Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Ghost Story [1981]

US movie (1981). Universal. Pr Burt Weissbourd. Dir John Irvin. Spfx Henry Millar Jr. Vfx Albert Whitlock. Mufx Dick Smith. Screenplay Lawrence D Cohen. Based on Ghost Story (1979) by Peter Straub. Starring Fred Astaire (Ricky Hawthorne), Jacqueline Brookes (Milly), Melvyn Douglas (John Jaffrey), Douglas Fairbanks Jr (Edward Wanderley), Miguel Fernandes (Gregory Bate), Lance Holcomb (Fenny Bate), John Houseman (Sears James), Alice Krige (Alma Mobley/Eva Galli), Patricia Neal (Stella), Craig Wasson (Don Wanderley/David Wanderley). 110 mins. Colour.

50 years ago Hawthorne, Sears, Wanderley and James were infatuated by sophisticated Eva Galli, an Englishwoman come to live in the small New England town of Milburn. Finally Wanderley bedded her, but proved impotent; when she was about to blurt this out to the others he hit her and believed he'd killed her. The four bundled her body into a car and sank it at the bottom of the lake; at the last moment, too late for rescue, they realized she was alive. Now the four old men – the Chowder Society – tormented by nightmares, meet regularly, never to talk about their guilt but instead to tease it by telling each other Ghost Stories. Unknown to them, Wanderley's son Don has, in a plethora of Sex, thrown his career away for a mysterious, seductive Englishwoman, Alma. At last, bemused by her Wrongness, he has thrown her over; almost immediately she has moved on to his brother David. When she reveals her true horror to David he plunges from a high window, and this tragedy brings Don to Milburn to comfort his father.

Eva's Ghost – sometimes acting through her agents, escaped lunatics Gregory and Fenny Bate – toys with the four old men, leading Wanderley and then Jaffrey to their deaths. Hawthorne, James and Don, aware that "Alma" is Eva's ghost, go to Eva's now-derelict Haunted Dwelling for a confrontation; but before the ghost can finally be laid, through the recovery of the drowned car and the release from it of the corpse, James has lost his life, Don has nearly lost his wits, and Hawthorne has had to confront his old guilt.

Straub's impressive novel is a convoluted analysis of the power of Story, and requires careful unpicking; the movie version, forced to abridge while yet attempting to retain the feel of the original's complexities, almost inevitably lapses into something close to incoherence and displays an irritating form of shallowness – in that one is aware that beneath the surface are great depths of which one is shown barely a glimmer. Yet GS is in many ways an excellent movie, especially in its sense of setting. It may not attain the art/Horror Movie heights it clearly aimed for, but very few movies do.

GS has no connection with Ghost Story (1974). [JG]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.