Tonight we are knee deep in “memory movie” territory, for Ghost Story came along in the early 80s when my family finally decided to get cable. And now all those movies I saw commercials of on TV that terrified me and heard talk of in school from those who had seen them at the theater and from Rob Ames, a friend I had, who was into Fangoria and who on occasion used to bring it to school and show me bloody photos of the latest horror movies, I finally had access to all of them now!
As I’ve spoken of before in other reviews most of my potent memory movies come from childhood and that stage of my life when we first got cable. Simply put the 80s were to horror movies what fucking is to porn. And even though what comes to mind to a lot of genera fans when you mention that decade is slasher films, I was never into those kind of flicks until much later in life, my favorite horror flicks from that era were things like The Entity, Amityville 3D, The Howling, An American Werewolf In London, Piranha, Humanoids From The Deep, The Boogens, Galaxy Of Terror, Forbidden World . . . I could go on and on, but my point is monsters and supernatural terrors were my go-to concepts.
The horror flicks of the 80s put Fangoria magazine on the map and without a doubt they were there covering Ghost Story. You can find coverage of it in these three issues: #12 (p.38, left), #16 (p. 42-45, middle) and #17 (p. 48-52, right).
When I was a kid even the commercials for horror movies scared me and I remember Ghost Story’s commercial well. It was even included as an extra on the disc. But I haven’t seen it since I was 13 or 14. Does it still hold up? What I remember most about it was the dread it conveyed, which is rare when talking about horror movies. I’m not talking gore, but dread, the stuff H.P. Lovecraft excelled at with the stories he wrote. Good news, I saw it last night and, yes, that dread I felt at 14 was still palpable, but thanks to the rampant economic inequality of our 21st century I can’t help but view this movie in a new light, or should I say, in an added light.
The basic crux of the tale revolves around four, old, rich, white guys (the very demographic that are destroying, controlling and sucking the life out of America) who committed an act of murder in their college years, covered it up but are now reaping what they sowed in the form of a vengeful spirit that’s come back from the dead. Part of me sympathized with the motives of the spirit more so now than I ever did, which in a way would have normally destroyed all my scary good memories of seeing it on cable, but the devil in the details, or more accurately the sympathy in the details that managed to keep the old, rich guys somewhat sympathetic was that the crime was not committed in cold blood, but from a drunken accident. On the other hand they then covered up the crime by shoving the body of the girl (did I forget to mention she wasn’t really dead, just unconscious?) in a car and driving that car into the local pond, so, I guess, the characters all have this vacillating ying and yang quality about them as the mystery unfolds, which in the end didn’t destroy my whole re-visitation of it last night. It helped immensely, though, that those memories of first seeing it were powerful enough to keep my new viewpoint at bay.
These four elderly men, Ricky Hawthorne, John Jaffrey, Edward Charles Wanderley, and Sears James, played by four movie legends, Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks, jr., and John Houseman respectively, are being hunted in their upstate hometown of Milburn, New York during a very cinematically captured and typical New England winter.
As I mentioned in brief above, and as represented by a flashback in the final act, they met this very attractive British girl, Eva Galli (Alice Krige), who came to visit the area one summer and rented a nearby house. You can’t have a ghost story without ae haunted abode and this one here is as impressive as the one in Tobe Hooper’s 1979 Salem’s Lot mini-series. She comes off as part of high society too, and all four guys are instantly smitten with her, but there was only one that got his crush reciprocated and that was lucky bastard Edward Wanderley. He even got her into bed but whether through performance anxiety or some other means, he couldn’t get hard enough to seal the deal. Though, he lied and said sex with her was fantastic when he was with the guys later on and getting tanked. It was a visit to her house that same evening that set this whole tragic mess into motion too. Emotions flared and she was about to reveal Eddie’s limpness to his friends when alcohol and narcissism got the better of him. He shoved her to shut her up and she slipped and slammed head against the fireplace. One of them was eager to be a doctor, John Jaffrey (Melvyn Douglas, played in youth by Mark Chamberlin), not sure how much training he had, but I suspect alcohol had a lot to do with his misdiagnosis of not being able to find a pulse. So, they cover up the crime, but as that car is submerging Eva comes to, slams her hand on the back window and screams. Oh, yeah, the guys see her and are consequently shocked to shit, but it’s too late and life goes on for them.
They’re part of this Chowder Society and routinely get together to share ghost stories they’ve made up, but you know the memory of what happened is never far behind.
The movie is based on Peter Straub’s best seller of the same name and in the movie it’s never quite explained why Eva waited until they turned into old men to seek her revenge. At any rate, all four are suffering from nightmares about her and what they did and as the days go by she visits each in one of her many horrific spectral forms and literally scares them to death. But her vengeance doesn’t stop with just these men, Wanderley, the only one that spawned, had twin sons, and apparently kin are guilty by association, which means, yeah, you guessed it, they have to pay too.
