by Jack Sommersby
Somehow I doubt many of the involved players and technicians are going to put this sorry suckotash in their testimonials.Ghost Story is the very definition of ineptness, and what's truly shocking isn't its horror elements, which couldn't be more hoary, but the failure of its talented director, John Irvin, who made an outstanding feature-film debut just the year before with The Dogs of War but who's totally out of his element here with what isn't the most challenging of material. It's an adaptation of the best-selling novel by Peter Straub, and while Straub's work is usually too detailed and dense to derive much pleasure from (the exception being his masterpiece Shadowland), certainly something viable could have come of it. But even from the very outset the film is off on the wrong foot, and by the eleven-minute mark you've already been subjected to three major inanities: first, a sophomorically silly opening-title music score that exudes not an iota of spookiness (it belongs in an entirely different genre); second, a rushed story told among a quartet of geriatrics in a darkened living room that's more ho-hum than menacing (when one of the men remarks that it's one of their scariest tales, we're decidedly nonplussed); third, an atrociously staged scene where a young man in a high-rise is aghast at the monstrous, eaten-away face of the woman he's just spent the night when he rolls her over, and his shocked reaction sends him hurtling backward a good fifteen feet through the window and lethally downward to his death a good ten stories (the jumbled juxtaposing has to be seen to be believed, not to mention the substandard durability of that huge glass pane). Could this possibly be from the very same director who handsomely mounted that Christopher Walken adventure where the taking-heads scenes were as superb as the action ones, where the various locales ranging from New York City to London to South Africa were well-etched milieus with heaping helpings of atmosphere and texture, where every character, whether primary or secondary, were both organic and believable? It's not like Irvin's task in Ghost Story were anything particularly complex or demanding, what with its main setting a small Vermont town during a most frigid wintertime, and its main story that of four longtime elderly friends (played by John Houseman, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas), who, as part of the Chowder Society, get together every two weeks and tell ghost stories around a nice toasty fire, only to find a supernatural horror has come back to haunt them from their past and starts knocking them off one by one. Their untimely demises, we're meant to see, have always been inevitable, though why it's taken the avenging spirit so long to get at them isn't addressed.
There are two more pertinent characters who figure into the mix (or, three, actually, the way it's been laid out): David (Craig Wasson), the son of one of the old men and twin brother of the man who was killed in New York, who's returned home to comfort his father; and Alma (Alice Krige), who was the brother's fiancee but who was also David's former girlfriend from two years ago -- the father and brother were both oblivious to David's past relationship with her. Not only do we get flashbacks of the David/Alma days, but also ones of the elderly quartet from fifty years ago during college when they were all infatuated with one red-haired beauty named Eva, also played by Krige, who wound up meeting her own untimely demise that was unintentionally brought about by the young men. Even with the high production values and that pedigreed cast of old codgers, Ghost Story is nothing more than a horror-revenge picture, and most of it's imprecise and just plain careless. Irvin brought on board his Dogs cinematographer Jack Cardiff, and together they haven't conjured up a single expressive image: the camera never seems to be in the right place; the compositions are bland and boxy; and the secondary tones of the color scale, which are absolutely essential in horror, are underutilized. Irvin tries putting off easy shock effects as much as he can, but the haphazard screenplay leaves him little choice, and he shows he's just not up to it; he doesn't build suspense within a sequence, and when he tries to give us a shock at the end of it, he cuts away too soon, as if he were embarrassed at having to partake in such a low-down tactic, and ends up botching what even most mediocre hacks can get right. Irvin's too high-minded to bring this kind of thing off, and the movie definitely would have benefited from a cruder, trashier approach -- it's so indifferent to the demands of the genre that it's superfluously silly rather than eerily phantasmagorical, with unintentional laughs in bountiful supply. Yes, the movie doesn't rely on buckets of gore, but so what when there's not a single genuine scare to be had, and when a decrepit abandoned house that's supposed to give us the willies hasn't so much as a speck of graphic vitality? The only saving grace is the ethereally beautiful Krige, who was the best thing in Chariots of Fire and has both the looks and talent to be a major star. Whether clad in an expensive white evening gown or stripped down to her full-frontal glory, Krige is mesmerizing, erotic, enticing, and more forceful than all her male co-stars put together. She's the real Story; the others, mere footnotes.The bare-bones DVD sports a reasonably good video transfer, but the audio leaves a lot to be desired.
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originally posted: 02/26/12 21:46:46