Peter Straub’s novel Ghost Story was a sensation on first publication, inviting comparisons to Stephen King, selling like a King novel, and paving the way for Straub’s later collaboration with King. So a film version was inevitable, and it appeared in 1981, directed by Englishman John Irvin, at the time fresh from the BBC’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and starring Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks and John Houseman, the final film for each of the first three. They are the Chowder Society, a group who meet for brandy and ghost stories. But when Fairbanks’ son is mysteriously killed in New York City, a real ghost story unfolds, one in which all of them are guilty…
While Straub’s novel was praised for its complexity and psychological depth, the film jettisons all but the novel’s basic structure. There’s nothing wrong inherently with streamlining novels in the adaptation process, but the effort made here is a compromise which knocks off the pacing of the film by sticking too closely to the novel while also missing the parts that made it work. As a horror film it is in the slow, character-driven mould of The Exorcist or The Shining, but never comes close in terms of terror. While Irvin is effective at building suspense, the scare moments – skeletons that say “Boo!”, basically – are reminiscent of the comedy-horror of later 80s pictures like Gremlins or Beetlejuice, not only in their misplaced creature-feature-style effects, but also in their absurd arbitrariness. But there is an interesting study of guilt and revenge here if you can see past the film’s weaknesses, and the performances are universally strong, especially from Alice Krige as the vengeful spirit.
Audio and Visuals
Ghost Story is a handsome, old-fashioned picture, and there’s much to appreciate here visually. The score by Philippe Sarde is even better, rich with melodies and highly influenced by classical composition. On Blu-Ray the picture is even, clean and satisfying, and the sound mix really allows the score to shine.
The film is packaged in a standard Blu-Ray case, and the menu features that brilliant, appropriately haunting score again. The poster for the film features on the cover, and it’s a nice and intriguing piece of work.
The main extra here is an audio commentary with director John Irvin, where we learn, little to our surprise, that he wasn’t really comfortable making a horror picture. The best feature is “Ghost Story Genesis with Peter Straub”, a forty-minute interview in which the writer talks about everything under the sun. “Alice Krige: Being Alma Mobley and Eva Galli” is a nice little piece on the talented actress. “Screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen and Producer Burt Weissbourd: Story Development” is about what you’d expect, and “The Visual Effects of Albert Whitlock: A Discussion with Matte Photographer Bill Taylor, ASC” awkwardly pays tribute to one of the film’s weakest elements. Then there are the expected trailers and a stills gallery. It’s hard not to find the collection lacking slightly; a making-of documentary could really have been an enjoyable watch.
Those after a compelling character study could do better, but could certainly do much worse, than picking up this one, but horror fans are likely to be disappointed. For those that already know the film, this Blu-Ray is a worthy repackaging.
Ghost Story arrived on Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of Second Sight on 7 December 2015. Will you be checking it out? Let us know in the comment box below!