This is where some of the logic in an otherwise perfect tale of ghost vengeance falters, at least for me it did. The movie kicks off with a prologue of Craig Wasson playing David Wanderley confronting a mysterious, naked girl laying face down on his bed. She turns showing him the early stages of a rotting corpse face and it so freaks him out he falls out the window of his penthouse and plummets to his death. On the way down we get a glance at his flopping junk, by the way. You get the impression they had just got done banging when all this happened.
Don Wanderley (again played by Wasson) is called by his father and told to come home for something has happened to his brother. That scene along with another flashback later on, told by Don, is where the logic gets iffy for me. Don was a teacher and he met this girl at his new job. Her name was Alma Mobley (Alice Krige) and she was the Dean’s secretary. From the moment they locked eyes they were in lust, but this Mobley exhibits troubling signs of some kind of “personality defect” let’s say. During some foreplay in a tub he pulls her underwater and she comes up screaming her head off. That scene scared the shit out of me. She sleepwalks in the nude and utters things a Cenobite might say like, “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.” Her skin is also cold to the touch. After a few weeks or months Don breaks up with her. Her “creepiness” finally got to him, I guess.
Obviously we the viewer know this is Eva exacting part of her revenge, but to me this subplot doesn’t link well with the rest of the movie unfolding in Milburn. I guess what the movie wants you believe is this is one powerful mother of a ghost. So much so she can create a human form and make others see her. This may have worked if we understood only Don was interacting with her, but from the start we know others see her and interact with her like she is as real as them. Which begged the question back when I first saw it and during last night’s revisit—who the fuck is Alma Mobley?!
The answer to that lies in the DVD extras where the plot of Straub’s novel is explained. Of course for those of you who have read the novel you already can make some sense of who the fuck this Alma Mobley is, but I never had and after learning Straub’s tale isn’t even a ghost story but a creature feature about this shape-shifting being seeking vengeance on these old men, well, shit, Mobley’s “sexualized appearance” now makes some goddamn sense. It seems Director John Irvine wanted the movie to be basically a ghost story like the titles suggests so all the lore and explanation of this creature is never included in the movie.
What also didn’t make sense, or I should say, never expounded upon, is the role of this Occultist, Gregory Bates (Miguel Fernandes) and his feral kid, Fenny (Lance Holcomb), who are found squatting in Eva’s abandoned summer house. They’re in league with Eva’s vengeful form, but you could easily excise their scenes and it wouldn’t affect the movie much.
What I love most about this version of Straub’s tale and what makes it a memory movie is the dread, the calculated shock appearances of Eva’s corpse veneer, which gets decidedly more rotted as the movie goes on, all thanks to FX artist extraordinaire, Dick Smith! The cinematography, which brings to light everything we all love about deep winter days in New England. And that damn house! That damn creepily photographed house against the winter backdrop!
I never much cared for how this movie ends and I still don’t. The ending is far too abrupt for the epic horror tale that unfolded before it. It needed some kind of epilogue.
Universal released this before on disc way back in 1998 when DVD was fresh out of the package, but it never got converted to blu-ray when that format came along in 2006. Hard to believe it’s taken 17 years for that to happen. Scream Factory (Shout! Factory’s genre sub-label) releases it on blu this November 24th!
Video/Audio/Subtitles: 1080p 1.85:1 high definition widescreen—2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio—English subs only.
Transfer was damn fine looking. No complaints here.
Extras included . . .
- Audio Commentary by Director John C. Irvin
- Ghost Story Genesis (39:42)
- Ghost Story Development (29:09)
- Alice Krige: Being Alma and Eva (28:52)
- Albert Whitlock Visual Effects with Bill Taylor (28:51)
- Theatrical Trailer
- TV Spot
- Radio Spots
- Photo Gallery
Missing, unfortunately, is any contribution from Craig Wasson on the extras, but regardless, what’s there is top notch. Pretty much the end all and be all for anything you may ever want to know about the making of this movie is included. Notably how different the movie is from the source material, some glimpses of unused FX from Dick Smith and the fact that it was trimmed down. There was a kind of epilogue filmed too. But back to the source material . . . now that I know what the novel’s about I’m interested in reading it. It predates Stephen King’s It, and I’m almost sure it had an influence on him creating his own brand of shape-shifting monstrosity.
I’m surprised Universal’s hasn’t mounted a more accurate version of Ghost Story, either as a much longer movie or better yet as a mini-series or a limited series, which would probably be the better idea.