Ghost Story (1981)

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?


  1. Question regarding Harry Potter; Why did Voldemort put his baby inside Harry Potty? JK..but c' have to admit it looked like a sad fetus. I hate that they took his scar away in the last scene. I get the fact that it's because Voldemort's bloody soul wasn't inside him anymore was a fucking scar. He must have gotten Bio Oil.

  2. Hahaha to checking out "Insidious' or "The Eclipse" as "good" ghost stories. The former is nothing but a "Poltergeist" ripoff with the genders changed and the latter is a boring melodrama about bereavement with a couple of jump scares.

    I can't believe that you dissed "Ghost Story" so much but like Harry Potter. It's a little kids' film! Harry Potter? What the hell is going on?

  3. The novel is is terrific; at one point I actually jumped when I was reading it. That's right, a jump-scare in a novel. Do you know how hard that is to do? The movie was never going to approach it. The best approach would have been to jettison the book and keep the hook (four old men pursued by a crime in their past). Instead we get a boring patchwork that makes little sense if you haven't read the novel and leaves out way too much to satisfy if you have (the book isn't really a 'Ghost Story' at all; in the end it's sort of Lovecraftian).

    Vis-a-vis Potter: I felt HBP was actually an improvement on the novel, as it was more focused and clear. The identity of the HBP is not that important, and every element of that plot-line is contained in the movie. (Remember, it's the name written on the potions book that Harry acquires). All it does is set up that Snape went to Hogwarts (previously established anyway) and give a little more depth to his character. Movie and book mostly serve to set up that amazing pay-off which occurs in the boat house in the movie (avoiding spoilers).

  4. I read Ghost Story a few months back because Stephen King had praised it all those years ago and I enjoyed The Talisman. It was a pretty great little gothic horror story. Roger Ebert said the movie was better than the book so I was really looking forward to it. I was beyond bored and pretty let down. I'd say that the movie offered no scares at all except that my four year old daughter wandered in and accidentally saw the part where a car approaches the "ghost" in the middle of the road. She covered her face and ears and started screaming. I felt like a pretty crummy dad, but at least it gave me (and probably her) something to remember the movie by.

    Ebert said the movie was better than the book...

  5. Couldn't agree more about HBP. I remember when Snape made his revelation, it's played like Vader telling Luke he's his father, but all I could think was "Am I supposed to know what that means?" I felt last few movies especially (except for Deathly Hallows Pt. 2, which I haven't seen yet) were made for people who read the book, as I had to pepper them with questions on our way out of the theater. I suppose the filmmakers' feeling with all those details was "We don't have time to set this up, but if we don't include it, the fans will go nuts." Guess it's just one of the hurdles of adapting a book with a huge following.

    Oh, and yeah, also think Ghost Story is a bit of a snooze as well. I've tried a few times to make it all the way through, but still haven't seen it all.

  6. I think the success of the movie can be chalked up to two things. One, which you clearly pointed out, is the fondness for the stars of yesteryear that make up the top-billed cast. Two, Peter Straub's book was a massive hit in its time and this is one of the few films to attempt an adaptation of ANY of Straub's books. Simple as that.

    I love Craig Wasson in De Palma's "Body Double". Just saying, in case you hadn't seen it.

    Forget the Kula Shaker cover in IKWYDLS; it's all about Type O Negative's cover of "Summer Breeze".

  7. I read Ghost Story, the book, before the movie came out and I've re-read it several times since then. I'd had no idea that there was a movie at all so I was super-excited to find and watch it.

    Sadly, the movie wasn't nearly as good as the book. Even though some backstories were cut from the movie, everything else is fairly faithful to the book's plot and structure. I found this to be a problem in the early HP movies, too, in that they were too faithful to the plot and structure of the books. The devices and plot structure that work in books almost never work as well in the movies adapted from those books.

  8. is this the movie that has the naked guy 'falling' out of a window and the camera shakes and you see his pee pee dance up and down?


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