At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Ghost Story “81”

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Horror/ Stars: Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., John Houseman, Craig Wasson, Patricia Neal, Alice Krige, Jacqueline Brookes, Miguel Fernandes, Lance Holcomb, Brad Sullivan, Michael O’Neill, Guy Boyd, Robin Curtis, Tim Choate, Mark Chamberlin, Kurt Johnson, Ken Olin, James Greene/ Runtime: 111 minutes

It may just be the old school guy that I have always been, but it is my opinion that should you want to tell a riveting ghost story, then it should start as this film does. By that I mean it should begin in shadows so immersive that the light of a fire slowly going out is only minimally able to light up the unnerved and fear-stricken faces of those who are engaged in hearing the story. They should also be orated in a voice that is equal parts grave and haunted and heard by other individuals who are so up there in years that we can all but speculate at just what terrors they have witnessed over the course of their lives. Oh and I almost forgot: the best spooky tales should involve things that happened a long time ago to young people who may or may not have done truly unspeakable things and, in the years since, had to live with the knowledge and guilt. Suffice it to say then that if you love these kinds of ghost stories like I do then it isn’t always enough to have them feature things jumping out of shadows and wreaking havoc. Rather, you too will feel that they must be orated mostly in terms of an unyielding sense of both fear and unease as well with a hint of nostalgia since ghosts usually, in most stories told through various formats, exist because an event occurred that shouldn’t have and they’re now forced to wander until right is put right whatever the consequences to the world of the living may be. Yes a lot of cinematic fare may not get all those ingredients down pat, but thankfully the film I am reviewing today 1981’s under-the-radar gem Ghost Story is one which comprehends that all the ingredients I listed above are vital and, despite a quartet of performances from 4 acting legends, is able to keep them delightfully in check so the horror of the ghostly occurrences going are on the same plane of transparency as their characters at the beginning thus allowing the film to shed more and more light on them and their predicament as it goes along. Yes in many respects this film is an uneven ride to embark on, but thankfully the cast and atmosphere at the heart of this riveting nightmare are able to help make up for it to a fair degree and thus take you on a trip through a tale that will send at least a shiver or 2 down your spine by the time it is concluded.

The plot is as follows: Ghost Story starts its riveting tale by introducing us to a quartet of men in the twilight years of their lives known as the Chowder Society. This quartet comprised of town mayor Edward Wanderley, doctor John Jaffrey, businessman Ricky Hawthorne, and attorney Sears James are a group of old friends who get together to smoke cigars, drink a brandy or 2, and try and scare each other silly with tales of macabre horror. Here lately though, it seems life for these men is perhaps the scariest tale of all. This is due, we quickly find out, to both unexplained and quite terrifying nightmares shared by them all and the untimely and quite mysterious death of one’s son who was set to be married, but who decided falling out his apartment window was a better fate. Yet when his estranged brother arrives home, we along with him soon start suspecting that something is amiss in this peaceful little village. However it isn’t until terror decides to rear its ugly head too close to home once again that our main hero finds that he has stumbled upon a mystery. One that involves our quartet of spook story enthusiasts, a mysterious woman, and a secret they have all held close for the past 50 years. A secret that, up till now, has been content to reside in the shadows, but now has decided to come forth in order to finally be told lest the men, plus their new young friend, wish further heartache and horror to occur on them and everyone they love…..

Now I know this film was adapted from a novel by Peter Straub and, having talked to a friend or 2 who lucked out and read the book, I can safely conclude that this is, in many respects, its own thing. Yes the basics of the story are there, but this feels more like a Cliff’s Notes version of the story rather than the actual story itself. This is both a good thing and bad thing dear reader because although you get the gist of the story and the characters you also feel whilst watching it that this film is very uneven and disjointed in many areas due to having to cut out entire sections completely. Making up for that however, is the fact that everyone behind the camera knows how to make what they are working with as effective as possible given the script and they manage to aid the cast in making this film something special. For starters this film has an atmosphere to it that, due to being equal parts haunting, unnerving, and yet with a hint of nostalgia about, makes it actually feel like a spook story come to life. That and this is gorgeously filmed movie lovers. I mean the colors in this are all vibrant and lively in the moments before the nightmare began for these men, but once it starts everything starts taking on this dark and seemingly sinister quality that even in the moments of the film set during the day something just seems….off. Suffice it to say then that while yes the script for this film was uneven right from the start, it was not an issue for this film’s crew who still managed to make this into something quite special from their end of things.

