Ghost Story (1981 film)
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||John Irvin|
|Produced by||Burt Weissbourd|
|Screenplay by||Lawrence D. Cohen|
|Based on||Ghost Story|
by Peter Straub
|Music by||Philippe Sarde|
|Edited by||Tom Rolf|
|Distributed by||Universal Pictures|
|Box office||$23.4 million|
Ghost Story is a 1981 American supernatural horror film directed by John Irvin and starring Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., John Houseman, Craig Wasson, and Alice Krige. Based on the 1979 novel of the same name by Peter Straub, it follows a group of elderly businessmen in New England who gather to recount their involvement in a woman's death decades prior when one of them suspects her ghost has been haunting him.
It was the last film to feature Astaire, Fairbanks, and Douglas (Melvyn died four months before the film's release), and the first film to feature Michael O'Neill. The film was shot in Woodstock, Vermont; Saratoga Springs, New York; and at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida. It was released in the United States on December 18, 1981.
In a small New England town during the frigid winter season of 1979, four elderly friends—businessman Ricky Hawthorne, lawyer Sears James, Dr. John Jaffrey, and Mayor Edward Charles Wanderley—form the Chowder Society, an informal men's club who get together each week to share tales of horror. Edward's son David, living in New York City, falls from his apartment window after seeing a girl he's been sleeping with suddenly turn into a living corpse. His other son, Don, comes home at Edward's request. Some time after David's funeral, Edward sees him walking through town during a snowstorm and follows him to a bridge, where he disappears. Calling out to his dead son, he suddenly sees a female apparition and he falls to his death from the bridge. Meanwhile, two escaped patients from a mental asylum, Gregory and Fenny Bate, have taken up residence in the old Eva Galli house, now in ruins.
Doubting his father committed suicide, Don approaches the remaining three friends and tells them a "ghost" story to gain membership into the Chowder Society. In a flashback, Don tells the story of how he, a college professor in Florida, began a torrid sexual affair with a mysterious secretary named Alma. The two of them immediately hit it off and before long they were engaged. Alma insisted she wanted to marry Don in his home town of Milburn, but he was reluctant, as he considered the town boring. Don soon begins to suspect that something was terribly wrong with Alma, a gut feeling that was vindicated one night when he touched her and realized she was as cold as a corpse. Don eventually broke things off with Alma, and Alma, furious, disappeared from his life. He falls into a depression, which ends up costing him both his reputation and his job. A month later, he called his brother in New York and learned to his horror that Alma had begun dating David not long after he broke off their engagement, and that now he's going to marry her. Don desperately tries to warn his brother to keep away from Alma, declaring her dangerous. However, his brother scoffs at the warning and hangs up. Not long after, David is killed and Don suspected her of being involved in his death. The elderly friends react to Don's story. Sears remains very skeptical. Don then shows the three elders an old photograph from the 1920s he'd found among his father's possessions. In it there is a striking young woman who is a dead ringer for Alma. Jaffrey, realizing what has happened, pleads with his friends to tell the truth, but is rebuffed.
The next day, Jaffrey has a nightmare about Alma and dies of a heart attack. Finally, Sears and Ricky explain to Don that, in the spring of 1929, the four friends became smitten with a young flirtatious girl of mysterious origins named Eva Galli. Edward first took her to bed, but he was impotent with her. Outside her house, the other three friends serenade Eva in hopes of catching a glimpse of her when a shirtless Edward comes to the window instead, giving the impression that he's slept with her. Edward leaves with his friends, and the four become very drunk, discussing Eva's prowess in the bedroom. They return to her house, where all but Sears dances with her. When it is proposed that they leave, Sears suggestively insists on getting his dance, to which she pointedly responds that she intends to dance with all of them. She confronts Edward about what he had told his friends, then begins to tell them the truth when young Edward leaps to silence her, knocking her down, accidentally smashing her head into the stone fireplace. Horrified, the young men believe that the unresponsive Eva is dead. They consider calling the police, but realize it would only mean wrecking their lives. Instead, they load her body into her car, then push it into the nearby lake. As the car descends, Eva stirs inside, looking out at them from the back window, screaming and hammering at the glass as the car sinks beneath the surface, taking her with it.
Back in the present, Ricky and Sears reveal that the Chowder Society never talked about it again, not even with each other. Due to Eva's reputation, the townsfolk were relieved when she'd gone missing and assumed that she'd simply skipped town. However, they admit that her death has haunted them all these years. Whereas Sears is dubious, both Ricky and Don believe that Alma and Eva are the same woman and that her ghost has returned to seek revenge.
