Ghost Story 1981

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It might seem hard to believe now but there was a time when the major studios took horror films very seriously, throwing lots of money and stars at them. After the phenomenal success of The Exorcist the horror genre was no longer seen as a thing for the teens at the drive-in but as a funnel for telling adult stories to adults, whilst scaring the crap out of them at the same time. The big hits like The Omen and Jaws opened doors to things like Stanley Kubrick wanting to turn Stephen King’s The Shining into an expensive, and expansive, event picture. Studios were falling over themselves to find other bestsellers that could translate into gold at the box office. One of the most successful books of the late seventies was Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. Whilst the book deals with characters sharing ghost stories with each other as well as being a ghost story itself, I imagine that when the studio optioned the film rights, they were going for what they hoped would be the definitive cinematic ghost story. It’s in the title you see: Ghost Story! This is the one! They might have said to each other.

It almost is as well. I was talking to a producer friend of mine yesterday and he told me about a film he worked on. He saw what the director assured him was the final cut of the latest film they’d been doing together. My friend went nuts. Everyone could see what was in front of them was an average-at-best movie. What my friend could see was that as well, but underneath the “final cut” was a great film trying to get out. The real film  was there, it had just been lost in a dull and lifeless edit. I feel this is kind of what we have with Ghost Story. It is by no means as average as my friend’s film was (don’t worry he’s fixed it now, apparently its no longer average but amazing) but it just feels like something got lost in post production.

The first two scenes do not start well and show exactly what is wrong with the film. We cut between a bunch of old men dramatically rolling around in their beds having nightmares while melodramatic music crashes and bangs over the sound track. Then we have the opening credits like we were meant to be impressed by that start to the film. The next scene is a young man (Craig Wasson) in a New York apartment being freaked out by the woman he’s sleeping with. So much so that he falls backwards out the window to his death. This would all be fine, especially the make up effect you see briefly at this point which is excellent. However, as the man falls we follow him down to his death. If the effects aren’t good enough to show him falling why bother. It is a dreadful blue screen composition that, even accepting contemporary optical effects limitations, does not cut the mustard and should have been left out. The fact that you see Wasson’s cock flapping about just make’s the whole thing ridiculous.

Ignoring the visual effects for now, these scenes show just what is wrong with the film. At moments of tension and fear the film makers seem to loose their bottle and go over the top and silly when they should have been holding their nerves so they could scare ours. There are a number of scenes throughout the film where the edit seems to undermine what is happening rather than building to it. Take the first of the old men to die for instance. He is running through the snow onto the bridge, we cut away to a truck driver watching him. Why? Why not stick with him? We should be following this man to see his point of view of terror, not concentrating on the driver and a sheriff who’s also hanging around. Then when the big spooky thing happens at the end of the scene it is as if we are just watching a series of small events strung together rather than being part of one big set piece. But here’s the thing, the spooky thing is STILL effective. It still makes you jump and leaves you with a chill in your heart. Imagine how much better it would have been with more focused editing . And not such loud over the top music too.

However, I’m making out like this film is bad. Its a lavish production with great sets and lush scenery. The costumes are lovely and it has an old Hollywood charm because three of the four men are played by screen legends Melvin Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr and the great Fred Astaire.  The other old geezer is John Houseman who I best know as the salty old sea dog telling ghost stories at the beginning of The Fog. Basically, if you want someone to creep you out with a tale from the crypt, Houseman is your man.

Also what is great is the story, which is fortunate when that word is in the title. Four old men sit around telling ghost stories to each other and in the meantime the twin sons of one of them meet an attractive woman who may not be quite what she seems. You can probably guess the rest and you are probably right. However, the film starts with the story half told, so the mystery for the audience is really strong as people are acting in ways we don’t understand but are desperate to find out. The film uses stories told within the main plot to fill in the backgrounds and inform the characters more. And it is not afraid of flashbacks either. The two big ones which inform and then finally reveal the main plot are both at least fifteen minutes long. And they are compelling mini tales in their own right as well as being part of the overall tale. All these sub stories and flashbacks mean there’s a lot to pull the viewer in. What Ghost Story has, which many other haunted house films don’t have or at least don’t have enough of, is MYSTERY, and its a really good one. Even if its not always brilliantly told here.

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The other big success of the film has to be Alice Krige as the (OBVIOUS SPOILERS) not necessarily living mysterious woman.  She has a razor like focus on whichever of the men she is talking to that is both seductive and strangely terrifying. I’ve never heard anyone say “dead and wet and cold” in such a way that makes me want to sleep with them and yet run away as quickly as possible at the same time. When Wasson says that when you look at her she’s not real, he is right. Krige gives such a performance that you can believe there really is something cold and rotten talking to you underneath all that human flesh. There are moments when Krige switches off as if she will just fade away in front of your eyes. Like she is holding onto that body but can’t always keep it under control. Considering most of the other actors are men (nothing new there then) Krige totally dominates them. As indeed she should. A lesser actor would not have been able to convince you of her sinister soul, but Krige nails it. Plus she gets her nipple tickled by Wesson’s toe in the bath at one point. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in a film before. I wonder why Krige never became a bigger star. She certainly carved out a career playing evil women in films like Star Trek First Contact, Silent Hill and Sleepwalkers but she’s so good in this (and them as well) that its a mystery as to why she didn’t go further up the Hollywood pecking order. Maybe the studio execs where scared of her after seeing this. I know I am.

It seems that Ghost Story did okay at the box office, enough to earn the studio its money back, but it was one of the last big horror movies. A little while later Paramount et al found that you could spend next to nothing on a bunch of teens being killed by a crazed killer at a campsite and make even more cash. Its a shame there aren’t many big horrors any more, and outside of a few of the big ones, films like Ghost Story have been forgotten. And that’s a shame because, even with all the melodrama and dull editing choices, Ghost Story is a good story.

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2 thoughts on “Ghost Story 1981”

    1. Yeah, I know what you mean. Maybe it’s because I saw it as a kid but there is something comforting about this film, like drinking a brandy and telling tales with friends late at night: spooky but with a warm feeling.

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