Retro Review: “Ghost Story” (1981)


Ghost Story is an interesting movie. Like a large majority of horror, it’s not really scary (with the exception of a few gooey corpsey ghosty things–see below), but it’s moody and old-fashioned (in the best sense) and memorable.

The film is an interesting mix of cinematic styles, with mid-century music and cinematography coupled with what I’m sure were then cutting-edge practical effects. It really feels (appropriately, I think) like a late 1950s or early 1960s horror film. The attention to details of place–long shots of the beautiful wintery New York landscape and the gorgeous, crumbling house that had been Eva Galli’s–stand it alongside the greats of Gothic horror like my old standby, The Haunting of Hill House and its film adaptation. Re-watching it for this review I felt it had something ineffably British about it, despite the American cast (save Alma Mobley/Eva Galli herself, played by Alice Krige). While I still can’t say exactly what I mean by this, it seems I was right, as the film was helmed by British directory John Irvin. And the casting is pitch-perfect, with Fred Astaire in particular as an ideal choice for Ricky. A few quirky late-’70s filmic flourishes creep in–like a naked mustachioed man pitching backwards out of a skyscraper window in a very unconvincing and suuuuuper disco sequence that reminds me, oddly, of a few scenes from the original Willy Wonka film–but in general it’s consistently shot and edited to feel like a horror film of an earlier era. (Amazing to think that Ghost Story came out nearly a decade after The Exorcist and just a year before The Thing.)


Samara who? Ring what, now?

Rather than a full plot summary, I’ll concentrate here on the differences between the film and the novel, which are considerable. One of the strangest decisions for the film was to transform the Chowder Society from the bunch of scared, bumbling old coots of the novel to the scared, bumbling, guilty old coots of the film. In both, the guys, in their youth, accidentally killed Eva Galli, with whom they were all infatuated. In the novel, Eva is a manipulating, predatory demon who turns her lustful attentions on the boys when her fiancee (Stringer Dedham, who is absent from the film) catches her sleeping with another man. She essentially sexually assaults the young members of the Chowder Society, undressing in front of them against their protests and attempting to force herself on each of them in turn. In a panic, one of them, Lewis (also absent from the film) tackles Eva, and in the fall she bangs her head and doesn’t get up again. When the terrified boys stuff her into a car and drive it into a lake, they see her “dead” body move unexpectedly; afterward, they see a lynx, which of course is Eva in animal form, disappear into the forest on the far side of the lake.


If horror has taught us anything, it’s that women who let their hair cover just one half of their face are eeeeevil.

The film reverses this, with the boys showing up drunk to Eva’s house and insisting that she dance with each of them, despite the fact that she’s already seeing Edward. The scene is incredibly uncomfortable, as Eva realizes how fully the boys have objectified her. Her anger is justified, and now, when she dances with and kisses the boys, she reverses their awkward youthful fantasies in a way that they can’t handle. Sears, the smarmy ringleader, calls her a slut; Edward, recently shamed by his failure to perform in bed with Eva, is the one to tackle her. When the boys drive the car into the lake this time, they see her move because she’s still alive, trying to get out; thus Eva actually dies by drowning.

This is, for me, the most striking difference between the film and the novel. In the novel Eva is simply a monster, always bent on using humans to satisfy her own whims. When the Chowder Society accidentally runs afoul of her, she turns her wrath on them because, I imagine, being immortal is boring and it gives her something to do. In the film, however, Eva is an innocent victim, apparently not a supernatural being (at first), and her desire for revenge is justified. I suspect that the change is less about thematic concerns than about length: to fully portray the Eva Galli character as she is in the novel would have required a ton of twisting subplots and a slew of extra characters, which simply would not have fit into a feature-length film. Making Eva a victim-turned-revenant streamlines the plot, and also makes the title a bit more appropriate (in the film, she’s actually a ghost, while in the novel, “demon” is about the only word I can think of to approximate her).

Ultimately the film is a good film in its own right, and should probably be taken separately from the novel, which would simply be impossible to accurately portray in a single film. The only real disappointment is the ending, which fizzles out rather abruptly without anything like a real resolution: they pull the body out of the lake, and that’s all she wrote. But it’s good, and even without the solid acting, writing, and camera work, it’s worth seeing just for the drippy ghost faces.

Still can't believe this was Fred Astaire's final film.

Still can’t believe this was Fred Astaire’s final film.


2 thoughts on “Retro Review: “Ghost Story” (1981)

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