Ghost Story remains a film I champion year after year, decades on. I remember being so affected by it the first time I saw it, for a multitude of reasons. Full disclosure: the source material it is adapted from is my favorite book and has been since I was a young teen. Peter Straub wrote a complex, dread-inducing tale that was layered with moments of true terror, so imagining it being put to screen had me feeling both incredulous and terribly excited. So despite the changes from page to screen, I still am quite passionate about the film!
1: The first class casting —
When adapting a book about a quartet of old men in New England who’ve grown up together and known each other their whole lives, you better get a damn good cast. And that they did. John Houseman, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Melvin Douglas, and Fred Astaire form the Chowder Society – a group that gets together in their finest black tie to share ghostly tales by the firelight with brandy on stand-by. Sounds great until you find out they’ve been harboring a devastating secret for over 50 years- one destined to tear them apart. The book featured five men, so not sure why they decided to leave one out…perhaps Jimmy Stewart was not available? Anyway, I digress. Also part of the ensemble is Craig Wasson as David/Donny, who is able to hold his own quite hardily with all those lauded and distinguished old gents. But paramount to the film is the casting of Alice Krige, who completely owned the dual role of Alma/Eva. Her enigmatic yet lovely, old-fashioned girl juxtaposed with the embodiment of pure evil is what carries the entire film. When her past with Edward, Sears, Ricky and John is revealed, there is no stopping the revenge she has planned. To me, she is one of the most vengeful and spectacular ghosts in film.
2: The dual time periods–
The film starts with the four elderly men having debilitating nightmares and it doesn’t take long for us to discover that they are all living with a decades old secret that is rearing its ugly head. When Edward dies, his son Donny is left with the task of discovering his father’s shrouded past and relating it to his own recent horrifying experience. Donny reveals to the three remaining friends in flashback scenes that he met and dated a beautiful college secretary named Alma when he lived in Florida, but that the relationship continued to decline due to increasingly strange behavior and an almost unearthly obsession with Donny’s home town, including his father and his friends. Describing the unnerving circumstances causes the men to unravel, and that is when we relive a summer in their college years in which they courted a wealthy yet mysterious socialite name Eva Galli. Something SO awful occurs it is to the men, unspeakable, but it sets in motion a course of events that haunts them into the present. It’s obvious that their misguided and disastrous past has caught up with them. The movement between time periods is absolutely crucial to the storyline but isn’t done in such a manner that confusion sets in. As answers begin to reveal themselves, the past and present collide in a catastrophic final act.
3: That house!! —
A character in and of itself, the Victorian mansion in Ghost Story is one part stunning, one part sinister. It’s probably my favorite house in horror, and in the present time in the film, in all its decaying beauty, it leeches into the soul and stays there. With peeling wallpaper, deteriorating floorboards, broken windows and crumbling facade, it is one of the best examples of a stereotypical “haunted house”. Combined with the snowy New England setting, it’s tough to beat for a truly frightening visage. In the scenes set in the past, the grandeur of the stylish home and all its Victorian-era fine furnishings camouflage the rotting ediface it has become in the present. Perhaps most comparable to the house in Psycho, it’s no wonder it’s such an important part of the story. In the climax where Alma is descending the crumbling staircase and the decrepit house is dripping water down the walls, the stench of the decay can almost be smelled through the screen. This is where Ghost Story is at its most gothic, most horrifying best.
4: The special effects and soundtrack —
The incomparable Dick Smith (of The Exorcist fame) was on hand with his team to provide the ghastly and gruesome effects for our Ghost Story, and believe me, it shows! I can’t express how good the practical effects are here. While other effects magicians were getting a lot of praise and work, particularly in the fabulous horror year of 1981 when this film was made, matching the talents of Smith would be difficult to say the least. There are multiple visages of Eva/Alma here that are stomach-churning delights, from an icy death mask to a decaying, rotting corpse to a decomposing skeletal hand to a skin sloughing off the bone last reel shot….it’s so great! Besides the gory effects there are subtle visions of ghostly images hidden in bushes, a bathtub jump scare you can see coming but are powerless not to be affected by, and of course the aforementioned house itself. With the two time periods there was a lot of costume design and set design that came into play and felt so authentic.
I would be completely remiss if I didn’t mention the fantastic score by prolific French composer Philippe Sarde as an effect itself. I’m not sure how he ended up scoring this movie but I’m sure glad he did. The music over the opening credits is simply incredible, I really don’t think it can be compared to any other film score, it is just that good. Each musical movement parallels the story being told and works with the action on the screen, fitting like a well worn glove. The strings, woodwinds, and organ play a big role, and in particular the last part of the score entitled appropriately, Finale, has a haunting vocal at the end that might be my favorite piece of music from any film score, and that’s saying a lot as I am an avid collector of scores. Very hard to find and purchase in any format, you can still take a listen on YouTube if you’re interested.
5: The atmosphere — Dread.
Pure dread. Mistakes made in their youth come back to haunt our four friends, and what comes for them is pure malevolence, and it’s felt in nearly every moment on screen. Not a movie full of a lot of blood and guts nor an action-fest, Ghost Story takes its time with the viewer, setting up an ominous chain of events from which there is no return. The cold winter chill and snowy landscapes of Vermont (Saratoga Springs NY standing in for the Freedom and Unity state) settle around everything in its path, where you can almost feel the ghost’s cold breath on your neck. It always seems like the creepiest shit happens in small towns, and little Milburn, Vermont is apparently no different. At the start of the film when we are listening to Sears (Houseman) tell his monthly spook story to the other three men, the lights are low and the red cast of the fireplace spotlights the fear in each man’s eyes and sets the tone for the rest of the film. It’s immediately evident that the intent is to scare the pants off of viewers. The men are at once on edge and it continues with no real stop the whole way through. The movie is wrought with tension that you could cut with a knife, which is unsettling and let’s face it, disturbingly delicious. Isn’t that why we watch these films in the first place??
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