Film Review: Ghost Story (1981)

“Unquestionably one of the best supernatural chillers of its time.”

Don travels back to his hometown in New England for the funeral his brother David, after he dies under strange circumstances on the day before his wedding to the ethereal Alma Mobley – a woman who Don himself had once loved. Arriving there he meets his elderly grieving father Edward Charles Wanderley, who it transpires is a member of The Chowder Society – a group formed with his old friends Ricky Hawthorne, Dr. John Jaffrey and Sears James, who meet weekly to tell each other tales of horror. When the members of the society as well as Don find themselves haunted by the presence of spectral woman and people start dying in mysterious circumstances, the elderly gentlemen tell Don a story of a 1920’s romance involving themselves and Eva Galli — and a terrible secret is revealed…

Perhaps best known for featuring the last film appearances of veteran actors Fred Astaire, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Melvyn Douglas, Ghost Story was somewhat of a let-down for many fans of the original 1979 Peter Straub penned source novel when it hit cinema screens in 1981. It was hardly surprising given the amount of simplifications and changes made by director John Irvin to the densely written and heavily thematic original text of Straub, yet, despite this initial reaction from fans of Straub’s work though, Ghost Story has rightly gone on to become somewhat of a classic for fans of supernatural horror.

Indeed, taken as a standalone piece of work (as film should be really), there is a hell of a lot to like here. Seeing veterans Fred Astaire, John Houseman, Melvyn Douglas and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. all working together is of course a joy, even if they do put in some rather shaky, doddering performances as the members of The Chowder Society alongside the altogether stronger turn from Craig Wasson (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3) in the dual roles of Don and David. There is some fantastic cinematography courtesy of Jack Cardiff too, excellently capturing the strong mood that pervades throughout, particularly in the other-worldly, hallucinogenic moments of the society members fevered dreams. This off-kilter atmosphere lends Ghost Story a fairly unnerving feel that works very well with the supernatural nature of the story at play, as well as a permeating sense of dread that works well as the backbone for some genuinely spooky moments that are to be had thanks in no small way to the superb makeup FX work of legendary makeup artist Dick Smith (The Exorcist).

Perhaps more than anything though, it is the presence of a young Alice Krige (in only her second feature film appearance) starring in dual roles that really stands out here. As fans of her work will know only too well, there are few actresses out there who can quite match the way in which Krige is able to exude an ethereal beauty while at the same time simmering something somewhat dangerous below the surface, and her highlight performances here as both the beautiful, strong and independent Eva, and the somewhat more unstable Alma is a superb early example of just that.

It has to be said that the film isn’t without its flaws though. Despite John Irvin doing a fine job of directing, it is obvious at times that he is fighting against what is something of a weak screenplay, with a plot that is often muddled, and as previously mentioned, the shaky acting from some of the more aged of the ensemble cast leaves something to be desired at points too. Still, these are minor quibbles really when held against the many, many positives on offer throughout Ghost Story — a film that is unquestionably one of the best supernatural chillers of its time and one totally deserving of being rated as a classic of the genre.

Ghost Story is available on Blu-ray in the UK courtesy of Second Sight Films, and along with a crisp (albeit not perfect) 1080p transfer of the film, it comes with some great extras that fans of the film should certainly enjoy checking out. Highlights include a history of Ghost Story featurette with author Peter Straub, an interview with Alice Krige about her roles in the film, and a full-length audio commentary with director John Irvin.



Director:John Irvin
Starring: Fred Astaire, Alice Krige, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., John Houseman, Craig Wasson, Patricia Neal
Certificate: 18
Release date: 1981. Blu-Ray 7 December 2015 (UK)

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