The problems in adapting a complex story for the screen laid bare in John Irvin’s messy, compromised version of Peter Straub’s magnificent novel.
When I first saw Ghost Story, back on its original VHS release, I was rather disappointed. Coverage of the film in genre magazines – admittedly with the emphasis on Dick Smith’s make-up ‘illusions – had whetted my appetite considerably, but the film simply didn’t work for me. And the frustration wasn’t that it was a bad movie – that would, in a way, have been more acceptable. No, here was a film that had so much going for it, that was a prestige work in many senses and which you could arguably call a good film, at least in terms of acting, production and story. Yet somehow, these elements didn’t really gel for me. Like Eric Morecombe playing the piano, Ghost Story seemed to have all the right notes, but not in the right order.
Of course, tastes change. Although an unsatisfying experience, Ghost Story had lingered in my mind for those thirty-odd years since seeing it. Several visual images and moments – and not just Alice Krige’s nude scenes – had somehow burned themselves into my teenage brain, which suggested that the film might not be the failure I’d remembered. Perhaps a more mature viewing, freed from the expectations of the time, might reveal a better film?
However, I have to say that the film remains, to me, a noble failure. It has a lot to admire, but it leaves you frustrated and sometimes irritated, and the problem is very much down to two things – the story and the crowbarred-in cheap shocks. The former is far too messy to work properly, and the latter cheapens what is otherwise a film striving to be classy.
The film – adapted from (parts of) Peter Straub’s novel – is the story of a haunting, the murder that caused it and the deaths that follow, told with two chunky flashback sequences that fill in the plot background for the main story. A group of elderly men – Ricky Hawthorne (Fred Astaire), John Jaffrey (Melvyn Douglas), Edward Wanderley (Douglas Fairbanks Jr) and Sears James (John Houseman) – meet regularly as The Chowder Society to tell each other ghost stories. But they seem haunted by something more real, suffering nightmares and seemingly terrified of an unnamed memory. When Wanderley’s son David dies and his brother Don (both played by Craig Wasson) arrives back in their small town, it isn’t long before the old men start to be tormented and killed by a ghostly figure. Flashback number one sees Don telling the story of his encounter with the ethereal, beautiful and unsettling Alma Mobley (Alice Krige), with whom he starts a passionate affair. This story is an intriguing ‘domed relationship’ story, but it is hard to see why Don has concluded that she is either dangerous or supernatural, and when we see him warning his brother off her when David starts a relationship with her, it really makes no sense (beyond sibling jealousy, which the film doesn’t even suggest). She simply hasn’t done anything to justify this reaction.
The second flashback sees the old men in their youth, meeting up with vivacious and seductive Eva Galli (Krige again) – a friendship that ends badly when Edward Wanderley is unable to perform in bed with her and then accidentally kills her as the Chowder Society drunkenly confront her. Except that she isn’t quite dead, and is left to drown slowly as they dispose of the ‘body’ in a lake. This is a good, tight little tale, well crafted and unsettlingly tragic – it’s certainly the best part of the film.
It becomes clear to everyone that Eva/Alma are the same person, the latter being a ghost seeking revenge for her murder. Though why she does this by having a relationship with Don but leaving him alive and then killing David before going after the old men – and why, for that matter, she has waited until the last years of their lives to seek revenge – is never really satisfactorily explained.
When I first saw the film, I hadn’t read Straub’s novel. Subsequently, I have, and this doesn’t help the film. Straub’s book is a masterpiece – certainly one of the great horror novels of the 20th century. It’s also pretty much unfilmable. The book is a collection of inter-connected stories that are too grand in scope and too varied to ever work in a single feature film – you could probably film the novel as a TV series or even a series of individual movies, but you could never distil it down into a single movie. Screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen had written Carrie prior to this and would later get to tackle another huge book, Stephen King’s It, with the space allowed by a TV mini-series. Here, faced with a more complex source material than King’s bloated but ultimately straightforward novels, he was always going to struggle, even when doing the only thing possible and stripping the novel down to a single story. Even then, his original screenplay was still far too long, and had to be ruthlessly chopped down to reach feature-length.
Unfortunately, when watching the film, this is all to obvious, and it feels as though too much exposition is missing – at times, the story jerks awkwardly, and the characters of Gregory and Fenny Bate are so underdeveloped that you can’t help but wish that they’d been cast aside like so many other elements of the novel, especially as their presence here makes no sense. The novel is not actually a ghost story at all, but rather the tail of a shape-shifting, malignant evil that infests a small town. The film actually makes the narrative into a genuine ghost story, but in doing so makes the need for ‘familiars’ like the Bates irrelevant – why would a vengeful ghost need a pair of escaped lunatics as assistants? It’s something never quite explained. Similarly, the narrative shift into a conventional ghost story makes a nonsense of much of the story. A malignant force emerging from a town’s dark secrets is one thing – but a ghost that waits until its victims are on the verge of dying of old age anyway, and which seduces one of their sons for no immediately obvious reason is something else altogether. Even a supernatural story needs to make sense within its own universe, and this sadly doesn’t.
The other major disappointing element of the film is the over use of Smith’s make up for shock value. The title, the elderly stars and the story all suggests a more mature, slow burn horror film – one that creeps you out rather than makes you jump. But the desire to appeal to a commercial horror audience, the audience watching Friday 13th and other slashers at the time, means that Ghost Story feels an uncomfortable compromise. You don’t need to know that many of these scenes were added in post-production to spot how out of place and clumsy they are – they feel awkward, crass and unnecessary – and worse still, they are not remotely scary.
This is all a shame, because there are many parts of Ghost Story that are impressive. Krige is wonderful in her dual role – both vulnerable and seductive, she seems oddly other-worldy even as the living Eva Galli. Her extensive levels of nudity and the unusually physical sex scene are impressive too (and there is no sexism in the nudity here, as Wasson also gets to appear naked in a dramatic scene marred by some of the worst green screen shots I’ve ever seen), and she dominates every moment that she is on screen. The ageing stars are all good too – they might be on their last legs (Melvyn Douglas died before the film was even released) but they bring a dignity and a sense of class to the film.
In fact, that’s the sad thing here. Ghost Story is a classy effort in many ways. It comes close to being a great movie, but then pulls the rug from under its own feet. The film feels as though it lacks the courage of its own convictions, and winds up compromising itself. In the end, it’s a nice try – a film you really want to like because it is clearly coming from the right place. But it trips itself up in the rush to narrow the story and appeal to the lowest common denominator. If anything ever called out to be remade to correct the mistakes of the original edition, possibly as a multi-episode series, it is this.
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