Saturday, 5 December 2015

ghost story

ghost story is a 1981 film based on a novel by peter straub, which stephen king rates as one of the scariest ever written. it stars fred astaire but he doesn’t do any dancing because he’s old, and douglas fairbanks jnr, but he doesn’t do any fighting because that was his dad. and over thirty years after its release it’s still pretty scary.

so there’s this secret society, the chowder society, made up of four elderly gentlemen living in the same small town they’ve lived in their whole lives and entertaining themselves with ghost stories. as the four old men start to experience nightmares they begin to realise that one of their tales might be more than a story.

ghost story is the epitome of the slow-build horror film. after a rather effective jump-scare early on (followed by an unfortunately dated effects shot of a man falling from a window), the film settles into some serious story set-up. while the four members of the chowder society are ostensibly the protagonists, the audience is given a younger character to identify with in the form of disgraced teacher and struggling writer don wanderley (craig wasson). don initially returns to his home town for the funeral of his brother but is soon drawn into unravelling a mystery that he feels he may be connected to.

the common element that binds the characters together is don’s ex-fiancee, alma mobley, played to spooky perfection by alice krige (who would later become famous as the borg queen in star trek: first contact. i totally imdb’d that fact, i didn’t just know it or anything, honest). what krige does that works so well is she manages to be sympathetic enough for the audience to understand why don falls for her and at the same time exudes a sense of mystery that gradually tips over into creepy territory.

the performances in the film are great, particularly from fred astaire and john houseman as the two strongest voices of the chowder society. the film also looks amazing and the blu-ray really brings out the best of legendary cinematographer jack cardiff’s work. but what really makes ghost story work is lawrence d cohen’s script. cohen also worked on another seminal horror adaptation, brian de palma’s carrie, and later adapt stephen king’s it. here, he clearly shows a talent for adaptation. having not read the source material it’s hard to say how faithful the film is to the book, but it feels like it has the layers of a novel whilst totally working as a film, and cohen manages to tell a story that covers two generations without ever feeling like he’s cutting corners. although the ‘twist’ in the tale becomes obvious early on, it’s the how and why that's important and cohen has the audience asking those questions from the opening scene. from a story-telling perspective it’s impressive work and is complemented by john irvin’s assured direction.

i also feel like there was more going on in ghost story than i have time to write about here. ultimately it’s a story about guilt, and it’s hard to really go into that without giving away the story. but there is something very masculine about the guilt and it seems to be connected to sex. there’s a key scene in which one of the men fails to perform in bed with krige’s character, and the suggestion is that the guilt he feels from this moment spirals into the big plot event that happens later. i wonder what the implication of that is? furthermore, i wasn’t as concerned as i usually am about the lack of female characters in the film and its failure to pass the oft-cited bechdel test. here, it seemed completely necessary that krige’s character is standing alone against the male characters. she came across as vulnerable and strong at the same time and that resonated with me. ultimately, i think this story belongs to her much more than it does to the men in the film; she is the protagonist, because despite having much less screen time, she is the focus of almost every scene.

the blu-ray comes with some great extra features, including some interviews and a commentary from director irvin. overall this is an impressive presentation of a compelling horror film that still stands up today, and definitely one worth checking out.

second sight release ghost story on blu-ray and dvd on 7th december 2015

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