31 Days Of Hell: Ghost Story

Mr. Jordan reviews Ghost Story, a star studded horror film of yesteryear. 

“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”

“I can’t tell you that… but I’ll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me… the most dreadful thing…”

fred astaire
"Got any dance routines for me?"
Those words begin Peter Straub’s chilling 1979 novel Ghost Story, a massive tale about skeletons in closets, about a small town haunted by its past, and about – of course – ghost stories. Ghost stories and the people who tell them; and the reasons why they tell them, to exorcise inner demons and vent unspoken truths. As fall creeps into the air and the season of ghost stories gathers strength, tales like that resonate and take on an eerie power. Having recently read Straub’s book, it seemed like the perfect time to watch its 1981 film adaptation; to let the Ghost Story be told in its native season. The novel is very good; flawed, with at least one large misstep, but for the most part a well-written and truly haunting tale. It also seems perfect for a film adaptation, with a rich atmosphere and a highly visual sensibility. Unfortunately, as I was soon to learn, John Irvin’s film of Ghost Story is a much more uneven adaptation than Straub’s book deserves; not bad, but not nearly as good as it should have been. It has most of the makings of a great horror movie – an excellent cast, fantastic atmosphere, wonderfully spooky visuals – but it is ultimately dragged down by a weak script that lacks the emotional depth it needs, and a clearly overzealous editing job that leaves too much character and plot development on the cutting-room floor.

The tale centers on a group of elderly friends (Fred Astaire, John Houseman, Melvyn Douglas, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) who – appropriately – make a ritual of telling each other ghost stories, as a sort of macabre therapy. Now they find themselves living a ghost story of their own, as something from the past comes back to haunt them and their town.  Rounding off the ensemble is one of their sons (Craig Wasson, Body Double), also drawn into the supernatural mystery. It’s a smaller cast than the novel, in which everyone in town seemed to be a major character, but that’s only appropriate for the constraints of a two-hour movie. The cast is one of the film’s strongest points, and leading it is Fred Astaire, charismatic as ever in his final film role. He is excellent as the introverted protagonist Ricky Hawthorne, giving a strong farewell performance that makes the film worth seeing for that reason alone. John Houseman is nearly as good opposite him, as the gruff and imposing Sears James. The other stand-out performance comes from the haunting Alice Krige (Star Trek: First Contact’s Borg Queen), who gives the film’s ghost a depth beyond the usual horror movie spirit.

"I really hope Norma
and Norman are home."
The other major strong points of Ghost Story are its rich atmosphere and art design. It is set in a moody but beautiful version of New England that could only exist in a classic ghost story, full of spooky hilltop houses and candle-lit parlors. Jack Cardiff’s cinematography captures these locations in some gorgeous compositions, and demonstrates again why he was an Oscar-winner. And while Alice Krige provides the soul for the movie’s vengeful ghost, special effects wizard Dick Smith (a year before his work on Poltergeist) provides her creepy rotting visage.

I make a point of so thoroughly complimenting the acting and artistry behind the film because these talented people have the difficult job of carrying the entire weight of the story while the script stumbles. The film feels like a shallow and superficial retelling of Straub’s novel. I am not talking about how the story was simplified and streamlined to fit into two hours; that’s perfectly understandable for any film adaptation, and some of the ways in which it simplified the story were very good. I am referring to the startlingly small amount of emotional depth or thematic insight, when the story crucially needs both of those in order to work. It’s a story all about the unsettling moral ambiguities and internal conflicts of its characters. This is a type of story that only works if it brings us inside the characters’ heads, and makes them full, believable people that we can understand. Ghost Story the novel did this very well; Ghost Story the movie largely fails to, and never really goes beneath the surface of its characters. This gravely reduces the magnitude of its emotional weight, and makes it hard for us to feel invested in, or care about, several of the leads. The only one of the four old men who truly feels like a fully-developed person rather than just a sketch is Ricky, and even that is due only partly to the script, and largely to Astaire’s thoughtful and sensitive performance.

