Monday, October 18, 2010

31 days, 31 faves: Ghost Story (1981)

Pretty much everyone knows I am an obsessive fan of this film. There's no denying it. Even though it is generally panned by critics and horror fans alike, just the same it has my heart.
Based on a terrifyingly superb novel by Peter Straub, 1981's Ghost Story is a slow-burning film that builds to a spine-tingling ending, and has one of my favorite horror villains of all time.
And yes, it is yet another film from the banner year of 1981. Wow.

Ghost Story tells the tale of four old men who've grown up together and still live in the same small town. A dirty old secret hanging over their heads starts an ominous chain of events that can be called nothing short of terrifying.
Ricky Hawthorne (Fred Astaire), Sears James (John Houseman), John Jaffrey (Melvin Douglas), and Edward Wanderley (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) have formed the what they call the Chowder Society, in which they tell each other scary stories in order to frighten the pants off each other.
They live in the quaint little town of Milburn, Vermont, a snowy little hamlet that becomes a tense hotbed of ghostly activity once a certain secret unfolds.

When Edward's son David dies in a mysterious fall in NYC, his twin brother Donny (Craig Wasson, in a dual role) comes back for the funeral and to stay with his father for a while. Donny is quite down on his luck, having lost his job as a professor at a college down in Florida.

Edward isn't exactly thrilled with Donny, always having thought David was the more ambitious of the two and obviously headed for greatness. But after David's untimely death, Edward becomes disillusioned, and horrific nightmares begin.

What we as the audience already know is that David's cause of death was anything but natural. He was with a woman in bed in his apartment, having some sort of issue with how cold she is. He knows something about her just isn't right, and when he confronts her and turns her toward him, we see her absolutely terrifying face - morphed into a ghastly visage. Enough to literally scare David into jumping from his (extremely high) terrace to his death below.

All four old men at this point fear that something is amiss. They mutter amongst themselves that someone needs to do something, that they can't go on harboring what is obviously a very big secret. When Edward wanders out into the street early one snowy morning and ends up on a bridge, he is called out to by someone with a female voice. Turning, he too sees a dreadfully awful looking apparition that causes him to tumble into the ice filled river below.

Donny, distraught about his father's death and knowing something more is afoot, goes to visit the three remaining friends. He attempts to "buy" his way into the Chowder Society with a ghost story of his own.

For this part of the film we are treated to a flashback of Don as he is just starting his job as a professor at the local college in Florida. He meets the attractive secretary, Alma Mobley (Alice Krige), and immediately hits it off with her. He takes her to dinner and they share a sundae for dessert. Then they promptly share a bit more back at her apartment during a thunderstorm.

It's the start of a very passionate affair, and you could quite possibly say Donny is addicted to Alma.
He starts missing a lot of work, pissing off the dean that got him the job in the first place. But all Don cares about is getting it on with Alma 24/7.

But again, something just isn't right. For one thing, Alma hates the rain. Matter of fact, she hates water in general. Scared to death of it. She has an episode when they are sharing a bath that made me jump ten feet high the first time I saw it. And she's forever cold. Donny is constantly called upon to warm her up, and at first he doesn't mind - but several times he has awakened to find her standing nude in front of a window or wandering around the apartment mumbling creepy things about being wet and cold. When they are at his rental one night making wedding plans, she stresses how she wants his entire family and all their friends to be present at the ceremony- and it MUST be at his hometown. Stricken with how adamant she is, Donny thinks perhaps they need to wait a bit before settling down. Alma completely freaks out and leaves. The next day when he goes to her apartment, she's moved out. Disappeared without a trace.

Soon, he gets a call from his brother Donny, who has great news. He's getting married. She's a really great girl... who happens to be his brother's ex. Donny of course tries to warn him, telling him to just watch her- see how strange she is. Something is very, very wrong with her.
But alas, we all know what happened to David.
And Donny knows it too. And he's scared to death.

Naturally the four old gents are utterly wigged out, realizing that Donny may indeed need to be told about their past. Ricky is all for telling Don, but Sears - always the arrogant bastard - becomes quite flip about the incident. They wait to tell him, but after John Jaffrey dies of a heart attack (after a strange woman came to the house asking for him), the remaining men cave and tell Donny their ghost story.

