the car to sink into the waters. However, as the vehicle begins its’ fill up with these icy cold waters, Eva stirs in the backseat; her screams muffled by the rapidly submerging waters pouring in on all sides. Edward makes a half-hearted try to dive in after her, but he is pulled back by his friends. Eva presumably drowns and Sears makes everyone swear to never speak of the incident again.
We return to the present; Don utterly shaken by the news his own father was involved in a terrible crime, and quite unable to wrap his head around the fact no one in Milburn ever questioned the sudden disappearance of the rich socialite. It is, after all, rather remarkable such a high profile vanishing act never warranted even an inquest, much less a full out investigation. Don suggests Eva’s evil spirit has returned to Milburn for avenge herself upon the surviving members of The Chowder Society. Ricky concurs with this assumption. Together with Sears, Don decides to return to the scene of their crime: Eva’s abandoned home. Earlier, Ricky was confronted in these ruins by a pair of pitiless/homeless hustlers, Gregory (Miguel Fernandes) and Fenny (Lance Holcomb); the two luring, then frightening Ricky half to death as part of Eva’s planned revenge. But now, the house is empty – save Eva’s ghost. In short order, the collapse of a staircase causes Don to break his leg; Sear’s binding the wound before making a valiant gesture to drive into town for medical help. Along the deserted road, he encounters Eva’s ghostly manifestation. She materializes through the windshield of his car and causing Sears to drive his Mercedes into a heavy embankment of snow; Fenny and Gregory finishing off the old geezer as he is trapped in his car.
Back at the house, Ricky grows restless. Something is decidedly wrong. Venturing into the snow on foot, and leaving Don to Eva’s return – Ricky gets Sheriff Hardesty (Brad Sullivan) to dredge the lake for Eva’s submersed car. Meanwhile, Don is visited by Eva, now dressed in her bridal veil and gown. She descends the stairs, her rotting flesh tearing away to reveal a wormy and decomposing visage that terrorizes Don. At the lake, the Sheriff’s tow brings Eva’s car to the surface. Opening the door, Ricky is startled to find a very much alive corpse ready to pounce on him. However, greatly weakened – seemingly from being discovered after all these years – Eva’s spirit evaporates from these petrified human remains; the body collapsing in a heap upon the snow. At Eva’s house, the phantom bride vanishes into thin air, sparing Don his fate. It’s over. Ricky and Don are free of Eva’s avenging dark angel for good.
In its' present form, Ghost Story is virtually incomplete, incomprehensibly second-rate and uninspiring; frightful instead of frightening and mostly tired, dull and silly to boot. Its singular drawing power as a cult movie is primarily in witnessing Fairbanks, Astaire, Houseman and Douglas in their swan songs. For here, indeed, are four massive figures from Hollywood’s golden era; some, more instantly recognizable than others. One has to sincerely wonder what went through Astaire’s mind in accepting this part. He certainly did not need the extra money. Nor was he particularly pleased with the finished film. Houseman’s participation is a little easier to grasp. Only the year before, he had appeared in a thrilling cameo as a crusty, but benign, old sea captain, telling ghost stories to small children in the prologue to John Carpenter’s superior horror classic – The Fog (1980). Doing ‘another’ fright fest probably seemed like ideal casting for Houseman. If only the material given these fine actors was more to their speed and level of accomplishment, then Ghost Story might have survived these many years as a truly remarkable last act finale. Tragically, it achieves no such lofty ambition.
Albert Whitlock’s matte work is superb; his paintings on glass, of a sleepy Milburn by moonlight or in the stark realization of an early morning sun, glimmer with moody magnificence the rest of the picture entirely lacks. And then there are the ‘new stars’ to consider – such as they are. I have written at some length herein of Alice Krige who, although possessing a remarkable longevity in her chosen craft since Ghost Story, has managed to appear in generally commonplace big and small screen entertainments which have neither aggrandized her dexterity as an actress nor withstood the test of time as memorable touchstones in the cinema firmament. The same can be said of Greg Wasson; a calling mostly spent in television: minor parts as forgettable as the programming. Krige at least manages to infuse her dual role in Ghost Story with a sense of creepy dread; something about her tone and ephemerally slinky manner. She lacks the competency to make the most of this supernatural femme fatale, but spares up a goodly portion of this oversight with an air of respectability – even in the raw – and more than a touch of class. It still doesn’t work, at least, entirely, but nevertheless suggests the possibility of something better than what we are given herein to digest. As either of the Wanderley brothers, Wasson is a lame duck; the limitations of his B-rated TV acting woefully on display in these expanded dual parts. He can show us Don’s panic, but not David’s contempt for humanity. He cringes with affecting charm, but there is no substance behind the eyes and the result is far more a child’s play-acting than a real thespian exercising his craft. Bottom line: with a best-selling novel as its inspiration, Ghost Story ought to have rattled and roared with chills and thrills. Instead, it stumbled and bumbles like a drunken party guest having outstayed its welcome at last year’s Halloween party. Badly done and memorable only for the epic sense of ennui it continues to instill.
Scream Factory – the horror division of Shout! Factory – has issued Ghost Story to Blu-ray in a 1080p transfer that, while hardly perfect, is nevertheless, mostly satisfying. Color fidelity is rich and absorbing; much more so than on Universal’s old DVD incarnation from 2005. Alas, Shout! is using a hi-def transfer culled from Universal’s flawed archives without the necessary clean-up required to make it glow. While the original elements are in remarkable solid shape for the most part, a few scenes – presumably in which two reels have been joined together – are plagued by a considerable amount of exaggerated grain and age-related artifacts. Nicks, chips and scratches are rather obvious. Ghost Story is a very dark film, so white dot crawl and other age-related anomalies are very distracting at a glance. Contrast, however, is quite respectably solid, preserving the inky blacks in Jack Cardiff’s meticulously half-lit cinematography. Albert Whitlock’s mattes were photographed on glass and synced in-camera to achieve the highest possible level of first-generation image clarity. The results remain seamless on Blu-ray; all except for the final long-shot of Milburn at daybreak; herein, quite heavy on distorted grain and looking rather thick and slightly dull in its color-balancing. On the whole, the results are better than middling, though not by much.
The audio is DTS mono and quite adequate for this presentation. Given the turgidity of the film’s plot, I sincerely doubt a new 5.1 remix would have improved anything. Extras are less plentiful than on other Shout!/Scream Factory horror releases; new interviews with Peter Straub, actress Alice Krige, screenwriter, Lawrence Cohen, producer, Burt Weissbouro and matte photographer, Bill Taylor. Director, John Irvin weighs in on a fairly comprehensive audio commentary that, in truth, I confess to finding infinitely more stimulating than the movie: definitely worth a listen. We also get a theatrical trailer, radio spots and photo gallery. Ghost Story isn’t the sort of movie to which one can easily warm up. So let us just classify this one as a tall tale gone to seed, some snowy night in front of the fire. Bottom line: the time has indeed come to tell the tale – pass, and be glad that you did.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)