Ghost Story Review
“I think this is a ghost story”
The intention of the team behind Ghost Story couldn’t have been more transparent. From the title of the movie itself (who couldn’t be more literal, even if, technically, it is just taken from the source novel) to this sentence pronounced by Craig Wasson’s character at the beginning of the movie, and via the use of many elements used for this type of story, everything leads toward giving the audience a piece of genuine classic dread. Put into perspective with the period the movie was made in (mainly dominated by slashers and psycho killers’ movies) this was a genuine effort which unfortunately didn’t manage to remain within its original noble intention...
Four elderly affluent friends, members of the Chowder Society meet regularly to drink brandy, smoke cigars and share chilling ghost stories. Following the suspicious death of a member’s son and the subsequent apparition of a young woman, the old friends are forced to confront a terrible secret from their past.
The post credit sequence opens, like all good ghost story, with the voice of an old man (John Houseman (Rollerball), who was funnily used in the same way a year before in John Carpenter’s classic ghost movie The Fog) telling the chilling tale of someone buried alive.
John Houseman is the least famous of the four actors who portray the members of the self called Chowder Society as he is surrounded by screen legends Fred Astaire (Top Hat), Melvyn Douglas (Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka, Being There) and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (Little Caesar, Gunga Din and incidentally son of another Hollywood legend, Douglas Fairbanks (The Thief of Bagdad) in their last movie roles (also to mention is the smaller role given to another Hollywood legend, Patricia Neil, famous for her role in Robert Wise’s sci-fi cornerstone The Day the Earth Stood Still).
From the first scenes, everything is present to remind us what we are watching; wooden dark interiors bathed by fireplace’s light, gravelly voice telling a story of death, a misty graveyard, a snowy little town, buried secrets... Ghost Story clearly sits in the tradition of classic New England ghost and horror stories which inspired authors like Peter Straub, Stephen King or H.P. Lovecraft at a time, especially in the case of King and Straub, where America was changing to enter the over consumerist 80s decade.
The movie is, as a matter of fact, based on one of Peter Straub’s most famous novels (celebrated at the time by the King of horror literature himself) which was adapted for the screen by Lawrence D. Cohen, a specialist in this type of exercise (at the time he had already adapted King’s first published novel, Carrie, for Brian De Palma, and would be later penning other famous King adaptations: It and The Tommyknockers. Although, Cohen’s adaptation is not universally acclaimed due to the numerous differences between the movie and the book (the screenplay noticeably removed several key plots) it represents an interesting example of how Hollywood can take the premises of a great book and retain only few key elements to make it its own cinematographic work. This is particularly important because literature and cinema are two very different medium and the best adaptations are always the ones that bring cinematographic elements/adaptations instead of trying to emulate the book (famous examples include Stanley Kubrick’s total appropriation of King’s The Shining, Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland’s brilliant adaptation of James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential or David Fincher’s visual masterpiece Fight Club). Ghost Story cannot really feature among these illustrious examples but Laurence D. Cohen’s work can be praised for its merit in attempting to retain the essence of the story while trying to create something more cinematographic.
In that sense, the atmosphere is therefore the main element breathing fear into the movie. This is achieved by keeping in the movie in a constant dreamy feeling. To do so, the original creative team, which in addition to Lawrence D. Cohen included Producer Burt Weissbourd (Raggedy Man), surrounded itself with an incredibly talented crew.
Although not really reflecting his previous or future career, the team chose John Irvin, not a renowned director but nonetheless a very talented one (TV’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and When Trumpets Fade, cinema’s The Dogs of War, Hamburger Hill or City of Industry to helm the movie. Despite coming from a documentarian background, his work on Ghost Story perfectly matches the intention of the creative team to privilege the unutterable character of horror.
This dreamy quality is also wonderfully illustrated by the amazing photography of one of the greatest directors of photography of all time, Jack Cardiff (Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, The African Queen). His photography particularly allows magnifying the morbid atmosphere of ancestral homes which sits perfectly with characters living in an unswerving respect for traditions consisting of regularly telling supernatural tales. Cardiff beautifully illustrates their ritual by his superb photography which relies on the diffuse light of candelabra, outdated lamps or the winter sun to create an almost unreal dimension.
Despite this strong feeling of dream, we are often also reminded that something terrible is coming (all the main protagonists are having recurring nightmares) and this something is characterised by Alice Krige’s (Star Trek: First Contact) character whose creepy ethereal beauty leaves us in the same uncomfortable state than Craig Wasson’s character Don (the actor incarnates a credible protagonist in a role which shares similarities with his other famous role for Brian De Palma’ underrated masterpiece Body Double). The duplicity of this figure perfectly reflects the hypocrisy of the Chowder Society which, behind the camouflage of venerable professions, cigars and tuxedos, borrows from the worst instincts of man (hypocrisy was the main theme of the movie according to Irvin and the actors chosen grant the characters the ambiguous empathy which contributes to the undeniable attraction of the movie).
