GHOST STORY (1981)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 51 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

Ghost Story poster

Directed by: John Irvin

Written by: Lawrence D. Cohen

(based on the novel GHOST STORY by Peter Straub)

Starring: Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., John Houseman, Craig Wasson, Michael O’Neill

GHOST STORY is a title that tells you what kind of movie it is up front. However, this adaptation of Peter Straub’s widely acclaimed novel also delivers on its promise of a spooky good time. Despite the generic title, it’s unlike many other horror films that came out of the 80’s, a time that seemed to revel in outrageous premises, overly gruesome gore, and plenty of low-budget cash-ins. This is a sophisticated tale of a royally pissed off specter and a secret that haunts four old men. It’s also deliberately paced and packs a few great scares, along with an interesting story.

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The Chowder society is made up of four close friends (Ricky, Sears, John, and Edward). They have been meeting since the 1930’s to tell tales of horror to one another and promise never to keep a secret. Even in their elderly state, the Chowder society still meets on certain evenings to exchange scary stories. When Edward’s son dies in an accident, his other son (Don) shows up to grieve with his father. It’s revealed that all of the old men have been haunted by nightmares lately and when of them falls to his death after seeing the vision of a decaying ghost, it appears that the old men are now in a ghost story of their own. Meanwhile, something sinister lurks in the decaying house at the edge of the snowy town and there’s a disturbing back story to why Don has recently shown up.

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Based on a novel that exceeded 500 pages, it was bound that GHOST STORY would either be a really long detailed movie or a shortened simplified take on the tale. Running at nearly two hours, many fans have pointed to the film as dumbing down and greatly simplifying Straub’s novel. In all honesty, I have no problem with that at all. Books aren’t a visual medium, they require a lot of detail and your own imagination to play the story out in your head. Movies are a visual medium. The number one rule in regards to most good movies is: “Show me, don’t tell me.” Taken as on its own merits, GHOST STORY holds up remarkably well and serves as an unrealized horror classic of the 80’s.

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There are a lot of different subplots at play that wind around each other quite impressively. GHOST STORY almost seems like a movie that would have come out of the 1960’s, rather than early 80’s. It’s deliberate, slow-paced, but maintains a spooky level of ambience that never leaves the picture. This feels like a classy ghost movie, but it also has the trappings that came with the 80’s horror boom. While not overblown with effects every which way, there are a handful of moments which involve seeing the ghostly figure haunting the men. I appreciated that the designs in each scene for the spirit were constantly changing. It was never the same look twice. In fact, one of the more disturbing looks never was used and wound up being re-cycled in the remake of HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (it involved a woman with no eyes or nose, just a large screaming mouth full of teeth). A couple of these quick moments involving the decaying ghost actually got a legitimate jump out of me.

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If there’s any complaints though, they mainly involve some of the storytelling and one scene that hasn’t aged well. A certain death near the beginning involves a laughable effect that has gotten worse as time as gone on. If the director didn’t have a way of shooting this scene without it looking bad, then he should have done the smart thing and found a different way of mentioning this plot point or cutting right before this moment happened. Also, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why this ghost would be haunting these old men. You can call it right away from some of the obvious clues that are laid out. You may not know the exact details, but you’ll have a pretty good hunch of where this is heading. I wish that this plot point had gotten out-of-the-way about half way through the movie and the resulting half could have been made that much scarier. Instead, it takes a while for this revelation to finally be brought out in the open.

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Though one scene is laughable and it takes a little too long to finally reveal what is going on, but GHOST STORY is a really spooky film. I appreciated the classic style in which it was made and especially liked that the director wasn’t afraid to embrace the R-rated element of the story. It’s not overly gory or doesn’t relish in violence. It’s a classy horror story that executed with skill and never once cheats the viewer. Curl up on the couch in the dark and indulge in this creepy 80’s GHOST STORY!

Grade: B+

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