The premise of Ghost Story, four elderly men with a macabre secret from their past who meet weekly as the Chowder Society, where they tell one another scary stories is rife with potential for evocative subtext leaden spectral vengeance. Does this fifty year old practice really serve as a sort of coping mechanism for their guilty consciousness? Or is it possible subconscious self-punishment? And what happens when the spirits set their sights on the offspring of the Chowder Society members? Perhaps Peter Straub’s bestselling 560 page novel delves into these aspects…or at least is a compelling narrative, because unfortunately, the film adaptation bungles the promising premise and is a tonal mess and a bit of a dirge.
Director John Irvin, who did a fine job with the exciting mercenary film Dogs of War (my review) which was released in February of 1981, and screenwriter Lawrence Cohen (not too be confused with It’s Alive b-movie auteur Larry Cohen), certainly have some high ambitions for the film: dream sequences, long flashback sequences and no strict leading characters, that give it a more novelistic approach than a straight three act structure, but it feels like too much was condensed from the novel to fit a just under two hour running time, resulting in a film that feels too short for its ambitions, but too long for what it actually is. The film opens with an effective sequence showing the four elderly leads (Fred Astaire, John Houseman, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, and Melvyn Douglas) being shaken from their sleep, set to an effectively eerie score by composer Phillipe Sarde. The film has nice snowy atmosphere, but Irvin has no feel for manufacturing thrills or working with special effects, diminishing what should be the film’s strongest moments. From there on, most of the scare tactics are juvenile jump scares and ineffective.
The other major flaw is the film’s schizophrenic tone. A major marketing of the film was the assembled cast from Hollywood’s past, but what’s not accounted for is that with the exception of Douglas none of the foursome is exactly known for their horror chops (though Houseman appeared in 1980’s The Fog and Douglas in The Changeling), and only Houseman actually seems particularly interested in the genre at this point. And sexuality is a major component for a movie starring several elderly people; hopefully the audience who grew up watching Astaire films appreciated their glimpses at a full frontal Craig Wasson!