Ghost Story (film)

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This article is about the 1981 film. For other uses, see Ghost Story (disambiguation).
Ghost Story
Ghost Story.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by John Irvin
Produced by Burt Weissbourd
Written by Novel
Peter Straub
Lawrence D. Cohen
Music by Philippe Sarde
Cinematography Jack Cardiff
Edited by Tom Rolf
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release dates
  • December 18, 1981 (1981-12-18) (US)
Running time
110 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $23,371,905

Ghost Story is a 1981 American horror film directed by John Irvin and based on the 1979 book of the same name by Peter Straub. It stars Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., John Houseman and Craig Wasson (in a dual role). It was the last film to feature Astaire, Fairbanks, and Douglas (who 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.


The plot is taken from the novel of the same name by Straub, but greatly changes and simplifies it.

In a small New England town during a frigid winter season, four elderly friends form what they call the Chowder Society, an informal mens club where they regale each other with scary stories. Membership in the club, in fact, requires that one present such a story. The four friends are: Ricky Hawthorne, a business owner; Sears James, a lawyer; Dr. John Jaffrey; and Edward Charles Wanderley, the town's mayor.

When Edward's son, David (Craig Wasson), living in New York City, falls from a window after the girl he's sleeping with turns suddenly into a decomposing, living corpse, Edward grieves. His other son, Don, a college professor who has fallen on hard times, comes home at Edward's request but doesn't receive a warm welcome, since Edward always preferred the other, more ambitious twin son.

But now the four elderly gentlemen are unsettled and have nightmares. Clearly, something is bothering them. Edward becomes so distraught that he wanders across a bridge in the snow. When he sees the same female apparition that caused his son to fall to his death, Edward, too, falls to his death from the bridge. Although his death is ruled a suicide, his son Don and Edward's three remaining elderly friends doubt it. Don approaches the remaining three friends, requests membership in their group and offers up a bizarre "ghost" story of his own.

Don's flashback:

A few years earlier, Don, then a promising junior professor living in Florida, meets Alma, a beautiful if mysterious secretary who had come to work for the university. They immediately become involved in a torrid sexual affair that causes him to miss work and earn the scorn of the dean who previously championed him. But Don finds a strange coldness about Alma, and he breaks things off with her. Later, he hears from his brother David that he has met the same girl in New York and intends to marry her. Don warns his brother that she's trouble, but to no avail. And indeed, Don suspects she caused David's fatal fall from the building as seen earlier.

In the present, the elderly friends react to Don's story. Sears discounts it, but Ricky believes him. Elderly Dr. John Jaffrey, after having a nightmare about the same woman, Alma, dies of a heart attack. This leaves only Sears and Ricky, who finally tell Don their own strange history with a woman who looked exactly like Alma.

Their flashback:

Back in the 1930s when the four friends were young, the beautiful Eva Galli came to town during their summer break from college, and, indeed, it's obvious that she's the same person as Alma in the present. The four friends are smitten with Eva, who encourages their sexual interest.
It was Young Edward (Don's father) who first took her to bed, but he was impotent with her. Outside her house, the other three friends serenaded Eva in hopes of catching a glimpse of her when a shirtless Edward came to the window instead, giving the impression that he did sleep with her. Edward left with his friends, and the four became very drunk, discussing Eva's prowess in the bedroom. They returned to her house, where all but Sears danced with her. When it was proposed that they leave, Sears suggestively insisted on getting his dance, to which she pointedly responded that she intended to dance with all of them. She confronted Edward about what he had told his friends, then was about to tell them the truth when Young Edward leaped to silence her, knocking her down, accidentally smashing her head into the stone fireplace. Horrified, the young men believed that the unresponsive Eva was dead. They considered calling the police, but realized it would only mean wrecking their lives. Instead, they loaded her body into her car, then pushed it into the nearby lake. As the car descends, Eva stirred inside, looking out at them from the back window, screaming and hammering at the glass as the car sank beneath the surface, taking her with it.

Back in the present, Ricky and Sears admit that the 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 nearly dies at the hands of Eva's other accomplice, Gregory Bate, 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, wrenching open the rusted, corroded door, and the undead rotting corpse of Eva lunges into view. It falls to the ground and begins to disintegrate before their eyes. Don is spared from her vengeance and the town is restored to peace.



The film earned a respectable $23,371,905 at the US box office. It was the third highest grossing horror film of 1981 and the 34th highest grosser of the year.[1]

Critical reception was mixed to negative upon release. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 31% "rotten" rating based on 16 reviews. Roger Ebert gave it a positive review, praising the performances and considering it an improvement on Straub's novel.[2] 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.[3]

In 1982, the film was nominated for a Saturn Award for Best Horror Film.

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