Sunday, July 22, 2007

Ghost Story (1981)

(Spoilers ahoy)

Ghost Story is formally presented as “old fashioned”; this description is only partly accurate. Ghost Story stars a quartet of former leading men, all Old-Hollywood royalty. The 1981 film also begins with a fantastic 50’s premise, but the similarities between Ghost Story and the old Price/Karloff pictures evoked by the notion of “old horror” (the Famous Monsters would be going too far back) end there. Ghost Story is an astute commentary on the horror genre itself (and not just horror in film, I must add), a meditation; Ghost Story interrogates the intersection of “Old” and “New” (read: post Hitchcock) film horror’s colluding.

Lawrence D. Cohen, who’s main gig is adapting Stephen King novels and short stories for television, here adapts Peter Straub’s novel. John Irvin directs. Irvin’s asymmetrical oeuvre includes films as diverse as Raw Deal and Hamburger Hill. While neither scriptwriter nor director have particularly impressive careers, here their efforts create an interesting film, perhaps the best of both their careers.

Ghost Story refers to the business of the “Chowder Society,” a group of old men whom once a week gather to spin ghastly moralistic narratives. The Society is Ricky Hawthorne (Fred Astaire), Dr. John Jaffrey (Melvyn Douglas, who appeared in the comparable The Changeling only a few years earlier), Sears James (John Houseman), and Edward Charles Wanderley (Douglas Fairbanks Jr). While the Society are the prime movers of the film, much of the present-time narrative concerns Don Wanderley, son of Edward, whom is called back to the spooky and anachronistic town of Millbrook, Massachusetts after the mysterious death of his twin brother David (both played by Craig Wasson of Body Double and The Men’s Club), and the equally strange death of one of the Society’s members: his father. While initially the connection between the two deaths is vague, both have something to do with two women from different eras who may in fact be the same person: Eva Galli and Alma Mobley (both played by Alice Krige, whose performance may be the film’s best). The film’s narrative from this point on begins to twist through space and time, meting out the complete story in pieces, presented as stories told to one character by another. I have not read the original novel, but this diegetic strategy may be a way of inserting necessary information outside the story's selected arcs.

It is a testament to the film’s script that these scenes never feel like meandering digressions. The mindful pacing of the film conceals the fact that Ghost Story takes huge risks by dropping in and out of the main narrative. The center of the film is in fact a lengthy departure in which David relates a tale to Fred Astaire’s Ricky Hawthorne (the bond between these two is the strongest relationship in the film). While the film is in some sense part of the mystery genre, an unusual amount of patience is required, as not every flashback brings the viewer closer to solving Millbrook’s riddles. Storytelling itself is an important part of the film; much of the film is actually told as story: the Chowder Society is formed around the act of storytelling; film itself is storytelling (no matter how abstract or non-linear a film is, all films have a narrative if only because there is a timestamp: all films have a beginning and an end in the experience of the viewer).

While the plot of Ghost Story could be the premise for a fine revisionist-William Castle film, neither the script nor the acting in Ghost Story point to camp or nostalgia. The four leads are all veteran actors who can command attention here, yet there are no attempts made in their performances to belie the simple fact that these old men inhabit frail bodies—bodies most likely not strong enough to survive the hazards of 1980’s horror. The commonplace yet keenly observed frailty of the actors is a testament to the film’s direction, as the old men of the story are allowed to be old men; many films betray this biological fact, presenting elderly performers as outside-of-time.

