I fell in love with Ghost Story when I saw it in 1981. I was 14 and with the horror genre glutted with psychos and slashers, this was such a refreshing change. And for awhile it was one of my favorite movies. I bought the soundtrack, I tried my best to draw Dick Smith's ghostly apparitions of the dead Eva Galli and toldanyone who would listen how they should see this movie. I spent 40 bucks on one of the first VHS copies to hit our local rental store and tried to watch every viewing HBO scheduled when it hit pay cable.
Then I read the book.
Ghost Story the movie and Ghost Story the novel are two different stories. Basically Hollywood adapted about ten pages out of Straub's beautiful and horrific novel, boiling it down to a basic revenge plot and to pardon the pun, a ghost of its novelized form. Cynema is present here as the filmmakers had a blatant disregard for the source material and the millions who loved the book. There are several major continuity errors that could have easily been fixed, and should not have escaped the eye of a script supervisor or continuity editor on a film with a decent budget like this one. Again...this is how Cynema destroys films.
Above: Fairbanks, Houseman, Astaire and Douglas as The Chowder Society, The Great Enunciator, John Houseman, Fred Astaire is all dressed up and nowhere to go and Craig Wasson's performance got overshadowed by his flopping penis in the opening of the film.
The best ghost stories are about revenge. This is the center to this film's entire plot. However the film relies on shock and scare tactics that betray all of the great atmosphere it sets up almost instantly . From the opening shot of the small upstate NY town of Milburn to the operatic and tragic score by Philippe Sarde that washes over truly inventive opening titles by the late, great Albert Whitlock, the film comes out swinging and then loses it about 7 minutes in.
Here's where Ghost Story does work:
1. The Cast: This was the last major film for almost every legendary star: Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Patricia Neal all died not long after this film. Houseman stuck around until the late 1980's and then stepped over to the other side as well. Astaire and Houseman were perfectly cast as Ricky Hawthorne and Sears James. It's almost like Straub had them in mind while writing his book.
These are men who held a terrible secret for every 50 years and now its come to claim its due and they look scared. We also root for them even though they were part of something wrong in their hell raising youth. However the film only scrapes the surface of what made us get behind Straub's characters in his book.
Other performances are wasted, especially Neal's. However two important characters from the book, Gregory and Fenny Bate are reduced to footnote, incidental characters that serve nothing more than to provide cheap but ineffective jolts. They are useless in this film.
2. The Makeup Effects: The truly amazing and Oscar winner Dick Smith was hired to bring the ghostly visage of Eva Galli to life. Having served as makeup artist on some of the greatest films ever, including the Godfather of Horror Films: The Exorcist; Smith is the shining star of the film. His creations gave genuine frights and I tossed my popcorn cup several times from jolting in my seat.
3. Jack Cardiff's Cinematography: The film has its own feel and it FEELS like a ghost story. The gloomy New England landscapes and tight, conservative homes of the town are wonderfully realized and made Straub's Milburn leap off the pages. Cardiff's lush work dovetails another Oscar winner's work: Albert Whitlock, who created the matte paintings and visuals (aside from that bad blue screen penis plummet) for the film.
Krige will gain her biggest fame with her classic portrayal of the Borg Queen from "Star Trek: First Contact" and become an object of fantasy by Trekkers the world over. Her ending bridal walk through the deserted mansion is delicious and leaves us wishing there were more of these moments.
Ghost Story, aside from the book, squandered a lot of other good things. It has the old empty house on the hill, the dark and stormy nights, a vengeful and yet tragic ghost, a wrong left uncorrected and truly haunted characters.
However these things are diluted by a paper thin script, what looks like a rushed shooting schedule, bad editing and the ultimate sin of wasting a cast of Oscar winning and nominated legends. Instead of more screen time for these folks, we get lots of Wasson being naked with Krige and that's a shame.
If you can look past its weaknesses as well as the book, it makes for some nice viewing on a snowy night. It really does.
Give it a whack and see.