Monday, July 2, 2012

Movie Review: "Ghost Story" (1981)

Having recently reviewed Peter Straub's Ghost Story, it seems only fair that I do what I typically do, which is have a look at the movie version.  And I'm nothing if not fair.  Please do not take this as an indication that I would be happy to receive a jury summons, though; I ain't got time for that sort of thing.

No, instead (apparently), I need that oh-so-valuable time for thoroughly mediocre movies, such as The Amazing Spider-Man (which I finished watching about an hour ago and am still bitter about; maybe you'll hear more about that in the next installment of Bryant Has Issues later this week [that, friends, is what we call a "guarantease"]).

You can add Ghost Story to that list, too, because while I probably -- probably, mind you -- wouldn't go so far as to say it's a bad movie, the absolute best I would be willing to say is that it is mediocre.

The screenplay is by Lawrence D. Cohen, whose name is probably familiar to many Stephen King fans, seeing as how he also wrote the adaptations of Carrie, It, The Tommyknockers, and "The End of the Whole Mess" (the latter an episode of Nightmares & Dreamscapes).  None of those -- with the possible exception of Carrie -- is particularly great as an adaptation, although I'd argue that Cohen did a better job with Ghost Story.  Truthfully, a screenwriter adapting Straub's novel has a job I do not envy; it's such a dense, layered beast that trying to stuff it all into two hours is a task akin to trying to stuff a cat into a Coke can.  Cohen did a good job with this, all things considered.  He made a good choice, I think, in changing the Don Wanderley character from Edward's nephew into his son, and I also think he made a good choice in moving the elder Wanderley into the narrative.  I'd also argue that he was on solid ground in his choices to eliminate the characters of Lewis Benedikt and Peter Barnes; I like both in the novel, but did not miss them at all here.

Why, oh why, then, could he not have made the same choice as pertains to the Bate brothers, Gregory and Fenny?  They are integral to the novel, but for reasons that are almost entirely eliminated from the movie.  Therefore, there was no need for them to stick around; they could have been clipped off quite neatly, and were not, and because of the fact that they are poorly acted roles here, the movie suffers for it.

Let's back up.  In doing so, I'm going to get into spoilers, not merely for the movie but also for the novel.  So if you're sensitive to that sort of thing, you may wish to depart now.

To allow those of you so inclined some room to leave, I shall now post an amusing photo:

Yep, that one's a classic.


One of the major elements of the novel is that the ghosts are not really ghosts at all, but are a species of ancient shapeshifters who are responsible for all the legends about ghosts and vampires and werewolves and the like that have been told by man down through the centuries.  They are not ghosts, then, but the explanation for why we think ghosts exist.  Native Americans called such creatures manitou, and so shall we in this review.

So, in the novel, Eva/Alma/Anna/etc. and her good friends the Bate boys were quasi-immortal, malevolent/mischievous entities who were playing an extremely long game of "let's fuck with these guys and make their lives miserable."  Why?  Because it made them happy to do so.  And that's about all there is to it, as far as an explanation goes.  If I understand things correctly, the Bate brothers did not begin life as manitou; they were instead turned into manitou at some point, presumably by Eva, who decided she needed some assistants.  It is possible I have misunderstood certain aspects of this scenario, and if so, give me 75% of the blame for being a bad reader, and Straub the other 25% for being perhaps not as interested in clarity as he could theoretically be.

Cohen jettisons 99.9% of this idea for the screenplay.  Straub's Eva Galli is a manitou, one who -- succubus-like -- uses her (its?) "feminine" wiles to ensnare men and to then make them suffer over the course of decades.  Cohen's Eva Galli is merely a woman, one who meets a bad (though accidental) end at the hands of a quartet of intoxicated young men; she returns from the dead and seeks revenge upon them and their families.  And that is the story of Ghost Story the movie.

This was probably the only real option open to Cohen, so let's not be too terribly hard on him.  The result was that it allowed the movie to have some actual focus.  It also, granted, eliminated a great deal of the depth of the novel; but this was probably unavoidable, and Cohen was wise to not even try.

Why, then, retain Gregory and Fenny Bate?  There is also a scene involving a crow that can only be meant to remind readers of the novel of the manitou element; this also should have been dropped altogether, since it serves mainly to remind readers of how much has been lost from the novel.  You could say the same for the very existence of the Chowder Society in the movie; in the novel, their meetings and storytelling are -- I think -- both caused by the manitou and are responsible for the manitou.  Again, since that element has been dropped, the movie might have been better off dropping the Chowder Society altogether, or at least have them do something other than tell ghost stories to one another.

