Peter Straub is a Bram Stoker Award-winning horror author. The Talisman – co-authored with Stephen King – is a classic. And Black House was another excellent collaboration between the two authors. To date, however, Straub’s work has rarely made it to the big screen. In fact, Hollywood has only adapted one Straub novel into a feature-length movie – Ghost Story. While it did moderately well at the box office, Ghost Story is best remembered as the final starring role for three legendary actors – Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Otherwise critics hated it and horror fans have mostly forgotten about it. But Scream Factory resurrected the early 80’s supernatural horror with a Blu-ray release. Maybe now it’s time to re-visit this forgotten horror movie.
In a small New England town, once a year, four elderly friends gather together to share a round of ghost stories. Yet there’s one ghost story ‘The Chowder Society’ refuses to tell. But when of the members sons dies under strange circumstances the four men come together once again. As a ghostly image of a woman begins turning up in their small town, ‘The Chowder Society’ finally confronts a tragic past that has given rise to a very real ghost story.
Ghost Story Awkwardly Straddles Two Different Tones
By the early 1980s, old-fashioned ghost stories weren’t really in fashion. Several years earlier, Hammer Films pivoted from Gothic horror to more sexually lurid content. Even John Carpenter’s The Fog – which is an old-fashioned ghost story at heart – didn’t feel out of place from the 80’s burgeoning slasher market. But director John Irvin struggles to find the right tone for Ghost Story. It’s at once a vintage-feeling haunting backed by Philippe Sarde’s old-time sounding score. Sometimes Sarde’s score works, other times its out of place. That is, the movie’s more modern horror beats clash with the score and story itself.
Instead, Ghost Story works best when it takes audiences back in time with its ‘ghost story’ flashbacks.
In the movie’s present-day settings, Irvin often wastes the movie’s potentially atmospheric backdrop in favour of standard jump scares. And an early scene of a fully frontal nude Craig Wasson falling from a high-rise doesn’t work for at least two reasons. If they feel like they belong in a different movie, at least Dick Smith’s rotting ghosts are convincing. Instead, Ghost Story works best when it takes audiences back in time with its ‘ghost story’ flashbacks. In these extended sequences, Irvin shifts to more emotional, tragic storytelling. In addition to these scenes working better with Sarde’s score, they offer some pathos to the movie. This in turns lends a bit of atmosphere that feels absent from the present-day snowy New England landscape.
Ghost Story’s Distinguished Cast Lend Much-Needed Gravitas
For those who haven’t read it, Straub’s novel is a superb supernatural thriller. Though Ghost Story is often tonally inconsistent, screenwriter Lawrence D Cohen’s adaptation of Straub’s novel isn’t the main offender. To some extent, the four elderly men, or ‘Chowder Society’, feel underdeveloped. Not even the movie’s flashbacks give them much beyond one-note personalities. Yet this owes more to the challenges of adapting a rich text into a movie that falls under two hours. Where Cohen’s screenplay excels is in its fleshing out of the mysterious Eva/Alma’s backstory. It’s this element that gives the movie a bit of emotional heft.
Not surprisingly, Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, John Houseman, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr add some much needed gravitas …
Regardless of tone or character development, the veteran cast are uniformly excellent. Not surprisingly, Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, John Houseman, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr add some much needed gravitas to Ghost Story. None of these distinguished actors ever looks out of place. As the moral conscience of the group, Astaire is particularly excellent. In the dual role as Eva and Alma, Alice Krige (Sleepwalkers) turns in a noteworthy performance. She’s both chilling as the vengeful Alma and sympathetic as the tragic Eva. In what’s a largely thankless role, Craig Wasson (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors) is perfectly fine. By and large, Wasson serves to move the plot forward and force the movie’s inevitable confrontation.
Ghost Story a Watchable Thriller For Diehard Horror Fans
While it’s watchable (and far from bad), Ghost Story is ultimately an unsatisfying viewing experience. Irvin positions his thriller uncomfortably between vintage haunting and contemporary 80s splatter horror. There’s just something off about a movie with full frontal nudity, rotting corpses, and Fred Astaire together. Nevertheless, it’s a watchable thriller from start to finish. Irvin would move on to the underrated Vietnam drama, Hamburger Hill. And strong performances and genuine tragedy in the story make Ghost Story worth a look for diehard horror fans.