Ghost Story (1981) – Review

What do you get when you take an immense supernatural tale filled with dense prose, add four legendary Hollywood actors, throw in some cheap jump scares, and then cram it all into a two hour running time? If you said Ghost Story you are exactly right, but you probably noticed that was the link you clicked so that is kind of cheating, yet back in 1981 audiences weren’t sure what they’d be getting when they visited their local cinema. Would this be on par with films like The Exorcist and Halloween, which Universal Studios was certainly hoping for, or would it fail to strike a chord with modern audiences?

Tackling the 500 page horror tale penned by Peter Straub was going to be no easy task, as the author took a page from Stephen King by deciding to paint his story on a large canvas, telling multiple storylines that would interweave with the main plot, but when adapting such a story to film a certain amount of things will have to be cut. Even Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot had to discard much of King’s 400 page opus and he had three hours to work with, but director John Irvin had no such luxury with Ghost Story. Screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen had the daunting task of jettisoning about 90% of the book’s tapestry of characters and plot threads thus leaving behind only a simple story of revenge.

Albeit a ghostly revenge from beyond the grave.

The movie centers around four men, the book had five but one of them didn’t make the cut to the big screen, that live in a small New England town, who all have been harboring a dark secret for over fifty years, a secret that has now come back to bite them in the ass. Ricky Hawthorne (Fred Astaire), Sears James (John Houseman), Dr. John Jaffrey (Melvyn Douglas), and Mayor Edward Charles Wanderley (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) make up a small club they call the Chowder Society, an informal men’s club where they regale each other with scary stories, but now they are all suffering nightmares that seem to be a harbinger of terrible things to come. That the movie opens with John Houseman telling a tale of terror is a bit of an odd choice, not because Houseman is a terrible storyteller as his voice is perfect for spooky tales, but the problem is that just one year earlier John Carpenter’s The Fog opened with Houseman telling a spooky campfire tale, and so for a brief moment I was confused as to what movie I’d put in my Bluray player.

“Beware of leper ghosts and gold doubloons.”

Meanwhile in New York City Edward’s son David (Craig Wasson) seems very concerned with the naked woman in his bed. Sadly something that rarely concerns me.  The tub in the bathroom is overflowing while David keeps asking this woman, who is lying face down in his bed, “Who are you?” Later we learn this woman was his fiancée so his question is more metaphorical in nature and not due to a guy bringing a woman home without bothering to get a name. Though he’d have been better off with a one night stand for when he places his hand on her naked flesh he is shocked at how cold it is, and then she turns over and her face is finally revealed.

I guess their relationship wasn’t based on looks.

David reels back in terror, crashing through his high-rise window, and falling to his death far below. This leads to Edward calling his other son Don (Craig Wasson), who just so happens to be David’s identical twin thus being played by the same actor, and he tells the boy he must come home for the funeral. Don insists to his father that David’s death was not an accident and being the death involved his brother practically flying through a glass window I’d say most forensic officials would want to do a little investigation on this as well, but not in this movie because we don’t have time for cops and we’ve got ghosts to bust. The father and son seem to be at odds but they aren’t given any time to build bridges before Edward is lured down the street by a spectral figure, and as he crosses a bridge Edward is startled by the ghost. In terror he falls backwards off the bridge.

“Boo!”

So that’s her entire bag of tricks, just scare the crap out of her victims and hope they die from it? It may seem a trifle lame but you can’t knock its effectiveness, and despite Ricky, Jaffrey and young Don all believing something supernatural is going on good ole Sears refuses to discuss the situation. Don joins the Chowder Society by telling a ghost story of his own, this one involving a woman by the name of Alma Mobley (Alice Krige) who was a secretary at the school Don taught at.  The two had a hot and passionate affair but when things got a bit weird, like Alma demanding to be married in Don’s hometown with all family and friends watching, which was pretty much a deal breaker for Don. Then one night Don wakes to find Alma standing naked in the living, staring out at the ocean, and without turning around she states, “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.”

She may be hot but that kind of crazy you don’t need in your life.

That relationship totally messed up Don’s life, after breaking up with her and her subsequent disappearance his life spiraled in a downward direction, but things took an even darker turn when he got a call from his twin telling him that he was going to marry Alma. Seems like she was really hell-bent on marrying into that family.  Yet scaring David out of the window didn’t seem like a good way to seal the whole marriage deal, and I thought that was the point of her whole goddamn plan. Maybe David was just too big of a douche, and as the guy was marrying his brother’s ex that’s some pretty damning evidence of his douchery, so she decided to just kill him instead and then head on to New England to continue her vengeance fueld killing spree. Why she didn’t just do that in the first place is never made clear.

Weirder still is that Ricky comes across two psychos living in an old abandoned house, one an escaped lunatic by the name of Gregory Bate (Miguel Fernandes) the other being pint sized Fenny Bate (Lance Holcomb), and they seem to be working for the ghost.

Never knew a ghost to need a Renfield before let alone two of them.

