Peter Straub’s “Ghost Story,” published in 1978, is one of the best horror novels of the late 20th century.
It’s about four young men who encounter a supernatural entity that plagues them into their geriatric years, seduces a pair of their grandsons and will not rest until it has annihilated every last one of them.
Despite the title, it’s not about a ghost but a centuries-old being that presents itself in the form of an alluring young women; in the same way that Stephen King’s “IT” isn’t about a clown but a generations-spanning ghoul who appears in the form of Pennywise the Clown.
King was a great admirer of Straub’s novel and clearly was inspired when he wrote “IT” (first published in 1986).
Both involve young and old versions of the characters grappling with life’s hardships, as well as encounters with a being that has never stopped haunting them.
Whereas “IT” is about the horrors children endure by the rotten adult authority figures around them, “Ghost Story” is about a group (“The Chowder Society” instead of “The Loser’s Club”) who make a terrible mistake as young men and are literally haunted by that awful misstep in their twilight years.
There are scenes in Straub’s novel that have never left me, like the gripping, disturbing opening, in which a man has abducted as little girl, keeping her hostage as they drive around the country.
As the unsettling start progresses, we wonder if the man is keeping the girl as his prisoner, or if it’s the other way around. Very sneaky of Straub, to begin on such a note: how on Earth could I stop reading after that?
There’s also a portion where two boys spy on a haunted house through a telescope and view the story’s beautiful, alluring antagonist looking back at them. They watch with curiosity, which turns to horror as they realize she can hear everything they’re saying about her, even as she’s at an impossible distance away from them.
Then there’s the fantastic final scene, a car crash involving a being that shape shifts into an angry wasp (the image on the novel’s striking, original hardcover edition).
Straub’s novel is a layered, richly addictive work. John Irvin’s 1981 film adaption is pretty good; it’s a case, not unlike Jack Clayton’s 1983 adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” where the ambition, special effects technology, trust in long form storytelling for the big screen and studio trust in such an undertaking was ahead of its time and not available to the filmmakers.
These are good films with tremendous moments but nowhere near as transfixing in the telling and masterful in the world building as the works they’re based on. Both Bradbury and Straub’s novels should be remade as movies today. For now, we have Irvin’s film, which is uneven and “simplified” in its telling but full of wondrous touches.
The casting is both a huge plus and a problem. On the positive end, The Chowder Society is embodied by Fred Astaire, John Houseman, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Melvyn Douglas, who induce awe and a lived-in immediacy in their roles.
The equivalent today would be if the parts were played by Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier and Clint Eastwood.
Seeing some of the legendary members of the Golden Age of Hollywood play vulnerable, intelligent men who are fearful at the end of their lives is an astonishment that surpasses mere stunt casting. Astaire and Houseman are especially great (though why is the very-American Ken Olin playing the young Houseman in the extended flashback?).
Playing the “ghost” is Alice Krige, one of the most underappreciated actresses with a body of startling work. Krige got her big break in “Chariots of Fire,” the Best Picture winner in which Ben Cross running in slow-motion to Vangelis overshadowed everyone else.
Krige is sensational in “Ghost Story,” giving a hypnotic and truly scary performance. Krige’s subsequent work has been in genre films and just look at her performances: the Borg Queen in “Star Trek: First Contact” (1996) and the Witch in last year’s “Gretel and Hansel.” Krige is amazing in everything she’s in.
If only the young male protagonist wasn’t played by a miscast Craig Wasson, who resembles a more handsome Bill Maher and has always been, at best, not bad. Wasson isn’t up to the demands of the role.
“Ghost Story” is an interesting genre entry, as it isn’t gory, elicits jolts through reveals of ghostly make-ups designs and is adult-minded in its subject matter and themes.
It also has a female antagonist who, like Alex Forrest in “Fatal Attraction” (“I will not be ignored”) is actually the film’s hero, whose mission of revenge is entirely justified.
There’s some refreshingly out-of-the-ordinary elements here. The problem isn’t that it’s not Straub’s “Ghost Story,” but that Wasson doesn’t grab us like everyone else on screen and not everything adds up.
In the novel, it makes sense that Krige’s Alma is both a vicious spirit and a physical being who can have sex and manipulate men from afar. In the film, this “ghost” is a sensual physical being who, at times, has objects pass through her like Casper.
Irvin, who only made “The Dogs of War” before this, gives this everything he’s got. The frequent use of dim red light makes for striking compositions, Dick Smith’s famous make-up effects are gross and vivid, the opening story-within-the-story (involving someone buried alive) is masterfully staged, as is the dreadful key incident that mirrors a similarly cruel moment of a car sinking into a mote from “Psycho.”
Houseman driving through a spirit standing in the road is an oft-copied image that has never been this startling.
There is a maturity, ambition and classical feel here that was most unusual for a big budget studio horror film from the early ’80s. “Ghost Story” is elegant…it’s also not Straub’s novel or as great as it could have been. I await the hard-R-rated, three-hour, $100 million remake Straub’s novel deserves.