Retro Review: ‘Ghost Story’

In 1979, author Peter Straub’s breakout hit Ghost Story landed on the bookshelves becoming one of driving forces of the renaissance in horror fiction at the time. Regarded as one of the scariest books ever written and selling millions of copies, the novel’s success naturally grabbed the attention of Hollywood. Universal ultimately purchased the rights to Ghost Story and released the film in December of 1981 to taken advantage of the dreary wintry setting of the story.

For decades, friends and prominent citizens of their small New England town: Ricky Hawthorne, John Jaffrey, Ed Wanderley, and Sears James have dubbed themselves the Chowder Society. On selected nights, they don their finest eveningwear and spend the night exchanging scary stories with one another. When Ed dies under strange circumstances, his son Don enters the picture and joins the Chowder Society realizing his connection to them goes beyond his father. These men are all under the curse of a mysterious woman they have each encountered. The members of the Chowder Society met her when they were much younger men and she called herself Eva Galli. Having unintentionally caused her death, they covered it up and never spoke about her again. Now she has returned from the grave and will have her vengeance.

One of my favorite aspects of Ghost Story is of course the casting. Given that the primary characters are in their twilight years, the ensemble consisted of aged Hollywood legends: Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks, and Patricia Neal in what would be the final movie for all of them except Neal. Even the film’s harshest critics have unanimously praised their performances as expected, each of them possesses a talent that has made them cinematic icons. The presence of the likes of Astaire, Neal and the others alone elevate the film to another level. Given that the horror of the source material is deliberate slow-burning as the pasts of the characters comes back to haunt them, it made perfect sense to put John Irvin the director behind the classic miniseries Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy at the helm. He is a proven hand behind the camera and had the skills necessary to translate the heightening suspense onto the screen. Purposely bringing a European sensibility to the film, Irvin creates a wonderfully gothic atmosphere and his cinematography partner Jack Cardiff does a stellar job capturing it. This comes across strong in the film’s opening moments, as the audience is escorted to a classically designed study, lit only by the red flames coming from the fireplace. It is a wonderfully eerie scene that immediately engrosses you. No matter how great your movie looks or how talented its cast is, for a horror movie to work it needs that extra punch to inspire fear in the audience, and sadly, Ghost Story lacks that punch. The cracks begins to show as the movie roles on, as what unfolds is a supernatural tale with few surprises, void of the ominous terrifying power of the source material. Straub’s book is a slow burn where the reader becomes increasingly aware that these men are at the absolute mercy of an ancient and powerful supernatural entity beyond their understanding. She has patiently bided her time and has now returned to their sleepy little town to methodically pick them off with sadistic glee, and the members of the Chowder Society are absolutely helpless in stopping her. Whereas in the film, the threat posed by “Eva Galli/ Alma Mobley” is a rather standard revenge plot that is resolved rather anticlimactically.

Normally I try to refrain from comparing a film to the book from which it is based during reviews, but in the case of Ghost Story it is not only one of my all-time favorites but is also a watershed piece of horror literature. The source material is a grand and terrifying tale exploring deep elements of fear while also telling a terrifying narrative. With so much, to pack into a 110 minute movie so the odds were already against the filmmakers. They were forced to distill it down so much, that what made the book so powerful was lost in the process. You can not accuse them of not trying because John Irvin puts forth a strong effort and I give him nothing but applause for it, but this is a classic example of the movie paling in comparison to the book. Perhaps Ghost Story would be better suited to a long format adaptation like a mini-series or maybe simply works best in a literary format.