Retro Review: “Ghost Story” (1981)

(Wikipedia)

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.)

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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.

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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.

3andaHalfScoops

Retro Review: “Ghost Story” (1979)

GhostStoryNovel1Peter Straub novels seem to defy description. A Dark Matter was good, but I didn’t really know what to do with it. It was, in retrospect, kind of an extended meditation on one possible form that the supernatural, if such a thing exists, might take. And again, that’s a good thing; but it’s a challenge to review.

Ghost Story is, in many ways, quite similar. It also explores the idea of the supernatural, positing, as many horror-ish stories do, that the supernatural traditions of the world are all attempts to describe beings that are essentially beyond human ken. Folklorist Catherine Tosenberger, in a great article that I’ve cited numerous times, calls this a “recovery story,” a narrative that is as much a discussion of what folklore “really” is as it is a story in its own right [1]. And this meta-dimension is actually a major part of the story: if supernatural beings exist, what impact do the stories we tell about them have on the shapes they assume and the interactions they have with humans?

In what is, I’m sure, a deliberate irony, Ghost Story really is not, in any appreciable sense, a ghost story. There are some creatures that one might classify as undead–as revenants, in fancy folklore-talk–but no ghosts as such. Splitting semantic hairs is pointless, of course; but since folklore and folk belief and traditional storytelling and all that stuff is central in Straub’s novel, it’s actually not a trivial distinction.

Before I get too carried away, maybe you’re wondering what the book is actually about. Well GUESS WHAT, I’ma tell you.

The Chowder Society, a group of old friends living in a small town called Milburn, in upstate New York, meet regularly for semi-formal storytelling sessions. Recently their stories have taken a macabre turn, ever since their friend, Edward Wanderley, died in mysterious and spoiler-ish ways. Then, somebody else dies. And then, let’s see… mm…

…seriously, this is hard. Straub is a master when it comes to narrating place. Milburn is as close to a real town as any fictional town I’ve encountered. His descriptions of the place, and of the daily patterns of its inhabitants, are so complete that I really feel I could find my way around Milburn if I ever found myself walking its snow-clogged streets. But as great as Straub’s evocation of sense of place is, the actual forward motion of the narrative is difficult to chart. He deliberately meanders back and forth between numerous points in time, revealing chunks of the story at widely-spaced intervals across the book’s 567 pages. We learn, slowly, that there’s a “dark secret” in the Chowder Society’s past, and it’s come back to haunt them in a literal sense. When it gets too creepy for the old guys to handle, they enlist the help of Wanderley’s nephew Don, a novelist whose book “The Nightwatchers” apparently convinces the Chowder Society’s members that Don knows a thing or two about the supernatural. I guess.

Things get a little confusing, with all the traipsing back and forth in narrative time, and the intense, almost obsessive descriptions of landscape and weather; but it ultimately emerges that the supernatural being stalking the Chowder Society (and, in fact, threatening all of Milburn) isn’t a ghost at all, but some sort of mysterious elder being, a shape-shifting demon-like entity that wields powerful illusions and has the ability to create vampire-like ghoul servants out of folks what done did died. It’s these vampiric servants who actually do most of the killing in the novel, while the big baddy remains aloof, popping in occasionally to gloat and monologue about how inferior humans are.

These frustrations aside, Ghost Story still has a lot to commend it. Straub, skilled as he is with descriptions of place, is equally talented at depicting complex human relationships. He’s particularly good at capturing the subtleties of romance and the complex dynamics between couples. And that, ultimately, is what Ghost Story seems to be about: it’s about how human relationships flex and bend and sometimes break; and it’s an exploration of how such relationships might deal with the incursion of an impossible, alien evil.

Folklore plays a big role here, as I indicated before. Don suggests that the supernatural beings he and the Chowder Society face are “the originals of everything that scares us in the supernatural. I think in stories we make them manageable. But the stories at least show that we can destroy them” (422). (There’s also an anthropologist character who is just an ass.) A strength of the novel is precisely that the characters learn that they can fight back, that they don’t have to just wait to be victimized. I appreciate that immensely from a genre that’s usually hopeless.

Ghost Story isn’t frightening, and it’s really not a story about ghosts. It’s quite slow and focuses so closely on the lives of very old people that some editions come with a free AARP membership. But it’s thoughtful, and it takes its subject matter seriously, and if you have the time to invest it’s well worth the read.

icecream3I plan to do a review of the 1981 film version soon, so check back to see if, you know… I’ve done that.

UPDATE: Here’s my review of the film.


[1] Tosenberger, Catherine. “‘Kinda Like the Folklore of Its Day’: ‘Supernatural,’ Fairy Tales, and Ostension.” Text.Serial.Journal. Transformative Works and Cultures, March 14, 2010. http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/viewArticle/174. 5.2.