Four friends, Ricky Hawthorne (Fred Astaire), Sears James (John Houseman), John Jaffrey (Melvyn Douglas), and Edward Wanderley (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), meet regularly to exchange ghost stories in the small town of Milburn, New York. The men, prosperous in their old age (two are lawyers, one is a doctor, and the fourth the small town's mayor), and call themselves the Chowder Society. Each month, the men take turns in telling a story by answering the question, “What was the worst thing you’ve ever done?” with a ritualistic response, “I won’t tell you that, but I will tell you the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.” The men’s monthly activity, however, has come with a cost: frequent nightmares and, on occasion hallucinations.
Ghost Story opens with a prologue added for the film, the apparent suicide of Edward’s son, David (Craig Wasson), whose encounter with the beautiful, enigmatic Alma Mobley (Alice Krige) eventually leads to a disturbing discovery about her true nature. The audience is unfortunately treated to a series of quick edits, one shock cut, and crude, obvious special effects (with gratuitous male nudity thrown into the mix). David’s twin brother, Don (Craig Wasson, again), once dated and fell in love with Alma. Alma, of course, is more (and less) than she appears, the motives of her actions are connected to an event fifty years ago, one in which the four men played a tragic part.
Don returns to Milburn for his brother’s funeral. In the novel, Don is actually Edward’s nephew, a writer invited to Milburn to investigate the strange occurrences that have filled the four men with existential dread. Don soon discovers the Chowder Society, but not before a Chowder Society member dies, and two strangers, Gregory Bate (Miguel Fernandes) and his cross-dressing younger brother, Fenny (Lance Holcomb), appear in town. In the first of two lengthy flashbacks, Don ”buys” his way into the Chowder Society by recounting his relationship with Alma (they were lovers, engaged to be married), the bizarre end of their relationship, and his brother’s ultimately tragic relationship with Alma. Alma reappears in Milburn. In the second flashbacks, the Chowder Society recounts the story that sealed their lifelong friendship, a story centered on a beautiful woman new to Milburn, Eva Galli (Alice Krige, in a dual role). These poorly integrated flashbacks are lengthy, momentum halting diversions from the main narrative, taking more than a third of the entire running time.
The exposition-filled, momentum-sapping flashbacks are only one of several problems with Ghost Story. Irvin directs the key set pieces with minimal competency and maximum apathy, ending each one with an all-too-predictable shock cut (makeup effects by legendary makeup artist, Dick Smith, best known for his work on The Exorcist). Even legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death) contributes little here beyond the occasional chiaroscuro composition. Each repeated shock cut of a decomposing body is less impressive, and less effective, than the last. Lawrence D. Cohen, in adapting Peter Straub’s sprawling 600-page novel, eliminated several key characters and subplots. Cohen focused too little on Alma’s return and far too much on the past through flashbacks, reflected in the overlong flashbacks. The novel's apocalyptic climax, as Milburn is sealed off from the outside world by a series of freakish snowstorms, is also missing from the big screen adaptation.
The performances, like the direction and writing, are sadly undistinguished, but there is some obvious pleasure for fans of the octogenarian actors to see them in their last, or nearly last roles; here’s some sadness too, of course. For Melvyn Douglas, his role as Dr. John Jaffrey was his second-to-last role. For Fred Astaire, Ricky Hawthorne, was, in fact, his last film role. For everyone else, there’s little here to recommend here (per the “R” rating, there are several gratuitous nude scenes, but little onscreen violence). Fans of Straub’s novel, however, should give this adaptation. For better or for worse, in time a producer looking for adaptable properties will rediscover Peter Straub’s novel. Hopefully, next time, a better screenwriter and a more accomplished director will be selected to adapt Ghost Story for the (small) screen.
© Mel Valentin, 7th January, 2005
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