Fred Astaire as Ricky Hawthorne

The acting in the movie is fairly decent.  Director John Irvin assembled a nice ensemble of old coots for the Society members, including Fred Astaire as Ricky, John Houseman as Sears, Melvyn Douglas as Dr. Jaffrey, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as Edward.  They are all good, especially Astaire and Houseman.

John Houseman as Sears James

The real stars of the movie, though, are Craig Wasson and Alice Krige.

Wasson, who later played the lead role in Brian DePalma's Body Double (and also had a notable role in the Frank Darabont-scripted A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors), plays Don Wanderley, the sensitive writer who becomes an honorary member of the Chowder Society and who also shares a past with the ghost at the heart of all the trouble.

Craig Wasson as Don Wanderley

Now, if you are a Stephen King fan and the name Craig Wasson sounds familiar to you, then it's possibly because he was the narrator of several recent King audiobooks (Blockade Billy, "1922" and "Fair Extension" from Full Dark, No Stars, and -- most notably -- 11/22/63).  Wasson is a decent narrator of audiobooks; he has an unfortunate tendency to do terrible voices for some of the characters, but he is outstanding when it comes to straight-up narration.  He is, at least in Ghost Story, similarly a mixed bag as a leading man.  He is good at playing tortured and grave; he is less good as a romantic lead, and is not very convincing at all in the scenes in which he and Alma are supposedly falling in love with one another.  To be fair, since the whole romance is a sham, it actually works for the subtext that Wasson is unconvincing as someone who could land Krige; but what it adds to the subtext, I think it subtracts from the text, so let's call it a small net loss.

Craig Wasson as David Wanderley

Wasson also plays the much-smaller role of Don's doomed brother David.  Gotta love that porn-stache; so very eighties.  I should also mention that if you listened to the 11/22/63 audiobook and found yourself wondering, "What did this narrator's penis look like thirty years ago?", well, have I got a movie for YOU.

Alice Krige as Eva Galli

Speaking of naughty bits, Alice Krige puts most of hers on display in this movie, too, and for that, I am eternally grateful.  Now, I do my best to stay above the line and not turn into a slavering pervert in my blogging duties, but sometimes, the urge is too great.  With that in mind, I must now mention to you the obvious: that Alice Krige was -- and still, amazingly, is -- scorchingly hot.  I will freely admit to being a sucker for a redhead, so there's that ... but there's also that cutting intelligence in her eyes, and the sense that you could know her for fifty years and never quite solve all of her riddles.  Krige was really rather perfect casting for this role, and it seems a bit criminal to me that Hollywood has not put her to better use in all the years since.  I mean, sure, she was in Star Trek: First Contact and Children of Dune and (ugh) the original Stephen King movie Sleepwalkers ... but she still hasn't made it onto the A-list, and it seems like she ought to have.

Alice Krige as Alma Mobley

Anyways, she's great here, and don't let me perving out about how hot she is detract from the fact that she is also a very good actor.

I should also mention that if you decide to do a Google Images search for images of her in this movie, you would be well-advised to have your virus protection turned on.  The internet is not always a safe place, you know...

The movie has a few mild scares, mostly of the variety indicated by the above photo.  The cinematography and music are fairly good, and the whole thing has a wintry tone that goes well with the conceit of old men being haunted.  Some of the editing is a bit on the choppy side, especially toward the beginning.

Overall, it's not a bad movie.  It's probably worth seeing for horror fans, provided you don't expect too much.

It didn't make much of an impact when it was released just before Christmas (!) in 1981, and to date, it is the final movie to be adapted from Straub's work.  Personally, I think there's a hell of a flick to be made from If You Could See Me Now, but until somebody gives me $20 million or so, there's not much I can do about that.  Other than hope someone else does it, of course.

Eva Galli and her suitors

See you soon!  STILL slaving away on that worst-to-best list of King movies.  Swear to God, it's going to be finished one of these days...


  1. Well, having not seen the flick, I can't pass judgement. I did see the bridge sequence on youtube (meh, meh, old man turns around, MEH!).

    What you say about Straub's novel being a beast and excessive is a complaint I have for his later books including the one that comes after this, Shadowland. Looking forward to your take on it.