Now in terms of performances I feel you should know dear reader that the quartet of Hollywood legends that were the focus of a lot of the initial buzz surrounding this film all manage to do truly brilliant whilst also contributing a vibe of gravitas to the film even if the material they have been given is not the best thus providing the movie with a vibe of both class and immortality that really strengthens everything else in the film. Indeed it is the sheer presence of these 4 icons, despite in many respects being hefty co-starring roles, which are what, in my mind at least help to make this film stand out in a lot of respects amongst the films that were the most like it. A fact that can be attributed to the fact that this was released at a time when a lot of horror films, to keep the budget down, just brought in people who looked pretty and who could scream and run, and as result, or at least until iconic thespian Laurence Olivier found success in 1979’s Dracula, most iconic performers would never have found themselves anywhere near those kinds of pictures. Yes you can argue, and rightfully so, that Astaire and Houseman are given the lion’s share of the screen time amongst the 4 old timers, but be that as it may be all 4 still manage to do typically wonderful work with their respective parts and it’s still a thrill to see them all on screen together. Now as the newer people on the Hollywood block when this film was made, I also feel that both Wasson and Krige each manage to give intriguing performances yet I often lean more towards the latter in that regard. This is because while Wasson does well with his parts, his roles could honestly have been played by anyone. Krige’s on the other hand actually require the performer to bring an almost ethereal and hypnotic quality that I honestly don’t think a whole lot of actresses could’ve brought to the screen in the way that Krige was willing to do. Actually, I will go a step further than that even and say Krige actually does some truly amazing work in this despite the material not being the best in the world. Indeed this is a role which, as sort of stated above, required someone who could bring not only a riveting sensuality, but also a very ethereal and unreal quality to them that borderlines on mysterious before becoming rivetingly horrifying and to me Krige manages to bring that in waves to the part. That and I’ll just say it: there is something very sublimely terrifying about Krige’s performance in this. I mean it’s not like Michael Myers who just stabs you as soon as he sees you. No this is more like a siren from Greek mythology in that Krige does a wonderful job of luring some of these men in with how gorgeous she is before then going in for the kill. Thus this makes for a terrific role from a woman who, besides her role as the mom in 1992’s Sleepwalkers or the main Borg villainess in a Star Trek film that had the cast of The Next Generation in it, sadly gets nowhere near enough respect that she deserves for her truly fantastic abilities as a thespian. It truly is the stuff that a frightening nightmare or 3 are made of (and believe me I might be speaking from youthful experience on that one).

All in all it saddens me to note that this film, somehow, inexplicably has only a 35% on Rotten Tomatoes. Yes that is only out of 20 reviews, but the fact still remains that this film deserves a much higher score than that and is actually something genuinely special. Yes this film was released during the whole slasher craze and as such probably got lumped into that group by reviewers both before and since, but it is most certainly not and never aspired to be. Rather, this is a film which, taking a cue from the quartet of stars at the top of the cast list, is one which is very old school both in style, delivery, and manner of execution. As a result this is a film which utilizes both a terrifyingly teasing degree of patience and sense of dread and unnerving atmosphere in order to both draw you in to its fairly riveting, if uneven, narrative and then scare you at the moments it wants you to be scared thus really feeling like an actual….well….ghost story. More than all of that however, this is also a riveting look at how the ramifications of our actions can truly haunt us for a long, long time and how as hard as we as people may try, there really is no such thing as a perfect getaway especially when the ghosts of the past will never ever let us forget who we were or what we have done. A fact that is especially true I might add when there is still some unresolved issues on our respective ledgers that might just need a little paranormal intervention in order for us to finally pay for it whether we want to or not. Indeed it’s not one that everyone is able to remember, but you should still definitely take it upon yourself to find it and give this movie a try. I promise you that, unlike the Chowder Society, you won’t regret it. On a scale of 1-5 I give Ghost Story “81” a solid 3 out of 5.