The atmosphere also relies on a haunting score composed by Philippe Sarde, one of the most talented French composers, whose extraordinary body of work include collaborations, among others, with Claude Sautet (all his filmography from The Things of Life to Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud), Marco Ferreri (La Grande Bouffe), Bertrand Tavernier (The Clockmaker of St. Paul, Coup de Torchon), Roman Polanski (The Tenant, Tess) or Jean-Jacques Annaud (Quest for Fire, The Bear).This was only one of his few ventures into American movies and was strangely motivated by the creative team’s desire to find a composer capable of scoring a story dealing with elderly people. During their research, they were reminded of Pierre Granier-Deferre’s 1971 movie Le Chat, which features Jean Gabin (La Grande Illusion) and Simone Signoret (Diabolique) in one of their later roles. A weird process which miraculously led to a hauntingly beautiful score.
Finally, the movie also noticeably features efficient editing from Tom Rolf (Taxi Driver, Heaven’s Gate, The Right Stuff, Heat), visual effects from matte artist legend Albert Whitlock who collaborated several times for Alfred Hitchcock (for the The Birds for example), and special make up effects from legends Dick Smith (The Godfather, The Exorcist) and Rick Baker ( An American Werewolf in London, Men in Black) whose breathtaking makeup effects are unfortunately mainly used when the movie resorts to cheap shock scenes which contradict the noble intentions of the creative team...
Like all good ghost stories, the movie could also have greatly benefited from being a little bit shorter to avoid diluting the audience’s interest in the last reels.
Despite ending on a slightly disappointing note, but still displaying a great nightmarish atmosphere (and some of the best scenes in the movie), Ghost Story remains a fascinating and atmospheric piece of cinema.
Ghost Story arrives on blu-ray for the first time courtesy of Second Sight on 7th December. The blu-ray is an exact copy of the Shout Factory release.
Ghost Story is presented on blu-ray in a beautiful 1080p transfer respecting the movie’s original ratio of 1.85:1. The image is very clear with a very limited amount of scratches and dirt (however there are some more noticeable ones in some instances, especially in Don’s story). Details are very good in long shots and close-ups, and each period or types of sequences are rendered very nicely. There is also a very nice amount of grain throughout the movie.
Ghost Storyalso features a very clear LPCM Dual Mono soundtrack in terms of dialogues and sound effects and allows enjoying Sarde’s amazing score in great conditions.
Second Sight’s blu-ray disc offers a wide array of insightful supplemental features (all created for the Shout Factory recent Region A release).
Audio Commentary by Director John Irvin
The director discusses many elements of the movie including his attraction to the genre, his directing choices and his legendary cast and crew. He also gives a lot of anecdotes which make this audio commentary both interesting and entertaining.
Ghost Story Genesis with author Peter Straub (39 min)
This is an interesting interview with Ghost Story’s author Peter Straub during which he gives insightful details about his writing process, the sources of his inspiration in general (common ones, dreams, and less common ones, jazz music), the genesis of the book, his main inspirations (the author noticeably mentions his intention to echo classic stories like Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (who incidentally inspired perhaps the best ghost movie of all time, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents), and the origin of the book’s title.
The interview is alternated by the author reading extracts of his book reinforcing the plot differences between the source and its adaptation.
Alice Krige: Being Alma Mobley and Eva Galli (29 min)
This is a good interview with South African born actress Alice Krige about how she came into acting, her first major role (in Chariots of Fire), the origin of her involvement in Ghost Story, her collaboration with the legendary people involved in the movie, and her understanding of Alma and Eva’s characters.
Screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen and Producer Burt Weissbourd: Story Development (29 min)
This section gathers fascinating interviews with two of the people who decided of the orientation to take for the movie in opposition with the source novel. Both discuss how they came into working on Ghost Story and the difficulty of adapting a rich book into the screen without making it 3 hours long.
Lawrence noticeably mentions the difference between working on Carrie and this movie (while praising the source material for its narrative structure close to King’s Salem’s Lot). He also mentions some of the secondary stories which are in the book but were reluctantly left out of the movie.
A great bonus which gives a better insight into the arduous job of the creative team involved in movie making.
The Visual Effects of Albert Whitlock: A Discussion with Matte Photographer Bill Taylor, ASC (28 min)
This is an insightful interview with visual effects specialist Bill Taylor who worked as a cameraman with legendary Albert Whitlock on
The other supplements include a bad definition TV spot, a slightly better looking trailer, two outdated, but still creepy, radio spots, and a good photo gallery.