DIRECTOR John Irvin WRITER Lawrence D. Cohen; Peter Straub (novel) STARS Fred Astaire; Melvyn Douglas; Douglas Fairbanks Jr.; John Houseman DVD & BLU-RAY 7 December
Universal Pictures’ production of Peter Straub’s densely plotted and unsettling hit novel was their major horror effort for 1981, and whilst it afforded moderate success upon release it has largely been forgotten about since. Certainly its gothic stylings and old-style pedigree are at odds with the low-budget slasher fare that was filling theatres and subsequent video stores during the early period of the decade, but Ghost Story has a lot to offer.
Primarily the fun is had by watching four of Hollywood’s legends — Melwyn Douglas, John Houseman, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Fred Astaire — flex their (very) elderly acting muscles as old friends and members of a self-made gentlemen’s club dubbed the Chowder Society, who regularly meet up, drink, and proceed to scare the wits out of each other with macabre tales. However, it quickly becomes clear that they harbour a secret between them regarding the death of a woman named Eva (Alice Krige) from their youth.
Beautifully photographed and with tight direction from John Irvin, Ghost Story deserves better than simply being remembered as a last shout for Fairbanks and Astaire; it’s a fine horror movie that, while not quite as accomplished as the source novel, still has a degree of power today. The film skilfully blends a balance of melodrama and violence, skipping back and forth through the past and modern scenes, with nightmarish visions courtesy of late make-up wizard Dick Smith, who provides typically incredible work. And, for all the acting royalty on display, it’s the young Krige who carries the film; terrifying and fragile by turn, her performance builds the tension as she takes revenge on all those who have wronged her.
This new release from Second Sight has a good selection of supplemental material that explores the production, with features on the direction and story development, an excellent interview with Krige, audio commentary from Irvin and a range of promotional materials. Best of all is a feature on legendary matte and effects artist Albert Whitlock, which provides an insight into the look and feel of the film, and the painstaking work that went into creating backdrops and visuals long before CGI. They really don’t make them like this any more.