Don suggests they go to Eva's old house, now in ruins, to confront the past and her ghost once and for all. They go there, but Don falls on the rotting stairs and breaks his leg. Sears leaves in his car to seek help, leaving Don and Ricky behind. While driving through the snowstorm, Sears comes upon Eva's apparition. He slams on the brakes, and swerves to the side of the road. He survives, but is attacked and killed by Fenny Bate, one of Eva's accomplices.
Ricky believes something's happened to Sears and leaves to get help. He's picked up by Gregory Bate, who tells him of Eva's plans for them both, but Ricky stabs him and escapes to get to the authorities, telling them to pull Eva's car up from the lake to reveal her body inside. This is intercut with Don, who confronts the rotting specter of Alma/Eva. Ricky and the authorities drag out the ancient car and wrench open the rusted, corroded door. The rotting corpse of Eva lunges into view and falls harmlessly to the ground. Now that the truth about Eva is known, Don is spared from her vengeance, and the town is restored to peace.
- Fred Astaire as Ricky Hawthorne
- Tim Choate as Young Hawthorne
- Melvyn Douglas as Dr. John Jaffrey
- Mark Chamberlin as Young Jaffrey
- Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as Edward Charles Wanderley
- Kurt Johnson as Young Wanderley
- John Houseman as Sears James
- Ken Olin as Young James
- Craig Wasson as Don / David Wanderley
- Patricia Neal as Stella Hawthorne
- Alice Krige as Eva Galli / Alma Mobley
- Jacqueline Brookes as Milly
- Miguel Fernandes as Gregory Bate
- Lance Holcomb as Fenny Bate
- Brad Sullivan as Sheriff Hardesty
- Michael O'Neill as Churchill
- Guy Boyd as Omar Norris
- Robin Curtis as Rea Dedham
- James Greene as Mailman
Universal Pictures had purchased the rights to Peter Straub's novel, Ghost Story, in 1978 for $225,000. English director John Irvin was asked to direct the film by producer Burt Weissbourd on the basis of his direction of Haunted: The Ferryman, a British television film. Upon reading Straub's novel and Lawrence D. Cohen's screenplay, Irvin envisioned the narrative as being about hypocrisy and principally "men's fear of women, and at some point, hatred." Irvin, who was a newcomer in Hollywood, hired several British filmmakers as part of his team, and stated that the film's cinematography was intended to be "European" in appearance, and to "look like a Christmas card."
Principal photography took place in Saratoga Springs, New York and Woodstock, Vermont. Interiors of the abandoned home in the film were crafted inside the former Union Station in Albany, New York, while shooting for the Florida-based scenes was completed in Deland and New Smyrna Beach, Florida; scenes set in New York City were shot on location. Additional photography took place at Universal Studios in Los Angeles, California. According to Irvin, the filming process was emotionally turbulent for star Fred Astaire, who confided in Irvin that he felt he was going to die or be murdered while shooting the film, and at one point considered dropping out of the production.
Universal Pictures vied for a Christmastime release for the film based on its wintry setting, and had originally slated a tentative release date of December 11, 1981. Advance test screenings were held between October 9–11, 1981 in Denver, Colorado and Boston, Massachusetts. The film opened in the United States with a wide release two months later on December 18, 1981. Limited engagement screenings of the film took place on December 16. It grossed a total of $23,371,905 at the United States box office, and was the third-highest grossing horror film of 1981 and the 34th-highest grosser of the year.
Critical reception was mixed to negative upon release. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 35% "rotten" rating based on 20 reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film a favorable review, praising the performances and considering it an improvement on Straub's novel. In The New York Times, Vincent Canby had the opposite view, also praising the performances but feeling that the movie oversimplified Straub's story and themes. He also criticized the central mystery and revelation as "humdrum" and anti-climactic after a strong build-up. Variety agreed with Canby that the filmmakers failed to translate Straub's novel to screen, stating that there were "isolated and excellent moments separated by artful but ordinary sketches."  Rex Reed of the New York Daily News similarly noted the film's cast as "wasted," and lambasted the film as a "horrible" adaptation of the source novel.
The Time Out film guide deemed it a "disastrous distillation of Peter Straub's overrated but at least tolerably coherent novel." TV Guide awarded the film two out of four stars, criticizing Cohen's screenplay, but adding: "Director John Irvin does manage to evoke some mood and atmosphere from the snowy New England setting, and the performances from the four veteran lead players are enjoyable."
Ghost Story was released on DVD on March 25, 1998 by Image Entertainment. Universal repressed the DVD with an alternate cover art, which was released September 7, 2004. The film received its first Blu-ray release in the United States on November 24, 2015 by Scream Factory. This release featured new bonus material, including an audio commentary with director John Irvin, as well as interviews with Peter Straub, Alice Krige, Lawrence D. Cohen, Burt Weissbourd, and Bill Taylor.
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