As excellent as the four leads are (particularly Astaire), the other two players in Ghost Story are equally fantastic. Interestingly, both play two characters: Krige portrays Eva and the ghost Alma, Wasson doubles up as Don and David Wanderley. Craig Wasson is an interesting specimen. Wasson spent the 1980’s perfecting a kind of anti-charisma, a talent prefect for certain films. Wasson became the uncertain, slight, ineffectual everyman of the 1980s. Wasson often represented a perceived hand-waving liberal powerless in Reagan’s America. In Ghost Story, the Don and David Wanderley sub-plot could be a film in-itself. While the wealthy and successful David checks out early in the film, Don carries much of the film’s weight (and buckles underneath it), as the Wanderley failure, a disappointing shadow of his father and twin brother; a loser who twists his ankle at the film’s climax and only cowers in fear when the hammer drops. In the story Don tells Ricky, his mundane life is ignited by the overt sexuality and power of Alma, whom he meets at the college where he teaches English. When he begins to suspect something is the matter with Alma (she is in fact dead), he cuts the relationship short, only to find out she has found and seduced his brother David.

The ghost of Ghost Story, Eva/Alma, is masterfully and subtly played by South African actress Alice Krige. This is a ghost who operates metaphysically, ageless and even supra-conscious of the film itself, reflexively embodying the conflicts pertinent to the film. By this I mean to say that Ghost Story is in many ways about the meeting of old and new horror, articulated by the unraveling of the old fashioned Chowder Society by the (often ugly and intrusive) outside world. When Hawthorne investigates an abandoned old building from his boyhood, he only finds a derelict named Bate (Miguel Fernandez), who’s seemingly been appropriated by Eva/Alma, and his pre-teen boy companion. The boy, (Lance Halcomb) rising dirty in a woman’s nightgown, is somehow shocking, especially by contrast. The Chowder Society ultimately represent an obsolete lifestyle.

Ghost Story in fact mixes and matches the old and the new. The chilly New England settings recall Lovecraft, Bradbury and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The score feels decades old, fit for a children’s fright film actually, a kind of wistful version of classic Hermann. Not classic, however, are the gory special effects of the film. While used sparingly, when the kills occur, they remind the viewer of Argento in their forwardness and unflinching intensity. In several scenes Alma’s long flowing hair obscures her face, which may be borrowed from Gialli thrillers, yet still prefigures one particular obsession of J-Horror.

While I may give the impression of a binary here, Ghost Story actually demystifies the seeming duality created. The Old Horror represented by The Chowder Society is interrogated during a flashback to the college years of the four men. “50 years ago” the story begins. The elderly Society are mostly confident, commanding and mindful; the younger Society are altogether different. The four young men are cast as smart, effeminate, republican geeks, a casting which feels distinctly Lovecraftian. What might have been a formalistic flashback becomes a weird, embarrassing and awkward sequence to watch, as the stately old protagonists of the film (and actors of an older generation) are in their origin seen as four social rejects whom constantly embarrass themselves and eventually funnel their misfit status into misogynistic rage and end up doing something rather horrific to Eva, the girl of their dreams who will later return as the vengeful Alma.

During this sequence it becomes clear that this is a film which pulls no punches. While the elderly Chowder Society is refined and gentlemanly, this betrays the total picture of these men and perhaps more broadly the entire idea of the “old-fashioned gentleman”; which is often merely a pose for a kind of confused male-white supremacy. In this interpretation Eva/Alma becomes entirely sympathetic, despite her bizarre and cruel behavior. While the Society is ultimately remorseful, it becomes apparent by the film’s end that the horror of the film is in fact of their creation. Eva’s death is an accident, but motivated by the Society’s perceived emasculation by Eva. By Ghost Story’s end it becomes apparent that these are not leading men in the traditional sense, but flawed individuals, living in a world of false appearances, carefully constructed as a defense mechanism.

What exactly Ghost Story’s point is, it is hard to say. It makes more sense to see Ghost Story as polyglot. Part horror genre history lesson, part multi-level demystification (social, filmic), part ode to storytelling, and part good-old fashioned ghost-thriller. Significantly, Ghost Story proves that elderly actors can carry a genre film, and not just a film posed as revival or nostalgic revision. More than anything, however, Ghost Story is a fine film which is now something of a buried treasure (of its genre, certainly, but a marvel by any measure). The reviews of Ghost Story were initially rather unkind; I say it's time for a reappraisal.