“Four successful elderly gentlemen, members of the Chowder Society, share a gruesome fifty-year-old secret. When one of Edward Wanderley’s twin sons dies in a bizarre accident, the group begins to see a pattern of frightening events developing.” (courtesy IMDB)
Ghost Story (1981) is another film about a cohesive social group (not religious zealots this time, but four upper-class old men in a small New England town) repressing forces such as sexuality, that might disturb the social order, only to have these forces erupt with obscene violence into their lives.
Half a century ago these four men accidentally killed a sophisticated young woman who had been behaving in a way that both aroused and humiliated their shyly burgeoning manhood. The body, in the back of a car, was pushed into a lake. It seems that they saw her look back at them, still alive, as the car sank. Disturbed by guilt, they nevertheless live out mostly peaceful and conventional lives until they are old. The disturbance comes out in the form of creepy ghost stories they tell one another at their regular meetings.
Now, a lifetime later, a lithe, lovely young woman has almost driven the son of one of these men mad, and caused a second son to fling himself from a window. Soon the same woman, whom we now recognise to be a vengeful spirit, comes to the town and starts to destroy the old men. We, the audience, are allowed to share the vision that drives all these people mad, and it is disappointingly conventional: She merely appears as a rotting corpse. It is an unpleasant, even scary image (the makeup wizardry of Dick Smith was responsible) but it has no particular dramatic resonance.
In fact, the failure of the film is mystifying, for it is based on a subtle, ironic book written by Stephen King collaborator Peter Straub, one of the most unusual horror novels of the last century. This should have provided a good basis for director John Irvin to work with, especially as he had previously shown, with his excellent television adaptation of John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, that he knew a thing or two about showing aging men confronted by resurrected secrets from the past. And he could hardly have had four more professional actors to work with than Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Junior and John Houseman.
It was probably a mistake to eliminate the main point of the original novel, which was that the vindictive woman, a compound of elegant sophistication, raw sexuality and decay, was in fact a nature spirit, a shape-changing fiend. Something altogether more primal and terrifying than the standard ghost that appears in the film. In jettisoning the more bizarre fantastic aspects of the story, director Irvin somehow eliminated its psychological strength as well. The conservative, proudly traditional way of life of the four old men should have been seen as a house of cards, appallingly vulnerable to the monstrous affront of the supernatural invasion. The pretty picture-postcard town should have represented a quite inadequate bulwark against the ancient things that roam America’s primeval woodlands.
Ghost Story is one of the saddest episodes of missed opportunities in the history of horror films. The powerful themes of the original novel are shrunk to a conventional soap opera about guilty secrets. Sad, too, is the fact that Alice Krige (Star Trek’s original Borg Queen) who plays the woman, was not really given the opportunity to do much, although even as it stands, her performance is by far the best thing in the film.
Very little is done, even with the material that lies so close to hand: The ghost’s ability to switch in a moment from warm young flesh to rotting death should have a special meaning for four men whose own bodies bear upon them the marks of inevitable dissolution. And it’s on that depressing note I’ll ask you to please join me next week when I have the opportunity to inflict upon you the tortures of the damned from that dark, bottomless pit known as…Horror News! Toodles!