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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Ghost Story
Ghost Story
Universal // R // September 7, 2004
List Price: $14.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted September 22, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
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P R I N T
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Ghost Story got a bum rap when it was released at Christmastime in 1981. Halloween II and The Evil Dead had premiered the previous October, and Friday the 13th's first sequel was released six months before that.** Younger audiences preferred these up-and-coming serial-killer/splatter movies, and despite Ghost Story's graphic make-up effects, a movie principally about four frightened old men was almost inevitably unappealing. Conversely, this reviewer remembers his unwitting grandparents making a rare trip to the movies, lured by stars Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, John Houseman, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., only to be quite appalled by the picture's explicit sex and gore. With its classical title and ad art, they were probably expecting a light-hearted throwback to movies like The Uninvited (1944). I don't think they ever went to see another movie after that.

With more than 20 years hindsight, the qualities of Ghost Story are much more apparent. It is both classical and modern all at once, and adult in ways rare, almost extinct, in American cinema today. In terms of its sexual content, one is reminded of Altered States, also released in 1981, yet like that film impossible to imagine being made today.

After the suspicious death of his (twin?) brother, disgraced college professor Don Wanderley (Craig Wasson), returns home to the quaint, snow-covered New England town in which he was raised. His aged father (Fairbanks), overcome with grief, has been experiencing traumatizing nightmares, as have lifelong friends Ricky Hawthorne (Astaire), Dr. Jaffrey (Douglas), and erudite Sears James (Houseman). When Don's father dies soon after, the old friends begin to suspect a half-century-old secret has come back to haunt them. Looking for answers, Don reveals he too is experiencing nightmares relating to a mysterious lover (Alice Krige) that's somehow connected to the terrifying hauntings.

Lawrence D. Cohen's screenplay gives equal weight to Wasson's character, but the heart of the story is the old men. The veteran actors were between 72 and 82, and Douglas died before the film was even released. What younger audiences couldn't relate to is that the picture really centers on the fears and regrets of old age. Fear of dementia, of infirmity, and of life-changing mistakes long past fixing. The script doesn't underline this, but Astaire and Douglas especially look every bit their age and their own real-life frailty fills in the script's gaps. (One wonders how a production like this was insured.)

Craig Wasson, who resembles Bill Maher (I'll bet people mistake one for the other), was an early-'80s leading man whose starring career quickly fizzled after roles in this, Brian De Palma's Body Double (1984), and a few other films. To his credit, Wasson seems to have been a risk-taker, going out on a creative limb more than once in both films, and he had a kind of everyman quality which possibly contributed to his casting in De Palma's Hitchcock homage. He's quite good in Ghost Story.

Fred Astaire was one of those talents who seemed to do everything well. As he got older he shied away from parts in musicals, but did just fine in several major dramatic roles. Melvyn Douglas, a recent Oscar-winner for Being There (1979), had already supported another classical ghost story, Peter Medak's excellent The Changeling (1980). However, the two parts are quite different. In The Changeling Douglas is powerful, reticent and in serious self-denial, while in Ghost Story he's quick to accept the supernatural events, and soon gripped with a pathetic, helpless fear.

Ghost Story was a big, prestigious production for Universal, adapted from Peter Straub's best-selling novel. The film was directed by John Irvin, one of the filmmakers behind the excellent British miniseries Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979). Even better, the film offers frequently stunning camerawork by acclaimed cinematographer Jack Cardiff, including several knock-out sequences, some aided by Albert Whitlock's mostly good optical effects. This is a very handsome production all around that, unlike many early-'80s features, holds up very well today.

Is it scary? That, of course, is entirely subjective, though I was frightened by it when I saw it during its theatrical run. As is often the case with such films, the more obscure, not-entirely definable images are far more effective than those where everything is clear as day, no matter the gruesomeness of Dick Smith's make-up effects. Wasson's nightmare/flashback in the film's first act is a mistake, relying on obvious optical trickery and gets the film off to a bad start. (The audience I saw the film with in 1981 laughed at its basic absurdity -- and Wasson's full-frontal nudity.) An extended flashback set 50 years earlier, when the four men were in their twenties, is too "movie real" for its own good. Both sequences would have been better (and scarier) described rather than shown.

Video & Audio

Previously released in non-anamorphic format by Image Entertainment, Universal's new DVD of Ghost Story is 16:9 and does justice to Cardiff's beautiful photography. Earlier video versions struggled with the legendary DP's subtle compositions, especially several scenes bathed in red light. Despite a few signs of age-related wear, the title looks quite good. The Dolby Digital Surround is strong and without the apparent problems of the earlier Image release. Included are optional English, Spanish, and French subtitles.

Extra Features

The only extra is a soft-looking trailer in 4:3 format, complete with narration and text.

Parting Thoughts

Though some may be turned off by Ghost Story's stateliness and deliberate pacing, others will be surprised by its overall effectiveness, its adult approach, and visual sumptuousness. Highly recommended.

** - As one reader points out The Evil Dead wasn't actually distributed until 1983, but since it was finished and premiered in the fall of 1981 it seems appropriate to mention it here.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.

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