Classic Gothic horror film GHOST STORY is worth rediscovering on Blu-ray.
Fans of author Peter Straub’s brilliant 1979 novel GHOST STORY were more than a little let down when director John Irvin’s feature film was released in 1981. The movie was and is a streamlining of Straub’s narrative and thematically dense source, with characters altered, motivations removed, ambiguities made more explicit and many details simplified to obscurity.
But a book is not a film, nor should it be, and GHOST STORY is, when removed from any literary expectations, a shimmering Gothic horror tale, one filled with dread, secrets, sexuality and passages of full blown horror. A childhood favorite of this writer, the film has finally arrived on Blu-ray courtesy of Scream Factory with minimal fanfare, which is a shame because the picture (especially in this lovingly remastered HD presentation) deserves as much attention as possible, all the better to steer younger audiences toward what is certainly one of the most elegant horror films of the 1980’s.
GHOST STORY is chiefly notable for casting a cabal of genuine Hollywood legends in principal roles. Elderly icons John Houseman, Melvyn Douglas, Fred Astaire and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. star as old (really old!), wealthy and educated New England born and raised friends who have long enjoyed the exploits of their self-made gentleman’s club they affectionately dub “The Chowder Society”. Every so often, the men meet to sit, talk, catch-up, sip fine liquor and scare the devil out of each other, regaling the most perverse ghost stories they can muster. And yet, when the film introduces us to them, it’s clear they are themselves haunted by some sort of secret, one that dare not speak its name…
When Fairbanks Jr.’s son David (played with a lovely 70’s mustache by A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3 star Craig Wasson) inexplicably falls to his death from his penthouse apartment window, the men welcome David’s twin brother Don (also played by Wasson, sans ‘stache) into their folds, where he tells a ghost story of his own…
Some months prior, Don had met what he thought was the woman of his dreams, a beautiful secretary named Alma (the delicious Alice Krige from SLEEPWALKERS and SILENT HILL) whose insatiable sexuality causes Don to become addicted, woefully derailing his once solid professional life. But soon, Alma becomes strange, cold and distant. She locks into odd trances and her increasingly unstable behavior causes Don to break off the courtship, no matter how much his loins may suffer. Soon after, Don receives a call from his brother David who mentions that he has since taken up with Alma and, despite David’s warnings to steer clear, he aims to marry her. Soon after, David winds up dead.
After suffering a series of startling nightmares, the initially skeptical Chowder Society, not only begin to believe Don’s story but in turn share a story of their own. Seems in their youth, the men also met a sexually liberated young woman named Eva (also Krige) who became their collective obsession. One night, after heavy drinking resulted in a volatile confrontation, Don’s father hit Eva and she fell down, smashing her head and was believed by the group to be dead. Instead of contacting the authorities, the group aimed to dispose of the body via a watery grave. But when Eva suddenly wakes up, it’s too late to rescue her from her ultimate fate.
It becomes clear that Ama and Eva are indeed the same woman, a rage-wracked wraith from beyond the grave who has risen to take her just revenge on generation of the Chowder Society men and take it she does, resulting in some harrowing scenes of Rick Baker-designed ghoul-faced shock.
But graphic gore and mayhem isn’t what GHOST STORY trades in. It’s an elegant, decidedly adult drama about sins of the fathers and duality laced with generous amounts of horror and erotica. Indeed, the copious amounts of nudity both female and male (if you ever wanted to see Wasson’s semi-erect penis flailing about as he falls from the sky, now is your chance) certainly earned the film its R rating and a sex scene between Wasson and Krige, wherein furniture suffers and lamps are smashed, is an intense bit of phony filmic fornication. This frank sexuality is an essential component to the story as Alma/Eva’s celebration of sex is what initially seals her fate and then, in her phantasmagorical state, is used as a weapon to destroy. The fleshier, sensational sequences also brush up nicely against the austere, snowy New England landscapes (the film is immaculately shot by the great Jack Cardiff, the same DP who shot THE AFRICAN QUEEN and THE RED SHOES among many other classics) and the dry, sexless presence of The Chowder Society’s members themselves.
On the latter tip, GHOST STORY’s central draw, the quartet of elder statesmen is indeed a treat, something Krige herself recalls in detail during one of the many wonderful supplemental feature interviews on the disc’s back end. These are actors who helped invent American cinema and to see them back in action (Douglas sadly passed away before the film was released), clearly relishing their roles and even quietly trying to one up each other, amplifies GHOST STORY’s importance as an essential piece of film history. Wasson is fine too, channeling the same sort of everyman-turned-obsessive that he played in Brian De Palma’s BODY DOUBLE.
But really, GHOST STORY’s appeal as a major work of adult horror rests on the porcelain shoulders of the young Kirge, who was fresh from the set of CHARIOTS OF FIRE and is nothing short of electric here. Krige can be fragile, coy, terrifying, fearlessly uninhibited and skin-tighteningly malevolent, sometimes within the stretch of a single scene. It’s the same intelligent, dangerous energy she would bring to much of her future work, including her majestic stint as The Borg Queen in STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT and her fluid turn as Mary Shelly in the underrated HAUNTED SUMMER. As Alma/Eva, she’s nothing short of mesmerizing.
GHOST STORY mutes some of Straub’s story arcs and pushes Eva’s fellow shape-shifting ghouls into the peripheral of the tale, never really explaining the cult of fiends who hang around acting as her familiars. But those elements are explored in the book in depth and said tome is readily available for those who seek it out to enjoy. But GHOST STORY the film is a sterling work of sophisticated terror that hasn’t aged a day since its release and is ripe for rediscovery…
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