    Here by the way is a review of this film from Roger Ebert. He gave t three starts, which is pretty high praise for him, he also mentions Straub and his writing.

    Roger Ebert:

    Ghost stories should always begin as this one does, in shadows so deep that the flickering light of the dying fire barely illuminates the apprehensive faces of the listeners. They should be told in an old man's voice, dry as dust. They should be listened to by other men who are so old and so rich that we can only guess at the horrors they have seen. And, of course, ghost stories should be about things that happened long ago to young, passionate lovers who committed unspeakable crimes and have had to live forever after with the knowledge of them.

    If at all possible, some of the characters should be living in this life, filled with guilt, while others should be living the half-lives of the Undead, filled with hatred and revenge.

    Peter Straub's best-selling novel Ghost Story contained all of those elements, and so I plugged away at it for what must have been hundreds of pages before his unspeakable prose finally got to me. At least, he knows how to make a good story, if not how to tell it, and that is one way in which the book and the movie of GHOST STORY differ. The movie is told with style. It goes without saying that style is the most important single element in every ghost story, since without it even the most ominous events disintegrate into silliness. And GHOST STORY, perhaps aware that if characters talk too much they disperse the tension, adopts a very economical story-telling approach.

    Dialogue comes in short, straightforward sentences. Background is provided without being allowed to distract from the main event. The characters are established with quick, subtle strokes. This is a good movie.

    The story involves four very old men, who have formed a club to tell each other ghost stories. The casting is crucial here, and the movie's glory is in the performances and presences of Fred Astaire, the late Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and John Houseman. What a crowd.
    There is also a young protagonist (Craig Wasson), who has a dual role as Fairbanks's twin sons. When one comes to a dreadful end, the other begins to suspect that a mysterious woman may have something to do with it. And indeed she may.

    I would not dream of even hinting at exactly what connection this young woman (played with creepy charm by Alice Krige) might have with the four old men, but of course there is a connection. The movie flashes back fifty or sixty years to establish the connection, but its scariest scenes are in the present. They involve a wonderful haunted house, a long-drowned auto, a series of horrendous accidents, a group of ghostly manifestations, and a truly horrible vengeance wreaked upon the living by the not-exactly-dead.

    If you like ghost stories, you will appreciate that they cannot be told with all sorts of ridiculous skeletons leaping out of closets, as in Abbott and Costello. They must be told largely in terms of fearful and nostalgic memory, since (by definition) a ghost is a ghost because of something that once happened that shouldn't have happened. GHOST STORY understands that, and restrains its performers so that the horror of the ghost is hardly more transparent than they are.


  2. Yeah, Chris, I've definitely heard that complaint about Straub's work from other people, and if it gets moreso as his career advances, then that may be a problem for me eventually as I continue this investigation of his work.

    In the case of "Ghost Story," though, I can put it aside; partly because I really DID like the novel a lot overall, and partly because -- due to work pressures and so forth -- I didn't feel like I was able to give the book the close consideration it probably deserves while I was reading it. Sometimes, the reader can be just as much to blame as the writer, and in this case, I feel like that was probably true.

    I can't really agree with some of what Ebert says -- he seems to think the movie is way more stylish than I do -- but then again, I don't think it's a bad movie. I've certainly seen worse!

  3. I first saw this movie when it came out, I was ten years old and it was my first scary movie I ever saw. My brother took me to see it and sat behind me and yelled and made me jump. I was always fascinated at the scary looking house and moon and once had a scholastic poster that glowed in the dark that looked quite similar. This movie when I rewatch it brings back those memories and so it will always be a favorite of mine. It is out on Bluray now and has a lot of extras but sadly no deleted scenes. Great review. Thanks

    1. I bought myself the Blu-ray for Christmas, and I'm looking forward to checking it out soon. I was very happy to hear about the extras, although deleted scenes would definitely have been nice. Can't have everything, I guess!

    2. I finally got around to giving the Blu-ray a spin. It's pretty great; it didn't change my mind about the movie, but that knife cuts both ways in that it didn't make me like the movie any more OR less.

      The extras are the real selling point. Nearly forty minutes' worth of Peter Straub talking about his work; half an hour with Lawrence D. Cohen and one of the producers; half an hour of Alice Krige; half an hour about Albert Whitlock. Fantastic stuff! Releases like this are becoming rarer and rarer, so it's well worth celebrating them when they do show up.