Review for Ghost Story
Well, I certainly wasn’t expecting ‘Ghost Story’ to be as good as it turned out to be. Seeing the all-star cast, with some real old-time greats in there (most in their final movie) including Fred Astaire, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, Melvyn Douglas and John Houseman, I thought this might be one of those cheesy seventies star-vehicles, like some of the the Agatha Christie films from the mid-1970’s. This was far from it. It turned out to be one of the spookiest films I’ve seen all year; a clever mix of out and out horror mixed with the swirling surrealism of nightmares. It really is excellent.
But I’m ahead of myself.
The film is based on the highly successful and much lauded novel by the then young Peter Straub and, apart from the elderly actors mentioned earlier, features a bewitching performance from Alice Krige (Star Trek) and an great performance from a young Craig Wasson (Body Double).
Whilst its narrative is a little complex to tell without giving the game away and spoiling things for you, I’ll do my best. The film starts with four old-timers who seem to meet regularly (as the Chowder Society Group) to tell each other spooky tales. This isn’t as tough as it sounds as each of them suffers from the most vivid and traumatic nightmares which fuel these tales.
We then see a sequence which appears to be a nightmare but which ends an all too real tragedy. One of the men’s sons finds himself in a high rise apartment block or hotel with a woman lying naked, face down on a bed. When he tries to wake her she rolls over to reveal a half-rotted zombie-like corpse. Horrified, he steps backwards through a window pane and falls to his death next to a swimming pool several floors below.
We then get an introduction to the dead-man’s brother, Don Wanderley, a young academic (Craig Wasson) as he is woken by a call from his father, Edward, (Douglas Fairbanks Jr) asking him to come home as his brother is dead.
The other three members of the Chowder Club, Dr. John Jaffrey (Melvyn Douglas), Sears James (John Houseman) and Ricky Hawthorne (Fred Astaire) are all upset to hear of the accident which they take to be a foreboding omen that all is not well. It turns out that they were right.
Whilst the death of his brother is dismissed as a suicide, Don is not convinced and when his father appears to throw himself off a bridge into a frozen river, it confirms for him that all is not what it seems. When more strange things happen, including the death of another of the Chowder crew, Don decides it’s time to join the survivors and make his suspicions known. His instincts are telling him that they know more than they are letting on. But the price of entry is a ghost story of his own which he is more than willing to tell.
We then flash-back a couple of years to see him fall hopelessly in love with a charismatic lady, Alma (Alice Krige)who joins the school he’s teaching at, as the Principal’s PA. She’s is hauntingly beautiful and he becomes quickly infatuated with her, despite her strange demeanour and odd manner. Eventually, they plan to wed though he breaks off the engagement when her behaviour becomes so weird that he fears for his life. He then discovers that she has moved to his home town and taken up with his brother – and we know what happened next.
The plot quickly thickens as we learn that the lady in question is not entirely unknown to the Chowder crew. In fact, they too were infatuated by her in the distant past; the 1920’s to be exact.
There are some very spooky moments before the ending is revealed and the truth out. Despite it being a fairly obvious one, it’s no less frightening for that. Indeed, some of the make-up involved is truly horrendous. But I shall say no more for fear of spoiling things!
The film looks great on Blu-Ray with an excellent transfer of a film that looks in fine-fettle with very little wear and tear on the print. It does have the look and feel of an early eighties picture though with the kind of grading and contrast in vogue at the time – a little low in contrast and a touch of film grain, but all good.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track is fine too and Philip Sarde’s excellent score is well mixed with dialogue.
The disc comes packed with really great supplementary features, adding up to almost another evening’s viewing.
Ghost Story Genesis (40 minutes approx.) is a lengthy interview, filmed relatively recently in 16:9 HD, with author Peter Straub, who talks much about how he came to write the book, his techniques and about his feelings about the film, which he acknowledges is quite a different thing as the story is so heavily truncated. He also reads a number of passages from the book.
Ghost Story Development (30 minutes approx.) An interview driven piece about how the film was brought together, from the initial story adaptation, to casting, shooting and final cuts.
Alice Krige: Being Alma and Eva (30 minutes approx.) is a very good interview with the actress Alice Krige (perhaps best known for her early role in Chariots of Fire and later Star Trek: Enterprise movies and episodes) who recalls the whole project as being like an actresses dream. A perfect introduction to Hollywood where she would eat dinner every evening with cast and crew, including ‘charming gentlemen’ like Fred Astaire.
Albert Whitlock Visual Effects with Bill Taylor (30 minutes) is a fascinating look at how some of the more grotesque elements in the film were achieved, all in the days before CGI.
Audio Commentary with Director John C. Irvin which is a laid-back, informal affair which rattles by and is hugely informative. Really only for the dedicated fan of the movie though as it repeats so much of what we already know from the numerous featurettes, though there are some hidden gems in there for the patient; particularly about working with so many of the previous generation of Hollywood greats in one movie.
You also get a bunch of standard special features including the original trailer, TV and radio adverts from back on the day, an 8 minute photo gallery sequence .
‘Ghost Story’ is definitely one to pick up. It’s a great adaptation of a complex book (some would argue too truncated but having never read the book I didn’t find this to be so); it’s superbly directed with high production values and its star-studded elderly cast are incredibly sparkly in their roles.
Like all ghost stories, it does require a suspension of disbelief as some of the ideas are a bit far-fetched but, in my view, that’s never spoiled a good horror movie. Surprisingly good and highly recommended.