Back to the past again, only a bit further back. The Chowder Society is newly formed, and are a group of audacious young men just starting out in the world. They meet a lovely girl named Eva Galli who is renting a nearby mansion for the summer. All four men seem to fall head over heels with her, but her attention seems to be geared toward Edward, who in turn tries to impress her at every turn.
[We, as the film's audience, are immediately aware that Eva Galli and Alma Mobley are one and the same. Which of course does not bode well.]

When Edward tries to bed Eva, he discovers himself to be impotent (not the days of Viagra yet, sorry) but brags to all his friends that they indeed did the nasty. Later though, Eva (pissed from before because Edward lied about getting laid) taunts him in front of the other three men and Edward gives her a little push, knocking her down. She falls down and cracks her head on the fireplace. John, who is in medical school, pronounces her dead - and in a moment that is reminiscent of Psycho and could most certainly be blamed for influencing I Know What You Did Last Summer, the men decide to get rid of the body so there is no evidence linking them to a crime. It will just be like she disappeared.
Yeah, right. That shit never goes down the way you want it to.

They dump her body in her car, pushing it into a nearby lake. Suddenly, just as it is submerging under the water, they hear a pounding. Looking at the car, they see Eva in the back, looking out the window at them, screaming. A few of the men attempt to go in after her, but the car sinks too quickly and they realize she no doubt drowned. The men, torn to pieces about what has happened, make a pact to never, ever talk about the incident again.

Donny, after hearing the appalling tale, is certain Eva and Alma are the same person and that she has been haunting all of them with a vengeance. The only thing to do, he says, is confront their fears. He suggests they all go to Eva's house, positive that if she is indeed a ghost, that will be where she is. Sears isn't sure it's a good idea, but the two men talk him into it.

Off they go to the mansion on the edge of town. It has fallen into complete ruin (which is a major crime - it's one beautiful house!) and is as scary on the outside as the men feel on the inside.
Once in the house, Donny accidentally falls through a few steps on the decrepit staircase, falling and breaking his leg. Sears decides to go for help, and takes off in a snowstorm. As he's driving, he sees something on the road ahead of him. Just as he nears close enough to see that it's Eva, one of her supporters, a depraved little boy, shows up in Sears' backseat. He attacks him, causing him to wreck and perish.

Eventually Ricky knows something has happened to Sears and he takes off on his own to find him. Another of Eva/Alma's co-conspirators, a criminal - tries to stab Ricky but he is able to get away and reach the police, whom he then convinces to pull up the car in the lake and put Eva's spirit to rest.

Meanwhile back at the house, Eva's ghost shows up, gliding down the rotting staircase in her wedding gown. She speaks to Donny of them being together forever under the cold, dark lake. When she reaches for him, she's a repulsive corpse.
Just as she touches him, the car is pulled from the lake and Eva's water-logged remains fall out of the car.
It's over.

I simply can't stress how much I love this story - the book even more so than the movie. Anyone who likes to read should make it a priority.
Though the film showcased the four older men (all of whom had distinguished Hollywood careers) but the movie is really all Alice Krige's. Her Eva/Alma utterly chills me to the bone. Quick glimpses of her here and there, standing on the road or behind a tree - that always gets to me. Her frightening delivery of lines such as "I'll take you places that you've never been..." and "I'll watch the life run out of you..."



Big Daddy aka Brandon Sites said...

I like this movie a lot too flaws and all. If anything, I dig it for probably what is the best cast ever put together for a horror film. So many legendary actors in one film!

I went out and ordered the book back when I was a kid immediately after watching this film from the local mom and pop bookstore.

Scare Sarah said...

This is a classic that gets so overlooked. Loved your write up here.

Devil's Forest said...

Buying the book ASAP.

The Film Connoisseur said...

I dont know why critics would hate this one, it is so effectively creepy! That snowy, quiet wintery type of atmosphere is perfect for a horror movie, and this film exploits that!

I also love the make up effects on the ghost, very well done! Its an old school slow burner, but one worth watching all the way to the end.

I recently recommended it on my 16 Ghost Movies to watch on Halloween Night blog post.

Jesper Laursen said...

Wow! Thank you for this! Nice work! I saw this movie as a kid with my dad (about 10 or 11 years old... yeah I know, my dad was probably scared and needed the company ;-) Good thing this isn't a blog about parenting! Now as an adult I wanted to see it again just to see if it is as scary as I thought it was as a kid. Didn't know the name of it though but found your blog through a couple searches. When I read your recap it all came back to me... Awesome! Thanks!

Christine Hadden said...

Jesper: So glad you happened along and found what you were looking for! Hope when you watch it again you like it as well as when you were a kid! :)