Case Number 04187


Image Entertainment // 1981 // 111 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bryan Pope (Retired) // April 2nd, 2004

Editor's Note

Ghost Story's rights have reverted from Image Entertainment to Universal, and the disc is currently out of print. It is available only from after-market sellers, such as from Amazon's Marketplace sellers or Ebay.

The Charge

I will take you places you've never been, I will show you things that you have never seen, and I will see the life run out of you.

Opening Statement

Isn't that a marvelously eerie line of dialogue? It succinctly conveys everything a ghost story should be. If only this screen adaptation of Peter Straub's bestseller had lived up to that promise.

Released in 1981, John Irvin's Ghost Story boasted a cast of screen luminaries, a screenplay by Lawrence D. Cohen, and spooky effects by one of the best in the business. With a pedigree this rich, how could it miss? Image Entertainment's DVD release lets us re-examine the evidence.

Facts of the Case

In the sleepy little New England town of Milburn, the four elderly gentlemen of the Chowder Society gather each week by the light of the fireplace to share ghost stories. However, one particular story is never uttered. It involves a young woman named Eva Galli who mysteriously disappeared from Milburn 50 years ago. No search was conducted and no questions were asked. But the four gentlemen are beginning to have nightmares, the son of one of the men has mysteriously been killed, and a ghostly presence is moving through Milburn. Eva has come back.

The Evidence

This film makes me angry. Not just frustrated. No, sir, I'm talking Katy-bar-the-door angry. At a time when cinematic horror was on the verge of a decade-long slide into slasher city, Ghost Story had the opportunity to salvage intelligent, psychological horror. But then it was released and...good lord, the horror.

In all fairness, Ghost Story gets off on the right foot. The cast looks flawless on paper, with Fred Astaire, John Houseman, Melvyn Douglas, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as members of the Chowder Society and Patricia Neal as Astaire's wife. These are seasoned pros whose names bring a certain degree of dignity not usually found in this genre (Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist being two notable exceptions).

In the central roles of Eva Galli and Alma Mobley, Alice Krige is marvelous. Simply striking. Until this, I'd seen her only as the Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact. Here, she creates a lovely and complex Eva, and then adds an ethereal and menacing spin for Alma. It's a tricky role, but she acquits herself nicely.

From a technical standpoint, the film is handsomely mounted. At times it's even beautiful, thanks to the evocative New England locales (combined with Albert Whitlock's excellent matte work) and Jack Cardiff's vivid cinematography. If nothing else, Ghost Story made me want to call my travel agent and plan a New England holiday. Philippe Sarde's score is interesting and unpredictable. Sometimes lush; sometimes just plain quirky. But it's usually very effective.

I wish I could say the same for the rest of the film. And here's where things start to get a little ugly.

Ghost Story may sport a distinguished cast, but it gives them little to do, Krige being the sole exception. Douglas and Neal basically have cameo appearances. An old-fashioned ghost story would seem to be the perfect vehicle for these folks, but the opportunity is wasted.

Even worse, director John Irvin commits the unforgivable sin of mistaking shocks for scares. Rather than generating genuine suspense, he tries to make us jump using Dick Smith's admittedly spooky makeup effects and a few music stingers.

Irvin also never settles on a tone for the film. It veers wildly from parlor-room potboiler to bad Skinemax. Krige is asked to parade around in the nude for much of the film and engage in a gratuitous sex scene. While I'm not usually one to complain about looking at someone as lovely as Krige, her nude scenes throw the movie off balance.

Irvin isn't entirely to blame. He's working from Cohen's mess of a screenplay (he wrote Brian De Palma's Carrie and, therefore, should know better). I haven't read Straub's novel, but that didn't stop me from detecting some major flaws in the narrative. Some characters, such as Gregory and Fenny Bate, appear and disappear without explanation, leaving us to wonder what in the world they are doing in the story in the first place. They have no purpose or presence, and are therefore not threatening. One presumes they had a larger role in the novel. Meanwhile, numerous plot elements are never clearly explained. For example, why does Eva/Alma attempt to take a husband before moving back to Milburn when she's obviously capable of exacting revenge by herself? What compels Astaire's character, Ricky, to suddenly have the car pulled from the river bottom in the eleventh hour? Why are we poor viewers forced to watch a very embarrassed looking Craig Wasson pull a full monty while crashing through a glass ceiling? I suspect Straub's novel answers these questions thoroughly, with the possible exception of the one regarding Wasson's full monty.

Which brings us to the final nail in the coffin. Craig Wasson was a poor choice for the pivotal roles of Don and David Wanderley. He does not have enough presence or leading-man charisma to carry this film, and he sinks under the weight of it.

Ghost Story is presented in its original widescreen format, and it's actually a good print. I noticed very few defects, and the colors were vivid and clear, especially during the daytime exterior scenes. Snowy New England looks fantastic here. Many of the film's interior shots are shadowy, with most of the lighting provided by glowing fireplaces, and these scenes looked very warm.

Audio, on the other hand, is problematic. The only option is mono stereo, and it's lackluster. The dialogue was barely audible, while Sarde's score was overpowering. Consequently, I spent the entire movie turning the volume up and down. In cases like this, subtitles come in handy, but you won't find those here.

Don't expect any extras on this one. No trailer. No skimpy production notes. Nothing.

Closing Statement

Despite its strong pedigree, Ghost Story is a sad failure in almost every respect. The disc follows suit with poor audio and a complete lack of extras.

This judge would like to acknowledge that there is a good movie to be made from this material, if only studios would stop remaking classics such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Dawn of the Dead, and instead devote their resources to fixing films that really need it.

The Verdict

No boo about it, Ghost Story is guilty. It saddens this court to see such potential squandered.

Review content copyright © 2004 Bryan Pope; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Video: 80
Audio: 60
Extras: 0
Acting: 70
Story: 55
Judgment: 70

Perp Profile
Studio: Image Entertainment
Video Formats:
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)

* None

Running Time: 111 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Rated R

Distinguishing Marks
* None

* IMDb