Review: Ghost Story (directed by John C. Irvin)

Ghost StorySecond Sight DVD & Blu-Ray, out 7 December

Getting into the spirit…

Based on the novel by Peter Straub (which Stephen King called one of the finest examples of the craft in the late 20th Century), Ghost Story is the 1981 movie that was the third highest grossing horror film of the year and went on to become a cult favourite amongst genre fans. Suitably atmospheric and with an all-star cast of veritable legends, its reputation is well-deserved and this is the first time it has appeared on DVD & Blu-Ray.

The film begins by introducing us to the Chowder Society, four elderly friends who meet up and try to scare each other with horror tales: the latest being one about a man trapped in a coffin. The quartet – Ricky Hawthorne (Fred Astaire), Dr. John Jaffrey (Melvyn Douglas), Edward Wanderley (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) and Sears James (John Houseman) – are also starting to suffer from nightmares, something Jaffrey’s wife Milly (Jacqueline Brookes) says is directly related to their hobby.

However, when Wanderley – Mayor of this sleepy New England town – loses his son, David, in mysterious circumstances (he falls from the window of his New York apartment) and David’s twin Don (both played superbly by Craig Wasson) has to return, things ramp up a notch. Don tells his own spooky true story to gain access to the group, detailing his relationship with a woman called Alma Mobley (Alice Krige) and it’s soon apparent that there are definite parallels with an event that happened to the four men when they were younger. Can it be that there’s a ghost plaguing not only them but members of their family as well?

Ghost Story, as a lot of supernatural films tend to be – especially the older ones – is a slow burn. There are some shock scenes littered throughout (added, you discover in the bonus documentaries, to compete with previous horror films like The Exorcist), but the core of this one is the unease that’s built up as it goes along. The performances carry the movie, in particular Krige’s turn as a weirdly provocative yet insane woman (“I’m just an old-fashioned girl…”), and the set pieces lead nicely into a slam bang finale that is an exercise in suspense.

The movie looks very good for its age on Blu-Ray, but the real treat here are the extras, interviews/documentaries created just for this release. As well as a fascinating audio commentary from director Irvin, we get a 40 minute ‘Genesis’ from author Peter Straub, who takes us through his writing processes (“I try to get out of the way of the story.”) and reads scenes from the book. Then there’s Krige herself, chatting about how her part in Chariots of Fire got her this role, and how self-conscious she was during those nude scenes. Two more featurettes look at the adaptation process with scriptwriter Laurence D. Cohen, who worked on Carrie (books at completely the opposite ends of the scale in terms of length, and it’s interesting to see how he approached paring down the novel, to the point of cutting out one main character), and the visual effects of Albert Whitlock – where Bill Taylor reveals just how ‘outside the box’ that man thought and takes us through a missing poltergeist scene. All these are around the half hour mark. Add to this TV and radio slots, plus photos and you have a nice little package out just in time for the festive season.

Verdict: A Ghost Story for Christmas? Definitely! 9/10

Paul Kane

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