Wednesday 18 November 2015

Ghost Story

Director: John Irvin
Writer: Lawrence D Cohen
Producer: Burt Weissbourd
Cast: Alice Krige, Craig Wasson, Fred Astaire
No, seriously: Fred Astaire
Country: USA
Year of release: 1981
Reviewed from: DVD screener (Second Sight)

When I was offered a screener of Ghost Story, which will be/was released on DVD and blu-ray in December, I assumed that it was the 1974 British film directed and produced by Stephen Weeks. I happily accepted a copy because that’s a film I’d never seen. It turns out that this is the other Ghost Story, a 1981 Hollywood adaptation of Peter Straub’s 1979 hernia-inducing 700-page bestseller. No worry, I’ve not seen that either.

But reducing a book that big to 110 minutes of screen time means there’s very little of the actual story here. The novel is structured around eerie stories told among a group of four aged friends in front of a roaring fire. There’s some lip service to this at the start but it has no bearing on the main plot whatsoever.

Basically, when they were dashing young men in the 1920s, these four all collectively fell in love with a young lady, whom they wooed en masse. A terrible accident led to her accidental murder, a death in which they were all complicit. Now her ghost has come back, in an intermittently corporeal/ethereal form. The corporeal version seduces and becomes engaged to the son of one of the old men. When they split up, she becomes engaged to his brother, who subsequently throws himself out of a tower block window (a really lousy effects shot which opens the film). Their father also dies in mysterious circumstances which are recorded as suicide but we can see were ghost-induced. The remaining son finds a photo of the four pals from 50 years ago, with a woman whom he recognises as his ex-fiancee.

You can see where all this is going. The plot and characters of Ghost Story are as generic and obvious as the title. The script by Lawrence D Cohen, who had written Carrie five years previously and would later produce It and The Tommyknockers, has an uneven, unbalanced structure. There’s a whole load of stuff about the old men, then we get an extended flashback to the story of the son and his spooky girlfriend, then he wants to join the ghost story telling sessions in lieu of his father, then we get a second long flashback to the 1920s. Then finally, one of the other old geezers having croaked, the remaining two and the young fella attempt to resolve the situation by visiting the house where it all happened.

There are some curious brief scenes with a strange homeless guy and a creepy kid who presumably were significant in the book but whose presence in the film is as unexplained as it is pointless. The finale contains a number of inexplicable ellipses and includes a scene that was right royally ripped off by the feature film version of The Woman in Black.

Not nearly as bad as sometimes painted, Ghost Story is just a bit middling. It’s a major Hollywood Studio trying to do a horror film without really wanting to scare anyone. It seems curiously out of time. Was this really released in 1981? Just to put that in context, here’s a list of genre films released that same year: An American Werewolf in London, Basket Case, Cannibal Ferox, The Beyond, Friday the 13th Part 2, Halloween II, Nightmares in a Damaged Brain, The House by the Cemetery, Mad Max 2, Ms. 45, Scanners, Superman 2, Time Bandits, Escape from New York, The Evil Dead, The Howling and of course Raiders of the Lost Ark. Cinema had changed completely, but you wouldn’t know it from watching Ghost Story.

As if to emphasise how old-fashioned this is, the four old men are played by Melvyn Douglas (born 1901), John Houseman (born 1902), Douglas Fairbanks Jr (born 1909 but looking more decrepit than the others) and Fred Astaire (born 1899, who looks like a ventriloquist’s dummy). Craig Wasson (Schizoid, Nightmare on Elm Street 3) plays both sons (they’re meant to be twins but I didn’t notice and it’s not significant). But the main reason to watch this film is Alice Krige: monumentally hot, frequently undressed, dominating the action, smouldering on screen and letting loose one or two awesome screams. Dick Smith’s always excellent make-up provides the ickiness.

The four young versions of the main characters, who look so unlike the old stars that you literally can’t tell who is meant to be which, were played by Ken Olin (later a TV director on shows like Sleepy Hollow, The West Wing and Alias), Mark Chamberlin (Christmas Evil), Tim Choate (Babylon 5) and Kurt Johnson (who died just five years later). Way down the cast list you can spot a pre-Star Trek Robin Curtis making her debut. Cinematography was courtesy of the great Jack Cardiff; it looks fabulous, but horror films shouldn't look fabulous. The snowy New England locales full of wealthy WASPs give this the appearance of a TV Christmas special. The only black faces in the film are a handful of extras in scenes at the liberal arts college where Casson's character teaches.

The 2015 UK blu-ray/DVD from Second Sight includes a commentary by director John Irvin and interviews with Straub, Cohen plus producer Burt Weissbourn, Krige, and visual effects guys Albert Whitlock and Bill Taylor, plus trailers and TV spots.

MJS rating: B

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