Four elderly gents of social standing in New England - Ricky (Fred Astaire), Sears (John Houseman), John (Melvyn Douglas) and Edward (Douglas Fairbanks Jr) - gather regularly round a fireplace to regale each other with spooky stories. This is a prerequisite of their exclusive club, the Chowder Society.
Each of the men suffers from nightmares, but they uniformly refuse to discuss them with anyone else.
Their lives are thrown into disarray when Edward's favoured son David (Craig Wasson) dies under mysterious circumstances. Investigating this event, Edward ventures out to the bridge where his son met his untimely fate - and also falls to his death, which is met with the ethereal cackling of a shadowy female figure in black. The death is ruled as a suicide but Ricky is unconvinced. Neither is Don (also Wasson), David's unpopular twin brother - who has come to town for the funeral.
Seeking to unravel the enigma surrounding these coincidental deaths, Don imposes himself on the Chowder Society by offering to tell a ghost story of his own. Cue a flashback to his time spent teaching American literature at a Florida university, where he embarked on an affair with a strange but beautiful teacher called Alma (Alice Krige). The relationship was torrid but short-lived on account of her increasing oddness: Don later learned that David had become engaged to her and tried to warn him off her but to no avail. He suspects her of being responsible for both deaths.
While Sears and John are sceptical of this yarn, Ricky buys into it - especially when Don produces an amulet that Alma used to wear. He links it subconsciously to a dark secret the elders all share from the past, concerning an identical succubus called Eva (also Krige).
Once Ricky's story from he and his friends' distant past is revealed, the question is raised: is Alma the ghost of Eva, returning to avenge any wrongdoings from many moons ago?
Toying with non-linear storytelling and playfully obscuring what is ostensibly a simple plot, GHOST STORY has fun misdirecting its viewer whenever possible. While doing so, it's also often a visually ravishing prospect: the flashbacks to the 1920s when the elderly gents are young men are particularly handsome, in a "Brideshead Revisited" fashion.
Undeniably adding further class to this is the surprising cast. For an early 80s horror film (1981) there's only Pete Walker's HOUSE OF LONG SHADOWS that comes to close to offering such star power. Wasson, it has to be said, holds his own extremely well opposite screen legends such as Astaire and Douglas (in his final role). In fact, what happened to Wasson? He was impressive in this, in BODY DOUBLE, and even in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2: DREAM WARRIORS. His last IMDb credit is some (undoubtedly fun) obscurity from 2006 called SASQUATCH MOUNTAIN.
A rather polite ghost yarn by today's standards, that's not to say GHOST STORY doesn't stand up as a classy, well-orchestrated mystery with an intriguing story that twists and turns until its satisfying end.
Quite why the film is still cursed with an 18 certificate in the UK is anyone's guess though. There are bloodless deaths, a smidgeon of nudity, a brief aggressive sex scene ... nothing remotely controversial.
GHOST STORY is presented uncut on Second Sight's blu-ray, in its original 1.85:1 ratio. The 16x9 transfer benefits from a clean 1080p presentation, exhibiting a keen sense of cinematic depth and much more clarity during darker scenes than in previous screenings. Consider the scene where Don dines with Alma, for example (about 40 minutes into proceedings): the difference between how it looks here and on earlier DVDs is startling. Colours are natural, detail is fine; any softness appears to be inherent of the filters used at the time. Lighter scenes are brighter than ever - but never too much so - making this a surprisingly warm, attractive proposition. Blacks are strong, compression is absent. Fine grain can be witnessed throughout. I've never seen the film look so 'alive'. This presentation comes complete with the opening Universal logo.
A lossless English stereo track is nicely balanced, proffering solid and even playbacks of both dialogue and score. Optional English subtitles are well-written and easy to make out.
An audio commentary track from Irvin kicks off a nice selection of most welcome bonus features. He's an old-school Englishman: erudite, poshly spoken, full of gracious comments in respect of his colleagues on the production. He reveals that it was a happy shoot, and speaks in awe of being able to work with such esteemed players. Anecdotes include the time he believes he himself saw a ghost, and how he came to work on GHOST STORY - his second film - straight off the back of THE DOGS OF WAR. Philippe Sarde's role as composer was unpopular with the studio executives at Universal, we learn, and elsewhere Irvin discusses the attraction of the film's several underlying themes (revealing that he himself has a twin brother).
Pointing out Albert Whitlock tricks such as using Christmas postcards for exterior shots - "we're not struggling to be social realists here" - make for fascinating moments. Irvin has a few regrets (he wanted to shoot the film in sepia, for example, but the studio resisted), not only about decisions made on the film but also not exploring relationships with his actors a little more. At times you do feel that a moderator may have pepped this track up a tad, but overall Irvin does a fine job of holding the attention.
And how many director's commentaries can boast that they name-check Greta Garbo?!
Straub is present for a 39-minute featurette in which he lets us in on the secrets of his writing habits (nothing revelatory: keeping a notebook and pen beside the bed; taking inspiration from dreams; soaking in details of his surroundings while walking ...). It's a fair featurette, though I do cringe whenever an author reads aloud from their own novel.
Krige is very likeable in her 29-minute retrospective look at her dual role in the film. She speaks of how she got into acting, what appealed about this particular film and who she feels her characters are. Having aged well, Krige is an engaging and affable subject.
"Story Development" affords screenwriter Lawrence D Cohen and producer Burt Weissbourd 29 minutes of their own to expand on the film's themes, the appreciation of Straub's source material and how it was developed for the screen. Clearly, the two of them - interviewed separately - shared an ideal of staying as true to the novel as was humanly possible (inevitably, this proved difficult to realise).
"The Visual Effects of Albert Whitlock" finds photographer Bill Taylor celebrating the great FX creator's illustrious career over the course of 28 heart-warming, anecdote-filled minutes.
Rounding off this enjoyable host of extras are the film's original trailer (2 minutes, pillar-boxed), a TV spot, a radio spot and a handsomely mounted photo gallery.
GHOST STORY stands up well today as an austere, stylish spook show. Second Sight's blu-ray represents an all-round excellent package for the film.
Review by Stuart Willis
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