Ghost Story (1981)

David Wanderly (Craig Wasson) wakes up to find his bride is not what she is supposed to be. She's mumbling cryptic replies to his questions and is cold to the touch. He tries to rouse her and figure out what's wrong, and when she turns her face to his it is that of a rotting corpse. The sight frightens him to the point that he stumbles out of the window of his penthouse and falls to his death. Thus begins the movie adaptation of Peter Straub's Ghost Story.

David's brother Donald (Wasson again) is called home by his father Edward (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) for the funeral. Once there, he discovers his father, the mayor of the small New York town of Milburn, is having nightmares. And it's not only his father: his friends Sears James (John Houseman), Ricky Hawthorne (Fred Astaire) and John Jaffrey (Melvyn Douglas) are also having dreams. The four of them form what they call the Chowder Society, and they get together once a week to tell each other ghost stories.

Turns out the stories are meant to hide the source of the nightmares, which turn out to be a secret all of them have kept hidden for 50 years involving a young woman named Eva Gialli (Alice Krige). After Edward falls off a bridge in an apparent suicide, Donald pays his way into the Chowder Club by telling his story of a woman he had an affair with in Florida named Alma Mobley, who happened to later marry his brother. She also is the spitting image of Eva Gialli.

This is the first movie so far that I have previously seen, and by previously seen I mean on network television back in the 1980s. I remembered the beginning, but forgot enough of it to where it might as well be a first view. It's also been about 10 years since I read the novel, so I had to catch up on it a bit before viewing the film.

The movie itself was given mixed reviews when it came out, and it is easy to see why. The book was a bestseller in the 1970s (and one of the few Peter Straub books worth reading outside his two collaborations with Stephen King), and so many people already knew the story and what was supposed to happen. The movie took many elements of the book, but turned it into a more traditional ghost story with a severely altered ending.

Taking the movie at face value rather than as a faithful adaptation of the book one gets a stylishly directed thriller, with lots of atmosphere, great characters (except for Donald) and excellent performances from veteran actors. The major problem I had were the characters of Gregory Bate (Miguel Fernandez) and his brother Fenny (Lance Holcomb). They serve as Eva/Alma's familiars, and not much is explained about them, nor are they given much to do other than be threatening. They could have been written out all together once the writers decided to alter the story, especially since they play such critical roles in the book and have a well-defined back story that is glaringly absent in the movie.

Despite some flaws this is still a great big-budget horror film from the early 1980s featuring some Hollywood luminaries in their last roles.

Ghost Story (1981)
Duration: 110 minutes
Starring: Fred Astaire, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Melvyn Douglas, John Houseman, Craig Wasson, Alice Krige
Director: John Irvin


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