Listen my children and you shall hear of escapades of profound and eerie fear! It is a cold, snowy winter, the wind is howling and the spirits of the dead are restless. One in particular will appear to wreck havoc on a group of four elderly gentleman and the twin sons of one of them, in a vain attempt to extract vengeance that has been harboured in a watery grave for the better part of fifty years.
Fred Astaire, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., John Houseman, Melvyn Douglas; heavyweights all. And then there is Alice Krige, the iron hand in a velvet glove. Four of Hollywood's greats sharing time and space with a more recent and incredibly worthy addition to its hallowed halls. It is a shame, though, that in translating Peter Straub's horror novel to the screen, more couldn't have been done to artfully render the proceedings into a true screamfest, instead of the regular millieu that frequently fails to pass muster in films of this sort.
In a small New England town, four elderly and successful members of The Chowder Society, Ricky Hawthorne (Fred Astaire), Sear James (John Houseman), John Jaffrey (Melvyn Douglas) and Edward Wanderly (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) meet regularly to tell ghost stories, enjoying snifters of brandy and elegantly attired in tuxedos. Each story is more fantastic than the last, but there is one in particular which never crosses their lips or breathes a day of life, and is as old as time itself -- the death of a woman so many years before. Suddenly and without warning, all of the men begin to experience a series of terrifying nightmares that all seem somehow intertwined and tormenting in their relating. These episodes begin after the death of Edward Wanderly's son, David (Craig Wasson), in New York City, the victim of most horrendous death after crashing through a plate glass window from a high rise building. His twin brother, Don (Craig Wasson), is called back to Millbourne by his father, Edward, for the funeral. What follows for the next hour and fifty minutes is the crux of a horrendous situation, and an exercise in uncanny and unimagined calamities that will prevail.
Ghost Story presents some interesting scenarios, but on the whole is an uneven concoction that boils in the kettle, but burns and scalds without letting us enjoy a fulfilling storyline. The four male leads in this film were the studios draw to bring in audiences. What self respecting movie buff wouldn't have wanted to see them in a full fledged Hollywood production? Sadly, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. makes a very early exit, and in the fashion of Agatha Christie's, Ten Little Indians, we are left to wonder just who or what will be next.
Fred Astaire fares the best of the quartet, with the always marvelous Melvyn Douglas bringing up a very close second. Astaire's Ricky is sublime and Douglas's Dr. Jaffrey is consummate in its execution. Craig Wasson did nothing to make this reviewer want to see him survive, and it is the one piece of miscasting that flaws the film. Patricia Neal as Astaire's wife, Stella, gives a performance that could have been telegraphed to the set. She is always enjoyable to see in anything she does, but in this instance, she was rather forgettable in a role that seemed somehow beneath her vast talents.
The best has been saved for last -- Alice Krige. Where has this actress been all our lives? She is superb and exquisite in her dual role of Eva Galli and Alma Mobley. The face, the regal voice, the carriage she exhibits -- all lend marvelous credibility to the proceedings and echo harbingers of a great talent. Why this role didn't lead to bigger and better parts for her is a mystery, for she is truly believable and a joy to behold as she floats through years and dimensions.
The screenplay by Lawrence D. Cohen is to be forgiven to a certain extent, for he had only Straub's work to play with. This is slightly disturbing in light of the fact that he has had previous screenplay action with the works of Stephen King, so he is no stranger to the horror genre. Uneven features are presented throughout the film in many ways. How and why, after so many years, does Eva want to suddenly appear? If she is a ghost, why don't two men realize this as they are having sex with her? Why does gratutious sex make its way into this film to begin with? What part did two escapees from the asylum, Gregory Bates (Miguel Fernandez) and Lenny Bates (Lance Holcomb) play with Eva? Young Bates disappears entirely after one part and said disappearance is not rightfully explained. Ricky leaving to get help for immobilized Don at the Victorian mansion, and instead organizing a crew to bring up a wrecked car from Dedham Pond, made little or no sense, especially in light of the fact that Ricky acknowledged that he too, felt that Eva was in that house. A great influx of unanswered questions left to gather dust because the belt of writing was not tightened.
The cinematography by the great British cameraman, Jack Cardiff, is superb and evokes a sense of subtle frightfulness and suspense, and his melding of shades of colour; dark for evil secrets and the bright light of white snow to counter an offensive are masterfully conveyed. The musical score by prolific Philippe Sarde is amply representational and evocative and was slightly reminiscent in ways of the work of Bernard Herrman's Farenheit 451.
On a scale of one to ten, Ghost Story would have to rate a 6.5 simply for effort, but for acting, Ms. Krige would go off the scales! She singlehandedly made this movie watchable and for that we can be very grateful indeed.
The next time you begin to recite a ghost story, be it around the campfire or in front of a raging fireplace, be careful what you say. You never know just when it may come back to 'haunt' you. . .BOO!!