Put together a gloomy New England house, a dark night and four of America’s legendary leading men and you have all the ingredients for the classic Ghost Story, a spellbinding motion picture based on the bestseller by Peter Straub. Co-starring Patricia Neal, Ghost Story is about the Members of the Chowder Society: Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and John Houseman, who get together each week to share tales of horror. Soon, however, a secret terror invades the group, and one by one, they die mysteriously because of a real life ghost story that is part of their past.
Ghost Story 7.25
eyelights: the tautness of the storytelling. Fred Astaire. Alice Krige’s coolness.
eyesores: the plot’s predictability. the special effects. the old school performances.
“I will take you places you’ve never been. I will show you things that you have never seen and I will see the life run out of you.”
‘Ghost Story’ is a 1981 supernatural horror picture based on the bestselling Peter Straub novel. It tells the story of four old friends and the impact that a young woman from their past is having on their present – starting with the mysterious death of one of their sons. Now confronted by the son’s twin brother and disturbed by sudden nightmares, they must revisit a moment that they had all buried behind them fifty years hence.
I’ve known about ‘Ghost Story’ probably ever since it was first released: its minimalistic but atmospheric poster artwork could be found in all the video and corner stores I went to. It was everywhere. But I wasn’t interested in horror films at the time and was never greatly pulled to ghost stories, even now, so I wasn’t particularly inclined to pick it up. The fact that I didn’t recognize the four leads at the time didn’t help.
I do now, however – if not from their oeuvre, then at least by name: Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and John Houseman. Without a doubt, these seasoned veterans are the main attraction of the picture, even if they don’t take up as much of the screen time as some of their younger counterparts. It would be the last feature film for all but the latter, who would carry on for a few more years.
I really enjoyed seeing the four of them together, as these longtime friends who gather to tell each other ghost stories in front of the fireplace (interestingly, membership into their so-called Chowder Society has an entry fee of one ghost story – yet, as seemingly easy as it is to get in, they are its only members). There’s a comfort to seeing all of them together, even if there’s no true connection between them; none of them had worked together before.
Unfortunately, their individual performances let me down. Given the breadth of their experience, I had almost expected masterful portrayals of the Chowder Society. But I had forgotten that these actors had learned their craft in the first half of the 20th century, at a time when naturalism was a rare thing, back when they all overcompensated as though they were on the stage, acting for the back row of the theatre.
This was particularly true of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Melvyn Douglas (surprisingly, as he was excellent in ‘Being There‘), who gave us television-worthy performances. Thankfully, Astaire was in top form, becoming in effect the star attraction of the picture, and John Houseman was okay enough. The rest of the cast wasn’t outstanding, but their weaknesses were muted once the stars set the tone.
The most unusual of the lot was Alice Krige (whom some might vaguely recognize from ‘Star Trek: First Contact’), because she plays a sensuous ice queen. I had mixed feelings about her presence in the picture because was pleasant, but not magnetic, attractive, but not gorgeous, and I couldn’t figure out why everyone was so enamoured with her. If anything, she felt standoffish to me. And yet, she does leave an impression.
She was far sexier as the Borg Queen.
‘Ghost Story’ plays like a really good Stephen King TV movie. There are the good ones, and the bad ones. This is a good one. But at no point does it feel like a top-notch silver screen presentation: starting with the unconvincing performances, the low budget, poor special effects, limited scope and the endlessly predictable plot developments, at no point does it grab you and leave you feeling that you’ve just watched something special.
However, it’s also really quite solid, overall, and I can just imagine how this came together in Straub’s original work (although it is said that this is an oversimplification of the novel). Based on this film alone, having not read any of Straub’s work, I can see enough thematic and structural parallels with King’s oeuvre to see why the two joined up to collaborate on a couple of novels – with a third on the way. It makes sense.
What I really enjoyed was that it was in essence three stories in one: the body of the picture takes place in the present, but we also go back to the past as the twin tells the Chowder Society a ghost story, and fifty years into the past to explain the secrets that these old men have been harbouring for so long. In some ways, because of the way it’s structured, it feels like an anthology – albeit with all its parts connected. I like that.
As far as swan songs go, one could do a heck of a lot worse than ‘Ghost Story’. Astaire, Douglas, and Fairbanks Jr. certainly got lucky in their final outing; not all screen legends can say the same. ‘Ghost Story’ will never be remembered as a masterpiece, but it’s a wonderfully-constructed chiller, a fine example of the genre. Had it been afforded a more substantial budget and backed by stronger performances, it could have been one for the books.
Sadly, as it stands, it feels like just one of many such motion pictures; it’s very likely that it largely goes unnoticed now. If it’s not wholly forgotten.
“It was as if she had never been here. As if it had never happened.”
Date of viewing: September 8, 2014