Thursday, December 10, 2015

GHOST STORY (1981) Blu-ray Review

Ghost Story (1981) d. John Irvin (USA)

In the quiet New England down of Milburn, a quartet of elderly men stir fitfully in their sleep. These are the members of The Chowder Society, and they harbor a dark, decades-old secret… one that comes bubbling to the surface as the winter nights grow shorter. When mayor Ed Wanderly’s (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) son dies in a strange accident, a tragic chain of events is set in motion, one that threatens the lives of his now-aged childhood chums Sears (John Houseman), Ricky (Fred Astaire), and John (Melvyn Douglas), as well as his surviving offspring Don (poufy-haired Craig Wasson). The rising ghosts of past wrongs have come home to Milburn, and the time has come to tell the tale....

Based on Peter Straub’s bestseller and armed with a dream cast of screen veterans, this is one of those projects that carries with it the eternal whiff of unrealized potential. What should have been a timeless classic instead limps and totters like an ungainly ancient Irish Setter, squandering the gifts of everyone involved, including Jack Cardiff’s cinematography and Albert Whitlock’s special visual effects (who, despite their multiple Oscar wins, remain two of the great unsung giants of moviemaking), and Patricia Neal as Astaire’s wife,  in the service of a leaden and clumsy script by Lawrence D. Cohen. Melodrama is the order of the day, hammered home by French composer Philippe Sarde’s bombastic score.

Cohen, who enjoyed such success adapting Stephen King’s Carrie in 1976, found himself tasked with translating Straub’s dense and extensive prose as his next assignment. But with an enormous tome (as opposed to King’s slim debut novel) and with journeyman Irvin at the helm (as opposed to, say, Brian De Palma), the results are decidedly unsatisfying even for those who had not read the source material, but especially so for those who had. Absent was the sweeping scope and characters populating the town, with a clichéd and creaky old-fashioned ghost story in its place. Then, to further jostle the uneven mood, legendary makeup artist Dick Smith was recruited to deliver the effective but out-of-place gooey set-pieces.

Only Alice Krige in the dual role of Alma Mobley and her predecessor, Eva Galli, emerges relatively unscathed, her alien, aloof, and elegant charms providing the perfect balance of scary and sexy, naiveté and carnality. When people speak of the movie with fondness, it is a frequently unclothed Krige writhing about in violent lovemaking scenes that they recall, especially if they were young men of a certain age and disposition at the time it was in heavy rotation on HBO in the early 1980s. But even her performance hasn’t aged all that well – it’s still weird and offbeat, but occasionally just feels like clunky thesping.

By contrast, the quartet of elderly headliners oozes class, professionalism, and presence. It’s just unfortunate that they aren’t given much to do, especially considering this proved to be Astaire, Fairbanks, and Douglas’ last feature. (Houseman continued working until his death in 1988.) Cohen’s script provides flimsy relationships and ham-fisted plot devices. (I’m looking at you, Bate brothers.) As our ostensible lead, Wasson (Body Double, Nightmare on Elm Street III: Dream Warriors) is adequate but only just, earnest without gravity.

However, the film clearly holds a sentimental place in select horror fans’ hearts, evidenced by the loving care Shout! Factory has given its Blu-ray debut. Not only do we have a self-moderated commentary track by Irvin (more on that in a second), but over two hours of featurettes and interviews pack this shiny disc to bursting; truth be told, the extras prove more entertaining than the feature they are supporting.

Documentarian-turned-television director Irvin had made one theatrical feature prior to embarking on Ghost Story, the flawed but gritty The Dogs of War with Christopher Walken. In his low-key, slightly apologetic track, he explains that he was, in fact, still learning to operate on this larger scale, and relied heavily on expert lensman Cardiff and Whitlock’s matte paintings to make the film look as fine as it did. The production was also plagued by the fact that the snow covering the location sets was almost entirely manufactured due to unseasonably warm temperatures. With blowers blowing and snowers snowing, Irvin’s struggles were legion, and the Universal execs' meddling didn’t help matters.

Irvin, who went on to direct Turtle Diary, Hamburger Hill, Next of Kin, and the 1986 Schwarzenegger vehicle Raw Deal, has nothing but good things to say about his estimable cast, though he does concede that the veterans’ age was often a factor; Fairbanks, in particular, was ill at the time and passed away not long after filming completed. He also states that this was Wasson’s first major feature film, which isn’t entirely true, although it was certainly one that had the most marquee value attached (1977’s last-gasp disaster-film Rollercoaster was the actor's official theatrical bow) and that he might have been a little intimidated by his legendary co-stars.

The 40-minute interview with novelist Peter Straub has several lengthy passages of the author reading his own work, which unfortunately isn’t even as exciting as it sounds. But listening to him describe the process of typing on a typewriter as though explaining the process to people who had never seen or experienced the outdated mechanical beast (which, on second thought, many younger viewers probably have not. Hmmmmm.) is pretty entertaining. As the clock starts winding down, we become increasingly aware that the author hasn’t said anything at all about his reaction to the film itself. In fact, he only touches on it in the last two minutes, and his grim “I had great hopes for it,” might just say it all.

The 30-minute piece with Cohen and producer Burt Wiessbourd on the development of the script and the troubled production is more revealing; Cohen freely admits that he couldn’t get a handle on Straub’s expansive narrative and that large subplots had to be jettisoned in the interest of time. He enthuses about his working relationship with Irvin, and then laughingly recalls his tempestuous collaboration with De Palma on Carrie, and how the director “bettered the page every single time.”

Krige’s segment, also clocking in at around a half hour, is thoroughly enjoyable as she discusses her early career in theatre and how her role in Chariots of Fire led to her landing the Ghost Story gig that helped launch her Hollywood career. The actress is generous and clearly thankful for the opportunity presented, as well as candid about her nude scenes and their import to the film’s story and mood. Equally interesting is the conversation with matte photographer, and close friend of Whitlock, William Taylor, who details the visual effects’ teams efforts, many of which are nearly invisible to the naked eye (my favorite kind of special effect). Indeed, Whitlock’s magnificent matte paintings lend so much enhanced production value it’s almost a shame to have them pointed out for future viewings.

Other supplements include a vintage theatrical trailer, TV and Radio Spots, and a photo gallery.

Ghost Story is available now on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory and can be ordered HERE:


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