The same thing is lacking from the character of the ghost, Eva. She is likewise supposed to be a very complicated character: a ghost whose motives we can understand. But again, for that to happen, the depth of her character needs to be fully realized, and despite how much Alice Krige brings to the role, the script doesn’t quite do it. At the core of Ghost Story there is supposed to be a deeply unsettling question: does this town deserve to be haunted? In the script, that theme doesn’t particularly come across; it’s hinted at, but you have to look for it. Of course, the novel ultimately didn’t work with this theme as strongly as it should have either, and pulled a bit of an American Horror Story with a third act that valued spectacle over substance, but at least it was there. Which leaves the question: is it absent from the film because the script didn’t realize it was supposed to be a theme, or is it absent because it, like much of its character development, wound up on the cutting-room floor due to the stupidity of the studio?

After doing some research, it seems that the latter is definitely true. Ghost Story had a famously troubled production, and the film was the victim of re-cuts and re-shoots from all sides. Heavy cuts were demanded by Universal to keep the film under two hours; had it been released as shot, it would have been a good deal longer. Further cuts and re-shoots were then requested by the studio when test audiences found the film boring. Unfortunately, these test screenings were happening just after Friday the 13th had changed the landscape of what younger horror fans wanted in a film, and the problem was likely more a difference in taste than an actual flaw with Ghost Story. Speeding up the pacing in hopes of appealing to this crowd likely hurt it more than it helped. There were also on-the-fly changes that director John Irvin made during production, in the midst of creative disagreements over what route the movie should take. Between these factors, a substantial amount of Ghost Story seems to have gotten lost on the cutting-room floor, or was never shot at all. Scenes that focused on character development were clearly the first victims of the studio-mandated cuts, while other should-have-been-key sequences – like the script’s truly chilling original ending – were never even filmed. Some of the script’s problems seem to be inherent flaws that would have been there no matter what, but it’s obvious that the film could have been much stronger, with much better-developed characters, were it not for this meddling.

Ironically, even the film’s most famous ghostly image is from one of these cut sequences. Dick Smith created a horrifying faceless version of Eva’s ghost that is regarded by many as one the scariest and best-designed spirits in cinematic history. Yet director Irvin said that it looked too surreal for his tastes, and replaced the sequence with something else. There are plenty of images of Smith’s faceless ghost floating around online if you search for it; it is truly the stuff that nightmares are made of, and cutting it from the film was nearly as big a mistake as cutting all that character development.

Knowing all this makes Ghost Story even more frustrating, as it reveals the sad truth behind its production. This isn’t just a missed opportunity to make a great adaptation of Straub’s book; this maybe actually was a great adaptation of Straub’s book, until misguided editing and reshoots turned it into a flawed and superficial one. While it’s unclear which of the script’s problems would have been fixed and which are inherent to the writing, it’s obvious that Irvin and company shot a better film than the one we got. What’s even more frustrating is that when Ghost Story arrives on blu-ray next month from Scream Factory, it arrives in this same old theatrical cut, with no deleted scenes or extended versions listed among the special features. If ever there was a movie that demands the sort of comprehensive reworking that Scream Factory gave Nightbreed, surely this is it.

Ghost Story is not actually a bad movie, mind you; it’s just an alright movie made more frustrating by its clearly unfulfilled potential. You can tell there’s a good story there, it just isn’t explored as fully as it needs to be in order to work. In the end, it is partly redeemed by a few strong points: its excellent atmosphere that at least makes it compellingly spooky, and its equally excellent central performances from Astaire, Houseman, and Krige. Astaire and Krige in particular are great, breathing life and complexity into parts that are left underwritten. How much they do with a script that doesn’t give them enough only illustrates how good their performances are. For Fred Astaire this is particularly meaningful, as this is the last line of his cinematic legacy. It’s a shame the rest of the film isn’t fully worthy of his performance, but as far as farewell roles go, his Ricky Hawthorne is a pretty good one. For these reasons, and for the clearly visible potential of what it could have been, Ghost Story is still at least worth a look. Just make sure you view it with its flaws in mind.

The film also left me with one very strong thought: as Hollywood continues to remake every horror movie that it can get its hands on, I really, really hope that someone with the talent to do it right remakes Ghost Story. It would be so easy for a truly great movie to be made based on Straub’s novel, with an intelligent and emotionally deep script that fleshes out the book’s themes and addresses its narrative flaws. All the pieces are right there, waiting to be found and put together. It’s just unfortunate that this film wasn’t the one to do that. It really could have been.


- Christopher S. Jordan

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