Ghost Story (1981) [Midnight Movie]

In 1979 Peter Straub published Ghost Story, a novel heavily inspired by Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, but a helluva lot better. It’s the kind of story which sinks its claws into you immediately. In the beginning, a man is driving across the country with a little girl. At night, when they go to sleep, he ties her up so she can’t escape… or hurt him. Ultimately, he believes he has to kill the little girl, but he fears he doesn’t have it in him.

The story is one of many told in the novel, in which a group of old timers call themselves The Chowder Society and sit around a fireplace, sipping brandy while telling each other spooky tales. The tales don’t have to be true, but they aren’t always made up, either. Their wives and acquaintances think they’re crazy old fools—they think they’re crazy old fools because they have no idea how they come up with this stuff. Yet they carry on regularly, almost obsessively, even when people in their small town begin to drop dead. The meetings always begin with a question: “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” To which the designated storyteller always replies, “I won’t tell you that, but I’ll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me….”

That’s such a great line, but I don’t remember hearing it anywhere in the movie. There’s a lot from the source material that’s abandoned, which isn’t unusual for an adaptation. What is unusual is the movie could have included a lot more of the original story if it didn’t become so fixated with its flashbacks. The flashbacks seem to take even longer in the movie than they did in the book. Meanwhile, I don’t think newcomers are going to truly understand what, exactly, The Chowder Society is all about—the movie almost portrays them as if they really are crazy old fools. Worse, most of the great stories Straub had his characters tell in the novel are boiled down into one, which is straight up lifted from Edgar Allen Poe.

In the movie version: David Wanderley, son of The Chowder Society’s Edward Wanderley, sees a ghost which scares him enough he falls through the window of his high-rise apartment. David’s twin brother, Don, returns to his hometown for the funeral, which is where he gets mixed in with his father’s old friends. He buys his way into the secretive group with a story of his own: the ghost who seduced and murdered his brother had previously seduced him with ill intent as well. The next few bits of the plot aren’t necessarily spoilers for the movie, but they are for the novel. I won’t tell you that, but I will tell you the worst thing that happened to me: I nodded off about midway through the movie. (To be fair, I was slightly hungover.)

You would expect (and probably want) a movie based on Ghost Story to fill its cast out with the likes of Vincent Price and Peter Cushing, but the filmmakers defy expectations and cast Fred Astaire, John Houseman, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Melvyn Douglas in the lead roles. Alice Krige is really the only person cast to type here, playing the seductive ghost who agonizes the film’s male characters, young and old alike. She manages to stand out, too, pretty much embodying the character I envisioned in the book.

Technically it’s a pretty good movie, but I think people who haven’t read the book are going to feel a little lost while those who have read it will feel slighted. I liked it, but didn’t love it. The problem with adaptations, especially the ones which change so much of the source material, is my memory blurs the details between the two. Years down the road, I’d much rather read the book again than watch the movie.

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