Ghost Story [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Shout! Factory
Review written by and copyright: Anthony Arrigo (16th January 2016).
The Film

When someone mentions the term “ghost story”, what are some of the images that are conjured up? A spooky atmosphere. Blue-tinted, foggy, moonlit nights. A large mansion looming over acres of New England property. Spirits, often malevolent, lurking around every corner. Ghastly sights to chill the blood. That’s what springs forth in my mind, and I’d be willing to bet other horror fans would say some of the same, too; however, despite there being a many ghostly films there are few which fully encompass these traits AND deliver a great film in the process. One of the few is “Ghost Story” (1981), the tale of four old codgers from New England who get together for the express purpose of telling scary stories. But the men also harbor a decades-old secret, one that has returned from beyond the grave to exact vengeance.

The film is based on a novel written by author Peter Straub, and by all accounts those who loved the book have been less than pleased with the accompanying feature. As mentioned in the bonus features, perhaps a television mini-series would have been the way to go. But for me, as someone who never read the source novel, the film was plenty satisfying. Just look at the main cast list alone: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Melvyn Douglas, John Houseman and Fred Astaire. The presence of these men alone piqued my interest, but to have them in a solid spook story only adds to the grandeur that is “Ghost Story”.

Just as in “The Fog” (1980) one year earlier, this picture opens with narration from the gravelly voice of John Houseman. His character, Sears James, is one of four members of the Chowder Society – the others being Ricky Hawthorne (Fred Astaire), Dr. John Jaffrey (Melvyn Douglas) and Mayor Edward Charles Wanderley (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) - a group of lifelong friends who enjoy sitting in stately rooms and drinking brandy while trying to scare the bejesus out of each other with tales of madness. When one of Edward’s sons dies in a freak accident, falling out of a New York City high rise window, his other son, Don (Craig Wasson, playing both brothers) heads up to the family estate to comfort dad. But there isn’t much love lost between those two.

Something is bothering the members of the Chowder Society, though, and the death of Edward’s son seems to have brought forth memories and feelings of a forgotten past. When apparent accidents cause two of the members to lose their lives Don joins in with the men and, after telling a ghost story of his own in order to gain membership in the group, learns from the remaining members that the apparitions who now plague them might be related to an incident from their youth. Though the claim seems dubious, it becomes increasingly difficult to deny that some vengeful soul isn’t stalking each of the men and attempting to claim their lives.

Setting aside any complaints viewers may have about the script or the changes from the book, nobody can deny this film is dripping with venerable talent. Wasson must have felt like a babe in the woods standing alongside these titans of cinema. This was the last feature film for three of the four old timers (only Houseman continued to work) and their respective roles here as elder statesmen living a high society life seems fitting given their prestige. These guys commanded attention throughout their careers, and even in these subdued, low-key roles each is just as magnetic. Astaire, in particular, has such a soulful, expressive face. The acting seems almost effortless across the board.

The talent behind the camera is just as astounding, in particular two men who helped shape the overall look of “Ghost Story” – matte artist Albert Whitlock and make-up effects guru Dick Smith. Need I say more? The work these men did back in their prime still holds up flawlessly to this day. The ghouls Smith created here are so lifelike and unsettling; with attention to detail that makes his work second to none. The reaction of the men upon seeing his fiends is palpable. And Whitlock’s work is so seamlessly integrated into the picture most viewers won’t even notice it’s there.

Not every film adapted from a novel needs to slavishly recreate those pages on the big screen. The movie you make in your mind when you read a book can’t be replicated anyway. Having watched and enjoyed “Ghost Story”, I’m feeling inspired to grab a copy of Straub’s novel and read it for comparisons sake. Director John Irvin’s film is stocked with talent across the board and the story is effectively unfolded over the course of this bleak Gothic nightmare, placing it right near the top of my go-to ghost movies.

Video

Time has been kind to the film’s 1.85:1 1080p 24/fps AVC MPEG-4 encoded image. The print has very little damage and only minor instances of dirt. Colors are accurate and nicely saturated, with some of Smith’s make-up work really popping among the dour palette. Medium shots are a little on the soft side, but close-ups often show a nice level of detail. Shadow delineation is spotty in some of the darker scenes, but overall this image handles all conditions well and comes out looking solid.

Audio

An English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track has no problem carrying the film’s modest sound mix. Dialogue is present and balanced, while the film’s spine-tingling sound effects are equally as represented. The score by composer Philippe Sarde is the perfect classical complement to the film, sounding both crisp and chilling. Subtitles are available in English.

Extras

In addition to an audio commentary track, this disc also features many featurettes covering the making of the film, interviews, promotional materials and photos.

Director John Irvin delivers the audio commentary, discussing his experience of being new to the Hollywood scene, casting the film, working with legends and so forth.

“Ghost Story Genesis” (1080p) is a featurette that runs for 39 minutes and 42 seconds. Author Peter Straub is interviewed here, reading passages from the novel, talking about differences in the film, the score, lectures, revisions he’s made and more. Great insight into the film and the story.

“Ghost Story Development” (1080p) is a featurette that runs for 29 minutes and 9 seconds. This piece tackles the issue of adapting the massive novel into something workable for a feature film. It’s a fascinating look at the process and logic behind such a task.

Alice Krige: Being Alma & Eva” (1080p) is an interview featurette that runs for 28 minutes and 52 seconds. After getting hooked on drama in college, the actress began a career filled with “amazing experiences”. She’s still a looker, too.

Albert Whitlock Visual Effects with Bill Taylor” (1080p) is a featurette that runs for 28 minutes and 51 seconds. Taylor breaks down many of Whitlock’s effects in the film, discussing how he achieved certain looks and reinforcing the fact that Whitlock was the man in his field.

The film’s theatrical trailer (1080i) runs for 2 minutes and 26 seconds.

A TV spot (1080i) runs for 31 seconds.

Two radio spots are included, running for 1 minute total.

A photo gallery (1080p) runs for 8 minutes and 43 seconds.

Packaging

The single disc comes housed in a standard Blu-ray keep case. The cover art is reversible.

Overall

Oozing with talent and dripping with blue-cloaked atmosphere, “Ghost Story” is a superbly acted chiller with a classic ghost tale at its heart.

The Film: B+ Video: B Audio: B Extras: B Overall: B+

 


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