Ghost Story (1981)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #537


Number of Views: Two
Release Date: December 18, 1981
Sub-Genre: Supernatural
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $23,371,905
Running Time: 110 minutes
Director: John Irvin
Producer: Burt Weissbourd
Screenplay: Lawrence D. Cohen
Based on a novel by Peter Straub
Special Effects: Rick Baker, Carl Fullerton
Cinematography: Jack Cardiff
Score: Philippe Sarde
Editing: Tom Rolf
Studio: Universal Pictures
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Stars: Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., John Houseman, Craig Wasson, Patricia Neal, Alice Krige, Jacqueline Brookes, Miguel Fernandes, Lance Holcomb, Mark Chamberlin, Tim Choate, Kurt Johnson, Ken Olin, Brad Sullivan, Michael O’Neill, Guy Boyd


Suggested Audio Candy

Phillipe Sarde “Soundtrack Suite”


Everyone loves a good ghost story right? I’m not speaking of bloodbaths and bone crunching, but instead rattling chains, eerie apparitions and things that go bump in the night. As a child, I loved nothing more than to have a creepy yarn spun to me by candle light and, nowadays, decent ghost stories are few and far between. I love gushing grue like the next man, potentially more, but there is something to be said for a fable that chooses to creep under your skin and stay there, as opposed to pummeling your senses with instances of debauchery. In that respect, John Irvin’s Ghost Story is something of the last of its breed.


The British filmmaker went on to direct Schwarzenegger vehicle Raw Deal, underrated Vietnam war movie Hamburger Hill, and swashbuckling Robin Hood adaptation (not Prince of Thieves, the other one) during a particularly flush period in a career spanning five decades. However, Ghost Story remains one of his most under-appreciated works. Based on the 1979 novel of the same name by Peter Straub, it boasts an impressive cast of old-timers the likes of which you don’t see congregate very often. Ageing veterans Fred Astaire, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., John Houseman, Melvyn Douglas, and Patricia Neal all signed up for a film that prefers slow burn to fast thrills and is all the better for it.


It tells the tale of the Chowder Society, an exclusive organisation of elderly New England aristocrats whose only remaining pleasure is to scare each other witless with tales of the macabre. Town mayor Edward (Fairbanks Jr.) lawyer Sears (Houseman), businessman Ricky (Astaire), and doctor John (Douglas) gather at regular intervals to share their tales of terror and have been doing so for the last fifty years. However, when Edward’s favorite son David (Craig Wasson) falls to his death from his swanky New York condo and the runt of his litter Don (also played by Wasson) shows up for the funeral, the once impenetrable Chowder Society starts to fall apart at the seams.


Whilst college professor Don has made a life for himself elsewhere, he has become implicated in something ominous as a result of the four men’s unspeakable actions many years ago and, desperate to get to the bottom of it, he attempts to gain membership into their secret handshake society by paying the entrance fee of telling a ghost story of his own. He speaks of his whirlwind romance with mysterious secretary Alma (Alice Krige) whilst learning his trade in Miami and the manner in which their fleeting association terminated.


To begin with, things appeared to be going swimmingly although he couldn’t shake a feeling of unease that suggested bunny boiling was on the cards if their courtship were to continue. Dropping her like a sack of sodden shit on account of his gut feeling, she then elected to track down his twin David and shack up with him instead. Considering their brief union concluded with him plummeting several stories to his untimely death, the bad omens were plentiful and, when one-by-one, the Chowder members begin meeting their own ghastly demise, Don understandably wants answers.


Ghost Story reveals its hand at around the midway mark by way of flashback to 1931 when Ed, Sears, Ricky and John were young and carefree. They befriended free-spirited and independently wealthy heiress Eva Galli (again Krige in another dual role) and soon became smitten by the beautiful stranger as she encouraged their collective advances. However, things didn’t end well there either and, during a drunken argument, poor Eva paid the ultimate price for her cock-teasing ways. Presuming she was dead, the four friends concocted an eleventh hour plan to dispose of her corpse before their bright futures became compromised and dumped her body in a nearby lake. Flash forward fifty years and it appears although their dubious past is coming back to haunt them.


Irvin’s tale chooses to simplify Straub’s source fiction but comes a cropper on a couple of key counts. Firstly, Lawrence D. Cohen’s screenplay is a little leaden and doesn’t fully utilize the four fine old-timers at its disposal. Secondly, and most tellingly, a frankly unnecessary subplot involving escaped mental patient Gregory Bate (Miguel Fernandes) and his similarly unhinged son Fenny (Lance Holcomb) adds nothing whatsoever to proceedings and feels completely out-of-place. Had this have been excised, then it wouldn’t have been missed one iota but their presence detracts from the ethereal tone that Ghost Story otherwise evokes effortlessly.


However, quibbles aside, there is much here to commend. Irvin’s direction is sound and Jack Cardiff’s cinematography captures the frosty New England setting rather adeptly. French composer Philippe Sarde’s score, whilst a little on the melodramatic side, is enthusiastic and suitably grand. Moreover, the quartet of senior headliners bring a real sense of class and professionalism to the table and their presence is unquestionable. Wasson may not be considered the most charismatic lead but, having a severe soft spot for Brian De Palma’s Body Double, I wholeheartedly disagree with the sentiment that he buckles under the strain of leading man duties. Meanwhile, Krige is simply excellent as Eva/Alma and comes out smelling of roses (tinged with embalming fluid).


Ghost Story may never quite live up to its intriguing premise and actual scares are few and far between but there’s still more than enough here to chill you to your bones should you lend yourself to its antiquated charms. By 1981, studios were churning out all manner of effects-laden crowd pleasers and it’s nice to kick back with something a little more quaint and understated from time to time. Like its four elderly statesmen (three of whom never worked again and passed away soon afterwards), it has a certain dignified manner about it that is impossible to overlook and, all things considered, is one ghost story worth breaking out the vintage scotch for.


Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10

Grue Factor: 1/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: Grue is never foremost in Irvin’s thoughts and there is little here to satisfy the more bloodthirsty amongst us. Having said that, Rick Baker’s make-up is wonderfully ghoulish and adds a welcome layer of consternation to an otherwise slight tale of small town terror. As for skin, Krige willingly sheds her linen to reveal her supple pelt although, it has to be said, she looks decidedly less agreeable after fifty years rotting beneath ice.

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Read The Fog (1980) Appraisal

Read Body Double Appraisal

Read The Changeling (1980) Appraisal

Read From Beyond The Grave Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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