Ghost Story combines the storytelling prowess of Peter Straub with acting legends like Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, John Houseman, and Douglas Fairbanks into a tale that hearkens back to ancient tales of the supernatural. It relies on Edgar Allan Poe’s gothica, Henry James’ suspense, and the spooks of haunted house stories to redefine the genre, at least during the time the film released in 1981. And yet, surprisingly, John Irvin’s Ghost Story isn’t as strong as its requisite parts despite the atmosphere and tension of the haunting of an entire town. It’s due in large part to the direction, pulled by ghostly hands in too many different directions and, more importantly, away from the book’s plot.
It’s not a problem that screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen transitions away from the shapeshifter tendencies of Straub’s novel; that’s to be expected to some extent, because the film cannot highlight each of the complexities of the book without running far wide of its acceptable two hour time. Instead, it’s the way that Irvin decides to handle the direction of Ghost Story, flawed because of its confusing incorporation of elements that are given little time to evolve. By centering on small pieces of Straub’s overarching tale, Ghost Story fails to find solid ground and accidentally adds scenes that mean very little to the audience.
For much of the film, though, this isn’t a problem. Ghost Story‘s setup provides enough illusive details to keep the viewer wondering what exactly is going on in this small rural community, complete with a group of old men known as the Chowder Society who meet to give each other the willies with scary stories told around a dim fireplace. The first act jumps between characters, allowing the audience to meet the four members of the Chowder Society – Ricky (Astaire, Sears (Houseman), Dr. Jaffrey (Douglas), and Edward (Fairbanks) – as they’re terrorized by nightmares, and then jumping to the deaths of both Edward and his son, David (Craig Wasson). But it’s really Don (also Wasson, this time sans mustache) who is the centerpiece of this story, ultimately holding everything together with his own experiences of the spirit haunting the town.
There’s a great Victorian atmosphere to most of Ghost Story, complete with the snowy New England countryside so charmingly elicited by Nathaniel Hawthorne in his own prose. Irvin excels at shaping the film around spooky events, like the initial deaths of two of the Chowder Society and the exploration of an abandoned house just outside town. These moments are chilling and cold, and they’re segmented by a flashback sequence told by Don as part of his initiation into the Chowder Society.
Ghost Story toys with the concept of storytelling in two places. The first is a romantic tale from Don about his experiences with Alma Mobley (Alice Krige), a secretary at his college who became his love and then weirded him out during a few fugue states. She also caused his brother’s death, despite evidence of suicide. Irvin’s choice to jump back in time to depict the story, framing it around the present events, is dynamic and effectively breaks up the monotony of the film’s slow progress. It happens again with Sears and Ricky’s story about the woman they murdered in their past, hiding her body and car in the lake.
But Ghost Story could use more fragmentation, because its final journey to the conclusion leaves a lot to be desired. The initial tension of the film drops out once the identity and face of the ghost is revealed, and the breaking of the spell feels like an obvious reveal. What’s worse, though, is the film’s disparate parts, the events that just don’t come together. One of the villains, Gregory Bate (Miguel Fernandes), is given so little characterization that he becomes an afterthought, one that’s only loosely connected to the ghost at all. A lot of Ghost Story‘s subtleties, too, remain unexplained, pieces of a much larger script that were cut for time. As it is, the back half of the film drags quite a bit, and excision of these unnecessary plot items would have left a much more concise story.
It’s difficult to fault Ghost Story too much, however, since it does succeed in compellingly original supernatural tales for nearly three-quarters of the film. It may be rushed, and it may suffer from a bloated plot that eventually lacks the energy to finish strong, but this ode to Victorian-era ghostly haunts often creeps by on its spooky ambiance alone. However, it doesn’t have the lasting appeal like the writers it name-drops and tries to mimic.
Scream Factory has released Ghost Story on Blu-Ray with a nice new high-definition transfer that looks quite good. No real dips in quality occur except for a couple scenes – the opening credits sequence and the final shot of the town have noticeable grain textures. Still, for a movie this age, I was pleasantly surprised by the preservation.
The audio comes in a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track, which sounds acceptable despite what I felt were a couple dips in volume. No hissing though, and rather crisp. There’s also audio commentary from John Irvin as an optional accompaniment to the film.
For extras, Scream Factory has included about two additional hours of interviews and behind-the-scenes commentary. First up is an interview with Peter Straub about the writing of Ghost Story, complete with a few excerpts from the novel. This is about 39 minutes long. Next, an interview with both Lawrence D. Cohen and producer Bert Weissbourd highlight the problems of adapting Peter Straub’s novel to the big screen, clocking in around 29 minutes and a vital watch. An interview with actress Alice Krige gives some nice insight behind the scenes, also about 25 minutes. Another interview with visual effects artist Bill Taylor shows how they did all the effects behind the ghost’s haunting scenes, coming in around 25 minutes. Finally, trailers, photo gallery, and radio spots round out this large package.
Ultimately, fan of the movie or not, this is a Blu-Ray to track down and feature in your collection.