The Chowder Society - a group of four elderly men who have known each other since they were young - gather together each week to tell ghost stories, never daring to talk about the unspeakable horror which is individually haunting them all. A horror from their past. A horror that refuses to stay buried.
Only Don Wanderley, the 'black sheep' son of one of the Chowder Society's members, can even begin to solve the puzzle. He's an English Professor and when he meets the beautiful University secretary Alma Mobley he doesn't realise the danger he has stepped into. But Alma Mobley is a dazzling enigma. Who could blame him for falling so blindly into a revenge plot that has taken the ghost decades to set into motion?
Ghost Story is a film that has divided viewers and critics ever since its first release. Based on Peter Straub's brilliant novel, it alienated fans of the book because there was so much interesting important detail the film didn't have the time or, quite possibly, the budget to portray (in the novel, the ghost is a shapeshifter) and, for the horror movie fans who never read the book, who wants to see a movie about four old men in peril? Even when the peril comes in the drop dead (literally) gorgeous form of Alice Krige?
It's a genuine shame, because Ghost Story (the movie) deserves far more credit than that. It's a very cleverly constructed thriller in the true spirit - no pun intended - of what all the best ghost stories should actually be about: a spectre intent on revenge for reasons that aren’t revealed until the very ending. It's all about guilt, sex and vengeance - is there a better recipe for fear? With that brief in mind, Ghost Story is unfairly ignored because, almost thirty-five year years since its release, it remains an extremely effective and incredibly good-looking horror film.
But maybe another reason Ghost Story failed so spectacularly at the box office is because its core cast - the four elderly Chowder Society gentlemen - were four actors whose true fans no longer wanted to follow their idols into such dark and twisted territory: True, John Houseman had recently appeared in The Fog and Melvyn Douglas had played a villainous part in The Changeling, but what about fans of Fred Astaire and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. who were probably horrified that their heroes would appear in this kind of movie? And Craig Wasson as the son who brings all the nasties home to roost would never make the grade as a leading man, despite Brian De Palma's later endorsement of him when he cast Wasson as the embattled hero of his less-than-cutting-edge Hitchcock-meets-giallo melange Body Double.
Maybe because it wasn't well received, Ghost Story has never received a stellar home video release. That's a shame because there's so much to admire here - director John Irvin does a great job, especially in the darkened rooms as the Chowder Society spin their tales, and in the wintertime exteriors of New England (or, at least, that's where the story is supposedly set) with a moment involving Douglas Fairbanks Jr. wandering confused through the deep snow that is especially striking. And let’s not forget Jack Cardiff’s fantastic cinematography and Dick Smith and Albert Whitlock’s wonderfully unsettling make-up and effects work.
Alice Krige, as the vengeful spirit, is at her most ethereally beautiful in this film. She effectively plays two roles (although they eventually turn out to be the same character) and no matter how many times we watch this film, one or two of her line readings never fail to make our blood run cold. “I will take you places you’ve never been… and I will see the life run out of you.”
On that note, kudos should also go to screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen for adapting Straub’s very difficult, very complex book. True, his screenplay doesn't have the depth of Straub's writing and two characters that are heavily featured in Straub's novel - a feral man and boy, apostates of the ghost - are shoehorned into the film so awkwardly it would probably have been better to leave them out entirely - but there are few novel-to-film adaptations that are completely successful, and when Ghost Story gets things right it gets them right very well.
Finally, another large reason the film sets the nerves jangling lies with Philippe Sarde's extraordinarily creepy score. His main title theme stylishly sets us on edge for what is to come and the rest of his music is so subtle, it works exactly as a ghost story should - slowly, imperceptibly, working beneath the picture, building the tension.
For all these reasons, Ghost Story deserves urgent re-evaluation, and this new Blu-ray release gives us a great excuse to re-evaluate it. Picture and sound are both excellent and the extras are plentiful, including a film commentary from John Irvin, a charming interview with Alice Krige, and segments about developing the screenplay, the film’s genesis as a novel, and an homage to the genius of Albert Whitlock. We have been waiting a long time for a company to do this terrific film justice, and Second Sight’s Blu-ray has knocked it out of the park.
If you're looking for a horror movie that is intelligent and engrossing, and which will chill you on a psychological level and deliver one or two nasty frights in the process, look no further than the exemplary Ghost Story. Very highly recommended.
GHOST STORY / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR: JOHN IRVIN / SCREENPLAY: LAWRENCE D. COHEN / STARRING: CRAIG WASSON, ALICE KRIGE, FRED ASTAIRE, DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS JR., JOHN HOUSEMAN, MERVYN DOUGLAS / RELEASE DATE: DECEMBER 7TH