JULY 18, 2011
I have been arguing (mostly on Twitter) with folks lately concerning the latest Harry Potter movie, and I think some of my points could also apply to Ghost Story, which like Harry is based on a book far too long to “properly” adapt for a two hour movie. The argument(s) began with someone complaining (at least a year too late, or just repeating themselves) that they had to “pay for the same movie twice” (for those who don’t follow the Harry Potter films – the adaptation of the 7th book was split into two movies), but I countered with two points: 1. The first half was just as engaging and enjoyable as say, The Two Towers or Empire Strikes Back, both of which also sort of left on cliffhangers, and, more importantly, 2. I think the real ripoff was the (single) 6th film.
See, I’m the type of guy who likes to see the movie before I read the book. I know the book will be fleshed out, but I’d like to judge the movie on its own terms and know for sure that they did a good job adapting the source material, instead of using my memory of the book to fill in gaps that are in no way depicted on-screen. How can I do that if I haven’t read it? Simple: by sitting down, watching the movie, and knowing what the hell is going on at all times instead of feeling like I’m only getting half of the story. I think the 6th Harry film (Half Blood Prince) was the weakest in the entire series because they left out so much of the book that they assumed everyone had read anyway (including "following up" on plotlines that had never been part of the films!). So characters and events are mentioned even though they had never been introduced, Snape gives a major reveal and doesn’t even explain what the hell it means (and it’s the damn title!), the narrative makes huge jumps, etc. Now, for all I know these issues are in the book as well (I’m slowly catching up, reading-wise – I’m on the 4th right now), but screenwriter Steve Kloves’ job is to make a good movie, not make sure he hits a bunch of beats from the book. Thus, with an extra 2.5 hrs to tell the story, I felt that the two Deathly Hallows movies never gave me that “What the hell are they talking about?” feeling that I couldn’t shake throughout Half Blood Prince. To me, HBP ripped me off by apparently demanding I read a 20 dollar book before I paid 15 bucks to see the movie. Hallows, on the other hand, gave me two good films. Plus, it’s not like they hid the fact that the movie was split in two; the decision was made long before the first film even had a trailer (and was prominently explained in the trailer once it was released).
So what the hell does this have to do with Ghost Story? Well, not much, but I wanted to explain that thing about Harry and don’t have another blog. But it also suffers from the same problem Half Blood did, in that they were clearly bringing in elements from the source material just because they were there in the book, without really considering that they didn’t really “fit” with the theatrical version. For example, our villainous ghost has two assistants, a young man and a little kid, and their identities, back-story, reasons for helping the ghost, etc – all left to our imagination. I couldn’t even tell if they were also ghosts or not, which is kind of a major problem.
They also took a structure that might have worked fine on the page but is just awkward and life-sucking on screen. We meet our hero and lose a cast member or two, and then we’re treated to a lengthy flashback of how said hero came to be involved with the ghost when she was still alive (or WAS SHE?). Once we finally return to the present day, it’s like the movie has to start all over again, and just when things seem like they’re going to start getting exciting again, we get ANOTHER goddamn half hour flashback, this one detailing how the ghost got to be that way in the first place. And so it takes over 90 minutes to get to the point – these four guys (now in their 80s) accidentally killed her and covered it up, and now she wants to get revenge.
Of course, why she spent 50 years waiting around is beyond us. Her plan is also needlessly convoluted, involving a more psychological/ cruel approach in which she will seduce one of the men’s sons (Craig Wasson) and convince him to marry her, which will of course freak out his dad and honorary uncles when they see her face. And in another example of including book elements that should have been jettisoned for a more streamlined story, when this plan backfires, she tries again with his brother, also played by Wasson. It’s not until THIS fails (she scares him so badly he falls out of a window) that she finally decides to go back to the town where the old dudes live and kill them. Way to beat around the bush, movie.
Worse, the film spends so much time on these assholes sitting around telling their stories, we never grow really attached to them. Perhaps that’s why legends like Fred Astaire and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr were cast – folks could care about them because of their cinematic legacy, not what they were actually doing in this particular film. But that’s a terrible way to go about it if true; my kids’ generation won’t know who any of these guys are (even my familiarity and thus fondness is a bit slim). I DO have some attachment to Wasson, however, due to Nightmare on Elm Street 3 (the first movie I ever bought!), but the movie doesn’t bother giving him much to do in the present day scenes beyond listening to the others talk.
The order in which the men die doesn’t make a lot of sense either; his dad is the first to go. Maybe it’s a decent shock for some, but it robs the film of having any strong emotional center, because they set it up that Wasson and his dad didn’t really get along and this is the first time they’ve seen each other in a while and blah blah, yet they kill him off before the two have a chance to bond again, which could have resulted in a bittersweet ending. Instead, this leaves Wasson to go off and fight the thing with two dudes he barely even knows/cares about. Astaire’s character also has a sort of sad “goodbye” scene with his wife, but he’s the only one to survive of the four, rendering THAT scene (and her entire character) pretty worthless as well.
Clunky story aside, it’s just a snoozer. I don’t know how the hell I managed to stay awake, because there was nothing compelling or scary about it. The ghost barely ever appears unless it’s just about to kill someone, and the two brothers aren’t in it (or developed) enough to register as a genuine threat. The snowy Vermont locale is nice, but they don’t utilize it enough; most of the movie takes place inside (or in the much less interesting/scary Florida, where Wasson’s lengthy flashback occurs), so there’s a damning lack of atmosphere as well. Nice ghost/skeleton makeup from Dick Smith, no surprise there – just a shame it wasn’t used for any memorable scares or sequences. Hell, it’s only been a few hours and I already can’t remember how Melvyn Douglas’ character died.
I assume it was the star power that propelled this movie to a pretty decent box office take back in 1981, outgrossing The Howling, Omen III, and pretty much every single slasher released (Halloween II is the only one to top it. Go Michael!), which is nice as it was the last feature film for Astaire, Fairbanks, and Douglas (who actually died before it was released) – least they went out with a hit movie. But otherwise I can’t see the appeal, unless folks back then didn’t like to be scared or even entertained when they sat down for something called Ghost Story. The closest thing to entertainment value in the entire movie (besides a shot of Wasson’s flaccid penis – hey there ladies!) is when the guy playing the younger version of Astaire’s character claims he can’t dance. Heh. If that’s worth 111 tedious minutes to hear first hand, get to it. Otherwise, if you want a good ghost flick, check out Insidious or The Eclipse. And if you want a “four friends cover up a murder” movie... well, go with I Know What You Did Last Summer, I guess. It’s shorter and you get that awesome Kula Shaker cover of “Hush” as a bonus.
What say you?