Four old friends – Ricky Hawthorne (Fred Astaire), Sears James (John Houseman), John Jaffrey (Melvyn Douglas) and Edward Charles (Douglas Fairbanks Jr) – meet regularly to see who can scare the others the most by telling each other ghost stories. But there’s more to their regular late night meetings than meets the eye. The men share a dark secret from their past. A secret they thought was well and truly buried, but one which recently seems to have come back to haunt them with tragic and devastating results for the all.
Ghost Story, the big budget horror from 1982 promises great things, but ultimately disappoints in a film that becomes confusing through trying to hard to be clever. Or perhaps – with a cast of Hollywood legends, and based on a book which has been heralded by none other than master of terror himself, Stephen King, as one of the greatest supernatural novels of the 20th Century – you expect more from the film than it could ever have hoped to deliver.
There are elements of the film which should have combined to create a gripping piece of entertainment. Indeed the end result is both atmospheric and genuinely disturbing in parts. The period flashbacks – which serve to explain how the haunting around which the film spins its narrative web came about – are marvellously realised, with an attention to detail which makes the 1920’s environment spring from the screen. As for the scares themselves and ghostly apparitions which litter the story – consisting mainly of corpses in varying degrees of decay – these though slightly pedestrian in their approach, are enough to be unsettling when seen within the context and setting of the story. However they really are, when analysed more closely, rather tame.
Successful horror films and ones which stand the test of time, usually fall into one of two camps. They either go for all out scares with plenty of visceral guts and gore, or play it safe and emphasise atmosphere and menace with a heavy dose of psychological suggestion. Seldom do both approaches work together, unless made at the hands of an accomplished filmmaker, which unfortunately the film’s English director John Irvin isn’t on this occasion. Though BAFTA nominated Irvin fails to inject life into this project, which is where the problems lie – it tries to be all things to all men and in the process satisfies no-one, a pedestrian shadow of something much greater.
Which is a shame. A marvellous cast including Astaire and Douglas (both in their last screen roles), Fairbanks Jr and Houseman, with support from Alice Krige, Patricia Neal and Craig Wasson, put in the work which makes the whole thing bob along at a reasonable pace. The setting is also perfect, its evocation of small town America and the lifestyle the four aged Ivy Leaguers at the story’s centre lead, is so good you almost believe the whole thing actually exists.
Straub, on who’s original chiller the film is based, writes, like his friend Stephen King, real doorstoppers of books and which, like King’s, depend as much on psychological horror as they do on the visual type, though there’s plenty of that too. This kind of horror however, though suited perfectly to book form, seldom translates well to the cinema or television screen, as seen here.
By no means bad, Ghost Story makes perfect throwaway viewing for a cold winter night. However the result is neither as good as it could, or should, have been. Watching it one can’t help but feel the cast, author and book itself, deserved to be remembered by something better.
Ghost Story, is released by SECOND SIGHT on both DVD and Blu-Ray formats with a host of extras including an audio commentary by the director, a feature on the film’s special effects and a photo gallery as well as TV and Radio Spots.