Peter Straub’s Ghost Story was a major lit­er­ary event at the end of the ‘70s, a kind of hor­ror ur-text that could com­pete with Stephen King’s work at the book­stores while also win­ning crit­i­cal praise. It was no sur­prise when it was quick­ly picked up for a big screne adap­ta­tion by Universal. However, adapt­ing this book was nev­er going to be easy because it had an expan­sive, intri­cate sto­ry­line with a big ensem­ble of char­ac­ters plus com­plex shifts between fan­ta­sy and real­i­ty. It was sim­ply too big a book to cap­ture in one reg­u­lar-size GhosSt-posfea­ture film — and the result­ing film ver­sion of Ghost Story shows the strain of try­ing to boil down an epic for the mul­ti­plex.

Ghost Story revolves around a group of elder­ly men who call them­selves the Chowder Society. These aging pro­fes­sion­als — Sears James (John Houseman), Ricky Hawthorne (Fred Astaire), Edward Wanderley (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) and John Jaffrey (Melvyn Douglas) — have been gath­er­ing once a week to swap spooky tales for decades. However, their pas­time becomes point­less when hor­ror creeps into their lives: they’re all sud­den­ly haunt­ed by night­mares and Edward’s son David (Craig Wasson) dies under mys­te­ri­ous cir­cum­stances in New York City.

Edward’s oth­er son Donald (also Wasson) comes home for the funer­al as the mem­bers of the soci­ety begin to die in strange ways, with the com­mon denom­i­na­tor being the appear­ance of a mys­te­ri­ous and ghost­ly wom­an (Alice Krige) who fig­ures in a trag­ic event that every­one in the ChowGhosSt-01der Society is try­ing to repress. Donald reveals that he recent­ly had a romance with a strange wom­an who resem­bles the wom­an haunt­ing them — and past and present col­lide as the sur­vivors real­ize they must do bat­tle with some­thing beyond the mor­tal realm.

Because it is an adap­ta­tion of a hit nov­el, Ghost Story is able to get away with a lot of things that oth­er hor­ror movies of the same era couldn’t. For one thing, it’s unique in the heart of the slash­er era to see a film where the main heroes are a group of senior cit­i­zens. The film also has a hefty dose of sex­u­al­i­ty in its pre­sen­ta­tion of the female vil­lain — and the­se moments are han­dled in a frank but sur­pris­ing­ly mature way, focus­ing on the desire that dri­ves it as much as the sex itself. The com­bi­na­tion of adult con­tent mixed with old-Hollywood stars and a lav­ish bigGhosSt-02-bud­get pre­sen­ta­tion prob­a­bly worked again­st the film, con­fus­ing both the teen and old­er-adult audi­ences it could’ve appealed to.

However, Ghost Story has big­ger prob­lems than just an odd com­bi­na­tion of moods and styles. Lawrence D. Cohen’s script rad­i­cal­ly pares down the nov­el in ways that not only sim­pli­fy the tale for movie treat­ment but also blunt its effec­tive­ness. Its worst mis­take is that it gives the cen­tral vil­lain a dumb­ed-down moti­va­tion that com­plete­ly dis­man­tles Straub’s most ambi­tious ideas about the super­nat­u­ral and evil. He retains two extend­ed flash­backs from the nov­el that are a cru­cial part of the sto­ry… but the­se moments also killGhosSt-03 the cin­e­mat­ic momen­tum dead. It’s the kind of thing that works in a nov­el but sel­dom if ever works in a film. Most impor­tant­ly, the film ends with a whim­per instead of a scream, a state of affairs that will leave a lot of view­ers won­der­ing what all the buildup was for.

Direction and edit­ing are also issues in Ghost Story. John Irvin was bet­ter known for action and dra­mas in his career, mak­ing this film an odd­i­ty in his career. His work sug­gests he sim­ply isn’t com­fort­able with the task of direct­ing a hor­ror film. He cre­ates an inter­est­ing atmos­phere thanks to styl­ish pho­tog­ra­phy by Jack Cardiff and a thun­der­ous Philippe Sarde score but the film’s scares are often awk­ward­ly craft­ed. The lat­ter prob­lem reflects a lot of exec­u­tive sec­ond-guess­ing that occurred after the film had some poor test screen­ings, result­ing in hasti­ly-added extra shocks.GhosSt-04

Besides the tech­ni­cal pol­ish, the best thing about Ghost Story is the cast. The four elder­ly heroes all give classy and con­vinc­ing per­for­mances: Houseman is amus­ing­ly gruff as the group’s lead­er, Astaire is effort­less­ly charm­ing as the bravest of the group, Fairbanks, Jr. achieves some pathos as the belea­guered father and Douglas does fan­tas­tic work in a group argu­ment scene where his char­ac­ter breaks down in tears.

Wasson is solid as the younger hero but its Krige who steals the show from every­one, includ­ing the four leads. She’s fear­less as she cre­ates an unknow­able yet allur­ing char­ac­ter, wield­ing charm and men­ace with equal skill. It’s a shame the film’s con­cep­tion of the char­ac­ter doesn’t live up to her work because she could have eas­i­ly han­dled the orig­i­nal novel’s ver­sion of this vil­lain.

Ultimately, Ghost Story is a game attempt that falls short of both the chills and com­plex­i­ty of its source nov­el. That said, its atmos­phere and ele­gance give it a strange pull, mak­ing it the kind of intrigu­ing mis­fire that remains inter­est­ing even when it heads down the wrong road.