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Ghost Story (1981)

Just as I told you, no pulse at all. She's dead.

John Jaffrey (Melvyn Douglas)

Unusual and old-fashioned at the dawn of a new age of horror, Ghost Story (1981) nevertheless has its chilling moments, and I’m not just talking about the fact that most of it takes place during a snowy New England winter. Documentary and TV director John Irvin delivers the jump scares but favors nudity over gore.


Four men in their golden days, played by Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and John Houseman, are haunted by nightmares. When Edward Wanderley’s (Fairbanks) son dies, his twin brother, Don (both played by Craig Wasson), returns to his hometown for the funeral. Soon, another member of the “Chowder Society,” John Jaffrey (Douglas) also dies, leaving skeptic Sears James (Houseman) and believer Ricky Hawthorne (Astaire), to join forces with Don Wanderley to stop the evil that has permeated their lives.


There’s a lot of death in Ghost Story, and the body count is comprised of a rare demographic for horror films: senior citizens. The cause of the deaths is not as original, but I don’t recall if it was more so at the time Peter Straub’s novel of the same name was published in 1979. I do recall that the book was long (originally 483 pages) and it seems like the film adaptation tries to include as much as it can, resulting in a running time that’s just a smidge too long.


Much of the first part of the film is told in short scenes, which makes the pace lively. Unfortunately, when the scenes become longer for the climax, it then seems too slow. Oddly, even though the situation is suspenseful, it doesn’t play that way on screen. There’s no urgency to Don being trapped in the big spooky house as Ricky races to save him.


During the film, two flashbacks explain why Don and Ricky are believers. Separated by decades, they both had fateful encounters with a beautiful woman Alma/Eva (Alice Krige.) While there’s a mystery, Ghost Story is not about the men trying to solve it. It’s about them admitting that the evil of the present is a result of their actions of the past. Except for Sears, everyone else quickly acknowledges what is happening.


Speaking of Sears, he’s the ringleader of the Chowder Society, as demonstrated by his (Ken Olin) actions in the past. He’s the “bad guy” of the bunch and you blame him. Therefore, his demise in the present isn’t impactful enough. He deserved a special kind of death, but it’s no different than anyone else’s.


The title has double-meaning. While overall the film is one big ghost story, members of the Chowder Society meet to tell other ghost stories and Don joins the society by telling his ghost story. In fact, the film opens with Sears telling one such story. It evokes the opening of The Fog (1980) in which his character tells a ghost story around the campfire.


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