The problem here is that these two idiots aren’t all that effective, certainly not as effective as a “Scare you to Death” ghost who chocks up another victim by terrifying Jaffrey to death. With the death toll mounting the remaining two members of The Chowder Society finally spill the beans to their big deep dark secret to Don. As young men these four all fell in love with an exotic woman by the name of Eva Galli, who surprise surprise looks just like Alma, and when she picks Edward as the lucky one she will sleep with his inability to sexually perform makes things a little awkward. Later when they are all drunk as skunks the four boys pay a call on Eva, and that is when things start to turn bad to worse, Edward knocks Eva down before she can reveal that he failed the bedroom test, this being bad because he’d already told his boys how awesome it was, and she hits her head. They find no pulse and jump to the conclusion that she must be dead.  Not wanting to ruin their lives they decided to put the body where no one will ever find it, which for some reason involves putting her in the backseat of a car and then pushing it into a pond.  Their idea of “A place no one will ever find” differs radically from mine. The stupidity of their dumping ground isn’t even the biggest problem as it turns out that Eva had only been knocked unconscious, and so the group end up looking on helplessly as she bangs on the back window while the car slowly sinks into the pond.

So we are supposed to be on the side of the murderous ghost, right?

Back in the present Ricky and Don do their best to convince Sears that Eva and Alma were one and the same person and that she is now a ghost seeking revenge. How Alma appeared to be a living breathing person, one who could hold down a day job and have unabashed sex with both Don and David but could also turn into a ghastly living corpse is never fully addressed. It’s common knowledge that most ghosts have a hard time landing jobs, unless it’s working for Michael J. Fox in The Frighteners, but Alma seemed to have no problem with this. Now a key element to a successful horror story is having a clear set of rules on how the supernatural elements function; Alma was capable of taking on a corporeal form as Eva to date Don and David yet in ghost form she doesn’t seem to be able to do anything but scare people.  This begs the question, “If she can take on a physical form why not try killing them old fashion way?” Her motivations are clear but her methodology is a mess. Another thing never addressed is how our “heroes” hoped to defeat Alma/Eva, did they plan on just marching into her haunted house and asking her to knock it off?

They don’t seem to sporting proton packs.

The trio enter the Alma’s house and immediately reach epic levels of fail as the staircase collapses, sending Don crashing though to the floor below, and resulting in him breaking a leg. Sears declares that Don can’t be moved and offers to drive off to get help. Excuse me? Can’t be moved? He’s got a busted up leg not a broken back, there’s no reason they couldn’t have helped him to the car and driven to the hospital.  Instead the idiot Sears drives off alone where he soon encounters Eva standing in the middle of the snowy road. He runs through her spectral form but then ends up crashing into a snowbank.  He survives this minor accident but unfortunately for him Fenny Bate was in the backseat and Sears meets his end.

Killed by Mini-Renfield, now that’s embarrassing.

When Sears fails to return with help Ricky decides he will head off on foot, but of course this means leaving poor disabled Don alone in the haunted house and soon the ghost of Eva is stalking down the hallways in search of her next victim. Meanwhile Ricky spots an approaching car, which he flags down and then gets in without bother to look to see who is driving, and of course the driver turns out to be Gregory Bate. One would think this would be the end of poor Ricky but somehow this escaped maniac is stabbed to death by an 80 year old Fred Astaire. But what about Don at the mercy of the ghost?

Seems like Alma really did want to get married.

While Don is being stalked by Bride of the Damned Ricky somehow makes to the police on foot and manages to convince them to pull Eva’s car out of the frozen pond. Umm, hey Ricky, haven’t you forgotten about poor ole Don? Let’s break things down a bit; Ricky stabbed crazy Gregory, causing the car to crash and roll, and then he spent who knows how long getting to the authorities, and we must assume he spent even more time convincing them to get a tow truck over to the old pond, yet he never thinks to say, “Sheriff, could you send an ambulance to that old abandoned house, a friend of mine is there and he’s badly hurt.” Sure he thinks exposing Eva’s corpse will lift the curse, and he’s right of course, but couldn’t he have also sent somebody to rescue Don?

“Damn you, Ricky!”

The car is found and once opened the rotting corpse of Eva spills out as it’s flesh sloughs off the skeleton. With the dead body revealed the ghost menacing Don vanishes and the day is saved. And that’s it, that’s the end of the movie, the curse is lifted and Ricky and Don get to live happily ever after.  Or maybe Ricky goes to jail for the murder of Eva, as well he should, but the credits roll before we find out what happens. Peter Straub has stated he drew inspiration from the works of Nathanial Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe but what made it to the screen here is nothing more than an average Tales from the Crypt story that you would have found in an issue of EC comics. Hell, a little more editing and you could make this into a decent episode of Supernatural, but as a two hour movie it’s a bit of a slog. Seeing these Hollywood giants working together was certainly a treat, and Alice Krige was simply fantastic in her dual role as Eva/Alma, but if they had all been in service of a more interesting script we could have had something truly great here. Ghost Story is not a terrible movie but it suffers greatly from its translation from book to screen, much of what made Straub’s book so riveting is missing here and the finished result is less than engaging.

“Next week on Vault of Horror.”

Mike Brooks

Mike Brooks

Film grad who spends most his time trying to catch up on his "To Watch" pile of movies.

  • The Nuclear Witch

    Terrific review – very thorough dissection of a movie for which I had only a fair appreciation for originally, but which I now love because horror today is so horrible 🙂 I only wish somebody good would get around to making Straub’s Floating Dragon – that for me is his masterpiece!

  • Barney Gilewitz

    Does anyone know the actual location of that spooky home in Ghost Story- I believe the film was set up to shoot on location around New York and Vermont but have never ascertained where this house is located. Can any one provide me with this.. Barney.gilewitz1956@gmail.com. Thanks for the interest.